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Baseball Writers Take Stand On Racism By Renaming Award

Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For most of the 20th century, the Sporting News was the bible of baseball, the publication where fans went to get player and manager quotes, box scores and informed opinions on the game. And for nearly 50 of those years, John George Taylor Spink was the force behind that newspaper. As its publisher and editor. Spink had the ear of baseball executives and, in turn, was their voice.

When the Baseball Writers Association of America created an award to recognize reporters who had provided exceptional coverage of the sport over their careers, it seemed only logical to name it for Spink.

But that was 1962, when we were both blissfully and intentionally ignorant to a lot of things, Nearly 60 years later, we’re hopefully much more observant and vigilant. 

Because our eyes are more wide open now, those baseball writers moved last week to strike Spink’s name from their career achievement award, which includes recognition from, if not enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

While Spink was a ceaseless cheerleader for baseball, he also held racist views which he espoused in the pages of the Sporting News.

Spink lobbied for the continued segregation of baseball in the 1940s, writing in the Sporting News that the mixing of races would lead to rioting in the stands. 

Baseball historians have written that the Sporting News’ editorials of the time help gum up the works for a Black player to cross the color line. As editor and publisher, Spink bears that responsibility.

Like the bigger world around it, the infinitesimally less important sphere of sports has begun to come to grips with patterns and practices of systemic racism that have infected it for decades.

We saw it in moves by the Washington football team and the Cleveland baseball team to drop nicknames that are racist and hurtful to Native Americans. 

The University of Maryland took the name of former school president Curley Byrd off its football stadium in recognition of Byrd’s bigoted behavior in the mid-20th century.

That reckoning, meanwhile, has yet to come to the sports media, which, by its silence and occasional complicity, has participated in the shameful conduct of the 20th and 21st century.

Of course, this is admittedly tricky territory to negotiate for members of the fourth estate. Journalism is as former Washington Post writer Alan Barth noted, the first rough draft of history. Those who practice it should note events, not be part of them nor seek to alter them. 

That said, the removal of J.G. Taylor Spink’s name from the baseball writers’ award is a nod to the idea that what was once acceptable isn’t any more.

The writers can continue their atonement by renaming the career achievement award for Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith.

Lacy, the longtime editor of the Baltimore Afro-American and Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, traveled with Jackie Robinson in 1947 as he broke the color line, facing many of the same indignities that he did.

While they were the first Black writers to receive the baseball writers’ award, it’s high time that their names replace Spink’s on the trophy.    

And that’s how I see it for this week.

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Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.