Bob Feller is one of those baseball players who should never open his mouth unless he’s talking baseball. His most recent utterance not only shows his ignorance, it’s also damn embarrassing. After Muhammad Ali appeared at Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game July 13th, Feller went on record as saying: “I object very strongly to Muhammad Ali being here to throw out the first pitch, and you can print that. This is a man who changed his name and changed his religion so he wouldn’t have to serve his country, and, to me, that’s disgusting.”
Now, not only does this statement prove Feller’s misunderstanding of history, it proves his ignorance of the Muslim religion. First of all, Ali did not change his name to avoid military service. He changed his name because he became a Muslim. He did not become a Muslim to avoid military service, but because his previous religion did not provide him with the spiritual nourishment that he needed. Apparently Bob Feller can’t comprehend such a thing. Indeed, Ali gave up an incredible amount of money and adoration when he took the step he did. He could have easily just gone ahead and been inducted, since it was unlikely that he would ever face combat.
Ironically, it was in Houston, where this year’s All-Star Game took place, that Ali was refused his application for conscientious objector status and was later sentenced to prison for refusing induction. The official sports world reacted to Ali’s decision with anger, although a good number of athletes and their fans thought the move showed tremendous courage. I know that my fandom increased exponentially when I read the stirring headlines in the Baltimore Sun the day Ali refused to take the oath. That, I thought, was standing up for one’s beliefs. For some of my friends’ fathers, their worst fears were confirmed: their world was truly crumbling. Who did this Cassius Clay guy think he was? Didn’t he know how lucky he was to be living in the USA and making lots of money as a boxer? That damn colored fellow should show some gratitude.
The response to Ali’s actions in 1967 and Bob Feller’s flawed memory of them reminded me of a recent conversation I had with some baseball fans over Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado’s recent statements against the US war in Iraq (written about by Dave Zirin in Counterpunch on July 9, 2004). My fellow conversationalists were spouting the usual US sports fan nonsense about how he should be grateful to this country for the opportunity to make millions playing a game. As the conversation continued in this vein, I finished my burger and said to my companions: “It takes a lot more courage to oppose the prevailing view, than to go along with it. If Carlos wants to choose this arena to make his views known, than I support his right. It’s not the US or Canada that is giving Mr. Delgado the opportunity to play the game–it’s Major League Baseball–which is nothing more than a corporate enterprise that manipulates patriotism to sell merchandise.”
Given the generally nationalistic nature of US sports fans-a nationalism based in part on the incessant flag-waving and militaristic overtones omnipresent at most sporting events and their television presentation-I occasionally like to stir things up by letting my political views enter into my sports conversations. It is rare that those views are met with positive responses. I guess Bob Feller’s comments should not be too surprising. In the world of American sports, the words of Dwight Eisenhower ring unfortunately true: “the true mission of American sports is to prepare young people for war.” One might add-and to make certain that the older people cheer them on.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org