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Dusty Inroads

Baker's "heat" statement, true or false, may signal new era

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"It's easier for most Latin guys and it's easier for most minority people because most of us come from heat. You don't find too many brothers in New Hampshire and Maine, right? We were brought over here for the heat. Isn't that history? Your skin color is more conducive to heat than it is to the lighter-skinned people. I don't see the brothers running around burnt. That's a fact. I'm not making this up. I'm not seeing some brothers walking around with some white stuff on their ears and noses."

— Chicago Cubs Manager Dusty Baker, July 5

There are at least 279 ways to react to this statement, but the most interesting questions to me are: Is this true? And: What does the ensuing ruckus portend for speaking freely and publicly about race? The short answers, best as I can make out, are "who knows?" and "surprisingly good things."

First, the facts. Baker's comments have been roundly denounced by commentators as being "completely wrong, historically inaccurate and medically bogus," yet many chose not to cite any contradictory evidence, other than on the barest of anecdotal levels ("I turned red as a lobster" under the sun, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, who is black, wrote … though dark-skinned people are less susceptible to sunburn).

Dallas Morning News columnist Kevin Blackistone, who called Baker's comments "dangerous," was one of the few to provide a detailed refutation: "[D]ark skin doesn't have much to do with saving one from getting sapped in the sun or collapsing from it. That has to do with the body's ability to cool and not overheating, or avoid what we call heat stroke. Baker probably hasn't been around Chicago long enough to know this, but during a blistering July there in 1995, most of the folks who died in metropolitan Chicago were black. There is even a military study that suggests black soldiers who carry the sickle trait, which is African in nature, are more prone to heat-related death than anyone."

Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey pointed to a study by New York Medical College's Robert Helman showing that "heatstroke affects all races equally. However, because of differences in social advantages, the annual death rate because of environmental conditions is more than three times higher in blacks than in whites." Copley News columnist Mike Nadel unearthed a Washington University study by Raymond Huey showing that the "skin of blacks and Caucasians are both highly absorptive," but that "dark ectotherms will absorb more radiation and hence become warmer."

Fair enough. But are there legitimate genetic or environmental factors that predict baseball performance in any way, and is it worthwhile to study them? Jon Entine, for one, says "yes" to both. Entine is the author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, a three-year-old book that mines the Human Genome Project and sports history for clues about the success of certain ethnic groups, while examining the racism that has clouded most such studies in the past.

"This is of course dangerous territory," Entine wrote in an introduction. "Fascination about black physicality, and black anger about being caricatured as a lesser human being, have been part of the dark side of the American dialogue on race for more than a century. Taboo respects these justifiable concerns. Yet, pretending there are no slippery questions does not prevent them from being asked, if only under one's breath. The challenge is in how we conduct the inquiry so that human biodiversity might be cause for celebration of our individuality rather than suspicion about our differences. For all our differences, we are far, far more similar. In the end, that's my only real message."

It is, famously, not an easy message to get across. And, as Entine notes, genetics are certainly not destiny, and individuals continue to defy categorization. Take Baker's ideas about who would not make an ideal warm-weather ballplayer: A pink-skinned white from northern European stock. Well, that's a pretty good description of me, yet I cannot stand cold weather, and always preferred to play baseball on the hottest days possible; probably because I'm from Southern California (where a disproportionate number of Major League baseball players grew up).

The professional ballplayer most similar to my environmental circumstances is Tim Salmon of the Anaheim Angels, who was born in my hometown a month after I was, has fair skin, and a nose about as red as mine. If Baker's theorem was an axiom, Salmon would excel in chilly April, and wilt in August.

In fact, it's the exact opposite. Salmon is one of the most notorious warm-weather hitters in the big leagues, widely considered to be the best player to never play in an All-star game, on account of his slow starts. Here are his lifetime stats in April and August:

MonthHRRBIBAOBPSLG
April40124.254.371.469
Aug55159.304.390.554

(That's home runs, runs batted in, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.)

For a more vivid picture: Hot-weather Tim Salmon is a dead statistical ringer for Willie Mays (.302/.384/.557), while April Salmon plays more like Mike Stanley (.270/.370/.458). This, of course, proves nothing, except for the cheering thought that every suggested rule is riddled with exceptions. (Sammy Sosa is also wonderful living proof that not all players from the Dominican Republic refuse to draw walks, and not every young free-swinger can learn plate discipline.)

Thousands of amateur baseball-analysis maniacs out there are surely launching detailed studies of Dusty Baker's assertions as we speak, and the information might surprise. (A landmark 1987 analysis by baseball research legend Bill James, excerpted here, continues to surprise.) This kind of trial and error, poking and prodding, one hopes, will help replace whispered prejudices with open discussion.

And to that hope there is cheering news: A healthy number of commentators, from Pat Buchanan to Salon.com's King Kaufman, have used this issue to urge for a public moratorium on driving individuals (like Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder) from public life based on a single controversial comment.

"[T]his witch hunt has to stop somewhere," wrote TCPalm.com sports columnist Ray McNulty, who was critical of Baker's comments. "And this is as good a place as any. This is where the revolution begins. This is where we overthrow the Political Correctness Police."