The Cardboard Conversation, vol. 1October 11, 2007
According to Baseball Almanac, Gene Locklear of the Lumbee tribe was the only Native American among the players featured on the cards from my childhood. He played sparingly for a handful of seasons, his best campaign by far coming just prior to this card, which features him seeming to slump a little under the burden of an aluminum bat, his uncharacteristically high .321 batting average suggesting that his profound anonymity somehow allowed him to repeatedly sneak the illegal metal bat up to the plate and turn his customary soft infield liners into outfield gap shots. The following year he was traded to the Yankees, and a year after that was gone from the majors. The Yankees would not have another Native American player on their team for thirty years, until the thunderous debut this season of Winnebago tribe member Joba Chamberlain. It seemed for most of Chamberlain’s near-legendary rookie season that nothing could stop him, yet the Yankees’ season ended up turning south on the truck-sized manchild’s inability to cope with a swarm of tiny insects called midges. Although I was rooting hard against Chamberlain, as I root against all Yankees, even I have to admit that it seems a cruel twist that the Winnebago rookie’s strange undoing came against a team known as the Indians.
The truth is, as my beloved Boston Red Sox prepare for what is shaping up to be a brutally tough fight in the American League Championship series, I’ve been thinking about little else besides Indians. So I decided to call on an expert. In the following interview, the first edition of the Cardboard Conversation, I ask Akim Reinhardt, author of the critically acclaimed study of the political history of the Lakota reservation, Ruling Pine Ridge, about Yankees, Indians, and the possible spiritual implications of a plague of midges. The Bronx-born Reinhardt, currently associate professor of history at Towson University, grew up playing little league baseball in Van Cortlandt Park and going to Yankees games with his father.
He has absolutely no recollection of Gene Locklear.
Cardboard Gods: Can you describe the most memorable game you attended at Yankee Stadium as a child?
Akim Reinhardt: It was such an impression that I tried to write a short story based on the event when I was in high school, but it never panned out. Might as well dish it here. One day my dad showed up at the little league game in the Fall of 1977, which was unusual because he worked a lot of Saturday mornings back then, running his own business as a general contractor. And then out of the blue, after the game, he tells me and my best friend Dirk that he’s taking us to the Stadium. It was the second to last game of the year and they were playing the Tigers on Fan Appreciation day. We all got a big, plastic coffee mug with a team photo wrapped around it, encased in clear plastic. We sat up in the nosebleeds and near us some dirtbag (tix were cheap enough for dirtbags to go to games back then) was pounding beers out of his free coffee mug. In retrospect, it makes a lot more sense than the paper cups they gave you; there were no plastic bottles back then.
Well, there was a rain delay, lasted over an hour I think, and two memorable things happened. First, me and Dirk went down to the empty front row seats behind the Yankees first base dugout. We were awed by it. Neither of us had ever been so close and taken in such a view of a major league park before, much less The Stadium. We slid over to the outfield side of the dugout and I was cautiously leaning over the fence, reaching to touch the sacred dirt when I heard furious angry mumbling to my right. It was the same dirtbag from the upper deck, still clutching his free mug, still quaffing liberally, and now talking under his breath:
“Fuck them! Fuckers. Fuck it, I’m gonna do it. Fuck it!”
He knocked back the last of his beer, flung the mug to the side, hopped over the fence, and ran across the field.
Out of nowhere, several security guards emerged and honed in on him. Everyone converged somewhere around the pitcher’s mound and three guys hit him simultaneously from three different angles, driving their shoulders into him, like Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, and L.C. Greenwood all finding the QB at the same time on a blitz. It was short and ugly. The guy was crumpled up like Beetle Bailey after the Sarge gets pissed at him. Me and Dirk were so shocked, we just stared a bit and then scooted away for fear of the violence and law breaking somehow rubbing off on us by proximity.
The second memorable event from that game was near the end of the rain delay, Dirk and I walking through the bowels of the stadium and it came on the P.A. system: Boston had just lost, to Cleveland I think [editor’s note: the 8-7 Red Sox loss–to Baltimore–was described recently on Cardboard Gods by Jon Daly]. It was official: The Yankees had won the division. Dirk, a Boston Red Sox fan, had turned 9 six weeks earlier. I was 6 weeks away. He turned to me solemnly, extended his hand, and congratulated me.
Where was my dad during all this, you might ask? It was the ’70s. Parenting was a little more relaxed back then. Besides, he had his own Fan Appreciation Day mug to attend to.
C.G.: Who was your favorite Yankee?
A.R.: Thurman Munson. Loved his mustache, his gruffness, his stance, his little routine between pitches in the batter’s box, the way he handled his pitchers, his clutch play, his ornery attitude, and even his ’Lectric Shave commercial with George. Mickey Rivers was a fairly close second, and it must be mentioned that in 1977 for Halloween I went as Billy Martin. They’d just won their first Series in my lifetime. It was a homemade costume, which was kind of the fun of Halloween back then, though the trend was already well under way for kids to buy pre-made costumes. We cut the heels and toes off of a pair of my dad’s brown socks for the stirrups and drew pinstripes and a 1 on a shirt and pants. We didn’t even buy a Yankees’ cap; my grandmother cutout a NY logo from white felt and sewed it on a blank, navy blue cap.
C.G.: What was your favorite baseball card?
A.R.: Whichever one I didn’t lose flipping.
I did have Munson’s 1976 card on my wall for a while. If memory serves, it had a red banner at the bottom which said All Star. The Munson baseball card is long gone, but I still have a matted poster of Munson on the back door of my old room in my mom’s place. It’s about the only thing left in the room from my childhood.
C.G.: When did you decide to devote your life to the study of Native American history?
A.R.: It was after college. I went to Michigan, studied East Asian History, and bombed. I graduated with under a 2.5, but did manage to get out in four years despite having read virtually nothing and taking no notes. I didn’t skip classes though; I’d go to each one and listen intently, unless the prof. was boring, in which case I’d write poetry.
After Michigan I kicked around for a few years. Without professors telling me what to read, I just started reading on my own. I came across a couple of Chestnuts about the Plains Indian Wars of the mid 19th century: Ralph Andrist’s The Long Death and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, neither of which are very good from a scholarly point of view, but quite readable. Brown’s was actually a bestseller in the early ’70s but leans heavily on Andrist’s work.
But the book that really did it for me was Vine Deloria’s Custer Died For Your Sins. That book holds up well. It’s still a classic, and Deloria’s one of the true pioneers of modern Native American Studies. A few years later I moved back to New York and got my Master’s at Hunter College. By that time I knew what I wanted to do.
C.G.: Why have there been so few Native Americans in the major leagues?
A.R.: The short answer is that there are so few Native Americans period. They only comprise about 1% of the country’s population. But beyond that, basketball has really taken center stage in reservation sporting culture, along with rodeo in many places and lacrosse in upstate NY. Baseball’s kind of a distant second. Of course since the 1970s, the majority of Indians live in cities, not on reservations. But again, basketball typically thrives, particularly in poor and working class urban neighborhoods.
But another thing to keep in mind is this. Baseball is no longer the sport of the poor. Once upon a time, MLB players were mostly the children of immigrants, tenant farmers, and other hardworking poor people. It offered modest pay and little respectability, but was an easy choice over jobs like coal mining, sharecropping, and factory work, even if you did have to pick up an extra job during the offseason. More recently, however, it is the domain of white suburbanites, both on the field and in the stands. Major League players often grow up in suburbs that have the land and resources to build local diamonds in public parks as well as schools. Latin America of course has countless poor kids scrapping their way up the minor league chain, but most white American players are middle class suburbanites, and blacks have almost completely abandoned baseball altogether in favor of football and basketball. Unfortunately, Indigenous people are still near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in this country; it’s not a cause, but there is a strong correlation.
C.G.: Any thoughts on why two young and talented Native Americans, Joba Chamberlain and Jacoby Ellsbury [of the Boston Red Sox and the Navajo tribe], have been able to break into the majors this year?
A.R.: I’m no statistician, but I know that if you run a Chi Square, you’ll find that 2 is not a representative sample in this case. In other words, Chamberlain and Ellsbury probably do not augur some changing trend; most likely they just represent the randomness of demographic statistics over time.
But in reference to the above question, Native peoples are beginning to see improvements in their economic situation, slowly but surely. Whether that will translate into more baseball players, it’s hard to say. Though it’s probably worth noting that Chamberlain grew up not on the rez, but in Lincoln, Nebraska, ironically while I was there getting my Ph.D. And Lincoln is a typical, modern American town with a suburban settlement pattern and lots of diamonds. I played a ton of city league softball on public parks when I was there, Summer and Fall. Some Summers we had two different teams going, with basically the same players.
C.G.: Why is the economic situation in the reservations so problematic, and is that all changing with gambling?
A.R.: Every reservation is different today. Originally they were set up as prison camps, and the emphasis was on controlling and containing the Indian population so whites could settle nearby lands. Needless to say, a prison camp isn’t a good economic model and all reservations were mired in deep poverty during the late 19th – mid 20th century. In my book, Ruling Pine Ridge, I show how life on one reservation during the mid-20th century was been hampered by the legacy of the prison camp model.
Gambling casinos have proved to be a viable economic engine for some reservations, but typically only those near big cities that can supply lots of customers. However, most reservations are in isolated rural areas, and the casino model of economic development isn’t very viable. Most reservations are still quite poor.
C.G.: Can you offer any thoughts on what kind of hurdles a talented Native American athlete such as Ellsbury and Chamberlain might have to face in an attempt to rise to the major leagues?
A.R.: In addition to the regular hurdles? Either you’ve got the talent or you don’t. No one with half a basket full of skills gets as far as they have.
I don’t think we currently live in a time where baseball coaches and front office people will put up any hurdles, though I do have my theories about why there are so few Black pitchers as opposed to Black position players, but that’s probably for a different blog entry.
I think the hurdles most Native players face come before reaching the farm system. Are they growing up in a place that has public park diamonds? Are they growing up in a place with a viable high school program? Are they growing up in areas where scouts will show up? But beyond that, I’m not Indian, and I don’t want to speak for Indians in any way. It would be interesting to see what Ellsbury and Chamberlain have to say about it.
C.G.: Are there any Native American traditions that you know of that might ascribe spiritual significance to the swarm of bugs (such as the one that descended on the Yankees last week at Jacobs Field)?
A.R.: Not to a swarm, at least not that I know of. But there are over 300 Indigenous languages and dialects just in what is now the U.S., and thousands in the Western Hemisphere, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there were something somewhere. Remember, when you’re talking about Native America, particularly before 1500, you really are talking about half of the world.
My research has focused on Lakota history, and in their tradition, Iktome the Spider is a very prominent figure. He’s a trickster who teaches valuable lessens by fooling people and sometimes getting fooled himself as his plots are often foiled by heroes with less greed and more courage,.
You know, maybe Iktome did have something to do with it. Hard to say.
C.G.: Is the name of the Cleveland baseball team (and their logo, Chief Wahoo) racist? If so, why?
A.R.: The word “Indian” of course is not racist in and of itself, and indeed it’s the word most Indians I know use, as opposed to Native American, though “Indigenous” is gaining a lot of late. It’s certainly nowhere near the derogatory epithet that “Red Skin” is. In fact, the Washington football club is in danger of losing copyright protection on Red Skin because federal law prohibits copyright protection of racists epithets. The case is working its way through the courts as we speak. But using the word as a team name is still disrespectful. It would be like naming your team The Jews, the Blacks, or The Chinese. It just doesn’t make any sense, and is emblematic of how most Americans continue to view Indian people: as characters in movies and images in art instead of as actual people. It is also indicative of how little political muscle Indigenous people have in this society. We would never see in the 21st century a professional team named the Cleveland Jews, the Cleveland Blacks, or the Cleveland Chinese, much less the Washington Hook Noses, the Washington Fat Lips, or the Washington Slanted Eyes, which really are the corollaries to Red Skins.
The Chief Wahoo Logo is patently racist. Again, just imagine what that logo would look like if it were similarly representing a Jewish, Black, or Chinese person in a similarly cartoonish vain. I don’t think I need to draw it out for you, pun intended.
C.G.: Who will you be rooting for in the American League championship series?
A.R.: You have no idea how tough this is for me. On one side is the team with a racist logo who just beat my beloved Yankees. On the other is the Red Sox.
I think I’m gonna short circuit this one and say Go Rockies!