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Strikes Across MLB Have Challenged the League’s Apolitical Foundation

Hours after the Milwaukee Bucks decided to strike to protest racism and police brutality, their cross-town counterparts followed suit—as did several other teams. But while the NBA and WNBA have long been a voice in this fight for justice, this type of stance is something new in baseball.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Wednesday afternoon, Milwaukee Bucks players went on strike to protest racism and police brutality. This came three days after a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, paralyzing the unarmed 29-year-old, and a day after a white vigilante fired a gun into a crowd of protesters, killing two people and injuring a third. The entire NBA bubble has been played in the shadow of nationwide protests demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people who have been killed by police officers.

Within an hour of the Bucks’ strike becoming public, the Milwaukee Brewers held a team meeting to decide whether they would follow suit. In solidarity with the Bucks, they voted unanimously not to play, and their opponent for the evening, the Cincinnati Reds, chose to join them.

“As a group, we continue to have conversations about what we can do and how we can use our platform to continue to elicit change as we recognize that there are still significant issues in our country,” Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun said. “And we made the decision today that the most impactful thing we could do was not play our baseball game, and not distract from what’s going on in the country.”

In the hours that followed, the WNBA canceled its Wednesday slate of games, and scheduled MLS contests came off the board one by one. The Seattle Mariners, the team with more Black players than any other in MLB, voted to sit out their scheduled game against the San Diego Padres; the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants also decided not to play. Mariners outfielder Dee Gordon explained his team’s decision on Twitter, writing, “For me, and for many of my teammates, the injustices, violence, death and systemic racism [in the United States] is deeply personal. … Instead of watching us, we hope people will focus on the things more important than sports that are happening.”

Athletes in other leagues are no stranger to political activism; it took tremendous courage and clarity for WNBA players to walk off the court during the national anthem when they returned to play a month ago, and for their colleagues in the NBA to stand up now and force their audience to confront the ugly bigotry of contemporary America. It’s less momentous that MLB players went on strike, but more surprising. For decades, as the sport’s audience has grown older and whiter, organized baseball has declined to rock the political boat. Generations of athletes trained to fit in with that culture have spurned opportunities to claim the pulpit their fame provides. When several teams decided not to play on Wednesday, that foundation rocked, if only for a moment.

In 2016, when then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, a five-time All-Star and one of the most respected players of his generation, predicted that no one in baseball would follow Kaepernick’s lead. “In football, you can’t kick them out,” Jones said of Black athletes who might protest. “You need those players. In baseball, they don’t need us. Baseball is a white man’s sport.’’

A year later, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell bucked Jones’s prediction, kneeling in protest during the anthem ahead of a game against the Texas Rangers. Given that it took nearly three years for anyone else to join in, however, Maxwell would seem to be the exception that proves the rule. As ESPN’s Howard Bryant wrote in 2016: “[T]he baseball industry has essentially confirmed Jones’ suspicions through a deafening silence of incuriosity that further severs it from its groundbreaking past, and the truth of the matter is sinking into the soil. Baseball is a white man’s game, and is so by the specific design of the people who run it.”

Baseball has long been a forcefully apolitical sport, at least in the contemporary American definition of “apolitical,” meaning actively avoiding anything that might upset the current racial, economic, or diplomatic balance of power. And yet the Brewers’ entire team—a team that, after Lorenzo Cain opted out earlier this year, has no Black stars—walked out to express solidarity with Black people who have had enough of being killed by agents of the state. Then five other teams joined them. This could be a watershed moment for the sport.

Could be, but is not yet. One day’s protest against the forces of white supremacy does not rid baseball of its reputation as a white man’s sport. And unlike in the NBA and WNBA, some teams went ahead with their Wednesday-night games.

Kenosha is a city of about 100,000 on the shore of Lake Michigan, a little less than an hour from Milwaukee and about the same distance from Chicago. When news of the Brewers’ strike reached Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward, an 11-year MLB veteran, he decided to sit out his game against the Detroit Tigers as well. None of his teammates joined him. Heyward reportedly encouraged his teammates to carry on without him, but the optics nevertheless recall Jones’s original complaint: Without its Black stars, baseball carries on.

In St. Louis, the Cardinals played Wednesday without pitcher Jack Flaherty and outfielder Dexter Fowler, who chose to sit out but were not joined by their teammates. Matt Kemp of the Colorado Rockies also sat out alone. The pivotal question now is this: Does the wildcat strike represent a change in a sport that for the past 50 years has largely ignored the political struggles of the real world?

If so, it could, in combination with the basketball strike, grow into an action of world-historical import. Now that MLB players are starting to throw themselves onto the gears and wheels and levers of the odious machine, the next few days’ events will bear tremendous scrutiny. The NBA players strike was an ad hoc worker action, organized neither by the league nor the NBPA, but both quickly signed on and announced that Wednesday night’s games had been postponed and rescheduled, not canceled. But the league can’t unilaterally enforce a schedule if the players don’t participate. On Wednesday night, the NBA players left in the Orlando bubble met to discuss how to proceed, and while the players from 11 teams voted to continue, the Lakers and Clippers voted not to, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic, and LeBron James’s abrupt exit from the discussion leaves the season hanging in the balance.

In baseball the most likely outcome, at least for the moment, seems to be that the schedule will resume Thursday, and that the three missed games will be made up as double-headers. But Clayton Kershaw told reporters that the Dodgers’ decision to sit on Wednesday came after Mookie Betts said he was sitting out whether his teammates followed him or not. Kershaw suggested that the team will continue to follow Betts’s lead Thursday. And while the Red Sox went forward with their Wednesday-night game, that was not, according to outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., because of a considered decision. It was because the timing of the Bucks and Brewers news was such that the team didn’t have a chance to talk about it beforehand.

What will MLB do in the days to come? What will the players do?

Baseball was on pandemic-induced hiatus when Floyd’s killing inspired a new wave of protests against systemic racism and police violence, protests that were at the forefront of public discourse when MLB resumed play in late July. On Opening Day, the league made a grand ceremonial gesture of having players and coaches kneel before (not during) the anthem while holding a humongous black ribbon as a display of unity at the suggestion of Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen. While a few players—including six Mariners—raised their fists during the anthem anyway, for the most part the league was able to gesture toward supporting the Black Lives Matter movement without inviting a Kaepernickian controversy.

NBA and WNBA players have upped the stakes for baseball. Gestures are no longer good enough in a time that demands action. Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich said as much Wednesday evening as he addressed reporters in a T-shirt that read “Justice Equality Now.” “We talked at the beginning of summer camp about what these shirts mean, these shirts that we’ve been wearing throughout the year,” Yelich said, “and there comes a time when you have to live it. You have to step up. You can’t just wear these shirts and think that’s all well and good, and when the time comes to make a statement, you can’t just not do it.”

This time for action comes at a fitting moment on the MLB calendar. The league as an organization has jealously guarded the legacy of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson as trailblazers for racial equality. Every April 15, the anniversary of Robinson’s debut, MLB holds a day of festivities to honor Robinson, even as Black faces continue to disappear from the league’s dugouts and front offices. In 1981, 18.7 percent of MLB players were African American, almost three times as many as today. And only two of the 30 current MLB managers are Black. This year, of course, nobody was playing baseball on April 15, so MLB rescheduled Jackie Robinson Day for the anniversary of Robinson’s fateful meeting with Rickey, which is also the anniversary of the March on Washington: August 28, or this coming Friday.

What actions will MLB and its players take now that the eyes of the nation are upon them? Will there only be words, and if so, what words? Will it be unity, or will it be justice? Robinson, as MLB so frequently reminds us, took on immense personal risk for the right of Black people to live and work alongside white people. For all the platitudes about progress, it’s 70 years later, and Black athletes are still protesting for their right to live at all.