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Race and Sports Broadcasting

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Rule #1 of sports broadcasting–always, always, always compare a player to someone of the same racial background.

At Baseball Prospectus (not sure how much of this you can see without a subscription), Frankie Piliere pokes at what is one of the most annoying parts of sports broadcasting, and something I have complained about for years.

It is acceptable to compare an up-and-coming Brett Gardner to Kenny Lofton, and, every African-American, lefty-swinging slugger isn’t necessarily comparable to Ryan Howard. It’s clearly a gut reaction for people to compare players to current or former big leaguers merely because they resemble each other, and quite often it starts with race. It’s not done intentionally, but it’s done time and time again. Members of the media, particularly when they are less familiar with the player, are as guilty of this as anyone.

I get asked on a daily basis to give comparisons for prospects. The surprise for many people is that there isn’t always an obvious one. They’re surprised because for the longest time they’ve been the fed the idea that every prospect has to compare closely to a past or present big leaguer. Because of that, comparisons have become increasingly lazy.

When I was filing reports for the Rangers, sometimes comparisons were included in the summations, and sometimes they weren’t. Often there would be a comparison that referred to one aspect of a player’s game, but rarely would there be a perfect fit. The need to give the casual fan a visual of what a young player could become is not lost on me, and making a comparison to a big leaguer that they know is a quick and easy way of accomplishing that.

On the other hand, I have no doubt that fans are smart enough to accept a comparison of two players who don’t have the same skin tone. Every white center fielder is not Mickey Mantle, just as every hard-throwing, African-American right-hander is not Dwight Gooden. Some of you may laugh at this, but these examples are ones I’ve heard too many times to count.

These comparisons aren’t always racist, though they used to be more so, such as the idea that black quarterbacks were too dumb to win. They are just incredibly lazy. While Ichiro is a unique player in many ways, I wonder, in the minds of broadcasters, he is that much more unique because there’s not another Japanese player to compare him to. It might be acceptable to compare Brett Gardner to Kenny Lofton (though Lofton seems a much better player to me), but I wonder, if we could somehow go back and figure this out, whether Gardner has not been more often compared to, say, Brett Butler while Kenny Lofton was always seen as a poor man’s Lou Brock.

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  • wengler

    Only white people can be sCrappy. It’s a scientific fact.

    • JRoth

      Actually, Delwyn Young was nicknamed sCrappy by a Pirates blog. I’m pretty sure he’s biracial, but to be honest, was never certain. Bad RF, awful 2B, but a pretty remarkable PH. Definitely would have been considered scrappy by announcers had he been white.

  • Mudge

    Not true. Only David Eckstein can be scrappy.

    • KadeKo

      Isn’t “Shorter = scrappier” simple SABRalgeblra?

      I see your David Eckstein and raise (lower?) you a Freddie Patek.

    • Bill Murray

      wait what about Willy Bloomquist? He couldn’t hit and played middle infield, isn’t he certeris paribas scrappy?

      • Scott Lemieux

        He’s soaking in scrappy!

  • mark f

    I am reminded of this:

    What if I told you about a basketball player who can shoot the three-pointer or take you off the dribble and score inside?

    What if I told you his picture in the media guide shows him dunking with two hands, his mouth wide open and his legs spread?

    What if I told you that, like so many other first-round picks, he already had two kids when he came into the NBA (although at least in this case he was married)?

    What color would you think he was?

    Now listen to some other people talk about him.

    New York Knick Coach Don Chaney called the player “an upscale Tom Chambers.”

    New Jersey Net General Manager John Nash said he was a mixture of Tom Gugliotta and Detlef Schrempf.

    The guy gets Larry Bird comparisons all the time.

    Now guess what color he is. All of a sudden it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?

    • mark f

      For the record, I don’t think Jayson Williams’s “Keith Van Horn is the next Michael Jordan” prediction is going to pan out . . .

  • So it’s now permissible to say that Matt Kemp could be the next Mickey Mantle?

    He makes a good point.

    • JRoth

      No, because it would be a silly thing to say.

      Before this year, it would have been most accurate to say he could be the next Nick Markakis, but I doubt anyone ever did. Now you could say he could be the next Beltran, or perhaps the next Andre Dawson, two players never mistaken for the Mick.

    • Bill Murray

      How about Albert Pujols as the new Jimmie Foxx?

      in any case we generally have several reasonable choices, except for the very greatest players, and including other things does make some sense.

      Take Pujols, his first 7 years Joe Dimaggio was his most similar player wrt hitting, but that’s a lousy comparison and through age 30 Foxx is Pujols’ best comparison. the latinos on his comparison list — Juan Gonzalez ad Manny Ramirez — just don’t seem to fit to me.

  • mpowell

    This is a good example of how race strongly influences our perceptions even if we are not actually racist. It’s just very difficult as a society to move away from all that baggage. Not to mention that trends can lead to stereotypes and your mind is very bad about extrapolating very strongly from mild trends.

    • JRoth

      Very, very good points. One thing I’ll add, though, is that players are often reduced to physical types regardless of any other characteristic. A muscular pitcher is presumed a flamethrower, regardless of his stuff. Thin outfielders are supposed to be fast, no matter how long it takes them to get down the line. Race just lets these bogus comparisons add a variable more quickly: a rifle-armed OF in Pittsburgh will either be Clemente (if Latino) or Dave Parker (if black) (no idea who white Pirates are supposed to throw like). Point being, you’re getting an illusion of specificity, but in reality you’re just looking at one characteristic, crossing it with race (and maybe body type), and pretending that the computer has spit out a worthwhile piece of data.

      Incidentally, did anyone ever say Howard could be the next John Kruk? I’m just thinking of fat Philly 1Bs.

      • “no idea who white Pirates are supposed to throw like)”

        Andy Van Slyke I guess. Although I seem to recall that he has a weak arm. That was a long time ago though.

        • Bill Murray

          Deacon Phillippe

        • Tom Scudder

          I was going to say Glenn Wilson, but he was only in Pitt for 2 partial seasons.

      • John

        Ryan Howard and John Kruk aren’t really very similar players

        Kruk, career stats through age 31:

        BA: .297 OBP: .390 SLG: .445

        Howard, career stats:

        BA: .276 OBP: .368 SLG: .562

        So, Kruk hit for average considerably better than Howard; Howard has much more power. Kruk hit 100 home runs over his whole career. The most home runs he ever hit in a season was 21, and he usually hit more like 10 a season. Howard has hit 279 home runs already, and the least he has ever hit in a season is 22 in 2005, when he only played for half the season.

        • JRoth

          I told you what criteria I was using. You haven’t offered any stats disputing that both were/are fat, and that both are/were Phillies 1Bs.

          I’m perfectly open to the claim that, say, Pete Incaviglia was closer to Howard’s weight, or in some other way more closely matched his fat Phillies 1Bhood. But you need to argue with facts.

          • Bill Murray

            Kruk played almost as much outfield than 1B, Howard has only played 1B and DH. Howard lost more than 50 pounds a couple of years ago and hasn’t been fat since then. Kruk only has one testicle

  • Bill Murray

    Is using the same skin color as a part of the comparison done as much in football where it is much harder to tell players skin color? Or is the positional segregation sufficient to overcome this?

    • Bill Murray

      broadcasters and Mayberry brings to mind when McCarver and Buck thought they had identified Mayberry’s dad in the stands. An older black dude in a hat with a P on it. Must be Big John.

      • Bill Murray

        this of course should go with Tony’s comment. I R aNidio t

      • To be fair, I think it’s much more likely that Buck and McCarver really just didn’t know what Mayberry Sr. looked like, and were told by their producer that the camera was on Mayberry Sr., and rolled with it.

  • Tony

    Anecdotally, and not that it’s a sign of the arc of historysports punditry bending toward justicesanity, I did hear the Phillies broadcasters last night compare John Mayberry, Jr. to Jayson Werth in terms of athleticism and potential. Though I assume they were talking about the Werth that played for the Phillies and not the overpaid bust that he’s become in DC.

  • Broadcasters sometimes note that Jacoby Ellsbury is American Indian.

    Then they fall into an awkward silence.

    • Bill Murray

      They should wax loquacious about Lou Sockalexis and Chief Bender

      • mark f

        The myth that the Indians are named after Sockalexis is like the least discussed myth of all time. Sad story, though. “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” could’ve been about Sockalexis if only his name was more euphonious.

    • JRoth

      Ellsbury is a comically WASPy name for a Native American.

      • Anonymous

        Well, he’s technically only half Indian, through his mother. I believe his father is white.

        • Anonymous

          Er, Native American. Whatever.

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  • GeraldY

    Kenny Lofton (career bWAR of 65.3) was a much better player than Lou Brock (career bWAR of 39.1). Kenny Lofton should be in the Hall of Fame; Lou Brock, flashy SB records aside, probably should not.

    Gardner’s 2010 and 2011 seasons would fit into the context of Lofton’s typical seasons (other than 1993 and 1994). Those seasons by Lofton represent an MVP-level peak that Gardner will never reach.

    • Scott Lemieux

      And let’s not talk about Lofton (who was indeed much better than Brock) until the disgraceful exclusion of Tim Raines has been remedied.

  • witless chum

    All white receivers must be compared to Wes Welker and all black QBs are athletic. Even Bryon Leftwich.

  • Anonymous

    Not long after reading this post yesterday, I watched Ryan Lavarnway get his first major league hit for the Red Sox and decided to look him up on Wikipedia, which told me he played catcher (though he was DHing last night) and was Jewish. I kept reading, and near the end it said, “Former major leaguer Ken Ryan compared him to Mike Lieberthal…”. Made me laugh a little.

    • mark f

      Well, I think Lavarnway had around 30 homeruns in AAA ball. If his BA was around .170 the comparison might be apt.

    • I have always compared Scott Feldman to Sandy Koufax.

  • Frankly

    one thing I will give the local assclowns do have going for them – when they are not fallating the team ownership – Bert Blyleven & Dick Bremmer often mix races when comparing players styles. They also do a fairly decent job of staying out of the way of the game.

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