Media

Selected Skirmishes: Sluggers Row

How to turn cultural progress--and good, clean fun--into racist calamity

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It was a decade ago that I heard a joke so remarkably on point that I still delight in inflicting it on others.

God decides to end the world. He calls the editor at The New York Times with whom he discusses all his major decisions. The editor tries to talk God out of it, to no avail. So the editor asks if the Times can at least have an exclusive. God thinks it over, but decides that would be unfair. He rules that he will share his decision with three other dailies: The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and The Washington Post.

The papers rush to put out their truly final editions. First out is The New York Times: "World to End Tomorrow," runs a tasteful, smallish headline atop the front page's right-hand column, "News & Analysis, Page B11." The Wall Street Journal is next: "World Ends Tomorrow," blares the banner running across the top of page one, "Market to Close Early." Then comes USA Today. The paper's entire front page is consumed by just two words: "WE'RE GONE!" Finally, The Washington Post hits the streets. In bold letters standing six-inches high, it grimly announces: "World to End Tomorrow, Women and Minorities Affected the Most."

You may now share my moment of instant recall when reading The Washington Post headline of September 5, 1998: "The Home Run Chase in White and Black; McGwire, Sosa Draw Diverse Fans." Yes, the National Pastime's greatest-ever home-run derby had been subtitled "Women and Minorities Affected the Most." The whole fan frenzy involving two sports heroes was reduced to a racist melodrama starring that perennial bad boy, Amerikkka.

While the Post's crack journalists admitted finding trace elements of what was once called "sportsmanship," they focused on a disturbing sub-theme: "For all that is inspiring and wholesome about the home run derby, it also illuminates the eternal American dilemma of race. It is McGwire who has the overwhelming advantage over Sosa in the competition for the public's heart. (Internet search engines find McGwire's name more than twice as often as Sosa's.) Is that because the Cardinal is the better slugger, or is it a matter of color, ethnicity and language?"

The Post wanted you to believe that of the four possible hypotheses explaining the alleged public preference for McGwire over Sosa, three reflected ugliness in our public soul. The technical term for this is "stacking the deck." Assuming that McGwire was the sort of national hero that Sosa was not–something the Post reporters never really established–that "fact" could most easily be explained by benign considerations.

A preference for McGwire may be a reflection of what economists call "sticky expectations," a tendency for people to be strongly influenced in their views about the future by what has already happened in the past. In that Mark McGwire had hit many hundreds of home runs while Sosa was gearing up for his first-ever shot at the big time, more people tended to know and root for McGwire. This was hardly irrational: McGwire–in the end–did win the home-run race, 70 to 66.

Additionally, recall the preseason hype touting McGwire's anticipated rival–not Sammy Sosa, but (the similarly black) Ken Griffey Jr. Lots of early-season excitement (and Internet hits) went Junior's way. That fan-favorite Griffey was so widely heralded over the ultimately more sluggingly successful Sammy Sosa is indeed a potential source of injustice for the easily offended to explore. But the topic seems not to have penetrated the Post's black-and-white editorial news filter.

Instead, the paper's quest for proof of racial preference led it to interview one Jorge Camelia, a "17-year-old immigrant from Argentina," who opined: "It's like when Hank Aaron broke Ruth's home run record–the white Americans were against Aaron." Here's another moment of instant recall: As a Los Angeles Dodger fan, I well remember white Atlanta Braves fans, deep in the heart of Dixie, cheering wildly for Hammering Hank on the day he hit Al Downing's pitch over the left field wall to break the Bambino's career mark.

Camelia would no doubt be greatly disappointed to know that the slugger America disparaged was pink-skinned Roger Maris, who, when clubbing 61 homers to break Babe Ruth's single-season record, was rewarded with a footnote in the record books suggesting he hadn't really topped the Sultan of Swat.

Mark McGwire has proven an extremely likable sports hero in an era when star players don't quite measure up as role models. He's a good sport, a hard worker, a dedicated dad, and thus far appears not to have murdered any ex-wives. But ditto for the NBA's Michael Jordan, and a sharp investor will trade 107.8 Marks for 1 Jordan any day. Sammy Sosa, for his part, performed magnificently in 1998, both at the plate and in the media. The Dominican Republic native's refreshing innocence had all sorts of people cheering him on. Had the Post's reporters tuned into any "all sports all the time" radio station, they would have discovered legions of devoted sports fans who loved Sammy all the time.

Leave it to the Post to salvage bitterness from triumph: A moment when the culture embraced two talented athletes who competed fairly, behaved as gentlemen, strove to win, and were cheered on by millions–all so glorious a testament to the social order that the immigrant Sosa adopted "I love America" as his mantra. But the Post got its exclusive: "Secret Hatreds Were Harbored. Read All About It!"

Go ahead, God: End it now.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett (hazlett@primal.ucdavis.edu) is an economist at the University of California at Davis and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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