Mike Pence's misguided fantasy of baseball history

How the 48th vice president of the United States - or, the "oleaginous Mike Pence," as George Will once called him, "with his talent for toadyism and appetite for obsequiousness" - graduated from Hanover College with a bachelor's degree in history, history, is difficult to imagine, given a complaint he drafted to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred on Friday. For it is rife with so much ahistoric fantasy that it probably would have earned a failing grade from whoever chaired Hanover's history department when Pence was there.

Such as, for example, the claim that Major League Baseball has an "apolitical reputation" and "once stood for American greatness" that transcended "political, social, and cultural boundaries."

Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.

Sure, just ignore that 60-year span when baseball embraced Jim Crow by refusing to let the progeny of enslaved Africans play. Never mind that as the game slowly garnered celebration as America's pastime, it promulgated White supremacy, as every other sport and so many corners of American life - public transportation, schools, other private employers - followed the game's example by adopting its racist regulations or unabashedly maintaining their own. And forget, too, that during Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis's reign from the early 1920s through World War II, the game cemented itself as one of the nation's bulwarks against workers' rights by denying players the freedom to organize and work for whom they desire.

But what prompted Pence, who filed paperwork Monday to launch a 2024 presidential bid, to share such a misconstruction of cultural history was the indigestion he suffered with the Los Angeles Dodgers' apology last month to a near-half-century-old street protest performance group composed mostly of gay men called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Dodgers publicly regretted disinviting the sisters to the team's annual Pride Night scheduled for June 16. They have been reinvited.

This is Pride Month, the yearly celebration of the Stonewall rebellion in New York in 1969 against police harassment and brutality unleashed upon the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ people - such as White Sox minor leaguer Anderson Comas, who revealed his sexuality during spring training - play baseball. They serve baseball, too, as does Billy Bean, a league executive for that three-letter acronym DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) that reactionary Republicans are dirtying. They are long-suffering fans as well. The Nationals celebrated Pride Night on Tuesday.

The specific uncomfortableness with the sisters, who are charitable, international now and raise awareness and funds particularly for those afflicted by AIDS, isn't necessarily that they stand up for the human rights of LGTBQ+ folks. Instead, it is with their theatrics: They do drag, paint their faces and dress in nuns' habits.

Some in the Catholic Church long have charged the sisters' appearance with mocking Catholicism, not unlike the NFL team in Washington did of Native people until it changed its slur of a name and discarded its long-promoted and misappropriated logos. There is some truth to that. The sisters are parodying the church to highlight what LGTBQ+ Catholics see as contradictions with the church's pronounced care for all. My favorite high school teacher, then-Brother Joe Izzo, fought that battle for many years. He left the brotherhood to eventually lead HIV/AIDS outreach at Whitman-Walker Health in downtown D.C.

With the sisters reinvited, critics asked the Dodgers to reconsider. Nationals' pitcher Trevor Williams cited his Catholicism and expressed his dismay on social media. "I believe it is essential for the Dodgers to reconsider their association with this group and strive to create an inclusive environment that does not demean or disrespect the religious beliefs of any fan or employee," Williams wrote. "I also encourage my fellow Catholics to reconsider their support of an organization that allows this type of mockery of its fans to occur." Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw did the same, accusing the group of "making fun of religion."

The hornswoggling Pence even referenced Bishop Robert Barron as some sort of moral compass on the issue, despite charges a year ago by several women of sexual misconduct within Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, as reported by National Catholic Reporter. The Ministries denied the allegations, which resulted in the resignations of several staff members; around the same time, Pope Francis appointed Barron to lead the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minn. Oleaginous, indeed.

Still, criticism is understandable on the surface, although what the sisters are doing is misunderstood.

Cathy Glenn, who as a doctoral student at Southern Illinois University in 2003 authored "Queering the (Sacred) Body Politic: Considering the Performative Cultural Politics of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence" in Johns Hopkins's "Theory & Event" journal of political theory, argued that the sisters aren't in the same category as mascoting.

"It's the power dynamic that's important here," she told me last week from her Bay Area home. "Indigenous groups are disempowered. . . . They're marginalized. The Dodgers - or whoever, some big organization - have got much, much more power than they do, co-opting their symbols and using them for exploitive purposes.

"When the sisters do their critique or they do their performance art - not their community service, but their performance art - that is critique from their position of marginality," said Glenn, who said she grew up in the Catholic Church but no longer practices. "It's the Catholic Church, this massive organization that's got all kinds of its own problems, judging and excluding and guilt, all the stuff that they do to marginalize communities. So the sisters are not a hate group. They don't qualify under the definition. They're not like mascots. It's the other way around."

The sisters are flipping the script on appropriation. They aren't misappropriating a culture that isn't theirs, as sports teams have done with Native imagery. They are using Catholic imagery to challenge the church to do better, to live up to its mission, particularly to those who are LGBTQ+.

I'm not telling Catholics how they should feel about the theatrics of the sisters. I understand how they can feel insulted by the sisters' antics, if not their work. As Sister Jeannine Gramick, a longtime champion of LGBTQ+ rights in the Catholic Church from the Sisters of Notre Dame, wrote to the Dodgers: "While I am uncomfortable with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence using the nuns' old garb to draw attention to bigotry, whether Catholic or not, there is a hierarchy of values in this situation."

But it has nothing to do with any fantastical history of baseball that Pence attempted to make. Baseball does not, as Pence said, have a "long track record . . . for American greatness." What the game has is a deep archive of contradictions to whatever ideals have been said to make America so noble.

- - -

Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and professor of the practice at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.

Related Content

D.C. region suffers second day of dangerous air quality from wildfire smoke

Pat Robertson, televangelist who mixed politics and religion, dies at 93

D.C.-area carjackings have soared. Here's where they're happening.