The life of a baseball player centers on two names.
The name on the front.
And the name on the back.
When you play a lifetime in this game, those names go in and out of focus, sharpening through defining moments on the field, blurring when another year must be spent rebuilding. At times, the name on the front and the name on the back will connect in a hyphenated harmony that recognizes both parts of the story as if they are one history.
The finite nature of a player’s career inevitably forces these names to diverge, through the many transactions that impact a player throughout his career or through what time does to erode an athlete’s physical relevance. But the names rarely change. You will have yours before and after your career.
In the contentious exchange between Josh Donaldson and Tim Anderson — apparently one that spanned three seasons — we learn about the power of a name and why the name on the back carries so much more weight than the originators of the front could ever understand. It wasn’t until Bill Veeck’s 1960 Chicago White Sox that names first appeared on the back of a big league baseball jersey. Ironically, this confronted the ideal that true loyalty only exists when we prioritize the name on the front.
I happened to be calling the White Sox-Yankees game in New York last month when Donaldson rounded second base and entered the territory of White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson. From my vantage point in the booth, Donaldson said something that I could not discern. Soon after, they walked shoulder to shoulder for a few steps, tension visible but no punches thrown. Then they separated.
My play-by-play partner Dave Jageler and I were surrounded by multiple monitors. We were scrambling to provide context for the audience for what was clearly some bad blood. We eventually discovered video of a hard tag that Donaldson put on Anderson in Chicago at third base less than 10 days before. It made sense that this could be indicative of a leftover beef.
But later in the game, White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal stopped Donaldson from getting in the batter’s box. He spoke in Donaldson’s ear, and it was clear Grandal wasn’t whispering compliments.
When the benches cleared from this meeting, Anderson had to be carried off the field by multiple players who were trying to save him from a suspension. At this point, it was clear to me there was more to it. A lot more to it.
And there was …
Timothy Devon Anderson was born on June 23, 1993. His name was shaped early by the man whose name he was given, his father, Tim Anderson Sr. A father who was incarcerated on drug charges during the first 15 years of young Tim’s life. He would still develop a strong relationship with him due to his grandfather’s effort to make sure they would know each other. Under these circumstances, Tim’s mother made the difficult decision that he should be raised by someone else who was part of the family, his mom’s sister, Lucille Brown, and her husband, Roger, who Tim came to call Mom and Dad.
He showed promise in sports, and despite his basketball prowess, baseball would win the day when he left home to play at East Central Community College in Decatur, Mississippi. After his sophomore season, he was selected in the first round of the 2013 draft as the No. 17 pick.
This began a professional career in which he became one of the best hitters in MLB.
By becoming a star in this game, he defied the notion that as a Black man in the South, with an incarcerated father, raised by his aunt and uncle, his name would be buried beneath statistics that frame the Blackness of inequity or the Blackness of the criminal justice system. That the forces and biases that preordained a future for his name could only be written on a prison jumpsuit.
But he found another path.
Upon his arrival in MLB, his next challenge was to hone the craft of playing shortstop, the skill position at the center of all the defensive action. It’s something he is still working at. Early in his career, as the error totals piled up, and the lack of walks stood out in an on-base percentage era, it put more importance on his mastery of hitting. If he was going to swing his way into success in a game that had shifted away from celebrating his aptitude for bat-to-ball precision, he would have to be exceptional.
The bat would come around quickly, with a power surge in 2018 to reach the 20-home run mark. By 2019, he would win a batting title in his fourth season in the league with a .335 average.
That year, Anderson did an interview with Sports Illustrated to let the world know he had arrived, albeit with an asterisk next to his name. It was a notation he felt was typical of the Black experience, characterized by isolation, disrespect, misunderstanding and underrepresentation. He was already facing criticism for the time he threw his bat with enthusiasm after hitting a game-winning homer against the Kansas City Royals. This led to him being hit by a pitch, a typical choice of retaliation meant to regulate showboating and disrespect in MLB.
Anderson covered a lot of territory in that Sports Illustrated article. But the line that would connect the dots between 2019, 2022 and Donaldson read like this:
“I kind of feel like today’s Jackie Robinson. That’s huge to say. But it’s cool, man, because he changed the game, and I feel like I am getting to the point where I need to change the game.”
The quote in isolation can raise eyebrows. But even Jackie Robinson only had belief, family and faith before he became Jackie Robinson. No one can say what Anderson will eventually do in this world.
When Donaldson crossed by Anderson in the game I called on May 21, we later learned he would say to Anderson.
“What’s up, Jackie?”
Explaining his reasoning in a postgame interview, Donaldson claimed he had “joked around” with Anderson and tried this line or something like it back in 2019, the year of the Sports Illustrated article. Somehow, he had read the article and pulled from the flow of grief and racial isolation in the writing to call Anderson “Jackie,” apparently not learning about the other, more difficult ways Anderson felt like Robinson. In the article, Anderson had tapped a feeling that isn’t reserved for a Hall of Fame performer, one that ties Blackness, firsts and opportunity together with a taut throughline. On and off the baseball field.
Donaldson justified his second bite at Anderson by saying Anderson had called himself “Jackie Robinson” three years earlier and thus he had a license to call him Jackie as well. Even though the actual quote used the lead-in, “I feel like … Jackie Robinson.”
That feeling takes a Black man a lot of places. Some of it captures the enthusiasm of possibility as Anderson looked to be his own kind of pioneer. He wanted to change the game, not only through flair on the field but by adding more color to it. He works to share the game with the Black community in Chicago, hoping to inspire talent and increase the chances that the next generation of Black players will be less lonely. He’s an ambassador of the game who loves it enough to gift it to others and help the game become more representative.
But some of the emotions of connecting yourself with Robinson reflect the solitude and pain of being a pioneer, a rule-breaker simply by existing in a space with brown skin. And besides the many moments when he was the only Black player in the dugout, Anderson cited the lack of representation in MLB leadership, particularly those who decided to suspend him for using the N-word on the white pitcher who hit him in retaliation for his home run exhibition.
In choosing not to appeal his suspension, he openly framed the idea that he would not be judged fairly by people who could not understand his perspective as a Black man about the full relationship with that word. There was no jury of his peers. Or as he described in the Sports Illustrated article, “I don’t think there’s a Black guy that’s up that high in baseball that they could drag in and be like, ‘Hey, what do you think we should do to this guy?’ ” So he didn’t bother to appeal.
Donaldson, on the other hand, quickly appealed his “What’s up, Jackie” one-game suspension for “inappropriate and disrespectful” conduct. On June 13, the suspension was upheld, although his fine was cut in half, from $10,000 to $5,000.
Witnessing the Donaldson-Anderson situation, I immediately tapped into my own experiences with race and understood the offense that Anderson felt. Despite Donaldson’s explanation, I doubt Anderson would have laughed it off at any time. But even if he did, I would have read that as feeling powerless to handle it any other way in the moment. Just like when a teammate on my summer league USA team asked me, “What is it about your people that make you so incredibly lazy?” I was 16. I probably did laugh at first, before I did the best I could to explain the problem with his question.
Donaldson rhetorically asked “what changed?” with Anderson going from being jovial with him in 2019 to an angry reaction in 2022. If you accept that to be true, that Anderson was joking with Donaldson about it in 2019, then look no further than George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery to understand what changed between then and now. A glimmer of justice was felt in moments that shape the fear of what it means to be a Black man in America. That changes you. That changes what you tolerate.
I know it is a hopeful expectation that Donaldson would appreciate all the layers of what’s in a name, so it may be hard to say he fully understood it and simply ignored it maliciously. But the impact is still felt.
This is a familiar dynamic of being racially isolated in any place. There are few people around who fully understand your experience in the world. It is simply not enough to understand the common experience on the field. What makes you truly feel welcome is when you have people who know what it means to feel like you are zero degrees of separation from George Floyd when a George Floyd happens.
Your name is important and to be guarded like your own child. A Black life is full of indignities, of potentially being questioned in every space you enter, in your own driveway, while jogging, checking into a hotel. You are often treated like a renter in the land of the free, and those with the privilege of starting life in the penthouse feel entitled to challenge you when they feel like it. They weaponize words, and sometimes actual weapons, and worse yet, plausibly are oblivious to the racial nuance of experiences, so that we spend more time debating whether something should be labeled “racist” than providing racial context.
The name on the back of your jersey is in constant jeopardy when you are Black. Not because your batting average may dip below .200, but because of the difficulty you face to keep it legible and relevant. It has to be constantly reinforced and reshaped by your actions, as if you are stenciling it anew, every day in pencil, hoping to one day get a permanent marker to use instead. Maybe this is because so many of us know that our name most likely came from a slaveowner or someone else who just decided to place it on you while erasing your history at the same time. But besides that beginning, and the many decades we are away from owning another person, your name will be tested, scrambled, mispronounced and yes, co-opted, misrepresented and ignored as Donaldson did to Anderson.
Donaldson led with the expectation that he could question Anderson right there, in the middle of the field. He would decide what he would call Anderson, without invitation, without a license to do so. Anderson had warned Donaldson after the first time and Donaldson did it again anyway.
It’s similar to what happened to a Black doctor in 2021 who was on a Zoom call with a white zoning commissioner in North Carolina. She asked him to call her “doctor” and he refused to do so. Over and over again. He will call her what he wants to call her. She is an extension of him. It’s the ultimate form of arrogance.
Donaldson could have read that Sports Illustrated article with another lens to better understand the tenuous nature of Anderson’s relationship with his name. Just as it is for any other Black man in America, he knows that once his name is placed with his face, everything changes. The appraisal on your house drops, you get sham interviews for jobs, you may be purged from voting lists, skipped on magnet school waiting lists, or placed in jeopardy at a routine traffic stop or while taking money out of your own bank account.
It is exhausting to mount the defense you must mount to keep your name in good standing. So when someone makes headway in keeping their name clean, please use it respectfully. And do not call me a name you are not authorized to use, especially in mockery of my right to connect my career to the man who opened the door the widest for people who look like me to play this game.
Everyone needs a franchise over their name and their space. A Black man brings a unique perspective to that truth. The right to decide what he may be called. It has taken a long time to make it to today in America and the process is ongoing to make our names feel like we own them. So any reminder that someone else, other than your parents, gets to choose your name, is disrespectful to your core.
In the end, you need to be invited into what you can call me. That is my power. I get to decide what to be called in this world and how I frame that in my own history. If I decide to change my name, that is my choice. If I let you call me a nickname, that is my choice. If you ignore that, you are acting like you own me and it is not a stretch to know why that is problematic.
We may wear the same uniform and represent the same name on the front of those uniforms. Therein lies a great potential, not just for baseball but for society at large. But until you appreciate the name on the back and all that means in true American Technicolor, it’s best to wait for an invitation.
And it may never come.
Don’t RSVP anyway.