From Satchel to Mayweather, Racial Tensions Fuel Sports’ Most Lucrative Events

The rivalry between Satchel Paige and “Dizzy” Dean presaged the big-money boxing bonanza between Mayweather and McGregor

Rocky Marciano and Apollo Creed. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. And now, McGregor and Mayweather. In both fact and fiction, the spectacle of a great white athlete competing against a stellar black athlete often produces box office gold. Last Saturday night’s boxing match between the Irishman Conor McGregor and African-American Floyd Mayweather is only the latest proof. A traditional boxer, Mayweather drew from a sport followed by millions of Hispanic and black fans, while McGregor came from Mixed Martial Arts, a sport with a higher percentage of white fans. Together they made sports history, generating an estimated $700 million.

McGregor and Mayweather only occasionally played up the racial angle of their matchup in the months leading up to the fight. McGregor, at one point, told Mayweather to “dance for me, boy,” and used the term “dancing monkeys” in relation to an all-black gym from a scene in the 1982 movie “Rocky III.” Mayweather, meanwhile, said he was fighting “for all the blacks around the world.”

Despite such comments, McGregor, for his part, downplayed the racial aspect of the fight: “I’m not saying that there are not people on both sides that have this mind-set where it’s black versus white, and this type of thing,” he said. “But it’s certainly something I do not condone. I’m disappointed to hear the way sometimes it’s been portrayed. But I suppose it’s just the nature of the game, with the way things are going on in the world at the moment.”

Beyond the racial difference, what made McGregor-Mayweather especially enticing was the   two men’s common shared ground. Both men have stood at the top of their respective sports, and both flaunt outsized, arrogant personas. “McGregor is in many ways a cheap imitation of Floyd’s ‘Money Mayweather’ persona,” Todd Boyd, a professor who studies race and pop culture at the University of Southern California, told the New York Times‘ John Eligon. “But McGregor is white, he’s younger, and his clowning comes with an Irish accent. All of this seems to have endeared him to some in the media and many fans as well. McGregor is being celebrated for the same things that Floyd has been denigrated for.”

While the phenomenon of McGregor-Mayweather will likely be contained to a single contest, in team sports interracial rivals meet multiple times.  This was certainly the case in the 1930s, when Arkansas native “Dizzy” Dean, a St. Louis Cardinals* superstar pitcher, led all-white barnstorming teams against all-black barnstorming teams headlined by the great Negro Leagues pitcher Satchel Paige. Dean led the Cardinals to the 1934 World Series victory, graced the covers of major newspapers and magazines and was arguably the world’s most famous pitcher. Paige, meanwhile, unleashed legendary speed and won multiple titles in the Negro leagues playing for the likes of the Kansas City Monarchs.

The two men were, in many way, alter egos: “underfed, loose-jointed boys from Dixie whose down-home demeanor belied the sagacity of a Rhodes Scholar and the cunning of a corporate titan,” Larry Tye wrote in Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. “Each preferred his nickname to his real one, and his own rules to his team’s, league’s or society’s. Neither was the kind of guy to whom one would introduce his sister, although fathers and brothers were aching to meet them. Ol’ Diz pitched six of the Cardinals’ final nine games during the stretch drive in 1934, a work ethic only ‘Ol Satch could match.”

While Dean, son of Dixie he was, had no qualms about using the “N-word,” he also praised Paige’s baseball abilities in a national column he penned. At the height of his fame Dean wrote, for instance, “If Satchel and I played together, we’d clinch the pennant mathematically by the Fourth of July and go fishin’ until the Fourth of July.” This kind of praise, coming from a Southern native, was instrumental in breaking down racial barriers  in the Jim Crow era and laying a foundation for the Civil Rights movement.

To learn more about how this happened, and the bond between Dizzy Dean and Satchel Paige, read my book African-American Athletes in Arkansas.

Black athletes

*Circa 2017, the St. Louis Cardinals aren’t exactly catching the world on fire with a .500 record. Still, they are the fourth-most likely team to win the NL pennant, according to the latest betting on baseball.

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