In an excellent segment from HBO’s “Real Sports” that hit the internet this week, comedian Chris Rock ranted about baseball fandom and race, calling himself “an endangered species—a black baseball fan.”
It is well-documented that baseball draws diminished interest and participation from African-Americans these days, and Rock’s segment dug into the reasons for this decline. Commonly heard explanations for this trend include the rising cost of playing youth baseball and the popularity of football and basketball among black American sports fans. But Rock provided a less talked about and more important component in his analysis. Among other things, Rock cited the overwhelming whiteness of the game, not necessarily in terms of the demographics of participation, but rather in terms of the history and values of the sport.
Rock took issue with baseball’s “rules from another time” and its “old-fashioned code” that emphasizes a “right way to play the game—the white way.” Baseball’s so-called “unwritten rules” are products of its historical past, and given that the sport did not integrate on the Major League level until 1947, they are undeniably white codes of expected conduct on the field.
Using the example of how the Dodgers’ Cuban star Yasiel Puig gets targeted by pitchers in retaliation for having a tendency to celebrate and showboat after exciting plays, Rock emphasized the cultural differences between how baseball players are expected to conduct themselves in America versus in the Caribbean and Asia. He bemoaned the long-standing and continuing emphasis on decorum within the American game and its connection with the sport losing its sense of what is entertaining for fans. He called this a “carnival” feeling, connected to the way the game was treated by black players in the days of the Negro Leagues.
Connecting this air of seriousness in how baseball projects itself to how the sport is less popular to a younger generation of fans across all races, Rock ended the segment by invoking the overwhelming whiteness and high average age of today’s baseball fans. “We don’t need baseball, but baseball needs us,” he said.
Rock does not necessarily mean this in a demographic sense, but rather in a cultural one. “Black America decides what’s hot and what young people get excited about,” Rock said. “Maybe if baseball gets a little hipper, a little cooler, a little more black … the future can change. But until then, blacks and baseball just aren’t a good match anymore. Blacks don’t seem to care, but baseball should be terrified.”
Rock’s points were made in a biting and comedic manner, but they should be treated with seriousness. Preserving the future of baseball necessitates reckoning with this issue of race and fandom. Baseball prides itself on being America’s pastime, but if it fails to reach not just African-American fans but also younger fans of all races, it will be passed over in favor of other sports.