What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States II

Interview #2

Dave Zirin. What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005).

Of course there is exploitation but there is fun and beauty too. I mean, what’s more beautiful than a 6-4-3 double play perfectly executed where the shortstop fields a groundball and flips it toward second base in one motion, the second baseman takes the throw in stride, pivots, avoids the base runner, and fires it to first on time. That’s not a put-on. That’s not fake. That’s beyond all social analysis of the game. The idea of people coming together and amazing the rest of us.
Lester Rodney

As a freshman sportswriter for the Queens College Phoenix I was sent in 1962 to cover a baseball game. One of the players made a couple of errors and failed to get a hit, striking out three times. I used him as an object of humor throughout my piece. This is what sportswriters did and I was pretty pleased with what I had written. I thought I was very funny. The next time I saw him, he approached me with a kind of seriousness and respect I had never experienced before, and said, “What you wrote was hurtful. I was trying my best and there was really no need to mock me.” I apologized and thanked him.

What’s My Name, Fool
is written with compassion, insight and love. It is fueled by a profound social rage. Dave Zirin is the type of sportswriter I never encountered growing up. Reading his book is like speaking with an extremely knowledgeable friend on a subject I am nervous about. He has important information and analysis to share, but he does not shut down the space where exploration can take place. At a number of points, his book stimulated my imagination to go off in its own direction.

For example, when he writes about women in sports—“On the one hand, sexism of stomach-turning proportions prevails both within and surrounding sports, from cheerleaders to beer commercials. But sports have also provided a critical place for women to challenge sexist ideas about their abilities and potential”—I remember a friend, a long jumper who as a freshman in college, in a non-sanctioned meet, leapt past the too short sandpit and landed on the ground, breaking her ankle. The meet officials didn’t think a woman could jump that far. She recovered but never competed again.

He writes about homophobia and my mind flashes to the time my teammate, trying to get me to play better defense in a basketball game yelled, “Get up next to him. Fuck him if you have to.”

Throughout the book we see acts of compliance and acts of defiance continually playing themselves out. The event that inspired the book’s title highlights the truth of this. The title comes from a heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson. A faster, stronger, younger and certainly socially more courageous Muhammad Ali beat up on a physically courageous though vastly outmatched Floyd Patterson who insisted on calling him Cassius Clay. “This fight is a crusade to reclaim the title from the black Muslims,” said Patterson. “As a Catholic I am fighting Clay as a patriotic duty. I am going to return the crown to America.”

Zirin writes, “On the night of the fight, Ali brutalized Patterson for nine rounds, dragging it out yelling, ‘Come on, America! Come on, white America….What’s my name? Is my name Clay? What’s my name, fool?’” It was an assertion of pride, dignity and social/political/personal defiance. It was those qualities of his that electrified the world. But it was also one black man mercilessly pummeling another. In that way the fight was not all that different from the time when “Southern plantation owners amused themselves by putting together the strongest slaves and having them fight it out wearing iron collars.” What do you do with all that? I’m not sure. And this is the type of question I kept asking myself as I read the book.

Floyd Patterson’s iron collar that night was very clear. Muhammad Ali’s was not. But the collar he wore, as Zirin discusses in the chapter on Ali, would take a terrible toll in the long run. Floyd Patterson survived, and when Ali was stripped of his title and sentenced to jail, Patterson, a soulful and poetic person in his own right, said, “What bothers me is Clay is being made to pay too stiff a penalty for doing what is right. The prize fighter in America is not supposed to shoot off his mouth about politics, particularly if his views oppose the government’s and might influence many among the working class that follows boxing.”

Zirin in this book gives us an answer to a question that seemed to have eluded millions of baseball fans for decades. Why was it that for so many years the Boston Red Sox never won a World Series? The answer of course is that they were the last team to be integrated. “In 1959…the Sox removed their color bar by begrudgingly bringing marginal infielder Pumpsie Green up from the minors.”

A digression: To be considered the “marginal” player who integrated baseball’s most racist franchise twelve years after Jackie Robinson must have taken its own kind of courage and equilibrium. I looked him up on the Baseball Almanac website. In lieu of the corporate endorsements he could never get, I thought where else but Socialism and Democracy could the entrepreneurial fantasies of Pumpsie Green that I saw there be fully appreciated. “Some day I’ll write a book and call it ‘How I Got the Nickname Pumpsie’ and sell it for one dollar, and if everybody who ever asked me that question buys the book, I’ll be a millionaire” –Pumpsie Green in Baseball’s Greatest Quotes (1982).

What’s My Name Fool
, touches on, and to a degree discusses, what to me is a crucial question. In a world of winning and losing, is it possible to have anything but anxiety, humiliation and failure run rampant?

What happens for example when I watch a Michael Jordan soar through the heavens? Does it make it easier or harder for me to move freely? Can I fully appreciate Jordan’s athletic greatness without wanting to extract some measure of revenge? Conversely, how could Jordan soar like that and yet be so emotionally closed off to people suffering in Nike sweatshops? And is my asking that question the revenge I am speaking about? Is it stripping away some part of his vitality?

Even in the little neck of the woods many of us inhabit, in the section of the universe devoted to radical change, people are constantly compared and contrasted. Our work and talents are compulsively evaluated as people are assigned their proper place—winning and losing a constant drumbeat of concern.

I remember a woman saying in a public forum that she didn’t feel ugly. She felt mildly attractive. That she didn’t feel she was stupid. She felt that she was intelligent but not brilliant. And no one understood her humiliation. She brought me up short. For I always saw her as she felt she was seen. My own silent role in her oppression.

Dave Meggyesy, the former St. Louis Cardinal linebacker who wrote a moving and sensitive introduction to the book, was also interviewed in it. In the interview he speaks of the pain he felt when he was benched for his anti-Vietnam War activity. “…All kinds of self-doubts began to creep into my mind. Because one of the core values in sports from the athlete’s point of view is that it is a meritocracy: The best players play.… When someone messes with that, it messes with everything that is great about sports.” The big question here is: when the most glaring forms of injustice are alleviated and something like a meritocracy is achieved, what impact will that have on the howling sense of inadequacy that so often drives and destroys people in a world as pathologically competitive as this one? Many of the competitive attitudes that we often condemn in sports characterize so much of society in general, including even our left academic and artistic universe. It is again something that this book forces me to think about.

In the chapter on Jackie Robinson, a very deep and complex one, there is a pointed back-and-forth in public pronouncements between Robinson and Malcolm X where each brings his genius to bear as they struggle out various strategies for social change. The exchange often is quite nasty. Yet, “When Malcolm X was killed, Robinson wrote an obituary that, unlike most, didn’t bury Malcolm but praised him. He quoted Malcolm saying to him ‘Jackie, in the days to come your son and my son will not be willing to settle for things we are willing to settle for.’”

At one point a comment like Malcolm’s would have felt prophetic and inspiring. But knowing the massive tragedies that befell their families—Jackie Robinson’s son returning from Southeast Asia “carrying a gun, scared of shadows, and addicted to drugs”; Malcolm’s widow dying as the result of a fire set by their grandson—these words now have less resonance for me than they might once have had. The retreat of a later generation from social and political concern compounds my despair. Yet the fires of freedom continue to burn and at least a significant number of people still do refuse to settle.

Near the end of the book there is a wonderful interview with Toni Smith, the Division III basketball player who turned her back on the US flag during the playing of the national anthem to protest the war in Iraq. “But it wasn’t just the war,” she said. “It was everything before that. It was everything that the flag is built on, everything that is continuing to happen and things that haven’t happened yet.’’

There is a photo accompanying the interview. In Toni Smith’s bearing and posture you can feel the presence of so many others. There is Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Billie Jean King, Babe Didrikson, Muhammad Ali, Pumpsie Green and Mia Hamm. Maybe even Floyd Patterson. In the photo itself, two of her teammates are giving her support. “Two of my teammates always stood next to me during the national anthem,” she said, “one in front of me, one behind me, holding my hands—Melissa Solano and Dionne Walker. They were absolutely and completely supportive 100 percent, and would have taken a bullet for me.” The tenderness and strength of their love brought tears streaming down my cheeks.

Each night when I lie down to go to sleep I start making up baseball teams. Basketball teams. Tony Oliva, right field. I’ve done this since I was around twelve. Bill Sharman at guard. It calms me down. Left-handed black basketball players.

After reading this book I have whole new teams to make up. Teams of Resistance. People who inspire me during the day and help put me to sleep at night: Carlos Delgado 1b, Jackie Robinson 2b, Roberto Clemente rf, Pee Wee Reese ss, Toni….

I think this book will bring great pleasure and understanding to any number of people.

Reviewed by Robert Roth

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