Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood, and the Great American Past time

In college, the most fascinating class I had the pleasure of being part of was an undergraduate elective called Sport and Society (sorry Tony Waters). An Education professor by the name of Don Chu taught the class, and I took it because I thought it would be an easy A and I could harass all the jocks in the class for their misguided reverence for all things sports related (I’m a sociologist; we generally aren’t much for sports. I apologize.). The class was also a Sociology course, though, and would count toward my Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, so even though I saw no redeeming quality in the class, I signed up anyway.

On the first day of class, Dr. Chu walked into the packed 50-seat classroom, dressed in a pair of pressed jeans, a fresh dress shirt, and a sport coat, set his thin briefcase on a desk, and proceeded to tell us the rules of the class. We could have two excused absences throughout the entire semester; if we were going to be absent, we were to notify Dr. Chu beforehand, and he would decide if the absence was excused or not. If we missed more than two days, we would be unceremoniously dropped from the class, no exceptions. We were allowed the first five minutes of class to get to our seats before we would be counted as absent. If we entered at five minutes or later after the class began, we would have to stand at the door, ask permission to enter from the class, and if we were granted permission to enter, we had to sing a song of the class’s choice before we could join the class. You get the picture, right?

I considered dropping the class that day, but something about Dr. Chu made me stay, and so I did, as did every other student who was there. I think I took his rules as a challenge, honestly, but was still a bit offended when halfway through the semester, I had a medical appointment (I was injured on the job as a paramedic and there were some appointments I could not miss) that I couldn’t reschedule, so I called him the day before and left a voice mail, then sent an email to him to let him know I wouldn’t be there the following day. When I went back to class two days later, he didn’t acknowledge me at first, then halfway through the lecture he picked me out of the class and said, “Well, Ms. Paiva, it’s so nice of you to join us.” I never missed another class, nor was I ever late.

This was the thing about Don Chu: he never used notes, he rarely wrote on the board, and he lectured with one foot propped on an empty chair. He wasn’t funny, necessarily, or particularly entertaining like some eccentric professors I had known and who shall remain nameless, but he was passionate about sports, and the role they play in society. His knowledge of sports and society was endless, and it was captivating to participate in his lectures.

I became enamored with the class fairly quickly, probably due to the fact that I could see no redeeming quality in sports previously, and dedicated a great deal of time to the papers and assignments. Sports finally made sense to me from a sociological perspective, and I still use Dr. Chu’s lessons in my own classes today.

I was thinking about Dr. Chu, and the baseball player Curt Flood, recently as I watched the Hollywood movie “42” which is about Jackie Robinson.

It wasn’t until Dr. Chu’s class, and the research paper I completed on Curt Flood and the Reserve Clause, that I truly understood how those with power can write the laws that benefit them most, to subjugate and oppress those with less power. Baseball players in Major League Baseball were treated like and considered property up until Curt Flood came along; players were tied to a team for life, and had no choice of going if they were traded to another team. It was considered a privilege to play in for MLB, and Owners, for many years, kept players under their thumb with the Reserve Clause. Players had no leverage for higher salaries, better working conditions, or where they would play with the clause in place. A player could not break his contract and go play for another team, because every team was MLB. Pretty sweet for the Owners, not so much for the players.

In 1969, Curt Flood was traded to another team, and he refused to go. He sued the MLB for the right to be a free agent, the case went to court, and he lost. The outcome of the case paved the way, though, several years later, for two baseball players to play as free agents and effectively end the Reserve Clause.

I was reminded of Flood while I watched “42” which, given my lack of interest in all things sports related, introduced me to the struggle that Jackie Robinson faced in the 1940s as the first African American to play for MLB. Yes, I’ve heard of Robinson, but didn’t know much of his story, and even though it was Hollywood’s version, it was still an inspiring, and humbling movie to watch.

As a white, 40-something female in America, its easy to forget (yes, you can think it: my white privilege) that discrimination and racism were so blatant and pervasive in our recent history. It was difficult to watch some of the scenes, particularly the scene when the opposing team’s coach berates Robinson repeatedly, calling racial slurs for all to hear as Robinson is up at bat.

But Robinson’s story reminded me that sports was the first real inroad to equality that African Americans made in the U.S., especially in the South. Prior to Robinson joining MLB, segregation was still prominent in the South, and open discrimination was tolerated. Workers in other occupations would likely be segregated in the 1940s, but not for Robinson, not in baseball. He traveled all over the U.S. playing ball, and with every new city and every new town, he was shown as an equal on the playing field.

He was a man equal to all others on the field in 1947. That’s the power and importance of sports.

Every once in a while, I hear someone say, to the effect, “ugh, why do they keep making these movies about racism and sexism and oppression and can’t people just let it go? It’s 2015; we’re not that way anymore.”

But we are that way, I believe, or we have the capability to be that way again, given the right or wrong circumstances. And I believe that movies like “42”, and “12 Years a Slave” and “Mississippi Burning” and “Norma Rae” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and a thousand other movies about inequality, and oppression, and discrimination, remind us of what we once were, and where we could be again. We need to be reminded, so we don’t repeat the past, because even someone like me, who studies and writes about inequality every day, forgets so easily.

One thought on “Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood, and the Great American Past time

  1. Sports movies are one of my favorite movie genres for exactly the reasons you state here: they remind us why social issues matter. They can make something very complex like racism crystal clear by showing the evil, like the scene you describe in “42.” We rarely get to cringe like that in public spaces and in the presence of others. It drives the message home and makes people emotional whether they want to be or not.

    Your post made me nostalgic for my own Sport & Society course at CSUC. Mine was taught by Don Lytle, it was heavy on the social psy end of it, learned so much about motivation that it changed how I hiked and backpacked.

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