The book “The Year of the Pitcher,” by Sridhar Pappu, a terrific account of the 1968 baseball season, features this passage about the sociologist and civil-rights activist Harry Edwards:
“Edwards of all people might have been expected to reproach major league ballplayers for their lack of political engagement, but he didn’t. … Why would he ask a black ballplayer in Pittsburgh what he thought of [Muhammad] Ali’s decision to not fight in Southeast Asia? After all, no one would ask Don Drysdale or Roger Maris or Johnny Sain the same question.”
I shared this passage with CC Sabathia recently, and the Yankees’ veteran lefty nodded knowingly. History repeats itself.
Sabathia, arguably the most prominent and accomplished active African-American player in Major League Baseball, has become a go-to guy during this turbulent time in U.S. history. Sometimes he accepts the opportunity and puts himself out there. Other times, he passes. Always, he absorbs more about this duty that has been thrust upon him due to the convergence of his résumé, his timing and his identity.
“Even just in the last couple of days, Reggie [Jackson] and I talked,” Sabathia said earlier this week of the Yankees’ special adviser. “I was telling him my feelings on that, and he told me it’s my responsibility to speak up, being in the position that I am, an African-American player, being through the things that I’ve been through, seeing the things that I’ve seen.
“I guess it is my responsibility to speak up and take more responsibility that way. I’m still learning as we go.”
Jackson, currently rehabilitating after knee surgery, said earlier in spring training: “CC has become a leader here, and I think that he deserves to be respected enough to be asked questions about what’s going on in our country.”
Answering those questions comes with consequences. Last year, Sabathia spoke up after the Orioles’ Adam Jones revealed a fan at Fenway Park had used a racial slur toward him, saying he had been called the same slur at the Red Sox’s ballpark during his days with the Indians. And after President Trump disinvited the NBA champion Warriors to the White House, Sabathia said he probably wouldn’t attend such a ceremony if the Yankees won the World Series.
In both instances, Sabathia faced social-media heat.
“Every time you say something, there’s always something on Twitter or Instagram or something: ‘You said this. You said that,’ ” he said. “It’s my opinion. Nobody can tell me how to be a 37-year-old black man in America right now. That’s my walk. My journey. My opinions are my opinions.”
His opinions are solicited more now because of what’s transpiring.
“Racism may be the same [as recently]. It has just gotten prevalent because of our president,” Jackson said. “For some reason, the scab has been scratched, and the wound bleeds.”
“I don’t want to be in the paper every day talking about politics,” Sabathia said. “That’s not what I’m an expert on. I’m a baseball player, and that’s what I know best. In general, I try to stick to that. But here in the last year and a half, there have been topics that you can’t shy away from. And I have no problem talking about them.”
Jackson’s old Yankees teammate, Willie Randolph, in camp as a guest instructor, said he didn’t get asked about current events during his career from the mid-1970s to the early ’90s — relatively calmer times.
“Being in that situation, sometimes it’s best to stay in your lane, especially when it comes to that,” Randolph said. “But if someone had asked me about it, I would’ve given them my thoughts and feelings about it because I grew up, coming through the minor leagues, I went through a lot of that stuff.”
Sabathia would like to see a greater array of perspectives gathered.
“I think it helps the conversation when you get different opinions on these things, as opposed to the token black guy,” he said. “You want to get everybody’s opinion so you can start the conversation and try to make the country better.”
Brett Gardner, who is widely regarded as Sabathia’s co-captain on these Yankees, said he has virtually never been asked his opinion on a controversial non-baseball issue, and he wouldn’t be inclined to share such insight. Nevertheless, he said: “All across the country, I think that people have to realize that you’re not going to see eye to eye on everything, you’re not going to agree on everything everybody else agrees with, and that’s what makes this such a great place.
“CC and I grew up in two completely different places. We may not agree on everything each other believes, and neither do I with anybody else in here. But I still love him like a brother and would do anything for him, and that’s the most important thing.”
The feedback from those who disagree isn’t going away, Sabathia knows. Neither is he.
“I have a 14-year-old son that reads the paper, reads everything, knows what’s going on,” he said. “I want him to do the right thing, to take the right steps. So it’s up to me to lead by example.”
He’ll do so by working to get the Yankees that White House invitation with another title. And, when he deems it necessary, by speaking his mind.