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Black History Month, day 19

Pitchers and catchers are reporting. Looks like it’s time for a visit to the Negro Leagues.

Professional baseball was not really officially segregated; it didn’t have to be. After 1900, teams maintained their no-blacks status through a “gentlemen’s agreement,” to use one of the more bizarre misnomers in our language. Baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, deserves a lot of the blame, as various managers tried to add black players to their teams (sometimes even passing them off as Indians or white) but were prevented from doing so by Landis. In the 19th century, baseball teams had frequently been made up of a mix of races.

If baseball had been integrated during his lifetime, Josh Gibson would very likely be remembered as the best player in major league history (as it is, he’s widely considered the game’s greatest catcher). In a short career–he died at age 35, a few months before Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers–he posted incredible stats, even allowing for the purported inaccuracy of Negro League and Caribbean records. He is sometimes referred to as “the black Babe Ruth,” but given Gibson’s approximately 800 career home runs (Ruth hit 714; the MLB record holder, Barry Bonds, hit 762) and his career batting average of .359 (Ruth’s was a mere .342), the Babe ought to be called “the white Josh Gibson.”

A particularly nasty strain of racism in baseball implies that black players don’t make good pitchers or catchers–not coincidentally, the brains of the team. Apparently the advocates of this point of view never heard of Gibson, or pitcher Satchel Paige either.

Is it unethical to be a fair-weather fan? Of course it is if you actually diss or ignore your team when it loses, and become the world’s biggest supporter when it’s on a roll. But what about less overt cases, such as the baseball lover who’s lived in the team’s radius for several years, made it to only a few games, and utterly failed to follow the standings or know who was who on the team until it went to the playoffs? Just to give a for instance. Not, you know, resembling anyone who might write this blog.

I seek absolution, because I didn’t even know the Giants were in a race for a playoff spot until I came off the BART escalator one morning to see a special edition of the Chronicle, screaming “PLAYOFFS!” Oh. Was it a near thing? Um, yes, actually, it was decided in the final game of the season.

So now I’m having Giants fever and feeling guilty about it. I have a long history of borderline behavior with ball teams, you see. My first experience of baseball was our family’s annual trip to Boston, culminating each time in a night at Fenway, and I proudly claimed the Red Sox as my team. To me, a Connecticut kid, cheering for the Red Sox instead of the Yankees was a matter of cultural loyalty, declaring myself as a New Englander instead of a resident of a mere satellite of New York. (No one paid attention to the Mets.) Besides, given the choice between a perennial underdog and US Steel, the moral choice is clear; I hated the Yankees as a matter of principle. But I wasn’t really a baseball fan. In fact, when I was in Damn Yankees! one summer in high school, I recorded in black and white in my program bio that I hated baseball, a fact that my family and a boyfriend, all of whom were big baseball fans, later threw in my face on a regular basis.

Because after that, Darryl Strawberry came to New York, and my dad became a fervent Mets fan, and the rest of the family with him, including me. In 1985 he and I went to opening day at Shea, a brutally cold outing that ended, gloriously and to our toes’ great relief, with newcomer Gary Carter’s 10th inning homer. I brought home a “K” card with Doc Gooden’s picture on it and tracked his strikeouts on it all through that 24-4 season. I made a Gooden snowman that winter. The next year, of course, was their year, and this is where my Boston-fan friends defriend me, because I cheered for the Mets all the way.

I still maintain that you can have one AL team and one NL team, so Boston is still my AL team. Although the Mets have a place in my heart, I haven’t followed them at all–my dad’s occasional updates on the team’s progress are a swirl of unfamiliar names–and I have made half-hearted attempts to pay attention to my local team. After all, my daughter, native-born northern Californian that she is, will be a Giants fan.

But a baseball stadium is no place for a toddler, with its towers of steep concrete steps, so this summer was the first one that we could have brought her along to a game, and we were out of the country most of the season and . . . well, we’ll just have to get ourselves some tickets for next year. At least we’re teaching her “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and at school she seems to have learned to chant “Go, Giants, go! Go, Giants, go!”

None of which resolves my dilemma: I’ve just moved to this city and its team has a chance at its first championship since it moved to this city 53 years ago. I’m burning with excitement, and desirous of a knockoff Giants warmup jacket, and wondering if I’m entitled to partake of the thrill, as long as I promise to go to a game next season and never to kick them when they’re down.

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