Two books on baseball players who faced racism finally got approved by Duval school district

The late Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente were featured in the books, though they were held for review

By: - February 16, 2023 4:55 pm

Two shelved books became the center of controversy in Duval County as critics feared book bans. These two copies were checked out from the LeRoy Collins Leon County Public Library. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Two elementary books on baseball Hall of Famers — one Black and the other Puerto Rican — were shelved for months, as media specialists in Duval County reviewed the content for topics banned by the DeSantis administration. As of Thursday, the two books were approved, following a nationwide controversy.

The approval came as the Duval County school district based in Jacksonville had been under scrutiny, along with other districts that have struggled to comply with new state regulations on library and classroom materials.

The two baseball books, about Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente, became a symbol of widespread concerns over book bans in Florida, particularly surrounding stories from minority communities. During their talented careers, the players faced racism and discrimination, according to the books.

Just Wednesday, these books were referenced in a march to the state Capitol building over a rejection of an AP African American studies course. But that issue expanded to book bans, such as the baseball books in question. National news outlets also have picked up on the controversy, which has gained traction during Black History Month and the start of spring training in February.

In a short email to the Phoenix, Tracy Pierce, a communications staffer with the Duval district, said the following:

“A certified media specialist has reviewed these books and approved them:

“Henry Aaron’s Dream by Matt Tavares

“Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates, by Jonah Winter and Raúl Colón.”

Pierce said that the books were for third-grade level readers and higher.

But why did these two books become the face of book ban concerns in Florida? The Phoenix went to the local library and took a look at the books.

Henry Aaron’s Dream

An elementary book centered around Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron is the focus of controversies surrounding book bans in Florida. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

The Hank Aaron book follows the young aspiring baseball player, who looked up to Jackie Robinson and faced racism as he worked his way up to the major leagues.

In fact, the book does not hold back on how both Robinson and Aaron were treated as trailblazing Black baseball players.

Henry Aaron’s Dream is very frank about how Aaron was treated as a Black baseball player, including two uses of the slur “n—-” to describe how baseball players like Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron were disparaged by white audiences.

The book discusses segregated baseball fields and how the “colored section” would cheer Aaron on when he and his other Black teammates played. The book even references his time playing in Jacksonville, Florida.

“Before that season, no Black player had ever played in the South Atlantic League,” the book says. “They played their games in southern cities where Black people and white people weren’t even allowed to play checkers together.”

By the end of Aaron’s career, he had hit 755 homeruns, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Aaron passed away at age 86 in Atlanta, Georgia in 2021, according to the Hall of Fame.

Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates

The Roberto Clemente book, also for third grade readers or older, starts with his life as a baseball player from Puerto Rico, who then faced discrimination when he was invited to play for the major leagues in the United States.

An elementary book centered around Baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente is the focus of controversies surrounding book bans in Florida. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

The book discusses times when Clemente faced racism during his baseball career. Sports announcers mispronounced his name. Newspaper writers called him “lazy” and made fun of his Puerto Rican accent, according to the book.

“The mainly white newsmen called him a Latino ‘hothead,'” the book says.

But while most of the book focuses on his ability to overcome racism and adversity, the tone dramatically shifts as it discusses Clemente’s tragic death in 1972 at age 38. He was on a plane to Central America to bring aid to victims of an earthquake when the engine failed and the plane crashed into the ocean.

“And just like that, it was over. Roberto was gone,” the books says, reflecting the baseball world’s reaction to his abrupt death.

The book ends on a bittersweet note about how Clemente’s impact lives on, despite his early death.

How did this book review come about

The focus on the two baseball stars and the elementary books started gaining traction in early February.

On February 7, attorney Daniel Uhlfelder tweeted: “Duval County, Florida schools banned books about Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente but not Ty Cobb or Mickey Mantle.” In a follow-up tweet, he shared the two books in question: Henry Aaron’s Dream and Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirate.

The two books were part a larger list that were “held” for further review, according to Pierce, from the Duval school district. That would mean the books were not available for students at that time.

The timeline for that process was not clear.

In December, Jacksonville Today, a nonprofit local journalism service, published a list of nearly 200 books from Duval, which included the two baseball books in question. The nonprofit got the data through a public records request.

Even earlier than that, the PEN America free speech advocacy group, posted a list of Duval books that were “removed” for review. PEN said that “they have been kept in storage for 10 months with little indication of when they might return to classrooms.”

Pierce explained in an email Thursday that the district had a collection called the “Essential Voices Classroom Libraries,” which aims to stock libraries with diverse stories where students “see themselves in what they read, developing an understanding and appreciation of themselves as well as others around them.”

Pierce mentioned 179 books that would be held for review. Of those books, 106 were reviewed and sent to classrooms. Another 47 were returned to the publisher.

“We received the state training in January. We launched this classroom review process in late January.  Since then, almost 6,000 book titles have been approved. The 27 books being held from the Essential Voices collection were reviewed on Feb. 13.”

In December, Jacksonville Today reported that the Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente books were “pending review,” based on the Duval data.

But on Thursday, Pierce confirmed that the two baseball books have been “approved.” It is not clear if the books are accessible to students.

The district has continued to say that the books in question have not been “banned.” Instead, the district uses the term “under review.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.