On Saturday, New York Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson called the star Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, who is Black, by the name “Jackie” – as in Jackie Robinson.
When Yasmani Grandal took up the issue with Donaldson at the plate, it cleared the benches and thrust the incident into the light of dayonto the lips of the fans – the tribal, the inebriated, the ignorant, everyone.
After the game, Anderson would simply call it “disrespectful.” His teammates and manager were more direct. White Sox skipper Tony La Russa said Donaldson’s remarks were “racist” and even Yankees manager Aaron Boone said afterwards that Donaldson had tread “somewhere he should not be going.”
Regardless of Boone’s attempt at de-escalation, the direction of the wind was set. By mocking a 2019 quote in which Anderson told Sports Illustrated he felt like “today’s Jackie Robinson,” Donaldson proved the sentiment serious and insightful.
On Sunday, Anderson sat the first half of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, then played the second under a cacophony of misguided boos and jeers until he ripped a game-sealing, crowd-silencing three-run homer in the eighth inning. It was an emphatic statement to end a weekend when Anderson was pushed onto a hostile stage as the main character not because of his actions, but because of his race.
The Yankees third baseman, who is white, acknowledged he was referencing the Sports Illustrated quote to rib Anderson.
If Donaldson read any of the paragraphs around it, he should have picked up the nuance of Anderson’s words. At the time, Anderson was referencing not his on-field ability or stature in the history of the game, but the blowback he faced for a jubilant celebration. Earlier that season, he had incurred punishment – via both unwritten rule and MLB decree – for flipping his bat on a homer. The Kansas City Royals beaned him and set off a skirmish, then MLB effectively suspended Anderson for as long as Royals pitcher Brad Keller – one game for Anderson, five games (or one start) for Keller – for using the n-word in the heat of the altercation.
Anderson’s point was clear: It was an uphill battle to be himself on the field, even when MLB was supposedly encouraging a freewheeling, celebratory style of play with its “Let the Kids Play” campaign. And the underlying implication was there for the taking, too: He was held to a higher standard, suspended as the victim of a beanball because he reacted by turning around a word designed to demean him.
Feeling like Jackie Robinson, in other words, is a significant, honorable weight to carry. It’s also a heavy one.
Presumably, Donaldson read Anderson’s comments not as an explanation of that experience, but as a boast. The apparent misunderstanding of the situation – willful or otherwise – has long roots. When MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson, it often feels like he was a conquering hero, like there was a mission accomplished. This, of course, is not true. He courageously began the fight for a place in the sport that Anderson and others still have to wage every single day.
Anderson is one of MLB’s best and most prominent Black players, but their ranks are dwindling. White Sox executive Ken Williams excoriated his peers this past winter for baseball’s lack of progress in diversifying front offices.
No statistics are needed to get at the basic gist of the matter. Donaldson and Anderson both hail from Alabama, both got drafted in the first round, yet it should be abundantly clear to Donaldson that they walk different roads as major-league stars. Over and over, Anderson is asked about being a Black baseball player. About how he plays the game. About his opinion on sepia-toned baseball movies. About his responsibility to encourage more Black kids to play the game. About Jackie Robinson.
How many times, do you think, has Donaldson been asked to represent white baseball stars?
What really distinguishes Anderson, beyond his excellence on the field, is his persistent openness. He has shared the trials of his childhood spirit the pain of losing a friend. He has addressed the ways in which baseball stifles Black kids’ interest. He has remained undeterred by the sport’s implicit demand that he represent all Black people at all times. In a barrage of often unfair questions, Anderson always answers.
Sunday night, after the Bronx crowd booed him and repeated Donaldson’s “Jackie” bit throughout a tense pitching duel, Anderson got a chance to bat as the game unraveled in Chicago’s favor. Just as he did in the riveting Field of Dreams game last year, the AL batting leader – he’s off to a breakneck start hitting .359 – stuck a fork in the Yankees. The searing three-run homer off Miguel Castro dropped a hush over Yankee Stadium, but unburdened Anderson.
Reveling in the moment with teammates, a hot ESPN field microphone captured him yelling, “Making motherf ***** s shut the f *** up.” And then he declined to say more about it after the game.
Perhaps that is an answer no one can misunderstand.