There have been a couple of moments when I've felt sort of like the modern Jackie Robinson of sports journalism.
Once, which I've discussed in public before, a big-shot columnist dismissed me to his nationwide audience as a "minority reporter," pressing Anson Carter to answer questions about racism in hockey. I don't know if he's a racist person, but that cheap shot was a racist act, one my colleagues at the Toronto Star interpreted, reasonably, as an invitation to punch the guy out.
But, like Robinson, who knew he couldn't retaliate against every white guy who hurled an n-bomb, or slid into second base with spikes high, I found the courage not to knock the taste out of this man's mouth. Robinson knew a fistfight would end MLB's integration experiment, and kept his cool for the sake of the Black players who would follow him. Similarly, I couldn't risk getting fired, and I didn't want future Black Canadian sports writers to face limited job options because I had throttled some smug old columnist.
My next kind-of parallel to Robinson came when I won the National Newspaper Award for Sports Writing, and became the first Black member of a previously all-white club. I had overcome obstacles past winners hadn't (see previous anecdote), and hoped my win could help inspire younger folks who grew up like I did — Black and talented, but unsure about creating space for themselves in stiflingly white Canadian institutions.
Now, I can hear some of you warming up your vocal chords to boo me for taking Robinson's name in vain.
I never said I was Jackie Robinson. But in certain situations, as a Black person in a largely white industry, finding a way for myself and making space for others, I get a taste of how Robinson must have felt in 1947.
And before you berate me about comparing my 21st-century experiences to integrating baseball in the shadow of World War II, keep the how-dare-yous, and ask yourself why segregation has such a long half-life. Becoming the first Black this or that should have petered out with my grandpa's generation. Instead of questioning whether somebody has a right to feel a little like Jackie Robinson for breaking a racial barrier, ask why those barriers still exist.
It applies to the journalism business, where many of the biggest Canadian outlets are reluctant to share their diversity data.
And it certainly still fits Major League Baseball, where, 50 years after Robinson's death, the number of Black American players hovers near historic lows. Black American players accounted for just 7.2 per cent of opening day rosters in 2022.
So it's not that far-fetched that Chicago White Sox star Tim Anderson, speaking in 2019, described himself as "kind of" a "new" Jackie Robinson. He was Black and very good, and hyper-aware of both, in a league whose U.S.-born player base skews white and conservative. Anderson didn't declare that he was Jackie Robinson. Just drew a heavily hedged parallel between them.
Between annoyance and contempt
Since then, former Blue Jay and current New York Yankee Josh Donaldson has taken to referring to Anderson — snidely — as "Jackie." It happened most recently last Saturday.
To be clear, I'm not The New Tim Anderson, but I can imagine how he felt hearing Donaldson, sneeringly, call him something besides his given name, either from a position of familiarity or authority, neither of which Donaldson has with Anderson. My default reaction would land somewhere between annoyance and contempt. Anderson made his feelings plain when he snapped back at Donaldson mid-game on Saturday, precipitating a bench-clearing scrum.
Later, Donaldson described his comment as an inside joke, though Anderson made clear the punchline was neither shared nor funny. Anderson, the 2019 American League batting champion, called it offensive. His teammate, Yasmani Grandal, confronted Donaldson at home plate with a NSFW warning against future racial slights.
Even White Sox manager Tony La Russa, who dwells at the MAGA end of the American political spectrum, summoned a concise adjective for Donaldson's antics.
MLB agreed that Donaldson crossed a line, and suspended him for one game.
Maybe Donaldson should spend that time meditating on Robinson's legacy, and the difference between a friend and a mere co-worker. Presenting "Jackie" as a friendly pet name for Anderson suggests Donaldson imagined a bond that doesn't exist, which happens. Periodically, nasty emails trickle into my inbox from people hounding me for some stance I've taken on race, but explaining that they're not racist because they were once friends with a Black co-worker.
A few of you have probably just hit send on that exact message, the most clichéd reaction to an accusation of racist behaviour.
"Some of my best friends are Black."
My default response is to ask whether the Black people in question know they're your friends. Do you hang out by choice, or just run into each other at work, like Anderson and Donaldson do?
Donaldson seemed similarly confused about what Anderson actually said in 2019.
Here, for the record, is what Anderson told Sports Illustrated:
"I kind of feel like today's Jackie Robinson … That's huge to say, but it's cool, man, because he changed the game, and I feel like I'm getting to a point where I need to change the game."
"Just use it as motivation, all the things he went through … just being thankful for the moment, and for him paving the way for us. Continue to go out and continue to have fun with it … There's not really many Black kids in our league, so we're going to do it, we're going to motivate these kids, we're going to inspire them. That's something I take pride in. And I definitely always look forward to wearing 42."
Note the qualifiers — "kind of" and "feel like" and "today's" — that make Anderson's statement less absolute. He recognizes it's a stretch, and stops short of anointing himself the new Jackie Robinson.
Also notice the healthy deference to Robinson, and Anderson's awareness of the debt he owes.
Anderson eagerly shoulders the burden of keeping Black Americans engaged with baseball, while also remembering to have fun. If folks weren't so ready to shame Anderson for the Robinson comparison, they could praise his sense of perspective.
But, of course, that's not how fans at Yankee Stadium reacted.
When Anderson took the field on Sunday, they booed. Loudly. Repeatedly.
Maybe they saw themselves standing alongside Donaldson to protect Jackie Robinson's legacy... from Tim Anderson... arguably the league's brightest Black American star.
It's possible, I guess. But if you think attacking Black people for calling out workplace racism honours Robinson, you're either clueless or dishonest. If you booed Anderson to deliver the baseball equivalent of a "shut up and dribble" dictum — that's a racist thing to do, but at least it's genuine.
But you also showed us what, if transported back to 1947, you would probably be doing. Booing.
Not booing the good ol' boys trying to run Robinson out of the league with hard slides and racial slurs.
Booing Robinson himself — just for being there. For not knowing his place. For allegedly disrespecting the game's sacred tradition.
Add it to the list of things he and Tim Anderson have in common.