Do all black baseball legends look the same to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi?
On Thursday, Willie Mays turned 90. Mays, best known for his 1951-1972 years with the New York/San Francisco Giants, hit 660 home runs (still sixth all-time, according to ESPN), a defensive monster in the outfield (if you haven’t seen his over-the-shoulder catch during the 1954 World Series, you haven’t watched much baseball) and a civil rights leader.
He’s one of the last surviving men who integrated baseball in the late-1940s and early-1950s, as well as one of the last living Negro League stars — and, with all due respect to Jackie Robinson, he was likely the best in both categories.
There was plenty of love for Mays, particularly in San Francisco. On Friday, the Giants celebrated Mays’ life and career, giving him a “victory lap” around Oracle Park during a 5-4 home win against the San Diego Padres, according to ESPN.
Recorded birthday wishes that played on the big screen included baseball stars like Barry Bonds and Derek Jeter; non-baseball talent, ranging from rapper Lil’ Wayne to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, also wished him a happy 90th. #SayHey90, referencing Mays’ nickname (“The Say Hey Kid”) and his birthday, also trended on Twitter.
San Francisco’s most powerful politician, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, fired off one of those tweets on Thursday.
“Happy 90th Birthday to an all-American icon, Willie Mays,” Pelosi’s tweet read. “A trailblazing, record-breaking baseball player, civil rights leader, and champion for youth sports and well-being, Willie Mays is a civic legend and national treasure. #SayHey90.
According to the Daily Mail, the picture is from McCovey’s 2018 wedding; he died several months later.
While both are Hall of Famers and both have their numbers retired by the Giants, that tweet is a pretty big whiff. After a few minutes, according to data from ProPublica, it was deleted and replaced with an actual picture of Pelosi and Mays.
Now, the question shouldn’t be how much blame we ought to ascribe to Pelosi for tweeting out a picture of the wrong black Giants star.
A fair number of politicians don’t even read most of their tweets, much less write them. At the very least, that’s what Pelosi’s staff is saying happened here; the New York Post reported that “[h]er office fobbed the issue off to a staffer error.”
There’s undoubtedly some poor communications staffer still getting raked over the coals for this Thursday tweet as I write this on Sunday — and the next time Pelosi needs said comms staffer to work on a Sunday night, all she has to do is exclaim, in a shrill rasp, “Willie McCovey!” and he’ll be doubtlessly be looking up what places are still delivering on DoorDash at 10 p.m. on the Lord’s sabbath as he churns out late-night tweets for the House speaker.
So what, then, is the importance of this swing-and-miss? I direct your attention to this New York Times story last summer after the death of Democrat Rep. John Lewis:
You can almost hear where the emphasis is supposed to go when you read the headline: “2 Republican Senators Post Photos of Elijah Cummings in JOHN [FREAKING] LEWIS Tributes.” You can almost fit the subtext in between the headline and the sub-headline, too: “Did we mention John Lewis was a black civil rights icon? Because, yeah, he was — and these are Republicans. Hint hint.”
Twitter went even further than subtext. Here’s one user saying Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan did it for a reason:
And here’s someone joking about Sen. Rubio being a racist who can’t tell black people apart as John Legend and the rapper Common perform at the Democratic National Convention last August:
Here’s Steve Schmidt of disgraced anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project, calling Rubio “[p]athetic … a coward and an enabler of the first order for America’s despicable and lawless President.”
There was enough invective that Cummings’ widow actually had to step in and say that “Rubio’s honest mistake was one that John and Elijah were completely used to forgiving since they were considered doppelgangers: biologically unrelated but, to the unpracticed eye, looking so much alike that they were often mistaken for the other,” according to CNN.
Mays’ birthday may not carry the same category as John Lewis’ death, but if there’s some whiff of racism lurking behind confusing one black man for another, it applies evenly.
There have been no stories on Pelosi’s gaffe by The New York Times thus far and the Twitter-shaming seems to mostly be conservatives laughing at the stupid mistake Pelosi’s staff made. There’s none of the blue-checkmarked hate, none of the accusations of racism — nothing like that.