Scorekeeping: subtle racism, cliches and bad catchphrases in baseball

I was thinking the other day about all of the subtle code words announcers use to be subversively racist.  I don’t think it’s intentional on their parts, it’s just ingrained into the fabric of the game and American language.  Kenny Lofton never hustled; Lance Berkman never didn’t run out a grounder. These sort of things you don’t realize until you’re made aware of them.

Anyway, I want to keep track of that this year.  Any time you hear one of these, note the date and time and who said it and post it here.

1.  “He’s a great athlete.”/”He’s very talented.”

I’m never quite sure what this means because it’s used so differently each time, but most of the time it means the player in question is better than average at physical attributes that aren’t baseball specific.  Running, jumping, diving, that sort of stuff. More often than not, it’s applied to athletes of color.

2. “He’s got a great baseball IQ.”

The times, they are a changing.  I was reading a scouting  report on a player and the guy who wrote it gave (I think it was) Justin Upton a “high baseball IQ.”  First and only time to date I can remember the phrase being used for a black man, but I digress. This is usually reserved for white baseball players who have great skills that the commentator doesn’t know how to explain.  Saying he’s “baseball smart” or some variation provides an excuse.  Not only is it racist, it’s lazy.  Greg Maddux was lauded for this the same way Brett Favre was for “being a kid out there.”

3.  Hustle/scrappy/gritty

Ever since FireJoeMorgan, the use of these three has significantly lowered, but hustle, scrap and grit were previously used to hype a white athlete who didn’t have a whole lot of talent, but played with enthusiasm–think Reggie Willits.

4.  He didn’t run out that grounder

You may have noticed that basically no players run out groundballs–most times they jog, a polite tip of the hat to the coach to say they’re not dogging it.  Sometimes you’ll see a player run halfway there and stop as soon as the throw is caught and he’ll get heat for it from the press the next day.  I remember Carlos Beltran hitting an infield fly ball and not running to first immediately and boy did he catch hell for that.

5. “He’s explosive”

Again, another feature of black athletes.  You will likely never hear about an explosive white man.

6.  Comparables

For some reason, and maybe this just goes into innate contrast and compares that we do as humans, players are often compared to their like-skinned amigos. Jason Heyward got tagged with a “Ryan Howard” tag once.  That’s just awful.

7.  Double standards

Think Barry Bonds’ treatment vs. Roger Clemens.  That’s apples to oranges, but you do sometimes hear something and wonder if the athlete were the opposite race, what would happen.  I wondered this myself when Milton Bradley politely asked to be traded. He went a little far and said the team and its fans are too pessimistic for him (which may have led to the fallout), but he was still cut before the end of the season despite producing above-average for the team.  There was no attempted outreach to him. The team dished him off and paid a heavy price for it, accepting a higher-paid player with no positive assets (Carlos Silva) in return. It was a stupid, poorly thought-out decision.


1.  “Baseball IQ”

Putting this here too because it deserves to be.  There are players who are great athletes and there are players who make the best of their ability, but baseball IQ is an absurd notion.  What does this mean? Does the pitcher run to first to cover the bag differently?  Does the outfielder take different routes?  Does the hitter understand something different that no other hitter does?  They hit the ball, they throw the ball, they try to do either or both to the best of their ability. Would you say Manny Ramirez has a high baseball IQ? Probably not, but he’s one of the smartest hitters in the game statistically speaking and an easy first-ballot hall of famer. There is some truth to actual baseball intelligence (read here for a not-so-bad article), but a lot of times, the phrase is misappropriated as though it can substitute talent and a ballplayer’s talent can–and will–heavily outweigh any smarts in the game. The only difference being that a pitcher who studies the game vociferously can have a mild advantage (see: the Scott Hatteberg section of Moneyball).

This is my preliminary list and I’ll add to it as the season goes on.  Please feel free to add yours in the comments.


Filed under catchphrases, cliches, MLB

34 responses to “Scorekeeping: subtle racism, cliches and bad catchphrases in baseball

  1. Chunk

    I actually happen to study both racism and baseball. Cliche 1 is essentially a reflection of the protestant work ethic and derision of minorities as lazy. What the cliche actually implies is that black athletes are athletically gifted, meaning that they didn’t have to work to be elite, whereas white athletes are grindy and play the game smart, reinforcing the notion that they had to work in order to excel. It is pretty much the age old stereotype that whites are smarter but at a physical disadvantage.

    It’s important to note that the cliches have the most power when employed/juxtaposed with the other cliches.

  2. Mariners’ play-by-play guy Dave Sims called Oakland A’s catcher Kurt Suzuki a “good little player.” Suzuki is 5’11” and of Asian descent; he is a Hawaiian native.

    This comes via Anthony R.

  3. From an anonymous source: The play-by-play guy in the Dodgers-Pirates game on April 8, 2010, complemented Jamey Carroll for his hustle and grit when he beat out a double-play ball. No word on who this was, unfortunately.

  4. On May 3, 2010, Mike Francesa called Gary Matthews Jr. a “good defensive replacement” on WFAN New York

  5. On April 30 or May 1, 2010, legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully called Clayton Kershaw a “blessed” and “gifted” pitcher.

  6. Craig Calcaterra cited Reds 2B Brandon Phillips’ lack of hustle as costing him a triple.

  7. bill

    Barry Bonds treatment vs. Clemens?

    Didn’t most fans hate Clemens too?

  8. They were both reviled, but Bonds became the poster boy while Clemens didn’t quite receive the blowback that Bonds did. Like I said, that’s not a fair comparison for a lot of reasons, but it’d be hard to argue that Clemens received equal treatment as Bonds for breaking the same rule.

  9. In the May 6, 2010 game, the Arizona broadcasters scorned Lance Berkman (white) for a “half-hearted effort.”

  10. from Jerry Crasnick’s article about Robinson Cano crushing the ball this year…

    If Cano has indeed elevated his game, it’s just another step in an arduous growth curve. Former Yankees manager Joe Torre tossed out comparisons to Carew in 2005, and Torre’s successor, Joe Girardi, benched Cano in 2008 for a lack of hustle. On his worst days, Cano has been called unfocused and lackadaisical, but he’s made major strides to improve his defense, plate discipline and physical strength through work in the weight room. After a lengthy apprenticeship in the bottom third of the Yankees’ order, he replaced Hideki Matsui as Alex Rodriguez’s protector in the No. 5 hole this season.

    • He learned an even more enduring lesson in September 2008, when Girardi benched him for lollygagging after a ball in short right field against Tampa Bay. Cano, seven months removed from signing a $30 million contract extension, needed someone new to prod him after third-base coach Larry Bowa left the Yankees to join Torre in Los Angeles. To his credit, Cano took responsibility for the incident and learned from it.

      “Joe said I wasn’t playing hard,” Cano says. “I made a mistake and I paid for it. I’m human. I’m not perfect. That was a bad year. It just happened.”

      • Cano has sleepy eyes, a ready smile and a relaxed demeanor that can be confused with a lack of passion at times. But his love for baseball is ever-present.

      • Thanks so much, Mike 🙂

        The Crasnick article in question was written for on May 7, 2010.

  11. Justin

    I always chafe when black players are referred to (generally in player profiles as opposed to game recaps) as “well-spoken” or “eloquent.”

    It may seem strange to consider those terms racist, but it seems the vast, VAST majority of times those terms are used, it’s in reference to non-Caucasians.

    The subtle implication is that white players are naturally eloquent, but when a black player can string together a complete sentence, it’s somehow noteworthy. Like, “surprise! Curtis Granderson can communicate using real English! How ’bout that?”

    • me too. I think, and I repeat this is purely speculation, that’s one thing we’ve heard less about in the past 10 years or so, but I still feel it’s present.

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  14. Rick Horton calls Reds 2B Brandon Phillips (!) out for his hustle when he’s doubled-up on a caught fly ball that he didn’t think would be caught in the May 31, 2010 game against the Cardinals.

  15. Tune into some Cubs games and listen to Bob Brenly. You’ll have 500 examples within 2 months.

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  17. June 29, St. Petersberg Times columnist Gary Shelton calls out Tampa Bay CF BJ Upton for lack of effort.

  18. June 27, Evan Longoria criticizes BJ Upton for lack of hustle in the dugout and the two fight.

  19. June 28, Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon benched BJ Upton for not hustling.

    “I’d like to believe that [it will not happen again], and he believes that also,” Maddon said. “And I’d like to believe that it won’t ever happen again.”

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