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Pumpsie Green, Aroldis Chapman, and teams as labs of morality

To get social change in baseball, we need to change society. 

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

I was wasting my life on Twitter during another downpour of Aroldis Chapman takes when I clucked that it would be convenient if sports franchises could be considered the "laboratories of morality" in the same way the 50 U.S. states are considered, to some, to be the "laboratories of democracy." I meant it as a joke at a time that we needed one.

Chuckles were had, the takestorm continued, and the rest of the world moved on. I got left behind. But I had stumbled across something I now believe is true: the fact that sports franchises are already considered laboratories of morality; it’s not how we view teams that changes, but the morals themselves. We will always rank the teams not just by the standings but by how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they are acting in relation to the real, non-sports world, whether we like it or not.

Not very long ago, in the lifetime of your parents or grandparents, Major League Baseball did not employ black players at the big league level. Then the great Jackie Robinson came along and Branch Rickey put him on Brooklyn’s big-league roster in what was, for the time, an act of moral integrity -- one that was, like most matters of moral integrity, opposed by a wide swath of the population at the time, both in and outside of baseball.

Over the next 12 years, every other baseball team followed the moral lead of the Dodgers, albeit at their own paces. The last team to integrate did so long after the issue had turned from one of moral integrity to one of moral cowardice, in its refusal to employ black players. That team was the Red Sox, who put Pumpsie Green in their infield in 1959. This from the team that could have had Willie Mays for $4,500.

For his persistent, concerted effort to keep African-Americans off of his team, Tom Yawkey was merely rewarded with the name of the street outside Fenway Park, a semi-permanent reminder of an era in which we now consider the Sox to be the shame of baseball. If there is good to be found in the fact that his name is still so prominently placed for an organization that hews to none of his rules, it’s to remind us of how far we’ve come and how far we always stand to fall.

(I and others have previously argument that it’s well past time the city changes the name of the street, though I think a certain large father from the Dominican Republic has made the best and probably definitive case for a switch. This is another way of saying if the street isn’t named "Big Papi Place" within 10 years you have permission to bury the author in pinstripes.)

Of course, it is inconceivable that a successful modern sports franchise would act this way, even if at times it sure seems possible they’d try. Sports owners are a singularly odious bunch; the good ones are still just good on a curve, and the bad ones are some of the most noxious people in the world. I put nothing whatsoever past them, full stop, but my guess is that particular racist team-making era is basically over.

Still, if (many) sports owners are evil, they are all necessary evils, and they are (mostly) still human beings. At the risk of sounding horribly biased, John Henry seems pretty cool, all things considered. He is, with apologies to Jean Yawkey, easily the best owner in Sox history, given that his competition is a racist/failure, that racist/failure’s kindly widow and the guy who merely sold the best player in history for peanuts.

The Cubs, meanwhile, have sullied their own benign reputation in trading for Chapman, and I can’t blame Cubs fans for being upset about it. Other fans are kind of upset, too, and I find this kind of puzzling. He was already playing for the Yankees, of all teams -- though maybe fans have come to accept the Yankees as lacking certain scruples, and are upset at seeing the mantle of soulless death machine bestowed upon the plucky little team with a baby bear as a mascot.

It sounded to me like the moral bargain here was that it was okay for Chapman to pitch, as long as he did so in relative obscurity (lol Yankees, but true), and not for the lovable losers of the North Side in their VisionQuest season. Or it was only okay on the Yankees. Whatever it was, it was something of the same thing that happened when Jose Reyes returned to the Mets earlier this year. The problem was not that the player was playing baseball. It was that another team had effectively condoned his actions.

I was skeptical. If this back-and-forth happens every time, I thought, what’s the point? Why bother the Cubs and Chapman about how they botched the public relations aspect of a deal they also botched so hard in the net value department? It previously seemed like the Cubs could do nothing to turn the general public against them in their race to the title, but Theo Epstein is trying his hardest to prove them wrong.

In the end, my question came down to this: Who am I to tell a team they shouldn’t employ a skilled, competent player, if the legal system and the league were done with him? And my answer was: Who am I not to do it? Shame works. It works slowly but gradually and can make a permanent difference if deployed effectively and often enough. We’ll always look at our players as existing in a morality play, whether we like it or not.

That’s the sunk cost. That’s the part we’ll never get past, and the part that will always let us down unless we do something about it. Shame the teams that disappoint you into oblivion and we might have a shot at actually changing the morals. Do that, and we change the game.