National Institute for Latino Policy, Commentary, Randy Shaw
CHICAGO - Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen called out Major League Baseball (MLB) on Aug. 1 for providing translators for players arriving from Asia but not for Spanish-speaking Latinos. Asking, "Why do we have a Japanese interpreter but not a Spanish one?" Guillen criticized the racial double standard whereby Major League Baseball provides special services to the handful of Asian-born players but does nothing to ease the transition for the many Spanish-speakers from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere.
Predictably, the media responded to Guillen's comments as it has for over a century when charges of racism are lodged: the manager was charged with offering a "rant" and no independent assessment of his charges followed. Baseball writers spent decades adhering to a code of silence that denied African-Americans were excluded from the major leagues, and also remained silent when San Francisco Giants manager Alvin Dark prohibited players from speaking Spanish (on a team with Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, and Jose Pagan).
Regrettably, this pattern holds true today.
Ozzie Guillen has made controversial and sometimes outright foolish comments over the years, so some would argue he was not the best person to address baseball's racial double standard on interpreters for non-English speaking players. But given the code of silence on this issue among the baseball establishment and media, it takes someone like Guillen to have the courage to tell it like it is.
Anti-Latino Bias is Hardly "News"
Let me start by refuting a common argument: that the large number of high-paid Latino players undermines allegations of anti-Latino racism in baseball. This argument echoes those who claimed the success of Sidney Poitier, Willie Mays, and Bill Russell in the 1950s and '60s meant there was no racism against blacks in the United States.
Such claims were foolish then and, using the success of Latino baseball elites to deny a systemic racial double standard, is foolish now.
Nobody viewing the 2008 movie Sugarwould even question Guillen's point about how the lack of translators hinders young Latino players. That powerful film shows a young Dominican star brought to an Iowa farm team, totally incapable of communicating with his host family or anyone outside his other Latino teammates.
And it shows how these players can have their careers hurt, if not derailed, due to the isolation caused by the lack of ability to communicate with others around them, or to even understand what is going on. This is the key point Guillen makes, which is that baseball is affording benefits designed to help the careers of Asian-born players that it denies to Latinos.
Guillen also made it clear that would be a different story if MLB provided no interpreters. But MLB assigns translators to players from Japan or Korea, while offering nothing to the Spanish-speaking players who comprise an increasing percentage of MLB players.
And, contrary to what many fans think (or want to believe), these young players are not wealthy. Dominican baseball players are like African-Americans trying to make the NBA: a huge number dedicate their lives to trying to be among the .001% who make it to the top.
MLB Fears White Backlash
Guillen noted that when visiting his son's Class A team there was an interpreter for the lone Korean player "who made more money than the players." In contrast, no interpreters were provided for the team's 17 Latinos, leaving the job to Guillen's son. Or to a Spanish-speaking coach.
It's clear that MLB fears that formally recognizing its proliferation of Spanish-speaking players by providing interpreters could cause a backlash from a predominately white male fan base that likely supports Arizona's anti-Latino law (after all, white males are the most loyal Republican constituency). In contrast, no backlash is risked from providing Asian translators, and helping these players reach the majors could boost interest in MLB among Asian countries (consider Japan's intense interest in future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki).
The baseball establishment and its media allies denied blacks were excluded from MLB virtually until the day Jackie Robinson put on a Dodgers uniform. The same forces allowed future Latino Hall of Famers like Roberto Clemente (who MLB originally called "Bob") to suffer degrading racist treatment during the 1950s and 1960s, a secret history not written about until most of these players careers had ended.
Now some Latinos make big bucks in MLB, and are among the league's leading players. But the silence about a racial double standard continues, making Guillen's comments particularly noteworthy.