Josh Donaldson, left, and Tim Anderson

Major League Baseball is seldom in a good public relations position when it comes to issues of diversity and inclusion, but seldom has the sport been cast in a worse light than the recent dust-up involving New York Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson and Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson. In the midst of a dispute between the two, things accelerated fast and badly when Donaldson began mocking Anderson by calling him “Jackie.”

This was, depending on who you chose to believe, either Donaldson playfully taunting Anderson or deliberately invoking Robinson’s name in an insulting, mocking manner to Anderson, denigrating him as being a fake trying to claim a stature he didn’t earn by equating himself with a sports icon.

Whatever the motivation, it went down horribly. White Sox manager Tony LaRussa called Donaldson’s words “a racist slur,” while Anderson also excoriated him and MLB eventually suspended him for one game. While Donaldson appealed that suspension (something that’s yet to be decided) he had enough presence of mind last week to try and make amends for the situation.

Last Thursday he apologized to the Robinson family. While he reiterated that he felt the exchange was a “misunderstanding,” he further elaborated that he was sorry for what happened.

“First and foremost, I have the utmost respect for what Tim Anderson brings to the game of baseball,” Donaldson said in a statement. “I stated over the weekend that I apologized for offending Tim and that it was a misunderstanding based on multiple exchanges between us over the years. My view of that exchange hasn’t changed and I absolutely meant no disrespect. In the past, it had never been an issue and now that it is, we have a mutual understanding.” 

Donaldson’s initial comment turned what had already been a tense situation between the teams into a near brawl. Both benches emptied and the sport ended up with yet another huge dose of negative attention. Donaldson also said he felt that Anderson had opened things up for the comment due to 2019 remarks he made to Sports Illustrated that “I kind of feel like today’s Jackie Robinson.”

Of course anyone who actually read that story, or knows anything about Anderson, understands that he’s taken on as a major crusade trying to broaden baseball’s appeal to Blacks, and in particular young Blacks. He talked about bringing fun back into the game, being a flamboyant personality, someone who could bring to baseball the kind of flair and and sense of spectacle that are routine in pro and college football and basketball, all of which have considerably more Black participants and interest than MLB.

Donaldson also had the good sense and decency to acknowledge his actions might have offended Rachel Robinson, the 99-year-old widow of Jackie who has dedicated her life to philanthropic causes, and whom MLB personally recognizes every year along with her husband during Jackie Robinson Day. “I wish to apologize to Mrs. Rachel Robinson and the Jackie Robinson family for any distress this incident may have caused,” Donaldson added. “Jackie was a true American hero and I hold his name in the highest regard.”

Even Donaldson’s teammate Aaron Judge was critical of his behavior and rhetoric. “It’s a tough one. Joke or not, I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do there,” Judge told reporters. “Especially given the history, especially with the series in Chicago. A little bit of beef between Anderson and JD [Donaldson].” 

MLB now hopes this incident will vanish from the news cycle. They have precious few figures whose impact and influence extend across all sports, but Jackie Robinson is one. No one should be invoking his name for any reason other than respect for his accomplishments and recognition of his importance, not just to baseball but American society as a whole.