How a Baseball Non-Fight Illustrates Our Weird Journalistic Discourse on Racism

White player suspended for calling black player "Jackie"; many journalists conclude that the player (and Yankees fans!) are racist.


There was an odd moment at this past Saturday's baseball game between the hometown New York Yankees and the visiting Chicago White Sox. With zero precipitating physical contact, Yankees hitter Josh Donaldson and White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal began jawboning, getting into each other's faces, and then the benches cleared and the bullpens emptied as each team engaged in the time-honored "baseball fight" tradition of standing around a lot, throwing no punches, and eventually retreating back to their positions for the rest of the game.

Usually, baseball fights begin with actions, not words—a pitcher throwing at a hitter, a base runner sliding aggressively into a fielder, a fielder tagging a runner extra hard. But this occasion, which eventually resulted in a one-game suspension and a multi-day national mini conversation about race, began with a single proper noun: Jackie.

Donaldson, who is white, had mockingly called star White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, who is black, "Jackie," as in all-time baseball great and revered breaker-of-the-color-barrier Jackie Robinson. Grandal (a fair-skinned Cuban American, for those keeping racial/nationality score at home), explained after the game that, "A comment like that is just unacceptable. It's something that should not be allowed." White Sox Hall of Fame Manager Tony La Russa, who is old enough to have played pro ball back when preseason hotel accommodations were still segregated, deemed Donaldson's name-calling "racist."

This was evidence enough for many journalists.

"Yankees' Josh Donaldson Suspended for Making Racist Comment to Tim Anderson," went the headline at Bleacher Report, echoed in outlets such as Revolt TV and The Root. "Yankees 3B uses racial remark 'Jackie' towards White Sox star," reported CBS Sports.

That latter formulation was deemed woefully inadequate by the wags from Deadspin. In a piece under the headline "Just say it: Josh Donaldson made a racist comment to Tim Anderson," Deadspin's Jesse Spector asserted: "Our media apparatus remains completely unprepared to deal with the challenges it faces, out of fear that calling things what they are — telling the truth — will be too controversial and cause a backlash. It's cowardice. That's all it is."

This is an increasingly popular sentiment within the journalism industry. The media "needs to report aggressively and plainly on the racism, misogyny, and Christian nationalism that fuels the right, rather than covering it up with euphemisms," critic Dan Froomkin declared this month in The Nation. "Moral clarity would insist that politicians who traffic in racist stereotypes and tropes—however cleverly—be labeled such with clear language and unburied evidence," the journalist Wesley Lowery wrote in an influential 2020 New York Times op-ed. "Racism, as we know, is not about what lies in the depths of a human's heart. It is about word and deed. And a more aggressive commitment to truth from the press would empower our industry to finally admit that."

Having been at the game, confused, and previously shocked by low journalistic standards for leveling baseball-related accusations of racism, I went poking around for details. First, as was widely reported, Donaldson fervently denied any racist intent, avowed deep respect for Jackie Robinson (on Thursday he issued a statement apologizing to the Robinson family), and said that he'd been using the name to tease Anderson ever since the White Sox star in 2019 used the name to describe himself.

That last detail should have been a moment of journalistic pause. Baseball since its inception, though considerably less so over time, has been a game of trash-talking ("bench-jockeying," in the old-timey parlance; "ragging," back in the '80s and '90s). The idea being to rattle the concentration of your opponent, or just alleviate the tedium with insult comedy during the long hours of standing around. Those players seen as being too big for their britches are particularly ripe for taunting—after journeyman pitcher Jim Bouton published his infamous tell-all book Ball Four in 1970, other players around the league took to calling him "Shakespeare."

Tim Anderson is a great player (he's made an All-Star team, finished seventh in Most Valuable Player voting, and won a batting crown), and he's been active and outspoken in trying to make the sport more accessible to black communities…and oh Lordy, is he no Jackie Robinson. That's because no one could possibly be, whether in terms of the unspeakable hardships Robinson had to endure (and not just on the baseball diamond; he was unsuccessfully court-martialed in 1944 for refusing to sit in the back of an Army bus), or his unparalleled excellence in just about every competition he entered (including but not limited to ping-pong and ballroom dancing, as well as basketball, football, and long jump), or his post–playing career activity in business, politics, and journalism.

What makes Anderson's comp, which came in a 2019 Sports Illustrated article, even more ripe for needling among those inclined, is that he wasn't talking primarily about race, but about…allowing for more demonstrative exuberance on the baseball diamond. Here's the relevant section:

[He] sees another barrier, one he's intent on toppling: the "have-fun barrier."

"I kind of feel like today's Jackie Robinson," he says. "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."

Anderson's point is more nuanced than it might sound. Robinson remains an American hero, and Anderson will never face the Jim Crow horrors Robinson and the first generation of black major leaguers endured. Also, plenty of players, white and nonwhite alike, have had fun while playing the game.

But, as a rule, baseball does not encourage individualism. As other sports have evolved to showcase their stars' personalities, the baseball old guard has held tight to its principles. Run out ground balls. Keep your mouth shut. Gently place your bat near home plate—a player should react to a home run just as he would react to the news that an acquaintance filed his taxes on time.

These attitudes often map along racial lines, though not always.…

MLB's recent marketing campaign has showcased the league's young stars and their impassioned styles. "Let the kids play," the ads exhort. But sometimes the other kids do not.

That is…a rather thin reed upon which to compare oneself to arguably the greatest and most consequential American athlete of the 20th century, particularly given the famously exuberant (and emphatically multicultural) generation of players Anderson belongs to. He is, thank goodness, hardly alone in flipping bats after home runs, expressing emotion on the field, and agitating for baseball to loosen the hell up.

I certainly wouldn't tease the guy about calling himself a kinda-Jackie, not personally being fond of the taste of grown men's knuckles, and there's a good reason why overt, Don Rickles-style ethnic taunting has largely vanished from on-field trash-talk. (Jackie Robinson is a central figure in that story, too.) Still, the comparison is about as stretched as if the former two-time All-Star Rick Monday, famous for saving the American flag from hippie protesters in 1976, would have taken to calling himself "today's Ted Williams."

There are other complications. For instance, the framing device of the Sports Illustrated profile, the reason Anderson was talking about the "have-fun barrier" in the first place, was because A) after crushing a home run in the fourth inning of an early season 2019 game against Kansas City Royals pitcher Brad Keller, Anderson triumphantly fired his bat in the direction of his own dugout; B) in his next at-bat, Keller responded by throwing a fastball into Anderson's ass, prompting the breakout of a Baseball Fight; C) during that nonpunching stand-around, Anderson called Keller (who is white) a "weak-ass fucking nigga," for which D) Major League Baseball suspended Anderson for one game.

Or, as Deadspin's Carron J. Phillips recently put it, "Think about that for a second. A white league run by white people suspended one of the few Black stars in its league all because he used the only word that white people can't say that so many desperately wish they could. That's beyond unfair."

That's certainly one way of seeing things. Another is that the league gave equal one-game suspensions to Josh Donaldson and Tim Anderson, for contemptuously saying to opponents, respectively, "Jackie," and "weak-ass fucking nigga." The Deadspins of the world find the former too lenient and the latter an outrageous imposition, because they hate racism.

To make my rooting interests clear, in addition to hating both the Yankees and the White Sox, I am objectively in favor of exuberant bat flipping, opposed (in almost all cases) to pitchers intentionally throwing at hitters for being demonstrative, strongly in favor of trash-talking, and against almost all language-policing suspensions. Self-centered as he may be, I easily like Tim Anderson better than Josh Donaldson, who seems like a dick. (And who, in prior circumstances, has complained about…bench-jockeying!)

But both guys are grade-A red-ass competitors. (This might even have something to do with them being so successful!) Taunting, random grudges, perceived slights—these are all ways to keep you energized through 162 games, after (in Donaldson's case) 16 years of playing pro ball at an often elite level. There's a good-to-excellent chance that we wouldn't even be having this racism chat if it weren't for Donaldson two weeks ago physically manhandling Tim Anderson off of third base on a pickoff attempt, Anderson pushing him back, and the benches semi-clearing back then. These dudes compete.

Anderson now has his Jackie/racism grudge, his team (as teams do) backs him up. When the clubs met the day after, Yankee fans predictably booed and serenaded Anderson with chants of "Ja-ckie"; Anderson hit a three-run homer and gave them the universal "shhhh" sign, and all seemed balanced in the Force.

That, or gut-sinkingly racist.

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.

So concluded Will Leitch, a sportswriter I have long enjoyed, over at New York magazine.

It's hard not to be glum about basically everything, very much including race relations, in the wake of the horrendous mass slaughter in Buffalo and Uvalde. It is entirely possible that Josh Donaldson is indeed a "racist asshole"; certainly there's been plenty of reporting on the latter half of that formulation.

But to assert the scarlet R as journalistic fact requires at minimum treating all of Donaldson's explanations as lies, dismissing as irrelevant that Anderson indeed compared himself (implausibly, if we're being honest) to Jackie Robinson, imagining that a racist shares a clubhouse with a 6'7″ biracial superstar and seven players born in the Caribbean (totally possible, but a logistical challenge); and positing as a 2022 racial slur a term indicating comparative veneration for the man who broke baseball's color barrier. It's a series of assumptions, of coin-flips being called the same way every toss, and if you truly believe all of it, your view of humanity is going to be unrelievedly bleak.

"[It was] 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," Leitch lamented. "A mob of fans, in New York City, in 2022, chanted a purposely derisive racial insult at a Black player. How could this happen?"

Unless that's not what happened at all.