Chris Rock’s Wrong

April 23, 2015


Chris Rock used to be a funny guy. Recently he gave what has been viewed as a humorous rant about why black people aren’t playing baseball any more for HBO’s Real Sports show. You don’t have to search very hard to find the 7-minute clip. I certainly don’t begrudge him his right to speak his mind but he is wrong on so many points that it begs for a response. I know I risk being branded a racist by disagreeing with his polemic but I thought it would be useful to note some facts on the matter.


“It’s not the money,” Rock says. “You can’t tell me black kids can’t afford baseball when everybody is buying Jordans for $300. That’s six gloves right there! It’s the game. It’s old-fashioned and stuck in the past. You got the white-haired, white-guy announcers, you’ve got cheesy old organ music at the games. I mean, where’s the Beats by Dre?”


There’s a part of that that is absolutely correct: it’s not the money. Impoverished kids throughout Latin America play baseball with nothing more than a broom stick and a flattened milk carton for a glove. Even going back to the heydays of the first integration movement, there are videos of Willie Mays playing stick ball in the streets of New York. So it’s never been about the money. If kids love a game they will find a way to play it, with or without league sanctioned equipment.


Where he errs is about the game being stuck in the past. What game that has been around for more than a half century isn’t beholden to the fans who built its popularity? I’m not sure what highly over-priced headphones has to do with anything but if he’s referring to the music being played at the ballpark a) I’m not sure many people put down $200+ for tickets so they can sit in uncomfortable seats in the dog days of summer and listen to the radio, and b) clearly Mr. Rock hasn’t been to a game in a ballpark other than perhaps Wrigley Field because that is the only park that still relies mostly on organ music. Every other park blares the latest tunes to an almost deafening volume between innings and each player has their own individual walk-up music. So if he’s hearing organ music, it’s probably Entry of the Gladiators playing inside his head because it sure isn’t what the rest of us are hearing.


He goes on… “The fact that Howard [University], the Harvard of black colleges, doesn't even have a baseball team should give some idea of how troubling this situation has become.


I find several ironies about this comment. The first is that Howard has been around 147 years and they have won exactly five championships in the three major collegiate sports – football, basketball and baseball – and all of them occurred in football. So if they decide to dump their baseball program it’s not exactly big news because they’ve never been that competitive. Howard has produced three major league players, but that is not as big of an accomplishment as one might imagine. For example, Liberty University, which has been around for 100 fewer years than Howard and has a yearly endowment of almost $500 million less, has produced four.


Additionally ironic is that Mr. Rock tries to portray this as a black issue. Bethune-Cookman and Jackson State, both historically black schools with teams comprised almost entirely of black baseball players, both made the field of 64 for last year’s College World Series. So suggesting that black schools and/or black athletes aren’t that interested in baseball is completely fallacious. A point of interest that piles on more irony is that part of the campus of Howard University is built on the site where Griffith Stadium, home of the Washington Senators, used to stand. They stopped playing baseball there, too.


Continuing the irony is that numerous small colleges qualified for the championship field:  Bryant, Kent State, Binghamton, Xavier, College of Charleston, Sacramento State, Siena, Sam Houston State, Dallas Baptist, Sam Houston State, Jacksonville State, Campbell, Old Dominion, Liberty and Bucknell all made the tournament field along with the traditional powerhouses like LSU and Texas. So it’s not as if schools have to have an enormous athletics budget to compete. Howard could compete if they wanted to recruit good players and there are plenty to choose from in the talent-laden mid-Atlantic region, many of them African-American; they simply choose not to.


But the greatest irony is Mr. Rock’s use of the phrase “the Harvard of black colleges.” It’s as if black colleges needed to be qualified, that their academic  bonafides can’t stand on their own merit. I mean if someone calls a compact car “the Ferrari of compact cars”, they are trying to say that it is the best of a much lesser class of cars, yes? So the distinction that Mr. Rock makes is inadvertently demeaning to the school he is trying to praise. The comparison, however, does have some usefulness. If Harvard decided to end one of its athletic programs, with the possible exception of crew, would anyone other than Harvard alumni notice? I mean they haven’t been relevant in major collegiate athletics since the 1800s. Kind of the way no one noticed when Howard ended their baseball program.


Mr. Rock informs us that Little League participation is down. Yeah, that’s not a black problem; that’s a youth problem. Rock suggests the cure to Little League’s ills is to interest Young Black America, the vanguard of American culture. Yet that demographic has done almost nothing with youth soccer. That is the fastest growing sport in America and indisputably the most popular sport in the world. In 20 years, that will be America’s pastime. It’s amazing that the sport could go from 100,000 Americans playing it in 1967 to more than 24 million who play it today without Black America being a critical part of its growth. And yet is has.


“Baseball is dying.” It is? Is that why attendance in 2015 is the highest it has ever been? Why revenues have grown 321% since 1995 and topped $9 billion in 2014, which was a billion more than in 2013?  Is that why three networks spent almost $1.5 billion per year (ESPN will pay roughly $700 million, Fox nearly $500 million and TBS roughly $300 million) to broadcast roughly 100 games? That’s one game of the week on two networks plus every possible playoff game. The actual number of games broadcast is probably less. That doesn’t include all the money generated by the regional networks or from MLB’s own network broadcasts. For some perspective, the NBA gets about $2.6 billion a year to broadcast NBA games on two networks, but that’s for at least 155 regular season games and more than 40 postseason games. Broken down to a per game basis ($13 million per game), that’s significantly less than what the networks are paying MLB ($16 million) for their product. A typical NFL game takes three and a half hours yet only yields about 11 minutes of actual game action. The rest is watching huddles and commercials. For this, four networks are paying almost $5 billion per year to televise roughly 120 games, including the Superbowl. Maybe baseball should take its cue from that example and have more meetings at the mound.


But I digress… Mr. Rock details the drop on MLB’s TV viewing audience but doesn’t say anything about the NBA on TV. Their ratings have dropped from a 5.0 Nielsen rating in 1996 to a 2.2 in 2015. Correct me if I’m wrong, but baseball’s supposed 50% loss is still better than the NBA’s 56% loss, yes? Even ratings for its playoffs are half of what they were just 10 years ago. Unlike baseball in which 80% of the viewership is white and only 10% is black, the NBA gets 45% of it’s viewers from blacks. Both sports seem to be losing TV viewers at approximately the same rate yet Mr. Rock’s remedy is to make baseball “more black”. So what is his solution for a sport where 85% of the athletes are already black? Remember how baseball has only increased its revenue by 321% over the last 20 years? Over that same span the NBA revenues have increased by barely 100%.  So which sport is the one that’s dying?


Mr. Rock notes that the average age of a TV viewer of baseball is 53.  Ironically, the same is true of the average viewer of the Summer Olympics. Guess what - the average age of any TV viewer was 50.  For the past 50 years baseball viewership has skewed older, but only now it’s a problem? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe the older average age is almost entirely due to the fact that people are living longer and that there is a larger percentage of the population (aka the baby boomers) entering that age bracket. I’m pretty sure that baseball doesn’t have a problem with the fact that the average baseball viewer falls into the wealthiest demographic of any of the major sports.


Yes, dark-skinned Americans aren’t as large a percentage of the major league population as they once were. Is that because they aren’t playing it as much, or is it because Latin Americans and Asians are taking a larger share of the baseball jobs? Baseball is becoming a global game, with inroads currently being made in China, India, Brazil and Australia to supplement the traditional hotbeds of talent in the Caribbean, South America, Korea and Japan. Sure, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier but Mr. Rock would have you believe he only did it for African-Americans. Did he forget that players like Roberto Clemente and Juan Marichal would have been excluded as well? Think of all the recent great Latin players from the Dominican (Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero), Cuba (Jose Abreu), Puerto Rico (Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran), Venezuela (Miguel Cabrera, Johan Santana), Panama (Mariano Rivera), the Antilles (Andruw Jones) who could not have played without Robinson’s sacrifices.


He stated flatly that last year’s champion Giants were without any black players. In fact, the Giants had six players (out of 25) who would have been excluded under baseball’s previous racial divide. They just happened to come from countries outside the US. So who has the problem with race? It’s ironic that he later uses Yasiel Puig (a dark-skinned latin player… I guess latins do qualify as “black” when it suits his argument) as his example of someone who celebrates too much against baseball’s unwritten code. He also suggests that “white” baseball is the only place where this code exists. I suggest he travel to Japan and watch how the game is played there. The American game is practically an episode of Soul Train by comparison.


He went even further suggesting that people who enjoy re-enacting and playing the old style game of the dead ball era somehow long for the days of Jim Crow? Really? Perhaps they simply long for an age when there were no child labor laws… Or when there were no safety nets for society or the economy… Or perhaps they just love to wear wool… Or perhaps they enjoy the game when pitchers were throwing under-handed and the idea was to get the hitter to make contact rather than to avoid it. Or maybe they longed for the time before Cap Anson first inspired the segregation of baseball, when African-American players like Moses Fleetwood Walker could play professional baseball. His assertions are at best ignorant and at worst, virulently racist. He then has the audacity to criticize baseball for hanging onto its past, when moments earlier he had yearned for the good old days of the 1980s when his favorite team had a handful of black players. Ironically, the Mets have the same number of dark-skinned players this year as they did in 1986.


Mr. Rock says that black people don’t like to look back. Well, maybe they should. Because they would see that when Jackie Robinson became the first black player in a half century to play major league baseball, he was taking the first significant step toward equal and civil rights for all people, eight years before Rosa Parks defied a bus driver and sixteen years before Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. If they looked back they would see that it was baseball that made that first giant leap for mankind on their behalf. 


Race isn’t the problem. Not with baseball, at least. People like Mr. Rock whose first response is ‘race’ when confronted with a complex issue, are. He complains that he doesn’t have any black friends to talk baseball. So what. Why does the color of someone’s skin matter when it comes to talking about baseball? It’s baseball. Frankly, baseball doesn’t need you, Chris Rock. You represent divisiveness. What Jackie Robinson brought to the game was unity. It’s you who needs baseball… desperately.