Let Pure Sports and Music Be Models of a Racism-free World
In this strife-torn world, racism rears its ugly head all too often – especially over age-old disputes, whether between whites and blacks in the US and elsewhere, between some Arabs and Jews or, of late, between, some Chinese, Koreans and Japanese. The roots of the disputes usually go so far back in history that resolution seems nigh impossible, except to optimists who base their slim hope on things like simple acts of individual kindness and big corporate and public undertakings that work to overcome racial barriers. Counting myself among the unbridled optimists, I point to two areas that I’ve appreciated and enjoyed over the years – “pure” sports and music.
By “pure” I mean professional sports and music in general, although some amateurs, part-timers and such may also be involved. The main yard stick is strictly skill level, leaving out the infamous “trio” of conflict generators – race, politics and religion. This leads to the two examples above, more specifically Japanese and American pro baseball (NPB and MLB) and jazz.
Since the 2005 season, MLB started a new tradition for every player to wear number 42 on April 15 to honor Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the majors in the modern era. At first he was derided and subjected to racial epithets by many fans and players on other teams, but his outstanding talent and character eventually won over most fans and colleagues. He won the inaugural Rookie of the Year award in 1947, paving the way for a growing number of other minority players to join MLB. He also contributed much to the Civil Rights Movement. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. Incidentally, when he became the first colored player to play in a game between two minor league clubs in 1946, he was playing against the Jersey City Giants for Canada’s Montreal Royals.
Several years back, a certain up-and-coming rookie from the South, who hadn’t appreciated all that, made disparaging remarks about racial and sexual minorities while playing in New York. He didn’t last long in MLB. Most of his colleagues in all teams shunned him right away.
That was to be expected for, after all, MLB, where black and white players from the Americas, together with best players from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan play the highest grade of baseball, is immensely popular in many countries.
Then something almost incredible in this day and age happens. While I was working on this piece, no less than the autocratic super-rich businessman owner of the L.A. Clippers of the pro basketball league NBA, where about 70% of the players are African-American, was caught on tape launching serious insults against black people, triggering a major controversy that will take a lng time to settle.
Let’s take a look at NPB now. At least up until the late 60s, the image of “gaijin” players that Japanese sports media tended to paint was all too often “some hot-shot player of yore who is spending more time on the bench came over to Japan where the standard of play was lower to make some money and become an instant hero.” But over the next two or three decades, some foreign players have been making significant contributions. Looking back on it now, that period around the time Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, two superstars representing Japan’s two leagues, started playing in MLB from the 2001 season and 2003 season respectively, marked a turning point of sorts in the relationship between Japanese and American pro baseball.
Initially there had been fears that NPB might turn into some kind of a farm league for MLB. Instead, moves by not just players but managers and coaches began to pick up between the Japanese and American pro baseball worlds including most certainly the Caribbean region. Last season, Wladimir Balentien, originally from the Dutch Antilles, hit 60 home runs to break the “most home runs hit in Japan” record set by the legendary Sadaharu Oh 30 years ago. That was because young pitchers challenged Balentien head on, unlike pitchers back then who would walk foreign batters threatening “Mr Oh’s great record” three or four at-bat’s a game. Perhaps players today are feeling more like “I’m a ball player first, a Japanese second.”
In the NPB, “save king” Sunfan Oh, who recorded 228 saves during the 2012 season to set a record in Korean pro baseball, joined the Hanshin Tigers with a lot of fanfare. Having recorded his first save point against the Yomiuri Giant around the end of March, he’s been much sought after by the media, both Korean and Japanese. Regardless of existing tensions in bi-lateral relations, one never hears of Oh, or any other Korean player who’s played or is playing in NPB for that matter, becoming an issue.
Casting our eyes to the world of jazz now, it is also a world virtually free of racial discrimination – the performing arts have always been relatively so. At the height of the Prohibition era, there were about a hundred speakeasies in NY city’s Manhattan area alone, all of them with its house band that were for the most part black. But it was still forbidden by law for black and white musicians to perform on the same stage. So eager young white horn players would go to the speakeasys after they’d closed for the night and jam with their idols like Louis Armstrong until the wee hours of the morning.
Such a story and many more I picked up from a TV series on the history of jazz, narrated with demonstrations by none other than the great Wynton Marsalis, that’s been running on the Education Channel lately. I thought I knew a bit about history but it’s been an eye-opener.
As Marsalis tells it, jazz, the music that grew out of the black American experience, is an original American art form that has over the decades absorbed and, in return, also enriched all other forms of music from folk and classics to Latin (Afro-Cuban), pop and R&B. So much so that it is today loved and played by people around the world regardless of (most) races, religions and political persuasions.
Going back to the early 1990s to the time I was living in Singapore, one evening I was doing a photo-shoot of a certain local piano player for a magazine article at a popular jazz spot. The photographer happened to be a Japanese-American, and I will never forget his words the moment he stepped into the bar whose air seemed to vibrate with the music. “Wow, I’ve never seen so many white and black people together!” Things have not changed since New Orleans way back then, as in the lyrics for Basin Street Blues (Ray Charles version) “…where all the light and dark folk meet…”
I’m of course not talking about just music and sports. There must be many readers who are also enjoying friendship transcending race and nationality through volunteer activities and hobbies including those yielding real benefits. After all, we are living in a multi-racial, multi-cultural environment in the world of Canadians generally known, moreover, for their politeness in social interaction. I feel like I’d miss out on something if I don’t go borderless.