July 15, 2003

Dusty Baker Has Nature on His Side


Is the ghost of Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder out for revenge? One might think so given the brouhaha over Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker's recent observation that "blacks and Latins take the heat better than most whites."

In 1988, Snyder, a bookie turned football commentator, was asked why blacks had risen to such prominence in sports. Snyder opined that blacks could naturally "jump higher and run faster" because of their "high thighs and big size." All hell broke loose. The NAACP called for Snyder's scalp. A few days later CBS handed it over.

Is Mr. Baker–was Snyder–off base?

Let's review Anthropology 101. Population groups have distinct body types. Elite football players, dependent on speed and jumping ability, are disproportionately of West African descent. Why? Because, as dozens of studies have shown, they have (on average) smaller and more efficient lungs, higher oxidative capacity, more fast-twitch muscle fibers, and a muscled but lean body type.

Note that sprinters of West African ancestry, including African-Americans, hold 494 of the top 500 100-meter times. Their genetically prescribed morphology and physiology is a disaster for endurance events -- there are almost no elite endurance runners of West African ancestry–but a gold mine for sprinting and jumping. Allowing for individual variation, Snyder was intuitively right.

Mr. Baker's observations are common sense. Does anyone really think an Eskimo would perform as well in Wrigley Field in July as someone of African ancestry who has spent all but a speck of his evolutionary history along the equator? "The single most important factor in heat toleration is body proportions," says David Brown, a University of Hawaii anthropologist and morphology expert. "If the relative fitness levels are similar, those with more skin surface area to overall body mass–those with relatively longer limbs–are more heat efficient. It's easier to sweat, dissipate heat and keep core body temperature steady." Check that anthropology textbook: Africans have longer limbs and more skin surface area than whites, who have more than Asians. Stout-and-short Eskimos, who are of Asian ancestry, don't perform as efficiently in scorching weather as whites or blacks. Is it racist to acknowledge this?

Now, skin color alone is not the explanation for heat tolerance, as Mr. Baker implied. And Hispanics descended from Europeans are no more heat tolerant than other whites. But those of African ancestry do have an advantage.

The only unknown is whether small differences translate into athletic advantages. Environmental factors such as nutrition, fitness and hydration are obviously critical to acclimatization. But elite athletes fine-tune these variables so minute genotypic differences can be decisive. As one scientist wrote to me, "Baseball is a game where small differences in ability are telling over a 162 game season. Ceteris paribus, a batter who hits safely six of 20 at-bats is a star while another hitting five of 20 may enjoy insignificant standing."

Perhaps the most disturbing twist to this little tempest has been the hysteria on the political front. Liberals, most notably University of California-Berkeley sociologist Harry Edwards, have rebuked Baker. He called Mr. Baker's comments "unfortunate and not totally informed"–as unfortunate and ill-informed an observation as one could make.

Opportunists on the right reacted no better. Last week, I had the unfortunate experience of appearing on the Fox News right-left slugfest "Hannity and Colmes." Sean Hannity appeared delighted at Mr. Baker's apparent faux pas because it gave him an opportunity to bash liberals for what some conservatives see as a double standard–blacks get free passes for social missteps that often cost whites their jobs.

Of course there is a double standard. Shortly before CBS liquidated Snyder, Dallas Cowboy All-Star Calvin Hill, a Yale University graduate, remarked that, "On the plantation, a strong black man was mated with a strong black woman. [Blacks] were simply bred for physical qualities." That remark created no stir–until repeated almost verbatim by Snyder.

Mr. Hannity's obsession to even the score prompted him to bizarrely proclaim that Mr. Baker should apologize for his "silly remarks." But the cure for double standards is not to compound them by sacrificing yet another innocent to ideological correctness.

This controversy transcends sports. The era of the human genome is upon us. Geneticists are studying population-based differences in the hope of devising medicines–for multiple sclerosis that afflicts Northern Europeans, colorectal cancer that hits blacks, alcoholism which impacts Asians because of a mutated gene, or the 27 diseases that disproportionately target Jews–purely as a result of their ancestry. We need a new lexicon that appreciates human differences without playing the race card. In other words, get off Dusty's back.

Mr. Entine is scholar-in-residence at Miami University, Adjunct Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of "Taboo: Why Blacks Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It."

2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.