A Lesson in Activism

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

With the start of the NFL season and fantasy football upon us, I had sports on my mind the other day and, at a favorite sports news aggregation site, found the Houston Chronicle's fascinating "50 Worst Ideas in Sports History." Topping the list was professional baseball's "color barrier."

Forget racial equality. Forget All Men Are Created Equal. Forget the repugnance of separate but equal and Jim Crow.

In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s Major League Baseball teams voluntarily refused the services of guys like Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and James "Cool Papa" Bell, some of the best players to ever play baseball, just because they were black.

Think the Philadelphia Athletics could have dominated the American League with a one-two punch of Satchel Paige and Lefty Grove? So do I.

As the Dodgers discovered when they signed Jackie Robinson, followed quickly by Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, and then went with him to six World Series in 10 years and won their first ever championship, there was some talent over in the Negro Leagues.

And voluntarily passing on that talent because it had a black face was the worst idea in the history of professional sports.
I can't think of a better example to illustrate the following two poorly-understood points. First, capitalism provides plenty of evidence that racism is a self-destructive attitude. Otherwise, why would baseball's color barrier have been so baffling in retrospect? Commentators from the left tend to miss or ignore this one the most. Second, and notwithstanding the first lesson, if men accept racism as moral for any reason, they will ignore its practical downsides. (Otherwise, how did racism remain so potent a cultural force for as long as it did?) Commentators from the right tend to miss or ignore this aspect of the problem the most, although since the moral battle against racism was won long ago, this can be harder to see -- and its importance more difficult to understand.

To appreciate what this bit of sports history is teaching us, we have to consider what it exemplifies, in more general terms than racism: That would be how the vice of injustice can cause people to support a political system that violates individual rights, when that injustice is disguised as morality. The relevance of this lesson is apparent from any glance at a newspaper today, because capitalism is under all-out attack from the left (who see it as immoral). The right, when it does offer a defense of capitalism, usually does so only on practical grounds.

The left, arguing for collectivism, the political expression of their moral premise, altruism, dress injustice (in the form of government-sanctioned theft) as morality by attacking the idea that man is an end in himself, and replacing it with the notion that he exists only to serve others. Too many on the right agree that this is moral, but understand that it is impractical. As a result, conservatives don't even try to make the moral case that man's pursuit of happiness is good, and cannot occur without freedom secured by a government. Many of those who don't do this dismiss the importance of morality altogether, and find themselves cynically complaining about how "stupid" "people" are when yet another election empowers looters.

We all now agree that slavery is evil, and many can see that it is impractical. (How we would have all lost had Frederick Douglass, for example, never defied the law and custom to learn how to read!) That said, too many people do not realize that government looting is a form of slavery. I have stated this in the past, and I will state it again now: The battle for individual rights and capitalism is analogous to that for the abolition of slavery, particularly in its moral aspects. We cannot win this battle without what the abolitionists called "moral suasion."

Pointing to a cornucopia and saying, "Capitalism gives this to us," will do nothing to dissuade a self-righteous thief from immediately swiping it -- or help the man who put it together know that he's right to stop him from doing so.

-- CAV


Katrina said...

I think there's an even better story in baseball showing how a lack of capitalism led to prolonged racial discrimination. Professional sports have never operated in a free market. The MLB in particular has numerous special laws that apply only to it, not to mention cities, not the MLB, bear the cost of stadiums. The MLB has been a legally-enforced monopoly for pretty much its entire history.

2 years before Jackie Robinson's famed appearance with the Dodgers, Bill Veeck tried to purchase the Phillies, planning to make it an all-black team. In economic terms, this was brilliant as blacks were severely underpriced by the market. But the MLB's "gentleman's agreement" to keep black players out ended up killing Veeck's bid. If I remember correctly, the racism persisted (persists?) long after Jackie Robinson. For instance some white guy who was nice to Jackie on the field got into the hall of fame for helping integrate baseball before Jackie himself was voted in.

Considering what a wild success Jackie Robinson was amongst Americans in general (he was voted second most popular man in the U.S. after Bing Crosby in 1947), it is clear that integrated baseball came well after the market demanded it. Consider that Jackie didn't play for the Dodgers until 1945 whereas (black, female) Madam Walker had become one of the richest self-made people in history almost 50 years earlier. I very much doubt it would have taken so long to integrate baseball under true capitalism. The major institutions that took longer to integrate than the MLB, like the military and public transportation systems, were government organizations (or essentially government ones, like TV and radio.) No surprise there.

So much for the romantic role of the MLB in racial integration, but score 1,000,000 for capitalism.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for adding several things to this post that I didn't know, not being an avid baseball fan, or much of a historian, for that matter.

That said, the "'gentleman's' agreement" to keep baseball segregated sounds more like good-ole-boy custom to me than law, although I can see it being aided by Jim Crow laws and racist local officials illegitimately involved with running the teams. Certainly, above and beyond the controls the government is "supposed" to have in regulating a business like baseball, others of that type would be easy enough to have, even if only in a de facto way.

In any case, I thank you for emphasizing baseball's tardiness in desegregating and for indicating that such lateness had nothing to do with capitalism.


Michael said...

wouldn't you agree though that the people who keep electing the same officials and then complaining them about them are really just stupid. Why would this be a cynical thing?

Gus Van Horn said...

That's a reasonable question, given that (1) I didn't bring up more explicitly what the proper response to this actually is, and (2) I didn't clearly distinguish between conservative intellectuals and most "man-on-the-street" voters.

The problem with the intellectuals in the conservative movement today is that they, too, support big-government "solutions" to various problems that aren't even properly addressed by the government. Why is this? Because conservatives never challenge the morality of altruism. This doesn't relieve voters of the responsibility of thinking about such issues for themselves, but conservative intellectuals do drive the political debate, and a result of their failure is elections in which all the candidates support some form of statism. This makes voters look stupid, but part of the blame lies with any intellectual who was too timid to challenge the propriety of the Robin Hood type role for the government so many people take for granted today.

But voters aren't blameless. To the extent that they are unwilling to forgo government entitlements, they are getting what they deserve.

The problem with voters isn't stupidity so much as a failure to think, and this last is worsened by intellectuals who do not take the lead in indicating real moral and political alternatives to what we have now.


Katrina said...

I wasn't implying that the MLB is run by the government. Far from it. I was meaning to illuminate the fact that the good-ole-boy practices were able to survive longer in professional sports than in other markets because professional sports do not compete in a free market, thanks to special treatment by the government. But even a legal monopoly with special government protections like the MLB managed to desegregate earlier than fully nationalized organizations, like public transit. So even a tiny bit of consumer choice can go a long way.

Gus Van Horn said...


"I wasn't implying that the MLB is run by the government."

OK -- and I hope I didn't succeed in making it seem like you had...

At any rate, this was a great point.