IF JOKES about Bill Clinton being the first "black"
president weren't weird enough for you, get a load of this. In his new role as
sports columnist for Gotham magazine, Spike Lee asks, Was Babe Ruth black?
The Yankees' home-run king? The "Sultan of Swat"? The question isn't a new
one. Despite George Herman "Babe" Ruth's denials, rumors persisted about his
racial background. His nose was just broad enough, his lips just full enough
and his complexion just swarthy enough to draw not only suspicions but also
some vile "n"-word taunts from the opposing team's bench.
Even if there was no hard evidence that he was black, how was Ruth to come
up with hard evidence that he wasn't? You can't prove a negative, as the old
saying goes. Ruth was white enough to stay in the heavily segregated major
leagues, but not white enough to resist taunts and other forms of
discrimination, according to some accounts. Whether he was a black man or not,
he was getting abused like one.
In the May 7 issue of Sports Illustrated, columnist Daniel Okrent responds
to Lee, citing Fred Lieb, a sportswriter of Ruth's era. According to Lieb, the
notoriously racist Ty Cobb refused to share quarters with Ruth, saying, "I've
never bedded down with a - and I'm not going to start now." But Lieb was a
notorious yarn-spinner, replies ESPN.com columnist Rob Neyer, on May 10. Neyer
cites Charles C. Alexander's biography of Cobb as evidence that Cobb and Ruth
built a friendship after the 1924 World Series.
Commentator Roland Rogers at BlackAthlete.com chimes in with accounts of
Ruth as a frequent visitor of black women in Harlem during the 1920s, when the
uptown Manhattan neighborhood drew a chic clientele from everywhere.
Perhaps now, says Lee, it's time to end the mystery. If DNA testing was
good enough for Thomas Jefferson to see if he fathered children by one of his
slaves, why not test the Babe? But I suspect Lee isn't really calling for
Ruth's exhumation. And DNA testing didn't settle the Jefferson question: That
argument goes on, and the Ruth argument would, too.
Should we care whether Babe Ruth was black? Yes, for several reasons. One
is historical accuracy. I don't know why baseball fans, who normally obsess
over the most tedious tidbit of information about their sports heroes, suddenly
would want to look the other way when probing Babe Ruth's ancestry.
As an African American old enough to have rooted for Jackie Robinson, I
certainly care about the Babe's background. It's not that I'm all that eager to
claim one more hero for the annals of black history. Rather, I'm delighted to
remind everyone of how many old baseball records deserve to have an asterisk
next to them in the record books. It would gently remind us of how long the
races were not allowed to compete on the sort of level playing field that
Americans of good will still are trying to achieve for our society today.
Second, the question of Ruth's race reminds us of how far we have come with
race in this country -and how far we have to go. Sure, race is an
uncomfortable topic these days. That's sort of why we should talk about it,
isn't it? If Ruth was black, he would have had obvious reasons for hiding it
back then. Jackie Robinson didn't break baseball's color line until the late
Sports matter in American history, just like race matters. The performance
of blacks and other nonwhites helped accelerate the desegregation of baseball.
Then the successful desegregation of baseball helped encourage President Harry
Truman to desegregate the armed forces, which helped to encourage the Supreme
Court to order the desegregation of public schools.
Today, we can take the racially troubled past and use it to gain a
perspective on the future. The question of Ruth's blackness raises important
questions about what race means and what it should mean. Is "one drop" of black
blood enough to make you black, as the old rule goes? If not, how much is?
When you probe the meaning of race that deeply, it starts very quickly to fall
apart. Unfortunately, we have not reached that ideal state in this country
where race no longer matters. Instead of running from the past, we need to
remember it in order to build a better future.