On December 1, 1952, five years after he broke the color barrier for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson went on television and called the New York Yankees racist.
“There isn’t a single Negro on the team now, and there are very few in the entire Yankee farm system,” Robinson said. Asked by the New York Times to follow up the next day, Robinson continued, “It seems to me the Yankees front office has used racial prejudice in its dealings with Negro ball players.” This was not conjecture. Robinson played in Brooklyn, after all, and had just played the Yankees in the World Series a month earlier. How did Yankees brass respond to Robinson? A Yankees executive told legendary sportswriter (and longtime Robinson ghostwriter) Roger Kahn, “We don’t want that sort of crowd … it would offend boxholders from Westchester to have to sit with n- - - -s.” (The Yankees were one of the last teams in baseball to sign a Black player, Elston Howard, more than eight years after Robinson’s debut in the majors.) Robinson was regularly booed when his Dodgers would visit the Polo Grounds to play the Giants, and of all the Dodgers to visit Yankee Stadium during their four World Series battles with the Yankees, Robinson always got it the worst from the opposing fans.
Since then, of course, Robinson has become a baseball legend, a hero so revered that every player sport wears his number on their jersey each April 15 — and no other day. (The number 42 has been retired and is prominently featured, alongside Robinson, in every stadium.) But it is perhaps indicative of how we have not come as far as our sepia-toned nostalgic memories suggest that this weekend, almost 70 years later, Robinson’s name was chanted at Yankee Stadium not out of reverence but as a slur.
On Saturday afternoon, Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson — one of the best and most visible Black baseball players and a board member of the Players Alliance, a group of current and former Black players dedicated to improving “access to the sport, both externally in the Black community, inclusive of youth participation, and in front-office career opportunities” — got into an on-field scuffle with Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson. It led to a bench-clearing brawl. After the game, reporters asked Anderson what the scuffle was about, and he was far more straightforward than baseball players nearly ever are with the media about anything.
Donaldson, in the heat of the moment, kept calling Anderson — again, one of the most prominent Black players in the sport — “Jackie.” This is why White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal jawed with Donaldson during Saturday’s game, later saying, “A comment like that is just unacceptable. It’s something that should not be allowed … This game went through a period of time a lot of those comments were made, and I think we’re way past that.” White Sox manager Tony La Russa (who, as Defector has pointed out, was once a tea-party supporter) explicitly said Donaldson “made a racist comment.”
Donaldson himself admitted that he repeatedly called Anderson “Jackie” during the game, but insisted, “My meaning of that is not any term trying to be racist by any fact of the matter.” Instead, he claimed it was a friendly inside joke about something Anderson said in a Sports Illustrated story three years ago. That bizarre explanation would be ridiculous even if Donaldson weren’t already despised by White Sox players and known as one of the most divisive players in the sport. And even if Donaldson just thought it was a joke, what kind of freaking joke is that?
As the Athletic’s James Fegan put it, Donaldson’s comment “called to mind a long history in this country of racial minorities being derisively referred to by the names of celebrities of the same race — often implying that racial minorities are an indistinguishable and largely irrelevant monolith to the person casting the insult. That this instance referenced the Black American who desegregated a sport in the face of fierce and long-enduring resistance, only made it more pointed.”
The league quickly launched an investigation of the incident, but on Monday it announced that Donaldson would be slapped on the wrist with a fine and a one-game suspension. This was not for weaponizing Robinson’s name against a Black all-star but for saying something that “was disrespectful and in poor judgment,” considering previous tensions between the players and teams and the fact that his comment led to a brawl.
That is a weak response to an ugly moment for a sport that has long struggled with Black participation and inclusion. The moment was bad. It was very bad. And everyone saw it as very bad except, we learned the next night, a large number of fans at Yankee Stadium. The stadium booed Anderson every time he came to the plate during the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader — and many fans chanted “Jackie” at him, too.
Anderson ultimately got the last laugh with a three-run homer Sunday night, holding his finger to his mouth to hush the hostile crowd as he rounded the bases, but I suspect the last thing he was doing at the end of the night was laughing.
This was a dark day in the history of Yankee Stadium — and one the team, it must be said, hasn’t released any sort of statement about. A mob of fans, in New York City, in 2022, chanted a purposely derisive racial insult at a Black player. How could this happen?
I have no doubt there were fans booing and yelling “Jackie” at Anderson on Sunday because they’re racist goons. Another argument could be made that Yankee fans were just getting after an opposing player as sports fans always get after opposing players — and as Yankee Stadium fans are famous for getting after opposing players — but that explanation isn’t much better. And it is definitely no excuse.
It is, of course, a very sports-fan mentality to side with “your guys” no matter what, to see not just the opposing team as barbarians at the gate but to also see opposing fans, journalists, the league itself, accusers of malfeasance, and really anyone who might possibly stand in the way of winning in the same fashion. This has always led to ugliness — from Tigers fans defending the infamously racist Ty Cobb to Braves fans ignoring Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox’s spousal abuse to, most recently, Cleveland Browns fans welcoming quarterback Deshaun Watson despite literally dozens of women accusing him sexual assault and harassment.
For many fanbases, it’s become almost a reflex: If you help my team win, what you do off the field is your business, and anyone who says otherwise is a “hater.” That mentality, which has always gone hand in hand with the “keep politics out of sports” argument, compounds on itself to the point that a shocking number of Penn State football fans still see the Jerry Sandusky scandal as something that happened to them. This groupthink grows out of something that isn’t inherently negative — the idea that if someone is rooting for the same sports team as you, you can find commonality with them in a way that may be impossible in any other aspect of each other’s lives — but it becomes a disturbing mob mentality just as easily.
Was every person who booed Anderson or who chanted “Jackie” at him doing it with explicit racial animus? Maybe. But it also seems plausible that Yankees fans, like so many other sports fans, mindlessly close ranks and will randomly scream whatever they believe will get under an opposing player’s skin. I’ll admit I don’t want to believe that a lot of fans showed up at Yankee Stadium planning on screaming racist comments at one of the league’s few Black players. Baseball fans are, like everybody else in America, huddled up in their corners with people who already agree with them. You’re with us or you’re against us, even at the expense of decency and even when that behavior projects vile and divisive hate. And I can’t stress this enough: That is no excuse.
What happened in Yankee Stadium over the weekend was, at best, a vivid reminder of the dangers of groupthink and blind allegiance — dangers that remain a major part of American culture and are explicitly part of American sports culture. Either Yankees fans were being horrifically racist or mindlessly loyal to a racist asshole because he happens to be wearing their team’s jersey, or both. Either way, it was a disturbing reboot of the same dynamic Jackie Robinson endured and sports clearly hasn’t overcome. And unfortunately, it’s a regression I suspect we’ll be seeing even more of, in our polarized world and in sports, in the coming months and years. Like a whole bunch of other things, in sports, 70 years doesn’t seem so long ago at all anymore.