Argument: the movie “42” ignores Jackie Robinson’s role in the larger Civil Rights Movement

Peter Drier argues that the new movie 42 fails to properly put Jackie Robinson in a larger context: as part of a larger social movement.

The film portrays baseball’s integration as the tale of two trailblazers—Robinson, the combative athlete and Rickey, the shrewd strategist—battling baseball’s, and society’s, bigotry. But the truth is that it was a political victory brought about by a social protest movement. As an activist himself, Robinson would likely have been disappointed by a film that ignored the centrality of the broader civil rights struggle…

42 is the fourth Hollywood film about Robinson. All of them suffer from what might be called movement myopia. We may prefer our heroes to be rugged individualists, but the reality doesn’t conform to the myth embedded in Hollywood’s version of the Robinson story…

Starting in the 1930s, reporters for African-American papers (especially Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, Fay Young of the Chicago Defender, Joe Bostic of the People’s Voice in New York, and Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American), and Lester Rodney, sports editor of the Communist paper, the Daily Worker, took the lead in pushing baseball’s establishment to hire black players. They published open letters to owners, polled white managers and players (some of whom were threatened by the prospect of losing their jobs to blacks, but most of whom said that they had no objections to playing with African Americans), brought black players to unscheduled tryouts at spring training centers, and kept the issue before the public. Several white journalists for mainstream papers joined the chorus for baseball integration.

Progressive unions and civil rights groups picketed outside Yankee Stadium the Polo Grounds, and Ebbets Field in New York City, and Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago. They gathered more than a million signatures on petitions, demanding that baseball tear down the color barrier erected by team owners and Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. In July 1940, the Trade Union Athletic Association held an “End Jim Crow in Baseball” demonstration at the New York World’s Fair. The next year, liberal unions sent a delegation to meet with Landis to demand that major league baseball recruit black players. In December 1943, Paul Robeson, the prominent black actor, singer, and activist, addressed baseball’s owners at their annual winter meeting in New York, urging them to integrate their teams. Under orders from Landis, they ignored Robeson and didn’t ask him a single question…

Robinson recognized that the dismantling of baseball’s color line was a triumph of both a man and a movement. During and after his playing days, he joined the civil rights crusade, speaking out—in speeches, interviews, and his column—against racial injustice. In 1949, testifying before Congress, he said: “I’m not fooled because I’ve had a chance open to very few Negro Americans.”

Fascinating. Robinson can be applauded for his individual efforts and we can also recognize that he was part of a larger movement – it doesn’t have to be one or the other. But, our narratives, now prominently told in biopic movies, love to emphasize the individual. This is part of a larger American issue regarding an inability to recognize and discuss larger social structures, forces, and movements.

Many Americans might assume the Civil Rights Movement begins in the mid-1950s with Brown vs. Board of Education or the actions of Rosa Parks (this is where the Wikipedia article on the subject starts) but things were stirring in Robinson’s day. While baseball was America’s sport (pro football didn’t start its meteoric rise until a decade or so later) and Robinson’s play was influential, there were other efforts going on. In 1948 the military was integrated via an order from President Truman. After World War II, blacks tried to move into better housing, often found in white neighborhoods, but faced serious (sometimes violent) opposition in a number of locations.

I’ve been conflicted about whether I should see this movie as a big baseball fans. Sports movies are a little too mawkish for me and don’t ever really reflect how the game is played. This argument is not helping the movie’s cause…

No one-size-fits-all approach for building a downtown baseball stadium

A new study examines the divergent outcomes after the construction of new baseball stadiums in downtown Denver and Phoenix:

That Coors and Chase Fields had diverging fates is no accident but rather the result of poor planning, write Arizona State researchers Stephen Buckman and Elizabeth A. Mack in a recent issue of the Journal of Urbanism. Phoenix’s attempt to copy Denver’s success shows that sports stadiums are not a one-size-fits-all solution to downtown redevelopment efforts. On the contrary, Buckman and Mack argue, these projects must strongly consider the natural form of the city to avoid failure:

A key consideration that is often overlooked in the planning phase of these projects is the historical urban growth patterns and resulting urban form of the cities in which stadium development projects are proposed.

Buckman and Mack conducted a point-by-point review of both stadiums in their effort to determine what factors contributed most to their success, or lack thereof. They quickly found that population differences weren’t the source of the difference. Phoenix and Denver had similar demographic profiles at the time the fields were being proposed, with no marked variations in age of the potential fan base or ability to pay for tickets.

Where they began to see a clear difference was in urban form. Metropolitan Phoenix is a widespread area without a distinctive downtown core. Its satellite cities of Glendale, Tempe, and Scottsdale all have significant attractions and downtowns of their own that create what the researchers call a “centrifugal effect” on potential visitors to downtown Phoenix. By some estimates, Phoenix has the least developed downtown core in the country.

Denver, on the other hand, has a historic core that dates back to the city’s founding in 1858. In addition, the city itself is far less expansive: encompassing only about 150 squares miles, to more than 9,000 for metropolitan Phoenix. The result of this urban form, for Denver residents, is a considerably more convenient proximity to the stadium.

More broadly, it sounds like having key structures in and near the baseball stadium is very important, perhaps even more so than the particulars of the stadium itself. In other words, building a stadium with little already existing around it might have little impact on the surrounding area. Downtowns work because they are clusters of activity; there are not just office buildings but also nearby residences, restaurants, and cultural institutions that help insure a broad range of visitors to the downtown. Baseball games then become another activity that people want to go to because the games are part of the scene of the whole area.

I visited Coors Field for the first time this past August during the 2012 American Sociological Association meetings. Since I was staying near the Convention Center, we had to walk about 15 minutes to the stadium. The walk was pleasant in itself; Denver has a nice scene between these two destination points. Unlike some other major cities where the downtown is dominated by large buildings, this area has primarily low-rise buildings. People are outside walking around or eating. The stadium itself seemed to be at the edge of the downtown area closer to I-25 but it was clear plenty of other fans were also walking through the surrounding LoDo neighborhood and enjoying the night.

Another question I would ask as a baseball fan: could attendance be boosted in a more dispersed region if the team was winning? Or do parks like Wrigley Field win at attendance with little effect of record because fans want to have the experience?

By the way, here is a picture from my seat. While Coors Field might be more successful than Chase Field, the team was not good last year and there were plenty of empty seats as well as cheap seats online.

CoorsFieldAug2012

Argument: statistics can help us understand and enjoy baseball

An editor and writer for Baseball Prospectus argues that we need science and statistics to understand baseball:

Fight it if you like, but baseball has become too complicated to solve without science. Every rotation of every pitch is measured now. Every inch that a baseball travels is measured now. Teams that used to get mocked for using spreadsheets now rely on databases packed with precise location and movement of every player on every play — and those teams are the norm, not the film-inspiring exceptions. This is exciting and it’s terrifying…

I’m not a mathematician and I’m not a scientist. I’m a guy who tries to understand baseball with common sense. In this era, that means embracing advanced metrics that I don’t really understand. That should make me a little uncomfortable, and it does. WAR is a crisscrossed mess of routes leading toward something that, basically, I have to take on faith…

Yet baseball’s front offices, the people in charge of $100 million payrolls and all your hope for the 2013 season, side overwhelmingly with data. For team executives, the basic framework of WAR — measuring players’ total performance against a consistent baseline — is commonplace, used by nearly every front office, according to insiders. The writers who helped guide the creation of WAR over the decades — including Bill James, Sean Smith and Keith Woolner — work for teams now. As James told me, the war over WAR has ceased where it matters. “There’s a practical necessity for measurements like that in a front office that make it irrelevant whether you like them or you don’t.”

Whether you do is up to you and ultimately matters only to you. In the larger perspective, the debate is over, and data won. So fight it if you’d like. But at a certain point, the question in any debate against science is: What are you really fighting and why?

As someone who likes data, I would statistics is just another tool that can help us understand baseball better. It doesn’t have to be an either/or argument, baseball with advanced statistics versus baseball without advanced statistics. Baseball with advanced statistics is a more complete and gets at some of the underlying mechanics of the game rather than the visual cues or the culturally accepted statistics.

While this story is specifically about baseball, I think it also mirrors larger conversations in American society about the use of statistics. Why interrupt people’s common sense understandings of the world with abstract data? Aren’t these new statistics difficult to understand and can’t they also be manipulated? Some of this is true: looking at data can involve seeing things in news ways and there are disagreements about how to define concepts as well as how to collect to interpret data. But, in the end, these statistics can help us better understand the world.

Trying to ensure more accountability in US News & World Report college ranking data

The US News & World Report college rankings are big business but also a big headache in data collection. The company is looking into ways to ensure more trustworthy data:

A new report from The Washington Post‘s Nick Anderson explores the increasingly common problem, in which universities submit inflated standardized test scores and class rankings for members of their incoming classes to U.S. News, which doesn’t independently verify the information. Tulane University, Bucknell University, Claremont McKenna College, Emory University, and George Washington University have all been implicated in the past year alone. And those are just the schools that got caught:

A survey of 576 college admissions officers conducted by Gallup last summer for the online news outlet Inside Higher Ed found that 91 percent believe other colleges had falsely reported standardized test scores and other admissions data. A few said their own college had done so.

For such a trusted report, the U.S. News rankings don’t have many safeguards ensuring that their data is accurate. Schools self-report these statistics on the honor system, essentially. U.S. News editor Brian Kelly told Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik, “The integrity of data is important to everybody … I find it incredible to contemplate that institutions based on ethical behavior would be doing this.” But plenty of institutions are doing this, as we noted back in November 2012 when GWU was unranked after being caught submitting juiced stats. 

At this point, U.S. News shouldn’t be surprised by acknowledgment like those from Tulane and Bucknell. It turns out that if you let schools misreport the numbers — especially in a field of fierce academic competition and increasingly budgetary hardship — they’ll take you up on the offer. Kelly could’ve learned that by reading U.S. News‘ own blog, Morse Code. Written by data researcher Bob Morse, almost half of the recent posts have been about fraud. To keep schools more honest, the magazine is considering requiring university officials outside of enrollment offices to sign a statement vouching for submitted numbers. But still, no third party accountability would be in place, and many higher ed experts are already saying that the credibility of the U.S. News college rankings is shot.

Three quick thoughts:

1. With the amount of money involved in the entire process, this should not be a surprise. Colleges want to project the best image they can so having a weakly regulated system (and also a suspect methodology and set of factors to start with) can lead to abuses.

2. If the USNWR rankings can’t be trusted, isn’t there someone who could provide a more honest system? This sounds like an opportunity for someone.

3. I wonder if there are parallels to PED use in baseball. To some degree, it doesn’t matter if lots of schools are gaming the system as long as the perception among schools is that everyone else is doing it. With this perception, it is easier to justify one’s own cheating because colleges need to catch up or compete with each other.

Sears hopes Moneyball addition to its board can help revive the company

Here is an odd mixing of the data, sports, and business worlds: Sears recently named Paul Podesta to its board.

Paul DePodesta, one of the heroes of Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” a great 2003 baseball book (and later a movie) about the 2002 A’s that’s more about business and epistemology than baseball, has been named to the board of Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings Corp.

To be sure, he’s an unconventional choice for the parent of Sears and Kmart. But Chairman Edward Lampert is thinking outside the box score, welcoming the New York Mets’ vice president of player development and amateur scouting into his clubhouse…

“What Paul DePodesta … did to bring analytics into the world of baseball is absolutely parallel to what needs to happen — and is happening — in retail,” said Greg Girard, program director of merchandising strategies and retail analytics for Framingham, Mass.-based IDC Retail Insights.

“It’s a big cultural change, but that’s something a board member can effect,” Girard said. “And he’s got street cred to take it down to the line of business guys who need to change, who need to bring analytics and analysis into retail decisions.”…

“Analytics has been something folks in retail have talked about for quite some time, but they’re redoubling their efforts now,” Girard said. “Drowning in data and not knowing what data’s relevant, which data to retain and for how long, is the No. 1 challenge retailers are having as they move into what we call Big Data.”

Fascinating. People like Podesta are credited with starting a revolution in sports by developing new statistics and then using that information to outwit the market. For example, Podesta and a host of others before him (possibly with Bill James at the beginning), found that certain traits like on-base percentage were undervalued and teams, like the small-market Oakland Athletics, could build decent teams without overpaying for the biggest free agents. Of course, once other teams caught on to this idea, on-base percentage was no longer undervalued. The Boston Red Sox, one of the biggest spending baseball teams, picked up this idea and paid handsomely for such skills and went on to win two World Series championships. So teams now have to look at other undervalued areas. One recent area that Major League Baseball shut down was spending more on overseas talent and draft picks to build up a farm system quickly. These ideas are now spreading to other sports as some NBA teams are making use of such data and new precise data will soon be collected with soccer players while they are on the pitch.

The same thought process could apply to business. If so, the process might look like this: find new ways to measure retail activity or hone in on less understood data that is out there. Then maximize a response to these lesser-known concepts and move around competitors. When they start to catch on, keep innovating and stay ahead a step or two. Sears could use a lot of this moving forward as they have struggled in recent years. Even if Podesta is able to identify trends others have not, he would still have to convince a board and company to change course.

It will be interesting to see how Podesta comes out of this. If Sears continues to lose ground, how much of that will rub off on him? If there is a turnaround, how much credit would he get?

Marlins’ publicly-funded stadium not the exception among Major League Baseball teams

There is a lot of conversation today about the trade/fire sale undertaken by the Miami Marlins and how this relates to the team’s opening of a new stadium for the 2012 season that was largely funded by public money.Yet, this is a larger trend: 20 of the last 21 baseball stadiums built have been partly funded by public money.

And like nobody else, he hoarded massive checks from MLB while passing along the bill for the stadium to the taxpayers.

The Marlins can claim the money comes from tourism-tax dollars. Truth is, Miami-Dade County moved general-use monies from property taxes to free up the tourist cash. This is the dirtiest secret of Selig’s two decades as commissioner: The “golden era” of which he so often brags came off the taxpayer’s teat.

Of the 21 stadiums built since Camden Yards started the boom in 1992, the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park is the only one privately funded. Baseball’s business plan depended on new stadiums with sweetheart deals filling the coffers of ownership groups lucky enough to leverage politicians or voters into signing off on them. Cities signed deal after dreadful deal, few worse than the Marlins’, who paid for less than 20 percent of the stadium, received a $35 million interest-free loan to help and used $2.5 million more of public money to fund seizures.

Despite Loria and Samson’s protestations otherwise, this was always the endgame of their stadium gambit. Selig saw the Marlins’ audited finances every year. He knew they were lying. He went along with it anyway. That’s how he does business. He protects his friends. It’s why Fred Wilpon still owns the Mets. It’s why Frank McCourt doesn’t own the Dodgers.

As I’ve written about before (see here and here), studies show the construction of sports stadiums tends to benefit team owners and not the public. Teams are often able to hold a city hostage because no political leader wants to be the one who lets the favorite team go. Yet, the economic data would suggest it wouldn’t really hurt a city to do just that.

This leads me to a thought: what city would be most willing to let a team leave town for another locale? Even if pro sports teams don’t necessarily bring in money, they are also status symbols to show a city is “major league.” What will be the next team to go? One way to think about this is to look at cities that lack major teams. We could look at Los Angeles and the NFL; even though the metropolitan area has two baseball teams, two basketball teams, and two hockey teams, the city has not had a NFL team since 1994. Despite all the conversation about teams possible moving there (the Vikings were one of the recent teams though they got a publicly-funded stadium in a close vote last year), no one has moved yet. Seattle and the NBA is another interesting case; the city lost the Supersonics, now the Oklahoma City Thunder, after the 2007-2008 season and there have been recent conversations about a new stadium and team.

My guess is that the Marlins won’t be leaving Miami anytime soon though it would be appropriate if the city did renounce them. What an odd franchise overall: they were an expansion team that started play in 1993 presumably to take advantage of the growing city (the 8th largest metropolitan area in the United States) and its Latin American population (in recent years, 27-28% of baseball players were Latino), they have won two World Series titles (1997 and 2003, the year of Bartman), and held multiple fire sales.

Derek Jeter as an example of the kind of world MLK envisioned

A sociologist argues that Yankees star Derek Jeter is an example of the kind of world Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned:

The son of a white mother and a black father, Jeter experienced racial prejudice from both groups as a boy growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., and playing in the minor leagues down south. Even as recently as 2006, according to O’Connor, Jeter received a “racially-tinged threat” in his mail at Yankee Stadium, a threat the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Unit considered serious enough to investigate…

But Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist and black activist of the 1960s who has spoken and written extensively on the subject of race and professional athletics, explained Jeter’s appeal as a combination both of his unique attributes as an athlete and individual, and as a sign that the United States, throughout its history often bitterly divided along racial, ethnic and territorial lines, is moving toward an era of diversity and inclusion.

“I think it’s absolutely appropriate in the 21st century that a Derek Jeter should be the face of the premier baseball team in this country,” Edwards said. “When you talk about leadership and production and consistency and durability over the years, what he has achieved and what he has accomplished, and more than that, the way that he has done it is just absolutely phenomenal. He is one of our real athletic heroes and role models to the point that his race or ethnicity does not matter.”…

Derek Jeter’s way, the way of hard work, discipline and exemplary behavior, would have made Dr. King proud.

Tiger Woods, pre-scandal, may be another good example.

At the same time, this analysis makes me a little nervous. As some examples from Jeter’s own life suggest, we still have a ways to go. While it is notable that we now have visible multiracial leaders who appeal to a broad swath of America, at the same time, Jeter is a role model because he is successful at what does, going to multiple All-Star games and winning multiple World Series championships. Would Jeter be revered in the same way if he was from the Dominican Republic or from the south side of Chicago or from a farming community in North Dakota? What if he spoke about racial issues or wasn’t such a classy figure and “acted out”? In the end, does his celebrity make it easier for the average multiracial American? Are Americans only willing to look past Jeter’s background because he is a classy winner?