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MLB Racism Controversy: Tim Anderson, Jackie Robinson, and the Suspension of Josh Donaldson

Joel Eisenberg

Major League Baseball suspends Josh Donaldson for referring to Tim Anderson as “Jackie.”

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Tim AndersonChicago White Sox publicity photo

Introduction

A May, 2019 article from Bleacher Report, “Tim Anderson Says He Feels Like 'Today's Jackie Robinson' Amid Tension with MLB,” stated the following: On Tuesday, Stephanie Apstein of Sports Illustrated provided comments from Anderson, who said he wants to knock down MLB's ’have-fun barrier.’ "I kind of feel like today's Jackie Robinson," he said. "That's huge to say. But it's cool, man, because he changed the game, and I feel like I'm getting to a point to where I need to change the game."

Referencing the above comment, Sports Illustrated published “Josh Donaldson Says ‘Jackie [Robinson]’ Comment to Tim Anderson Wasn’t Intended To Be Racist” not one week ago on Saturday, May 21, the day the incident took place that resulted in a one-day suspension for the New York Yankees third baseman.

Donaldson is quoted the article: “In 2019, he came out with the interview and said that he's the new Jackie Robinson of baseball. Said he's gonna bring back fun for the game, right?" Donaldson explained. "In 2019, I played for Atlanta. We actually joked about that. I don't know what's changed. I've said it to him in years past, not in any manner than just joking around for the fact that he called himself Jackie Robinson."

The incident made national headlines, and underscored current U.S. racial tensions.

NBC Chicago was one such mainstream outlet that reported on the issue, in their piece titled “Josh Donaldson Suspended for Calling White Sox' Tim Anderson ‘Jackie.'”

As excerpted from the article, regarding the one-day suspension: There is no dispute over what was said on the field,” said Michael Hill, MLB senior VP for on-field operations in a statement. “Regardless of Mr. Donaldson’s intent, the comment he directed toward Mr. Anderson was disrespectful and in poor judgment, particularly when viewed in the context of their prior interactions. In addition, Mr. Donaldson’s remark was a contributing factor in a bench-clearing incident between the teams, and warrants discipline.”

The above serves as context. Let us explore further.

Racism in Baseball

Jackie Robinson is widely considered among historians and the general public as one of the most influential figures in all of global sport. Wikipedia.org features a comprehensive biography of Robinson, which you can read here. Further, Wikipedia also maintains a general page on racism in sport that features Robinson as a subject. See here.

Excerpted from the latter piece: After serving in the military, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the American Negro Leagues and excelled with elite fielding and a batting average above .300. Although he was playing well, he did not like competing in a racially segregated league that was put in place by the Jim Crow laws. Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Robinson to the Montreal Royals in 1946, which was an all-white minor league team. He faced much adversity with racist comments from his own team members and especially during away games where opposing white players would spit, hit, and slide into him with sharp metal cleats.

Robinson’s name has become synonymous with sports-related racism, and he is often referred to as breaking the color barrier of Major League Baseball.

On the topic, a July, 2020 article from Sports Illustrated, “Why Baseball is Losing Black America,” reported on words from MLB in response to the death of George Floyd: Nine days after police officers in Minneapolis killed George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement overtook the headlines, Major League Baseball became the last major U.S. professional sports organization to speak out. “Our game has zero tolerance for racism and racial injustice,” its statement read in part. “We will take the necessary time, effort and collaboration to address symptoms of systemic racism, prejudice and injustice, but will be equally as focused on the root of the problem.” Its tweet added, “We want to be better, we need to be better, and this is our promise to do the work.”

The article earlier called attention to the plight of Preston Wilson, who battled racism for the majority of his own career: Consider the experience of former All-Star Preston Wilson, who recalls learning country song lyrics and practicing one-liners from 'Caddyshack,' enduring racist slurs and watching a teammate fiddle with a noose. Still wondering why the sport is losing Black players?

The context of the current Anderson and Donaldson issue must allow for an acknowledgment that such issues, in most any business of the modern era and not solely sports, comes with repercussions.

Conclusion

Today, Jackie Robinson is largely a revered figure. Though some on social media today, especially Twitter where the incident is trending, are arguing Anderson has overreacted by expressing offense at Donaldson’s words due to his own 2019 Jackie Robinson comments, the matter is more complex.

In this event, as Jackie Robinson is so symbolic, the current controversy has also been considered by some online commenters as a smear.

Additionally, MLB’s statement about cleaning up its game was a public statement that continues to invite scrutiny. Whether Donaldson meant anything other than jest by the comment— as he has repeatedly insisted — has been of little import.

His suspension was for a single game. Whether said suspension evolves into an ongoing talking point about tolerance, past another week or thereabouts, remains to be seen.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

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