When I was reading a Joe Posnanski post for NBC Sports recently, I wondered whether someone might accuse me of plagiarism.
Posnanski made some of the same points I made on my Hated Yankees blog in October about the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Pre-Integration Era Committee. He even used two of the exact same phrases I used: We both referred to the era as the “Segregation Era” and the “Jim Crow Era.”
On full examination, I think any reasonable journalist would call the use of the same phrases a reasonable coincidence, if the second writer didn’t read the first writer’s piece, inspiration if he did.
Renaming the era was kind of a theme of my piece. I also called it the Bigotry Era, Birth of a Nation Era, Back of the Bus Era, Amos ‘n Andy Era, Lynch Mob Era, Jazz Player Era, Plessy vs. Ferguson Era, Separate But Unequal Era, Stepin Fetchit Era, No Coloreds Era, Whites Only Era and Shameful Era.
I might have carried the renaming theme a bit far, but it was a long post and I used the names as a unifying thread. Whether Posnanski read my piece or not, he showed more restraint by using just a couple names. Using a half-dozen or more of the same names would have been plagiarism if he had seen my piece before writing his, but there was hardly anything original by either of us to call that time the Segregation Era and Jim Crow Era.
And if I had seen Posnanski’s piece first, riffing to many more names, that would clearly be inspiration, not plagiarism.
The simple fact is that the Pre-Integration Era Committee is an outrageous institution and an outrageous name. Posnanski and I, I’m sure, independently reached our outrage when the committee named its 2015 ballot of candidates last Oct. 5.
The Hall of Fame for decades has had variously named Veterans Committees to provide belated recognition for great players who never reached the 75-percent threshold required for election to Cooperstown by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Starting in 2010, the Hall started using Era Committees, meaning that every three years, only players (and managers, umpires and executives) from a certain era would get considered for belated recognition. The Hall of Fame not only chose to call one of those eras the “Pre-Integration Era,” for players whose greatest contributions came before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, but it limited the consideration for that era to “Major League” players, explicitly excluding Negro League players of the same era.
I’m surprised and disappointed that more writers haven’t criticized this offensive decision to consider only white players once every three years.
I’m not surprised, though, at Posnanski’s outrage. His excellent book, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America, tells about the Hall of Fame’s final selection in 2006 of players and contributors from the Negro Leagues (and the shameful exclusion of O’Neil from that group).
If you were considering whether Posnanski or I plagiarized each other, you might note that we both made the point that white players from the Jim Crow Era have already been lavishly honored in the Hall of Fame. But one detail underscores that we arrived independently at our criticisms: I counted 126 Segregation Era players in the Hall of Fame and Posnanski counted 127 (we also counted different numbers of total Hall of Famers). Here’s a fact about plagiarism: It’s not just unethical; it’s lazy. A lazy journalist who’s stealing someone else’s phrases wouldn’t take the time and effort to count the number of pre-1947 Hall of Fame players; he’d just steal the other writer’s numbers, too. (I’ll confess to be lazy enough that I’m not recounting to see which of us was wrong, but I did count myself when I was working on my October post.)
The simple matter is that, if you see this committee as an outrage, your attention is going to focus on a few matters:
- The excessive Hall of Fame elections already for players from the Jim Crow Era (the topic of a separate post on Hated Yankees today).
- The exclusion of further selections of Negro League players: “The book on the Negro Leagues is now closed,” Posnanski wrote.
- The ridiculous racism-focused name of the committee.
We both made all three points, and I think any writer addressing this topic would do so.
We structured our posts differently, though. Posnanski’s piece is a Q&A, with him asking and answering questions about the Pre-Integration Committee. My piece, after a fairly long introduction, compares two African American players and three dark-skinned Cubans rejected by the Golden Era Committee with inferior white players of the same positions elected from the Segregation Era.
After a little research, I think I actually posted my piece first, though we might have been working on them at the same time. Posnanski’s piece isn’t time-stamped, so I can’t tell for sure who published first. I think I beat him by a couple days. My piece posted Oct. 5, the day the Hall announced the people on the Pre-Integration Era ballot. Posnanski plugged his NBC column Oct. 7 on his personal blog. He probably would have posted on the personal blog shortly after posting on NBC. (I’ll publish a link to this piece on Hated Yankees shortly after posting it here.)
I don’t know whether Posnanski saw my piece before writing his. My blog is obscure and I doubt he would normally read it. But when I saw him tweet about the pre-integration voting on Oct. 5, I tweeted back, attempting to call attention to my post (and added his tweet to the top of my post):
— Steve Buttry (@hatedyankees) October 6, 2015
— Steve Buttry (@hatedyankees) October 6, 2015
However, I was one of seven people responding to that tweet and Posnanski didn’t respond to any of us (he has 115,000 Twitter followers). I’m doubtful he saw my post, or he might have tweeted about it.
I believe we arrived independently and coincidentally at our Jim Crow Era and Segregation Era references. This means the lines were not as original or clever as either of us probably thought when we wrote them; I know I smiled when I thought of my many nicknames, and you can practically see the smile in Posnanski’s presentation of the nicknames: “Oh, wait, did I say Segregation Era? I’m sorry. The press released clearly says it’s ‘Pre-Integration.’ Let’s try that again.”
Occasionally a writer will absolutely nail a line that is so personal and distinct that it’s yours and yours alone. But in retrospect, the Pre-Integration Era name is such an obvious target, I’d be surprised if we were the only writers mocking it.
If Posnanski did click on the link in my tweet before writing his piece, it was probably one of a dozen or more pieces he read before sitting down to write (his piece reflects extensive research that doesn’t overlap at all with my post). By the time he wrote those two names for the era, he had likely forgotten reading them in my piece, if he read them at all. As I noted in a separate post last year, that’s how inspiration sometimes works.
After investigating and considering the matter, I’m confident that, whoever was first, this is a matter of coincidence or inspiration, not plagiarism.
At any rate, I’m pleased and proud to be making the same points as Posnanski. He’s one of the best sports writers anywhere. And he’s absolutely right about the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Jim Crow Era Committee.
Please note Posnanski’s response, at my invitation, in the first comment.