Monday, August 07, 2006

In Baseball, and America, Race Is Still a Topic for Discussion

By Stuart Rothenberg

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.—Three days after President Bush signed a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act into law, the National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted a class of 17 players, managers and executives from black baseball.

The inductees included Cristóbal Torriente, a center fielder who played in Cuba and the Negro Leagues; Ray Brown of the Homestead Grays of the 1930s and ’40s; and Effa Manley, the co-owner of the Newark Eagles.

The same weekend, six of the 13 black major league pitchers to win 20 games — Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Al Downing, J.R. Richard, Mike Norris, Vida Blue and Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins — gathered in Cooperstown to promote “The Black Aces,” a new book by Grant, who won 20 games as a member of the 1965 Minnesota Twins.

The book relates the stories of the 13 pitchers — including the one active black 20-game winner, Dontrelle Willis of the Florida Marlins — as well as the stories of other great black ballplayers, focusing on the personal challenges, successes and difficulties that the athletes faced and, in some cases, continue to face.

Though the timing was coincidental, the three events — the Hall of Fame induction, the book’s launch and the presidential signing — seem, in retrospect, to be linked. Race has divided Major League Baseball, American society and American politics for decades, and it continues to be an issue with which many are wrestling.

Major League Baseball is trying to come to grips with its years of racial segregation, and many in Washington, D.C., continue to struggle with the racial divide that still shapes American politics.

Nationally, Republicans are promoting three serious black statewide candidates — Maryland Senate hopeful Michael Steele, Ohio gubernatorial hopeful Ken Blackwell and Pennsylvania gubernatorial hopeful Lynn Swann. In addition, pastor and former Detroit city councilman Keith Butler continues to run a vigorous campaign for the Senate from Michigan, though he is an underdog in the GOP’s Aug. 8 primary.

Strong black GOP candidates remain something of a novelty, and national Republican strategists are thrilled when they can find an appealing black to run for a high-profile office.

But none of this year’s high-profile black Republicans is favored to win, and so far, few black Republican candidates have made the kind of substantial gains among black voters that suggests the black electorate is even listening to Republican candidates. (There is some indication that younger black voters are more independent politically than their elders, but GOP candidates have not been able to take real advantage of that opportunity — if it is even a real opportunity.)

Black voters complain that Republicans don’t care about them and favor policies that won’t help them, but they won’t even support black Republican nominees.

On the Democratic side this year, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (Tenn.) continues to mount his uphill campaign to move up to the Senate. The Congressman is a high-energy candidate who is making a major effort to woo voters in normally Republican eastern Tennessee. But if Republicans nominate former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker in today’s primary, Ford would be a considerable general election underdog. Race is only one of Ford’s problems in the contest.

In Maryland, former Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the one-time head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, hopes he can overcome a substantial financial disadvantage to win his party’s Senate nomination. But he will be outspent heavily by Rep. Benjamin Cardin, the Democratic primary favorite, and by Josh Rales, a millionaire who is blanketing the state with ads that have both insiders and real voters scratching their heads.

Maryland blacks have not been happy with the state party’s establishment for its treatment of Mfume, and if, as most expect, Mfume is defeated in the Sept. 12 primary, they likely will complain loudly once again about being taken for granted. Then, they most likely will fall back in line and vote for Cardin against the black Republican Steele in November. (Steele may well improve his showing among black voters, but in a Democratic state in a Democratic year, he isn’t likely to beat Cardin in the general election.)

But in Tennessee’s 9th Congressional district, which Ford is leaving vacant to run for the Senate, something odd could happen today. Democrat Steve Cohen, a white, liberal state Senator, has a chance of winning the Democratic nomination in a district that is 59 percent black.

Cohen has run a series of TV ads emphasizing his accomplishments in office and testimonials from a number of prominent local African Americans. Cohen, who lost a Democratic Congressional primary to Ford in 1996, should benefit this time from the fact that he is a white candidate running in a race with a dozen or so black candidates.

If elected, Cohen would be the only white Member representing a majority-black district. (One white Member, Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Robert Brady, represents a black plurality district.)

Though Major League Baseball didn’t integrate until 1947, when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, baseball has changed more rapidly over the past five decades than has American politics has. That, too, may be changing before our eyes.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on August 3, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.