- Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game by Rob Ruck
In Raceball, University of Pittsburgh historian Rob Ruck draws upon his previous scholarship dealing with black baseball, Sandlot Seasons in Black Pittsburgh (2002), and Caribbean baseball, The Tropic of Baseball: Baseball in the Dominican Republic (2010), to analyze how Major League Baseball (MLB) has impacted the black and Latin game. While noting the diversity of Major League rosters increasingly dominated by Latinos, Ruck laments the decline of baseball in the African-American community as well as the efforts of MLB to wrest control of the Latin game from its local roots. Ruck asserts, “By imposing its imperial will on black America and the Caribbean, MLB has achieved unprecedented prosperity, but gutted the game at the grass roots along the way. Baseball has never been stronger as a business, never weaker as a game” (p. xii). This sad chronicle offers little hope for resurrecting the game among African Americans, but Ruck concludes that local resistance to American colonization of the Latin game, along with the long overdue promise of MLB to curb its exploitive labor practices, offer the promise of the Caribbean nations maintaining a degree of independence from American domination.
For most scholars of baseball, Ruck’s story of black baseball will be a familiar one. He traces the imposition of Jim Crow and the response of the black community in establishing the Negro Leagues as a counter to the color line in MLB. Ruck also moves over familiar ground in chronicling the heroic struggle of Jackie Robinson and baseball integration as black athletes revolutionized the white game with their power, speed, and even flair which they incorporated from “blackball.”
This racial progress, however, came at a high price. Supporting the conclusions reached by Neil Lanctot in his history of the Negro Leagues, Ruck observes that the price of baseball integration was the destruction of black baseball; a business that had provided essential economic, entertainment, and cultural functions within the black community. Ruck suggests rather than destroying black baseball, MLB might have taken a different and more respectful approach to the Negro Leagues; absorbing them into the structure of MLB would have allowed this important black institution to survive and adapt to a changing America. Instead, MLB was shortsighted in destroying baseball’s indigenous roots within the black community, for without this local infrastructure interest in baseball has withered among black youth who prefer football and basketball. While Ruck praises the contemporary efforts of MLB in the inner city with programs such as Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, he believes that such outreach may be too little and too late as black Americans abandon the game which once was such an integral part of black life in the United States.
Ruck is equally critical of MLB’s drive to dominate and colonize in Latin America, although he holds out some hope for local resistance against the colossus of the North. Drawing on his interviews with Latin players and travels within the Dominican Republic, Ruck documents the struggle of baseball in the Caribbean and Central America to retain its independence from the United States. This is a history less familiar to many baseball [End Page 565] fans than the story of the Negro Leagues and their destruction. While acknowledging the role of United States’ business interests and the military in exporting baseball into Latin America, Ruck insists that Cubans, who embraced baseball as a means through which to assert their cultural independence from Spain, played a prominent role in exporting the game to neighboring Latin countries. In addition, Cubans with lighter skin color such as Adolfo Luque were part of the of major leagues in the early twentieth century, while Afro-Cubans were banned as part of the sport’s Jim Crow color line.
On the other hand, Ruck observes that the Latin countries were hospitable to players from the Negro Leagues, providing an opportunity for blacks to live and perform outside the restraints of rigid...