Keep Wokeness Out of Little League
“Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical,” said the eternally quotable New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra. Yet if some anti-racism activists get their way, perhaps the other 10 percent (or half?) will be focused on addressing the systemic racism supposedly endemic in Little League baseball. At least that’s the case in Alexandria, Virginia, where coaches in May were mandated to attend anti-racism training that reportedly cost the league thousands of dollars.
Little League baseball holds an especially sacred place in my heart. This June I finished my first season as assistant coach of my older son’s Little League team. It’s actually the same exact league that I first played in more than thirty years ago in our native Northern Virginia, only a few miles from Alexandria.
Last year, my son’s tee-ball season was cancelled due to COVID-19. This year’s program began with all the predictable health regulations one might expect in a liberal, safety-obsessed region like Northern Virginia. Kids, coaches, and parents were all required to wear masks. Players and parents had to check in before every practice or game to declare they were not experiencing any COVID-like symptoms. No one was allowed to touch each other, which often made it difficult to correct errant batting stances. And post-game snacks were strictly prohibited.
Even with all the pandemic-related rigmarole, we managed to have a fantastic time. Kids learned proper batting technique and got to experience the thrill of making that first, solid contact in a real game… even if the ball often dribbled with barely enough force to reach third base. They developed skills at throwing, fielding, and catching that by the end of the season started to resemble real baseball. And, of course, all the kids looked quite impressive in their bright red Nationals jerseys and dark blue baseball caps.
By my admittedly unscientific estimation, one-third of the team was non-white, or at least biracial, including the head coach, an athlete of Asian and European descent who himself had played high school ball (and, I might add, had some masterly moves on the diamond that he occasionally demonstrated after practice). The topic of race never came up during the entire season. We were, I would submit, too busy playing baseball and having fun.
Undoubtedly, the best all-around player on the team was an Indian-American kid whose name I can pronounce but I’m not sure I could accurately spell. He was the son of first generation immigrants with noticeable accents. Man, that kid could hit, throw, and play first base like a champ. Another kid of South Asian descent, probably the tiniest kid on the team, went from being unable to throw or hit at the beginning of the season to being one of our best fielders. He would have won our “Charlie Hustle” award (if we had one) for giving 100% on every play.
It was fun to talk to the parents after practices and games. For some, it was obvious that baseball was an ancient and venerable family tradition. For others, like the kids of recent immigrants, this was perhaps an introduction not only to a sport, but an integral part of American culture. I didn’t care if parents were capable of picking Cal Ripken Jr., Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, or Babe Ruth out of a lineup (though as Americans they really should be). I was simply glad to share a little piece of authentic Americana with a new generation of youngsters.
In this respect, I would argue that Little League baseball represents one of the best things about America. It is an old game, dating back to decades before the Civil War (the Continental Army at Valley Forge played “base,” a predecessor of the sport). And its influence over American culture has defined not only our history, but our cities and our language. Can one imagine New York without the Yankees, or Chicago without Wrigley Field? To speak American English is to understand expressions like “throw a curve ball,” “out of left field,” and “right off the bat.”
Immigrants have always been at the forefront of the game. One of the greatest of the early players was Honus Wagner, born to German immigrants in Pennsylvania. Yet just about every ethnicity and nationality has made its imprint on the game, with names like Rizzuto, Yastrzemski, Clemente, and Suzuki. Baseball is one of the most effective and time-tested means of enculturation in the United States.
And yet a manifestation of local civil society that Burke or Tocqueville would laud as essential to preserving and perpetuating American community is not doing enough, according to woke activists like those in Alexandria, Virginia. Nor for the national Little League organization that now promotes content to ensure that “all races, genders, backgrounds, and ethnicities come together and are welcomed to play ball and grow together.” Little League—like our public schools, children’s television programming, and even grocery stores—must play its part in the broader ideological transformation of a nation currently mired in systemic racism and bigotry.
Yet in my own experience as both a player and a coach, I would argue that volunteer, parent-run organizations like Little League do not need diversity and inclusion apparatchiks telling us how to run kids’ athletics. Such initiatives are not only a distraction from the game, but an attempt to instigate a problem where there is none. And in a time when kids are being exposed to these messages everywhere, do they really need to hear it when they just want to play the game?
When bureaucrats decide parents and children need explicit training to ensure equity on the baseball field, it’s ultimately the kids who suffer. Our own Little League team ran a tight ship during our one hour practices. Even so, once-a-week practices were hardly enough time to introduce the kids to the fundamentals. I think most players on the team still don’t know a double-play from a double. Are we supposed to take time out of practice to lecture the kids about racism? I would suspect these kids never even thought about race on the diamond.
That exposes another problem with such woke initiatives: they unnecessarily and provocatively heighten people’s radar to examine everyone’s words or actions for potential racism or bigotry. That was certainly the case with Jack Murphy in 2018, who was run out of his son’s Little League after being unfairly labeled “alt-right.” I would also imagine the more these dogmas become central to the Little League experience, the more parents will opt their kids out. I certainly don’t want my son having to sit through that ideological gobbledygook, which aims to persuade him that, as a white male, he’s somehow part of an oppressive patriarchal power structure. For goodness sake, he’s six. He, like all my children, demonstrates an innocent love and acceptance of every kid he meets.
“Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets,” said Yogi Berra. There’s some hidden truth to that, given that Little League brings together families from a diversity of ethnic, racial, and even socio-economic backgrounds to enjoy America’s true national pastime—outside, in the fresh air, in the middle of our communities. Little League is also very good because it has proven somewhat impervious to various social engineering trends that have increasingly undermined our national social fabric. For the sake of the kids, I beg the activists and the woke bureaucrats: can we please keep it that way?
Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a contributing editor for New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a master’s in theology from Christendom College.