The 2000 Census counted 14,128 people living in Cullman, Alabama, a city in the northern part of the state, halfway between Huntsville and Birmingham. Forty-eight of those residents were black. Baseball took Bruce Maxwell an hour down the road to Cullman that year for a tournament. He was just shy of 10 years old, mature enough to understand that almost nobody there looked like him, innocent enough to believe it didn’t matter. His father was African-American. His mother was white. He couldn’t control who he was.
“We won the tournament,” Maxwell said, “and a man stood up in the stands. And he threatened to hang me and my dad.”
He is far from the only black man in America with a story like this, a moment when race is imprinted on his consciousness against his will. It is a rite of passage into a life of indiscriminate threats against his body, his being. It forever bends his worldview. The moment, however, does not resign him to see the world from that perspective solely. Maxwell – now 26 years old, grown, thoughtful, giving, conflicted – sees it like a military man, which his father was, and like an athlete, which he is, and like an American, which matters to him as much as any of those other prisms, because it combines the best and worst of them to offer a reality that is his alone.
And so should anyone try to pigeonhole Bruce Maxwell as he embarks on this new life, after he knelt during the national anthem Saturday before a game with his Oakland A’s, baseball cap in hand, hand over heart, eyes fixed on the flying flag, careful to show respect, dignified, the first active Major League Baseball player to engage in a show of public dissent, let it be said: He is not any one thing. He is many things that make one. He is a black, baseball-playing, son-of-a-soldier American.
He is not a son of a bitch. Those words, uttered a day earlier at a rally in Huntsville by President Donald Trump in reference to the NFL players whose silent protests continued en masse Sunday, activated something in Maxwell. He saw Stephen Curry turn down an invitation to the White House, and he saw LeBron James tweet that Trump was a bum, and he saw NFL and NBA players pile on, and he vented on Instagram himself, and then he wondered: Why not baseball, too?
It’s a question he has asked himself since last year, when a tectonic plate shifted under Colin Kaepernick’s knee. One answer is that contemporary baseball culture frowns upon the very idea of the individual, part of the reason the sport lacks stars. Another is the shifting demographics of the game, which unlike the NFL and NBA is not a predominantly black sport and has long hemorrhaged black players. At any given moment in 2017, there are about 60 African-Americans playing Major League Baseball. It makes for the lowest percentage since 1958, two years after Jackie Robinson retired. It’s not the scarcity of players itself that’s so troublesome as it is the reason behind it: MLB’s sluggish response to the socioeconomic divide that took away opportunities for young, African-American boys to learn to love a game that welcomes kids whose parents can afford to shuttle them around the country to play.
When Maxwell made his major league debut last season, he was the first American-born black catcher in baseball since Charles Johnson retired more than a decade earlier. The black fraternity in baseball is strong, the old mentoring the young, teaching them how to thrive in a game populated largely by white men, run almost exclusively by white men, owned almost entirely by white men. Seventy years after Robinson broke the color barrier and changed everything, MLB’s tower remains particularly ivory.
While Adam Jones has spoken eloquently on the difficulties of being black in baseball, neither he nor anyone else had followed their NFL brethren to one knee, despite 162 anthems a year in which to do so. Occasionally Maxwell would consider the consequences. He texted fairly regularly with Devyn Keith, a friend from his hometown of Harvest, Alabama, who was running for Huntsville City Council. They would share motivational videos on YouTube or talk politics, with Keith always trying to pull Maxwell to the left and Maxwell resisting. He was not easily persuaded.
About a month after the 27-year-old Keith unseated a seven-term incumbent, he and Maxwell were in another exchange. Keith was going to spend each year of his term living in four different districts, to better comprehend the problems his constituents faced. He wanted to experience what they did so sympathy could become empathy. The challenges to fulfill his campaign promises, Keith said, would be significant. He still remembers Maxwell’s response.
“Anything that’s significant,” Maxwell wrote, “takes sacrifice.”
“I knew it was time,” Maxwell told Yahoo Sports on Sunday in his only interview since he knelt. He said the same thing to his teammates, and he asked them not for fealty or support but honesty. If they disagreed with him, it was their right, just as this choice was his, and if they wanted to express as much publicly, he encouraged them to do so. He would not lose respect for them, he said. That would be hypocritical.
Within minutes of the protest, the A’s organization put out a statement that read: “The Oakland A’s pride ourselves on being inclusive. We respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.” MLB followed with similar sentiments. After the game, Maxwell’s teammates – from Mark Canha, who placed his hand on Maxwell’s shoulder as he knelt, to Khris Davis, a fellow African-American, who called Maxwell “courageous” – offered appreciation.
Maxwell, meanwhile, grappled with a truth far different from the one of three hours earlier. He was an anonymous catcher batting .244 for a last-place team. He would be the player who knelt, and that was like taking on a second job with his first already tenuous, as rookies’ can be. For all the slurs on his Instagram page and insults in his Twitter feed, he was undeterred. Something had awoken inside him, and it wasn’t going back to sleep.
“This is beyond race,” Maxwell said. “This is about our president speaking out in a vulgar, negative way against people exercising their rights in a peaceful manner. It’s about mankind. To call people who are peacefully protesting sons of bitches? He feels like he’s untouchable. We’re not dogs. We’re not animals. We’re people. And people in this country need to understand that we are not going to sit around and let a man call us that, no matter how powerful he is.”
Earlier in the week, Jan Weisberg, his college coach at Birmingham Southern, had traveled to Detroit to visit Maxwell. He spent three years with Maxwell before the A’s took him in the second round of the 2012 draft and could sense something burbling. That Trump held his speech in Huntsville, a city dear to Maxwell, “took it from simmering to the front burner,” Weisberg said.
Unlike Kaepernick, who has concentrated his protests on the mistreatment of African-Americans, Maxwell’s motivations were wide ranging. Freedom of speech, he said, was a right upon which nobody, least of all the president, should infringe. Inequality, he said, tugged at him daily. Growing up a mixed-race child in Alabama, where he moved after being born on an American military base in Germany, introduced him to the worst in people, and he saw that being practiced more openly following the election of Trump. Most of Maxwell’s grievances traced back to Trump’s demagoguery.
“I was talking to my dad about this,” Maxwell said. “Our fearless leader right now is expressing that it’s OK to judge people by the color of their skin. It’s OK to separate people by their differences. That’s not OK. There’s not been one time Donald Trump has tried to sit in our seat. He grew up in a bubble – a golden bubble. He’s never tried to reach out and understand where African-Americans and Hispanics and Muslims are coming from. All he knows is what he’s experienced, and that’s life on a silver platter.”
Maxwell’s experiences varied. His parents divorced. He grew up middle class. He wasn’t recruited by any major schools and wound up at a Division III program with no athletic scholarships. The A’s gave him $770,000 to sign after he won national player of the year, and he gets paid more than $500,000 a year now, and the privilege that comes with playing Major League Baseball is something he fully acknowledges. It also doesn’t prevent him from believing that if a stranger felt comfortable saying publicly he wanted to lynch a 10-year-old before Trump took office, before the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, children today are at risk of hearing the same with even more frequency.
“Bruce is one of those people who recognizes if he feels a certain way and has the opportunity to express how he feels, that doesn’t infringe upon anyone else’s rights,” Keith said. “That’s the thing I feel like gets lost. This was for Bruce. What he does doesn’t take away from anyone else’s experience. If you have an autonomous moment of patriotism, that is for you.”
Three years ago, Sherman Johnson was planning on spending spring training in the hotel provided by the Los Angeles Angels when Maxwell reached out to him. They had played against one another the previous two seasons but didn’t really know one another well. Maxwell wanted to grab lunch, to forge a better relationship with someone who had shared his experience as an African-American in baseball. Toward the end of the lunch, Maxwell said there was a free couch in his house, and Johnson was welcome to move in. Johnson chafed. He was on a minuscule minor league salary and didn’t want to use the money for rent. Maxwell shrugged. Johnson could move in for free.
“When I got there,” Johnson said, “he gave me his bedroom and slept on the couch.”
Here, too, is who Bruce Maxwell is.
Every year, he heads back to Birmingham Southern for homecoming weekend. This year, he was particularly excited to go. He woke up at 6 a.m. to talk with the baseball team. He mingled around campus. And then he volunteered to work a shift doing the same job he held while a student: running after the balls that careen out of bounds during the men’s and women’s soccer games.
“All the alumni are out having a good time,” Weisberg said, “and he’s out chasing balls on the soccer field.”
And here, too, is who Bruce Maxwell is.
This spring, he decided he wanted to volunteer at a local high school. He didn’t know the coach, didn’t know the kids, but every day after his work at the A’s spring training complex ended, he braved traffic for 20 miles and drove to Mountain Pointe High School. He wouldn’t get home until 6, 7, sometimes 8 p.m. Toward the end of spring training, he decided to buy a pair of spikes for every kid on the team. Johnson asked him why.
“I want the team looking good,” Maxwell said.
The stories go on. If a friend’s kids need picking up from school and Maxwell is available, he’ll volunteer. At every stop he made in the minor leagues, he would befriend a family or two, bring their children on the field, sacrifice a minuscule piece of himself so they could have forever memories. He played baseball for a living. Maxwell never forgot how lucky he was, never took it for granted.
When the A’s wanted to teach him how to catch after he had spent his college career as a first baseman, he crammed the intricacies of the position, ate up the hard work. Maxwell’s father still wakes up at 3 a.m. every day, and that rubbed off on his son, who was out of the house at 4:30 in the morning during the spring to get in a run and lift weights. Even today, Maxwell is among the first A’s at the stadium during the regular season, arriving as early as noon to start working.
“It’s a real Alabama story, one that I wish people would get behind,” Keith said. “There are no sleeves rolled up here, because everyone’s in a T-shirt. We all have this story of working our ass off to get where we want to go.”
Maxwell wanted to be a big leaguer, to face the best in the world, to spend every Fourth of July in a stadium with tens of thousands of people who love baseball and America and their symbiosis. His friends, his family, his coaches – all of them talk about how much Maxwell adores the Fourth, how it’s the quintessential Bruce holiday because of how it marries so many parts of his identity. Each uses the word patriot, too, and not in an ironic way. There is no cynicism in Maxwell’s patriotism. He wants to believe America is good. He knelt because he tired of seeing otherwise.
“If there’s one thing I can say, Bruce has big shoulders,” said Trey Lang, one of Maxwell’s closest friends and a former Chicago Cubs minor leaguer. “I think he’ll be fine in the sense of dealing with the pressure. I just don’t want this to have to be his burden. But it is.
“Honestly, that’s just how Bruce is. When I talk about him being gracious and taking care of people and always being there for you, that’s the exact representation of that. There are [60-something] black players in MLB, and Bruce said he’d take care of each and every one of them. In the time I’ve known Bruce, that’s how he always was. He wants to help however he can. That’s all I see: Bruce decided, like any other decision he makes, he’s going to bear the burden for others.”
He gets how baseball works. How Tony La Russa, the Hall of Fame manager, last year said he would send a player back to the clubhouse if he protested the anthem. How Joe Maddon, the manager of the reigning champion Chicago Cubs, said “it’s dangerous when folks in our country stop respecting the White House and the seat of the president.” How Dave Roberts, one of two black managers in the game, said he’d “have a problem” with anthem protests because his father had served in the military. So did Maxwell’s father. He loved it.
Even those closest to Maxwell weren’t all enthralled. Weisberg, his college coach, said he fielded call after call Sunday from people at the school and alumni asking what Maxwell was thinking, why he would ever do … that. It wasn’t just surprise. It was disgust. And it alarmed Weisberg as well.
“I’ve always thought that’s not the right time,” he said. “That’s me. It’s our country. Are we perfect? No. I just don’t agree. But the way that he did it – he told the A’s, he told his teammates and he made a concerted effort to let people know this is not ‘I hate America.’ He is a patriotic dude. I told him I understand what he did. If you’re black and white on the issue, fine, but maybe you’re in the gray area. He did it in the best way to make it tolerable for the guy in the gray area. Now, it’s something you might talk about. It’s not in your face.”
This is Maxwell’s hope. Kaepernick’s protests were about racial injustice, but they illuminated the fallacy of the stick-to-sports mantra employed by those whose utterances should be autofilled with a parenthetical postscript: (because I don’t agree with your opinion). The notion of a man or woman leveraging the platform sports provides into something greater frightens those in opposition, and in power, because history has proven athletes’ influence again and again and again. It scared the president into wasting his weekend picking repeated fights against an American institution almost as powerful as and far more beloved than the government: sports.
Even if Kaepernick’s protests began before Trump took office, they intuited the direction in which the United States was heading. Jobless and out of the public eye, Kaepernick still finds himself at the center of the conversation because of this prescience and the rancor it caused. He is not just polarizing. He is the transverse wave, his aftershocks bifurcating the public. He is why Maxwell finds himself here, back at the beginning, like a video-game character who respawned into a world far more complicated than the previous one he inhabited.
Maxwell said he understands his duty, that he’s ready for it, but how could he be? Even if sports taught him to be a quick study, he must learn a new language, one that goes beyond his personal experience and speaks to the issues at which race, gender, religion and other political minefields intersect. He must be conversational in history and up to the minute on the present. He must learn to break himself into a million little pieces for others but save at least one to keep his sense of self. He must be perfect, and when he’s not perfect, because he can’t be, he must recognize he is not a failure but a man who endeavored to do something important. And men who want to do important things never stop.
“I definitely worry,” Lang said. “You have to. You don’t know how people are going to react to something. If you wrote something down on paper and 100 people read it, you’re going to have a bunch of different stories about what it said. What he did, in my opinion, was respectable, courageous, brave. But not everyone shares that opinion. I’ve seen the stuff on Twitter – people calling him names. The backlash. He’s getting an earful. Unfortunately, you have to worry about that. He has to be even more careful about what he does and who he’s around. People now know who he is.”
What scares them most is that the bandwidth requirement for professional athlete and professional activist will exceed Maxwell’s limit and force him to choose. Because like the military, like baseball, like being black, like being American, social consciousness is a new part of his whole.
“Usually the first person to do something when it comes to difference or controversy is the person who bears the brunt of negative comments. That’s fine with me,” Maxwell said. “I told the [A’s] owners, it’s nothing I’m not used to. I was an African-American growing up in Alabama. I got a lot of stuff there. I knew my life would change. I was staring directly into the flag because this is my country. My dad fought for this country. My grandfather fought for this country. I got a lot of feedback from them, and I’m standing up for my rights. This isn’t old America. People shouldn’t be treated unequally because of the color of their skin. There’s a problem. I’m doing my part to stand up and have the world of baseball understand it’s not the NFL standing out. It’s not basketball players rejecting an invitation to the White House. It’s all our responsibilities as humans, as Americans, to do what’s right.”
For Maxwell, this felt right. And for other black players, it has not, which doesn’t bother him. He did not forego any opportunity for normalcy to play Pied Piper. Flying solo is an acquired skill, one that happens to be slightly more well-honed in African-American players. For now any negativity is washed away by the messages from men he respects – Coco Crisp, his old A’s teammate, and Torii Hunter, the five-time All-Star center fielder, both of whom thanked Maxwell for his mettle. The knowledge, too, that executives from around baseball sent the same word through intermediaries edified him at a time when it all could seem for naught.
Instead, Maxwell falls back on their words and his old truth: That if this were intentionally insincere or disrespectful or divisive or any of the slurs those in opposition to his kneeling contend, he wouldn’t feel the way he does. Only love can cause pain that surges this deep, and his way of showing he still loves his country is by expressing his disappointment in it.
“I’m going to continue to do it,” Maxwell said. “This isn’t a one-day thing. If things really don’t change, I’ll roll into it next season. This is an ongoing issue. This is happening across the country. It might take a few more people. It might take a little while. Racism has been going on since this country was founded. But stepping up and recognizing the fact that people in this country are being treated unjustly is a big problem when it comes to mankind, and I’m pretty sure people who died for this country fought so I could do this.”
Maxwell knelt again Sunday, before the A’s seventh consecutive win, and afterward, as he declined comment, his teammates praised him, worried about him, did all the things friends are supposed to do. He made it through another day and readied for Monday morning, when he planned to meet with someone who had paid $3,000 at an auction to share breakfast and take a hitting lesson from him. And after that it would be off to the ballpark again, and on a knee, and back home, and to the ballpark, and on a knee, and repeat until the end of the week, when the A’s season ends and Maxwell’s true sense of life after kneeling begins.
“I was talking with a lady earlier,” Johnson said. “She said, ‘Don’t you think there’s a better way he can protest?’ Maybe there is. I’d be glad to talk with you about it. I’d be curious to see that. And that’s where it has to begin if you’re looking for change. Let’s start this dialogue. If there is a better way, what do you think it is? Let’s talk about it.”
That’s just one person, one conversation, one moment. Bruce Maxwell wants dozens, hundreds, thousands more. Because he knows every one of them has a chance to be significant.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Army veteran goes against Steelers’ anthem plan
• NFL star makes a joke, gets absurd penalty from refs
• 97-year-old WWII vet takes a knee for NFL players
• Pat Forde: Why haven’t we seen anthem protests in college football?