Living on (Ir)Rations

A sinking nation must be a thinking nation to stay afloat

When Jackie Robinson took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he set off a revolution in American sports. In the decades since, black players, players from Latin America, and players from Japan have achieved star status. "World Series" is a more honest title than ever. Sports have been a crucible for racial healing in America. Fans care more about winning than looking alike, and players want to compete at the highest level. Racial tensions among players and with fans get swallowed by team spirit, dissipated by humor, and dissolved into friendship and respect.

A friend said of Jackie Robinson, "Somebody made the rational decision that losing baseball games with that kind of talent in your farm system was just stupid." That somebody was Branch Rickey, and viewed six decades later, bringing Robinson to Brooklyn seems rational, but racism can short circuit rationality. Robinson played a year in Canada in the Dodger farm system with the Montreal Royals rather than jumping straight from the Negro League to Major League Baseball. That gave baseball and the United States a chance to adjust to the radical notion that a team should field the nine best players it can find. As a pure business matter, there should have been team owners willing to gamble that fans would rather win than watch lily-white baseball, but for decades none had the courage.

Professional black leagues existed alongside the majors for decades without serving as a farm system, and not for lack of talent. Racism simply excluded the notion from rational thought. Players as good and better than Robinson never got a chance. One of his Negro League teammates was Satchel Paige, a pitching legend who joined the majors at age 43, a year after Robinson broke the color barrier. Paige was dominating in his prime. As a middle-aged major leaguer he was middling, but he threw three shutout innings at age 60. Ted Williams called for Satchel Paige to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame when he spoke at his own induction.

We talk up our love for freedom, free markets, justice, and democracy, but we do not always live up to our goals. The color barrier kept baseball from market freedom as surely as it kept a great hitter segregated from a great pitcher. In American history, freedom has been something fought for with petitions, marches, and courageous stands. We fight with votes if we have them and for voting rights if not, and we need all the heroes we've got, even if they do nothing more than speak up for what we all know is right.

Our government has never been perfect, but democracy gives us the power to make it better. Until lately, America's history was a steady progression of improvement, but we are slipping. Financial deregulation has caused bank bailouts, a credit collapse, and a dropping dollar. Our sons and daughters are off on unending, ill-defined missions while private contractors tending to them have more dollars than they can keep track of, yet we can not assure our own citizens health care. American soldiers who built hospitals in Iraq have a hard time getting adequate care at home.

"No nation building" was a major campaign promise of George W. Bush in 2000, but he apparently never finished the sentence. "No nation-building projects—except the two I will start" is what he delivered. The Republican sales pitch has grown more dubious since, but never-ending, billion-dollar campaigns can short-circuit rationality.

No one understands justice like those deprived of it. The Democratic nomination came down to a woman and a black man because we need those who have experienced our country's problems to fix them. Women and minorities have that experience. We do not need to be a government for, of, and by white millionaires. Barack Obama has the experience America needs, and in a few decades it will seem completely rational that we put the best man in office.