Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, MO, had big plans for celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of baseball’s Negro Leagues. He was the driving force behind an effort that would have had all 30 major league teams, for the first time, participate in a salute to the Negro Leagues in an unprecedented show of solidarity. The “Tip Your Cap” campaign originally was tied to the celebrations with teams, players, and fans in those 30 stadiums that, at some point during the game, would tip their cap in honor of the Negro leagues.
“In baseball, there’s nothing more honorable you can do than a simple tip of the cap,” said Kendrick.
Then COVID-19 put the baseball season on hold.
Kendrick was desperate to find a way to salvage the centennial celebration. That’s when he thought of a virtual Tip Your Cap campaign. A few friends who liked the idea agreed to help him. It took them two weeks to pull together the monthlong campaign, which runs from June 29 through July 23. The campaign was a hit right off the bat. Outside of the fact that it’s a warm-hearted, positive activity amid chaos, people can easily participate by submitting a photo or video of themselves tipping their cap in honor of the Negro Leagues and email it to [email protected] or post a tribute on social media with the hashtag #tipyourcap2020. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter have all recorded video tributes, as well as civil rights hero Rachel Robinson, baseball legend Hank Aaron, Derek Jeter, Reggie Jackson, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Billie Jean King, Tony Bennett, and Bob Costas, and many more. NASA Astronaut Christopher Cassidy even joined in the online celebrations from the International Space Station.
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Celebrates 30 Years
But the centennial isn’t the only celebration happening this year for the Negro Leagues. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is the only one of its kind nationwide and celebrating 30 years in 2020. When it opened in 1990, no one gave it a chance.
“Here at historic 18th and Vine, there was nothing. It was like a lot of urban communities. It had died. It had been left abandoned,” said Kendrick. “Everybody thought we were crazy. But basically, it was the infinite wisdom of my dear friend, the late great, John Buck O’Neil, who said, ‘This is where we will build this museum. This is where the origins of the Negro Leagues took root. And we will build this museum here. And in doing so, we will help resurrect what was once this very proud, prominent community.'”
O’Neil was right. The museum has changed the landscape of the community. The same thing that the Negro Baseball league did for urban communities across the countries, the NLBM has done for Kansas City.
“It was never self-serving. It was always about the greater good. And that’s something to appreciate,” said Kendrick.
The World Series is over, which means no more baseball until next spring. But forgive me for still having a little baseball on the brain. You see, I just recently caught the new baseball film, Moneyball. From most accounts, Moneyball is a pretty good movie. Fans of baseball, Brad Pitt, Aaron Sorkin, and underdog stories in general all have plenty to love. As a historical drama, it does play a little fast-and-loose with the facts, but it captures the emotional essence of the subject matter. And as baseball movies go, it’s decidedly less crass and more inspirational than many of its counterparts, which could make it popular among conservative, faith-based audiences.
Seems like the only people who aren’t that enthused about the film (which adapted Michael Lewis’ 2002 chronicle of the same name) are the actual baseball executives whose stories are depicted in it, primarily Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his stat guru assistant Paul DePodesta (fictionalized as Peter Brand, because DePodesta didn’t consent to allowing his name to be used).
Their main complaints of the film stem from what DePodesta and Beane believe to be an overly dramatized schism between the GM’s office and the rest of the scouting and management. In the film, Brad Pitt as Beane and Jonah Hill as Brand/DePodesta are continually at odds with the A’s grizzled corps of veteran scouts, most of whom have a rigid sense of orthodoxy concerning what good draft prospects look like, and who resent Beane for discarding their sage advice and picking players using advanced statistics. This conflict is a source of constant tension, especially because it pits general manager Beane against manager Art Howe, who refuses to fill his lineup with any of Beane’s recent draft picks.
If baseball were a religion, Moneyball would play out like a classic faith-versus-science debate. In this sense, the divide between traditional scouts and the proponents of advanced metrics in baseball mirror the divide between conservative Bible literalists and liberal scholars who view the Bible only as literature. In both cases, the generalizations that depict the former as backward and the latter as enlightened are just that — generalizations, more useful for establishing a dramatic narrative than for arriving at an accurate assessment of the truth.
Truth is, there are plenty articulate, enlightened Bible traditionalists, and plenty of close-minded so-called progressives whose view of the Bible is woefully ignorant. Likewise, plenty of older baseball scouts use quality stats to back up their intuitions, and plenty stat geeks are led astray by faulty or incomplete data sets. The best talent evaluators rely on both what the computers say as well as what their eyes tell them.
As a matter of fact, Billy Beane has said on the record that he never set out to revolutionize baseball’s decision-making process. He just needed to find ways to stay competitive against teams with larger payroll budgets. But the larger story of how the Oakland A’s front office changed baseball remains a compelling story, and church leaders in particular would do well to find the lessons that go beyond the typical Hollywood platitudes.
Avoiding False Choices
Despite the magnified conflict in the film, one lesson that the fictional Billy Beane manages to get right over time is avoiding the false dichotomy, or as I like to call it, the Dis-Or-Dat trap. This is the fallacy that assumes that two traits that appear dissimilar can never inhabit the same space. Getting caught in a Dis-Or-Dat trap causes people in pressure-filled situations to ignore the nuances and hastily choose between extreme contradictions in thought or behavior. So women are viewed either as virginal girl-next-door types or slutty femme fatales. Bosses are either rigid taskmasters or softy pushovers. Blacks are either the noble oppressed or immoral and degenerate.
(You get the idea.)
Over time it became clear to Billy Beane that he couldn’t simply rely on either his eyeballs or his stats; he had to do both. This is the kind of thinking that more church leaders should use. It’s not enough for pastors to either know the Bible well OR be great communicators. They need to do both. The same goes for speaking grace and truth. And the worship leader shouldn’t only have to choose between traditional or contemporary music, as if there is no one under 25 who appreciates a good hymn or no one over 40 who appreciates good hip-hop. If the church in America is to thrive, there must be room for both.
Value in the Refuse
Another kingdom value on display in Moneyball is the idea of finding value in hidden places. The main way the Oakland Athletics were able to compete with a smaller payroll was by picking up players that others had overlooked or discarded. And there’s nothing quite so Hollywood as watching a group of misfits and oddballs beat the odds together.
Given this, how amazing would it be if American churches were identified primarily as places where people’s lives and contributions were valued, regardless of class, talent or achievement? Pastors and worship leaders would feel less pressure to become multimedia superstars, because in God’s economy, everyone brings something to the table. And material success would be the default standard in ministry, because defying the odds is nothing new for God.
Doing more with less? Please. He invented that with five loaves and and two fish.
The most significant lesson of Moneyball is, interestingly enough, the one most up for interpretation, like that spinning top at the end of Inception.
At one point in the film Beane laments that winning 20 games in a row doesn’t matter if you lose the last game of the year. As a postscript, the film notes that Billy Beane is still searching for that final win.
However, it also says that after he turned down their offer to hire him as GM, the Boston Red Sox went on to win the World Series by adopting Beane’s statistical approach.
So the lingering question is obvious … was he successful, or not?
Well, how does one define success?
Pitt played Billy Beane as a man whose life goal was to win at baseball, yet he never really achieved that goal in a meaningful way. Walking out of the theater, I couldn’t help but notice his resemblance to another cinematic tortured soul — Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus.
Both men, flawed as they were, experienced a measure of redemption.
But it required accepting a different definition of success, one that measured influence and relationship higher than the more tangible signs they’d been waiting for — for Mr. Holland, his final musical masterpiece, and for Billy Beane, a World Series title.
This is the lesson that pastors, worship leaders, and other church ministers need to receive the most.
Our success at ministering in the church must be defined first and foremost by our ability to know God and be in right relationship with Him. There’s a reason why Matthew 6:33 doesn’t tell us to seek God’s kingdom and his achievements … because outward signs of success are included in the “all of these things will be added unto you” portion of the verse. His righteousness is the thing we are instructed to pursue first.
That doesn’t mean that outward signs shouldn’t follow. After all, James tells us that faith without works is dead. But it does mean that if we truly trust God with everything, then we’ll allow Him to set our agenda and allow Him to change our definition of success if it derails us from His.
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The irony for Billy Beane in Moneyball is that his professional success was about maximizing output with minimal money, yet his personal success brought him the opportunity for so much money that he was in danger of losing his sense of self and relational significance … which was what drew him into baseball in the first place.
The good news for believers in Christ is that we don’t need our stories retold on the silver screen in order to have peace and prosperity. And we don’t need to collect trophies or achievements to have personal significance.
All we need to do is receive the gift of salvation,
In my view, nothing could be further from the truth. But there are those out there who maintain this train of thought.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s definitely a disconnect between the African American community and the national pastime. Gone are the days when Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Reggie Jackson stood as the most popular ballplayers of their eras. These days, in a sports culture tainted by the specter of steroid scandals, you’d be hard pressed to name a top African American baseball player whom everyone knows.
It would be easy to blame the loss of infatuation with baseball on the fact baseball facilities are slowly disappearing from America’s urban metropolises. It would also be easy to blame basketball and football’s dominating popularity and appeal to the young black male/female. But I’m not totally buying it.
The reasons are plentiful and can vary in validity and practicality. I think you have to look deeper than economic excuses to find the root of the issue.
The Dominican Model
Yes, basketball and football seem to be the better choice of the three when baseball is entered into the equation, but it hasn’t always been that way. It also doesn’t have to be that way now. You can still get paid very well in baseball, as there are no salary caps. The Yankees pay Alex Rodriguez almost as much as the Kansas City Royals pay their entire roster.
Blaming the disconnect on our urban communities’ inability to draw in African American kids is not entirely accurate as well. Sure, there aren’t as many ball fields in urban areas as there used to be, but that kind of thinking undermines the creativity and resolve of our country’s children. The counterpoint to that argument lies in the Dominican Republic city of Santo Domingo.
The Dominican Republic is one of the biggest suppliers of prospects in Major League Baseball. The country is poor, but full-blooded Dominicans account for about 10 percent of all the players in the MLB. Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, and Ubaldo Jimenez all hail from the DR. It would be odd to pass through the streets and fields of the country’s capital and not find a group of kids playing baseball, with nothing more than a stick and a whatever round object they can gather for a ball. It’s more than evident that a great number of urban kids have it hard here in the U.S., but it’s much harder there in the DR.
There are glaring similarities in each case. The stigma is either you play ball or sell drugs to make it out the ‘hood. Although it’s a different kind of ball, the same reasoning rings true for thousands of young Dominicans looking to get out of poverty. The one thing that differs about the two situations is the extent of Major League Baseball’s involvement in the lower levels.
Nearly every Major League team has an “academy” in the Dominican to help groom young players into big-league prospects. What would it do for our urban children if such an initiative were emphasized here in the United States? If only the Washington Nationals would launch an initiative to help revitalize and refurbish all of D.C.’s dilapidated and forgotten urban ball fields, instead of just investing in the new condos and high rises around Nationals Park for people of a higher tax bracket. I think if there were a serious, deliberate effort to attract young African American children to baseball it would go a long way toward helping close the chasm of disinterest in the sport that has developed.
Reversing a Losing Trend
If current MLB commissioner Bud Selig really wants to bring back the romance to the relationship between blacks and baseball, he would spearhead a movement to reacquaint African American youth with his game. This isn’t to say that the MLB doesn’t do anything to address these issues, but in order to ensure that baseball does not die from neglect in the hearts of urban kids in America, it will take help from the MLB, as well as schools and parents that are willing to expose their young people to a wider variety of sports.
The church can also do its part in helping to bring baseball back. Perhaps Sunday-school classes or youth groups could plan outings to the local minor league ballgames, which are typically very affordable. Perhaps youth ministries could make sure baseball is one of the offerings for their kids during weekly recreational times or summer picnics. There are things all of us who love the sport can do to help reintroduce baseball to urban kids who are starry-eyed with pipe dreams of NBA and NFL success. If we can get them to see the beauty of the game, we can start restoring the relationship and fervor that has been lost between the bases.
If you have any additional ideas about how to get baseball back in our children’s lives, leave them in the comments section below. We can do it together.
I’m sure very few people have heard of this film. There seemed to be very little marketing behind it, which is truly a shame. I was pleasantly surprised by this little gem.
Based on the book of the same name by W. William Winokur (who also wrote the script), The Perfect Game recounts the true story of a scrappy group of boys in Monterrey, Mexico, who end up competing in the 1957 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Padre Esteban (Cheech Marin), the local Catholic priest, mentors the boys, fuels their baseball dreams, and guides their faith in God. Cesar Faz (Clifton Collins Jr.) coaches the new team, but struggles to overcome his failed attempt as a baseball prospect in America due to racism. Other supporting characters include Maria (Patricia Manterola), the coach’s love interest, and Frankie (Emilie de Ravin from ABC’s Lost), a sassy newspaper reporter who documents the boys’ journey.
The Perfect Game recounts the true story of a scrappy group of boys in Monterrey, Mexico, who end up competing in the 1957 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. They face many obstacles on the way to their goal, including racism and discrimination. Sure, it follows all the usual sports movie clichés, but it’s also full of heart, humor, and faith.