Keep your politics off of Rickey Henderson

Debbie Schlussel is of the obnoxious, attention-whoring, race-baiting school of political commentary. And good for her. The First Amendment wasn’t made just for reasonable people. And though I find just about everything that she and people like her spout to be cynical at best, deplorable and hateful at worst, a certain part of my psyche is very, very happy that she’s out there spouting it, because on some level it shows that the system works.

But don’t you dare go hating on Rickey and not expect a response:

So, yesterday, former Major League Baseball star Rickey Henderson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. But it’s very sad. Dude can’t speak English. What’s up with that? And, unlike the many foreigners in Major League Baseball, he was born here . . . You’d think that a guy who excelled on the baseball field and did so many interviews–one who was born in America–could speak English. I mean even the Japanese and Hispanic guys we recruit from other nations to play in Major League Baseball can speak our language better than this guy.

She then proceeds to point out and make fun of his “ebonics” speech at the induction ceremony.

News flash: a black kid of modest means and tremendous athletic talent failed to receive an adequate education in 1960s Oakland, California. Such a news flash that one can’t help but think that Schlussel has an ulterior motive in bringing up the subject of “ebonics” as she does here.

Most of you will remember that the phrase came to prominence in the mid 1990s when the Oakland, California school board tried to recognize black vernacular as its own language. It was a stupid move that was roundly shouted down as stupid by everyone from Jessie Jackson and Henry Louis Gates on the left and everyone including your mother on the right, and the proposal was quickly abandoned. Despite the fact that no one, left or right, supported the ebonics resolution, many conservative commentators — commentators like Schlussel — invoked the term for months (and in some cases even longer) as a straw man employed in their railings against the allegedly out-of-control, godless, communist, etc. etc. public education system.

Rickey is from Oakland and played there. I wonder if Schlussel knows that and is trying to inspire the kind of people who buy what she’s selling to make that connection and gin up another round of culture wars. If so, she ought to get a life and start focusing on things that actually matter to people as opposed to things that are designed simply to anger and inflame. If that’s not what she’s doing — if instead, she’s simply calling a black man who speaks poorly dumb — then she’s doing something far worse.

And yes, I realize that the very act of my linking to her crap gives her the attention she craves, but I don’t really care. Cynical haters like Schlussel thrive in their dark little corners of the world, preaching to their particular choirs. When exposed to the mainstream they may get some temporary popularity out of it, but they and their ideas soon wither under the added scrutiny. I want everyone to read and think about jerks like her every day because the more they do, the less influence she’ll ultimately have.

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  1. Craig Calcaterra said...

    That’s not what I heard . . .

    Wait, that doesn’t even work as an insult. 

    Let me get back to you on that.

  2. lar said...

    I suspect, Craig, that you might be giving her too much credit by suggesting that she knew Rickey was from Oakland. That seems just like the kind of thing someone writing a piece like this wouldn’t care to look up.

  3. Michael said...


    Who is Debbie Schlussel and is there any good reason to stop ignoring her?

    Small-time political “commentators” are a dime a dozen. I’ll continue reading fivethirtyeight where they at least use a little intelligent thought, and where at least one guy knows his baseball.

  4. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Lar—you’re probably right, but I’m just trying to give her the benefit of the doubt. I mean, on a very basic level, it’s less offensive for her to be trying to make a ham-handed political point than it is to put up a post for the sole purpose of making fun of how a 50 year-old black man talks.

    And, by the way, she notes that Henderson is 50, which means she probably looked him up.  I can’t figure you can look up Rickey Henderson without quickly realizing that he’s an Oakland product.

  5. Sara K said...

    Just in case we needed any proof that language is the supreme tool of both cultural dominance and cultural subversion…

  6. MooseinOhio said...

    Line of the week has to go to “The First Amendment wasn’t made just for reasonable people” especially after reading this week about the foolishness of those in ‘The Birther Movement’ who will not accept that Obama is US Citizen and rightfully President. 

    As for Debbie, I think Anne Coulter has a playmate to hang out with and spew hatred with. That is until one of them starts to get a little more recognition than the other and they turn on each others like crabs in a barrel (one can only dream).

  7. Connecticut Mike said...

    I had never heard of this woman before reading this story, but after reading as much of her work as I could stomach, it seems clear to me that she is angling to position herself as the poor man’s Ann Coulter.  Much like Coulter, I wonder how much she believes in the nonsense that she spews, or if she does it as an act for the attention or the money.

    Either way it is despicable, but that she appears to have followers who earnestly believe in what she says is really the scariest thing about it.

  8. RP said...

    My general view is that I don’t like sports reporters making political comments (see Mike Lupica’s tiresome asides in his columns), and the reverse is just as bad, when political pundits of whatever stripe comment on sports.  Ms. Schlussel’s point appears to have little to do with sports, so I’m guessing that a defense might exist in that regard.  Overall, though, I agree with Craig that I’d prefer Ms. Schlussel stick to mocking politicos for their speech patterns (that arena is also a target-rich environment, as evidenced by recent Presidential candidates from both parties).

    However, I need to make four points:

    1.  Schlussel never once uses the word “ebonics”, unless I totally misread the post.  Perhaps her reference to the “wrong language” qualifies in Craig’s eyes, but the only direct references to ebonics appears in some of the comments.  And while some of the comments are reprehensible, I don’t attribute the views of commenters on blogs to the authors of said blogs.  In this situation, dredging up the ebonics card is being done here and by the commenters, not Schlussel.  Perhaps she’s providing the hay for the strawman, but she’s not setting it up.  Maybe she is making a veiled reference to “the allegedly out-of-control, godless, communist, etc. etc. public education system”, but she doesn’t say it, probably because this would be a weak supporting argument.  As for the “Rickey-Oakland-ebonics” connection, it’s probably a stretch to think this has that many layers.

    2.  For three decades, people have made good-natured fun of Rickey’s third-person references to himself, but some of that stuff does get close to the line of being mocking.  I don’t think it’s always fair for people to connotate speech with intelligence, but I think the act of doing so generally relates to snobbery rather than racism.  I know plenty of liberals who think people from the South are stupid hicks because of their speech patterns, and it has nothing do with race.  Go back and check on how people in Philly mocked Charlie Manual before they won the NL East in 2007—much of the derisive commentary focused on his speech patterns as indicative of his intellect.

    3. I think the best response to Schlussel’s comment is that you shouldn’t judge a man’s intellect on his public speech alone, and to do so when he’s speaking before a large gathering and probably nervous is pretty unfair.  This is just a mean-spirited mocking of a guy on a day when we’re celebrating him.  That’s just wrong.

    4.  With all that being said, I do wonder whether some small part of Craig’s enmity for Ms. Schlussel stems from the fact that she attended the University of Michigan.

  9. Craig Calcaterra said...

    RP:  the title of her post is “Rickey Henderson’s Ebonics Baseball Hall of Fame Speech” so she clearly injected it herself.

  10. Dayn Perry said...

    Anyone who, in the context of what she believes is illuminating social commentary, writes these sentences

    “Dude can’t speak English. What’s up with that?”

    should refrain from lecturing Rickey on proper English. Or just F off. Either one.

  11. The Ol Goaler said...

    Hell’s Bells, our penultimate President couldn’t speak English very well, either!  And this yutz is gonna rag on Rickey Freakin’ Henderson???

    Note to Right-Wing Harpy: Elocution gives one no advantage in playing baseball.  Yogi Berra is a beloved figure in part because of his Zen koans (some of which he actually said; “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” being one example.)  Rickey’s, uh, apparently not (according to Ms. Schmuck, anyway.)  Whatta crock!

  12. TC said...

    I’m inclined to share DF Wallace’s view that ebonics is, essentially, a dialect of English, much like Southern American English with its “aint” and “y’all” or Minnesota Nice or Bostonian.  The ability to write and speak in what we consider standard English is, I think, important and valuable.  I suspect there is a correlation between the ability to utilize standard English and education. 

    I have serious doubts that there is any relationship between intelligence or talent and English dialect. 

    Schlussel calls the speech sad.  From my view it’s just the opposite.  Here is a 50 year-old man who grew up a poor black kid in a poor black city that was not looking out for his best interests, nor those of anyone he knew.  To the point where the only language he knows is the kind of hyper-colloquial dialect that we disdainfully sneer to call ebonics.  And despite this, he is now wealthy, successful, professional revered.  He was as good at his chosen profession as virtually anyone has ever been at anything. 

    Shouldn’t we celebrate that?  I know I want to.

  13. The Rabbit said...

    God, I love this site! It is the most intelligent, thoughtful, and humane writing I’ve found anywhere on the web….and no disrespect is meant to some of the people who post here and have very good blogs.
    Sorry to disagree with you RP, but part of the allure is the fact that Craig and the readership are well versed in a variety of topics. (BTW: Loved the Star Wars discussion)
    Baseball is a microcosm of society. It is only fitting that posts would extend beyond the confines of the latest scores and trades. There are already too many boring sites online for that information.

  14. Jeff Berardi said...


    “Speech students at Laney Junior College received a rare experience the past two weeks. Not only have they been listening to the Hall of Fame induction speech Rickey Henderson will make on Sunday, but they also have been critiquing it.

    Henderson essentially has gone back to school for much of this month to craft and polish the address he will give at Cooperstown, N.Y., when he is inducted.

    “Speech and me don’t get along sometimes,” he said. “I’m not a doctor or professor, so for me to go and write a speech or read a speech, it’s kind of like putting a tie too tight around my neck.”

    …Henderson was so dedicated to getting it right that he kept Robinson at school until 10:30 one evening.

    “The class ended at 8:15, but Rickey wanted to keep working. The students didn’t want to leave, either,” Robinson said. “I finally said, ‘Folks, we have to go home.’”

    Rickey’s story is admirable. Schlussel’s article is stupid, not to mention blatantly racist.

    FWIW, I thought he made a very good speech. He doesn’t speak perfect english by any means, but I never was unable to understand his meaning. It didn’t drag though, and it didn’t ramble. I’ve heard worse from people with much better elocution.

  15. Red Buttons said...

    The essence of leftist bigotry in action:  disagree with hive mind thinking and it will be labelled hate.

  16. Craig Calcaterra said...

    So your definition of “the hive mind” is people who think that it’s not good form to make fun of the way a black person speaks?  And those people are the bigots?

  17. Nate said...

    Wait 10-15 more years when the current crop of athletes’ writing/speaking abilites will resemble text-or-twit language.

  18. digglahhh said...

    For three decades, people have made good-natured fun of Rickey’s third-person references to himself, but some of that stuff does get close to the line of being mocking. 

    Great discussion, guys. Just want to make the distinction that any way in which the ribbing of Rickey’s penchant for referring to himself in the third persion may be perceived as biting would not be related to judgments about his intelligence or eloquotion. The dig implied by such (potential] mockery would be directed at Rickey having an inflated ego. It’s not like the implication would be that Rickey’s knowledge of pronoun is deficient…

    And, if Rickey wrote that speech, congrats to him. I’m quite sure many inductees hire professionals, writers, and PR firms, to produce speeches for them. Rickey has never tried to be something he’s not – a claim very few experienced public speakers can make.

    Rickey has a legitimate excuse for his shortcomings, and through hard work and talent has achieved incredible amounts of success and reverence despite them. He’s even managed to market them as something of a charming little idiosyncrasy. Lemme know when we can say the same about your racially-motivated myopia, Debbie…

  19. chattanooga said...

    it is disturbing to see what some people will write about someone they have absolutely no acquaintance with.

    I can only hope for the sake of humanity that the ENTIRE posting is some type of convoluted satire.

  20. RP said...

    Craig, my fault for missing the title—then again, I had to read her entire post twice, so I guess I’ve suffered enough.

    And Rabbit, I don’t mind if Craig wants to comment on other topics where he’s well-versed, but I think he succeeds because he generally sticks to the topics that interest him and where he is well-versed.  I should probably amend my comment in that what I resent are political comments that pepper sports columns like soundbite TV ads.  That’s certainly not true here.

  21. Steve Watson said...

    We’ve heard about the “dude” sentence already, but the misplaced modifier referring to one of the interviews being born in America bothers me more. “You’d think that a guy who excelled on the baseball field and did so many interviews–one who was born in America–could speak English.”

    You’d think a writer – one who was born in America – could put together better sentences than that. Maybe she’s not a writer, though, but – as my students might say – just a hater.

  22. Brian said...

    Dayn, you absolutely nailed it. I almost added that to the comments on her blog, but after reading a number of comments there, it just seemed fruitless.

    Same with RP’s point #3.

  23. Palooka Joe said...

    “He was as good at his chosen profession as virtually anyone has ever been at anything.
    Shouldn’t we celebrate that?  I know I want to. “

    Well said, TC!

    Ricky Henderson was a sublime baseball player. If he spoke in rhyming couplets with Charlton Heston’s baritone, would he be any more successful than he is already?

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