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Race and Baseball Commentary

[ 68 ] September 5, 2012 |

I’m not sure that this study is as scientific as its authors claim, but this piece on how baseball commentators use code words to describe players based upon race suggests the stereotypes many of us already knew existed. As we all know, only white players can be “scrappy” while Latinos are often described as lazy, surly, etc. And of course, the unwritten rule of all sports commentary is that you can only compare a player to another player of the same race.

Also, Jon Heyman is awful, but then you already knew that.


Comments (68)

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  1. Craigo says:

    White players are also gritty and deceptively fast. In the NFL, they also have a high motor and football IQ.

  2. “Scrappy? What is that? Short and crappy?” – Dustin Pedroia

  3. sparks says:

    Has Vin Scully really used the term “Butter and Egg Man” in this century? Was he calling out to his homies from the 1920s, looking to trim a sucker from the Midwest?

  4. Richard says:

    Heyman is awful and the conclusion of the study may be correct but I’m not sure you can conclude anything from one week of broadcasts. Moreover, when they get a crucial fact wrong in their major example (Pujols was not raised in the U.S. He came to the US from the Dominican when he was sixteen), you have to wonder about the rest of the study.

    And just to make it clear, I think any speculation about Albert being older than stated was absolutely unwarranted (although I seem to recall that this belief was raised here in the debate about the wisdom of the Pujols contract). Disproving the naysaying previosly expressed here (horrible deal for the Angels, he’s hitting .200 in April), Albert, after a horrible start, is going to finish the season with a batting average near .300, with over 30 home runs and over 100 runs batted in.

    • Richard says:

      From Campos in these pages last December:
      “First, it’s unclear that Pujols will actually turn 32 next month. If he’s even a year or two older that changes the calculus significantly.”

      According to the authors of the study, Campos would appear to be biased against Latinos.

    • Rob says:

      And it will be his worst season ever.

      • Richard says:

        Probably true but I’ll take any player who can hit .300 with thirty HRs and 100 rbis. I think he has five more seasons like that in him.

        • Kurzleg says:

          I was going to say this is one reason why you’re not a GM, but then, Jerry DiPoto is a GM, and he did that contract. Perhaps I should just mumble on about allocation of scarce resources.

          • Richard says:

            As I argued when this discussion first came up, the question is not whether the Pujols contract makes sense in terms of his baseball production over the next decade. Baseball is a business and the question is whether it makes sense spending that money in order to make even more money. As I argued then, it does given increased ticket sales, merch sales and, in particular, the enormous cable contract, with incentives, which the Angels negotiated just before finalizing the Pujols deal.

      • Bill Murray says:

        Right now he’s more or less even with his last year for the Cards

    • djw says:

      I’m not sure you can conclude anything from one week of broadcasts.

      200 broadcasted games, not one week, is the relevant sample size. That surely includes descriptions of several thousand players. What’s is your reason for thinking that’s an insufficient sample size? There’s no reason to think announcers would, en masse, describe players differently during that week than they normally do.

      • Richard says:

        Its not a description of several thousand players, for one thing. There are 30 teams in MLB; a team can have 25 players on its roster in August. Even assuming players on the disabled lists and coming and going from the minors, you are talking one thousand players maximum. Given that a season is 14 weeks, i would expect a sample to be much larger in order to draw any valid conclusions. Plus from reading the report (and not seeing the raw data), I dont see how they come up with their conclusions regarding use of intangibles to refer to non-Latino players. I would like to see what intangible words were used to describe whites and in what context. Given the error about Pujols being raised in the US, the attempt to brand anyone who questioned Pujol’s age as biased against Latinos, the link to a really stupid article arguing that there is no such thing as a clutch ballplayer (when, for example, we have quite good statistics on how players hit with men on base and how they hit in the latter part of a game – the article claims that since there is no difference between a point scored in the fourth quarter of a basketball game and a point scored in the first quarter of a basketball game, clutch players cant exist, a quite ridiculous contention based on a misunderstanding of how competitive basketball is played), I’m very skeptical about this research.

        Not to say that their conclusion is false. Based on non-scientific evidence – fifty four years of listening to baseball broadcasts – I tend to agree that announcers are somewhat biased in favor of scrappy white players. But I dont think that this study proves it.

        • djw says:

          Its not a description of several thousand players, for one thing. There are 30 teams in MLB; a team can have 25 players on its roster in August.

          Right–I meant several thousand instances of player-descriptions. At any rate, it’s a more than sufficient sample size to generate meaningful conclusions, assuming the sample is not biased in some way. Again, “one week” isn’t the relevant sample size, it’s 200 games. You wouldn’t describe a sample of 800 collected over 2 days as a “two day sample”.

          • Richard says:

            It’s seven samples from thirty broadcasting teams. Seven samples isn’t enough to make any conclusions. And the article doesn’t break the stats down by broadcast team. Let’s say you had five broadcast teams that uniformly praise white players for being scrappy while using negative intangible terms toward Latinos The other twenty five teams are uniformly even handed. That pattern might create the 14 percent figure cited in the article but certainly shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that baseball announcing is biased. It should only lead to the conclusion that some broadcast teams are biased.

            Another problem is the chart of the ten most criticized players and the conclusion that there is something significant about the fact that there only two white players on it. Given the fact this is based on one week of a 14 week season, it is meaningless. It may be the fact that there were negative things that randomly happened to Latino players that week. You really need a much bigger time period to even comment on the signicance of the ethnic make up of the top ten criticized
            It’s just a terrible study

        • Jon says:

          I’m also skeptical about this study. I’m not a statistician, and I have long felt that announcers tend to describe white players as scrappy or intellectual and non-whites as athletic. But I tend to be cautious about any single study which concludes some racial truth which I (or everybody) “already know”.

          That said, I thought it was pretty much received wisdom in the sabermetric community that “clutchness” is a myth, at least in baseball — that all batters hit better with men on base, and that there has been no one proven to have superior performances in “clutch” situations (whatever that might even mean) over a meaningful number of plate appearences. In which case, references to “clutch” might well be a racially-inflected word, or at least a word subject to announcers’ own biases/projections/what have you of any nature.

          • Richard says:

            I dont think you’re right about clutchness Some players over time hit better with men on base. Some have a better batting record in the late innings. I always remember stats used in a New Yorker article on Pete Rose showing that in every world series, his average improved from game to game as he learned more about the pitching staff of the other team and his average in sixth and seventh games was over .400 The stats are there to show it. But this article wasnt arguing about stats. It claimed that criticism that Lebron (obviously before this year) wasn’t a good clutch player was wrong because points scored in the first quarter are worth the same as points scored in the last quarter. This argument obviously ignores the ebb and flow of a basketball game, the different intensities at parts of a game and that at the end of a game, there are some players who you want to have the ball in their hands (Kobe, Chris Paul) and some players who you dont. The criticism of Lebron was wrong but not because there is no such thing as a clutch player.

            • Bill Murray says:

              while it does depend on how one defines the problem, the year-to-year hitting statistics and generally small sample sizes makes proving that clutch hitting exists very difficult.

              Basically, if you think of choosing a team as a selection process, you are going to pick the guy that is better overall than the guy that isn’t terribly good but improves in “clutch” situations. This will yield clutch abilities that are distributed in a random manner, so would be impossible to differentiate in standard statistical testing. In the end you get a few players with statistically significant results, but that is expected for any large distribution of random results



            • djw says:

              Some players over time hit better with men on base. Some have a better batting record in the late innings.

              Some people have pretty impressive runs at the craps table, too: that doesn’t make it a replicable skill. Unless some exciting new study has come along, I’m reasonably certain that all indications are that past success (or failure) to elevate your game meaningfully in clutch situations, however defined, has no predictive power for future success/failure in that area.

            • Jon says:

              I’d be interested to see that New Yorker article, but it sounds like a classic example of overanalzying small sample sizes. Pete Rose was in six World Series. His OPS for those series was .768, .634, .966, .513, .651, and .728 — so poor to mediocre in five.

              In that one good Series (1975), he faced these starters with these results:

              Tiant: 0-4 (0 BB);
              Lee: 2-4 (0 BB);
              Wise: 1-4 (1 BB);
              Tiant: 1-3 (2 BB);
              Cleveland: 2-3 (1 BB);
              Tiant: 2-5 (0 BB);
              Lee: 2-4 (1 BB).

              So sure, he hit .400 or better in Games 6 and 7. But those weren’t significantly better than any of the other games, except for his Game 1 o-fer.

              The Atlantic post as I read it was actually about stats, in a broader sense — that our perceptions of performance are so affected by narratives, hindsight bias, selective memory, etc, that we tend to imprint meanings (clutch! choker!) on what are, arguably, patternless portions of a player’s season or career. I’m not as familiar with the basketball stats, but at least as a starting point (we tend to overrate fourth quarter, major game performances) it does make sense.

              • Richard says:

                It was an article about Rose by Roger Kahn. Convinced me at the time. It had his stats for combined game ones through combined games seven as well as individual series and showed that his average increased from game one to game seven combined and in almost every series And the difference was dramatic. I certainly agree it is hard to measure clutchness (or even define it) but when it comes to basketball, the fourth quarter is a different game than the first quarter. Its just not the case that a first quarter basket is the same as a fourth quarter basket. I understand how narratives, hindsight, selective memory, etc influence how we think of clutch players but I think there is a huge difference between players who get the ball in the last few minutes of a game, even when the players have similar scoring averages. I watched a lot of Clippers basketball this last year. Chris Paul’s role in the first quarter was to pass, get touches for others, get everybody involved in the flow. If the game was close in the fourth quarter, he took it upon himself to score or drive and then pass if he was doubled. There were games where he only had 14 or so points but all of them were baskets when it counted in the fourth and where victory was due to the fact that the ball was in his hands. If the game was close in the fourth, you wanted the ball in Chris’ hands.

          • JRoth says:

            3 notes on Clutch:

            1. ISTM that the question isn’t who elevates his game in the clutch, but who fails to get rattled (and/or naturally perform worse against elevated competition, when we’re discussing postseason play). Most batters are worse in the postseason because they’re facing better pitchers, plus the pressure is higher*, but some batters don’t seem to be affected. Or not, it may not exist after all, but my point is that players may not be able to will themselves into being better than they really are**, but that they can have a mental approach that allows them to be as good in high pressure situations as they are against the Astros in the 3rd inning in May.

            2. Let’s remember that Bill James said we can’t prove clutch doesn’t exist; we just know that we haven’t ever measured it. I think it’s useful to maintain some doubt, rather than sliding into smug certainty. I mean, I go on the assumption that it basically doesn’t exist, but I’m not in a hurry to dismiss it.

            3. The other day, during a game, I heard the best evidence I ever had for RBI as a skill. An announcer was contrasting plate approach between 2 players. The player at the plate had a RISP and a favorable count, and took an aggressive approach. In contrast, the night before a different player, in a late and tied game, was in the same situation, but took a couple of good fastball strikes en route to a walk. Walks are good, of course, but one thing they don’t do is drive a runner in from 2B. Point being, the batter hadn’t done anything “wrong”, and his approach was a generally wise one. But he hadn’t driven in the run, and in fact that run never scored. It’s possible – just possible – that some batters change their approach in RISP situations, preferring to attempt to drive in the run rather than passively take the walk. And the thing is, the n would be so small (not just RISP, but a favorable count in which the batter saw a good pitch or two) that I’m not sure how you’d ever “find” that ability in a meaningful sample size.

            * I always thought the argument “They’re pros! They face pressure every day!” was stupid, as if athletes are literally wired differently from every other human. Part of my job includes speaking extemporaneously to groups – sometimes large, hostile ones where there’s a racial subtext. And I’m quite good at it, far better than most people. But one time when I spoke before City Council about an issue (not one that affected me at all personally or professionally, but one that I cared about), I could barely choke out the words. The “clutch” performance wouldn’t have been soaring to previously unattained heights, but merely speaking as well as I do in all sorts of other, slightly less fraught, contexts.

            ** I do have a theory that it’s possible for (some) pitchers to raise their level – or to pitch at their ceilings – in big games or against tough opposing pitchers. Why would this be possible? Because pitching has a lot to do with mental approach and focus (as opposed to mere muscle memory + stimulus/response), and so it seems to me entirely possible/likely that, for some guys, the Big Game leads to a better mental approach that lets them perform at their peak, while most games they just go out and throw, but with just a touch less focus. Obviously, the stuff still needs to be there, but pitching is much, much more than stuff. Kip Wells spent an entire career with great stuff and a terrible mental approach, and he never had sustained success.

            • djw says:

              The other day, during a game, I heard the best evidence I ever had for RBI as a skill. An announcer was contrasting plate approach between 2 players. The player at the plate had a RISP and a favorable count, and took an aggressive approach. In contrast, the night before a different player, in a late and tied game, was in the same situation, but took a couple of good fastball strikes en route to a walk. Walks are good, of course, but one thing they don’t do is drive a runner in from 2B. Point being, the batter hadn’t done anything “wrong”, and his approach was a generally wise one. But he hadn’t driven in the run, and in fact that run never scored.

              That’s not evidence that RBIs are skill, it’s the narrative generation of a hypothesis that could be tested against actual evidence.

              Also, the hypothetical with complete information about what happens after the ball is put into play is less useful. The more important question is–does putting the ball into play, given the range of possible outcomes that produces, do more or less to the innings expected runs than drawing the walk? Obviously, a variety of context-specific variables (was it a pitch he had good reason to believe he’d get good contact on? Who is up next? Is the pitcher wearing down? Is there a a LOOGY coming in who’s likely to shut down the next two batters? etc etc) but regardless it’s useless to analyze the distinction you’re making without awareness of the inning’s run probabilities.

  5. Auguste says:

    I’m probably a grade-A sucker (cc) but just as a side note from the linked article, I have always tended to believe Howard Cosell’s explanation of his mistake. He was a jackass in many arenas, but race, to my knowledge, didn’t tend to be one of them.

  6. Jim Lynch says:

    “As we all know, only white players can be “scrappy” while Latinos are often described as lazy, surly, etc”.

    That’s certainly not the case with the broadcasting team of the San Francisco Giants. Or Bay Area fans in general. And WTF is that “unwritten rule” you’re talking about?

    What part of country do you live in? New England, right?

  7. rea says:

    Quintin Berry gets called, “scrappy,” despite not being white.

    • JRoth says:

      What I thought was the most interesting part of that study is that “intangible” praise was directly linked to height, which I think subverts the “scrappy == white” thing a bit, because it turns out that all short players are credited with intangibles, whether “scrappy” or “spark plug” or whatever. That Eckstein was called scrappy while Griffey, Jr. was called talented isn’t really a comment on race, is what I’m saying.

  8. Craigo says:

    I almost forgot: Russian hockey players are “enigmatic.”

  9. c u n d gulag says:

    I don’t have much to say about scrappy white ballplayers.

    But I do know at least one old white “crappy” announcer!

    I bring you folks, the (not so) great (except in his own mind): John Sterling!

    “It is high!’
    It is far!
    WHAT A SHOT, Susan.
    That one would have been gone in Death Valley!

    Wait – what happened?
    Why’s Cano running to 2nd, Susan?”

    “It bounced off the bottom of the wall, John.”

    This was an actual call earlier this year.
    And sadly, it wasn’t the only one.

    You’d be better off tuning into the Mets radio broadcast to find out what’s actually happening in a Yankee game.

  10. rea says:

    When they say, “Performance-based descriptions often take the form of contrasting equivalents—praising a pitcher for being “a pitcher, not a thrower”, do they totally fail to grasp the point that there is more to pitching than just throwing?

  11. M. Bouffant says:

    My memories are obviously unscientific, but I remember noting (in the long-ago 1980s) that virtually every WWF wrassler of recent African ancestry had the headbutt among his “signature” moves, while I don’t remember any of the paler competitors using it.

    Never any references to what hard heads “those people” have, of course, but I have to wonder if it was a wrestling schtick so entrenched that whoever invented the wrestlers’ acts wasn’t even aware he was using.

    • sparks says:

      I remember watching wrestling in the ’70s, and it was the white guys who were the “dirtiest” wrestlers except for the very few Asians, who always cunningly concealed objects on their person to defeat their opponent. The head butt was the province of the black wrestler, though. It was sort of equal-opportunity offensiveness. Later on, “Arab” wrestlers were starting to enter the ring.

      Don’t judge me! I was 10 or so and it was silly fun to watch. Like Roller Derby. Real sports weren’t televised as much then.

  12. Pepper says:

    hiro matsuto loved the judo chop

  13. Pepper says:

    Why did the Braves ever have Sterling in the same booth as E Johnon Sr

  14. Pepper says:

    What was haystacks calhouns big move

  15. Jeffrey Kramer says:


    There are some things that can’t be measured with numbers: like heart, and positive attitude, and mental toughness, and the way you inspire your teammates by the way you show up every day even when you’re 0 for your last 19; that’s old school, that’s being a leader, a throwback who plays the game the right way, being a gritty, gutty grinder with heart who gets his uniform dirty, who has presence and poise. I’m talking about a teamplayer, not one who just likes to pile up stats for himself, who knows something about winning baseball, with heart, like being aggressive, manufacturng runs instead of waiting around for the longball, the kind of scrappy, spunky guy who makes everybody around him better, with his heart; a winner who gives his all every day, who knows how to come through in the clutch. With heart.

  16. Pepper says:

    Like dan uggla only at the not so important job

  17. Henry Holland says:

    The racial stereotyping of players isn’t limited to baseball, of course.

    White running backs are “gritty” and “tough” while black running backs are “athletic”. There’s still comments when a white receiver or (even rarer) defensive back stands out.

    Then there’s the British announcers on English football telecasts. If I’m ever in doubt of a player’s nationality, all I have to do is wait for him to touch the ball a few times because the announcer will say things like “oh, nice touch by the Ghanian” or “excellent pass by the Belgian” etc. Even the Scottish, Welsh and Irish players get that treatment. The French: not tough enough for English football. Italians and Spaniards: divers, they don’t do that in England etc.

    • JRoth says:

      You can be damn sure that Jerome Bettis was not often described as “athletic”.

      Your general point is well taken, of course. I just think we get a bit too wrapped up in a simplistic breakdown of how these terms are used. The last 2 Pirates I heard described as scrappy were Delwyn Young (black) and Josh Harrison (black).

      Then there was the kerfuffle when one of the announcers described the (white) 2B and SS as “a couple scoops of vanilla”. Apparently this came from the SS (Clint Barmes) having self-described as a vanilla (that is, plain) kind of player, but boy, did it sound awful coming out of Greg Brown’s mouth.

  18. Pepper says:

    Baseball stats in any limited breakdown are meaningless. A batting average is just that. An era is per 9 innings pitched. That is simple. They are measured over 162 games. That is their pt. Of course there are clutch moments and maybe a hand full of times when one guy does something great but that is so not the rule and if baseball has a rule is when it matters you want your best either at bat or pitching.

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