A story I’ve wanted to tell for a long time


I first had an inkling of the recent story that I wrote for ChicagoSideSports when I read Mitchell Nathanson’s The People’s History of Baseball in 2011. Much like Howard Zinn’s work for history in general, Nathanson challenged the traditional “Baseball as America” narrative in many ways.

I realized, as I was reading the book, that much of what I believed about the sport I have always loved was simply not true. I believed them because I wanted to believe them, or the people who see baseball as the for-profit industry that it is had told to to me that way.

One of Nathanson’s contentions was that race sometimes played a role in the trades that were made between teams. I made a mental note of this, and a few weeks later, as I was paging through a coffee table book titled–ironically enough–Baseball as America, I found a statement that I would have totally missed, had I not read Nathanson’s book. But after reading his book, it made perfect sense. I wrote something about that realization in this space, but painted in general terms, because I didn’t yet know the full story.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Lou Brock trade, which happened in June of 1964. The recent 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show demonstrates how we, as a society, love our anniversaries. 48 years after the Brock trade doesn’t feel like the right time to talk about the trade, but 50 seems just right. And any year after 50, well, it will be old news by then. It’s old news now, but a small window to revisit what happened has opened up, and I took the opportunity to walk through it.

I decided to research the Cubs in the years leading up to 1964, in terms of African American players on their roster. And what I found was intriguing. The Cubs embraced integration rather slowly at first, but by the start of 1964 they had more black players (and there’s a reason why I use that term) than they ever had before. And that’s exactly the reason why the trade happened the way that it did.

I love living in Chicago, but race is never far from the surface in this city. It fact, it’s rarely off of the surface in the first place. So finding a racial angle for this trade really shouldn’t be surprising. Disappointing, yes, but not surprising. And by pointing out what that angle is, I hope that the generations of baseball fans who accepted incompetence on the Cubs’ part as the reason for the trade will at least consider it to be something more than that.

The term “revisionist history” came to my mind several times as I was writing this piece. I realized that people have been conditioned, literally from the day after the trade was made, to believe certain things. And people won’t cast aside these beliefs, just because somebody like me says something to the contrary. But at the same time, history is not a static thing, by any measure. Society changes over time, and new evidence comes to light, and a different interpretation inevitably arises as a result.

If anyone takes a new understanding of what happened away from this piece, I will be very pleased. And if anyone else determines that I’m full of crap, and what they’ve always believed is still the truth, I can live with that, too. And–the most likely of all results–if 99% and more of all humanity does not have their life impacted by this story, that’s just fine, too. At least I’ll have added a new perspective to an old story. And isn’t that what history is all about?

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