Any fan who over the years has attended a baseball game at Boston’s Fenway Park notices how few African-Americans are in the stands. Indeed, one searches the faces of the crowd in vain for a person of color. While this phenomenon may occur at many ballparks, the problem of race and baseball seems particularly acute when it comes to the Red Sox.
Howard Bryant, a journalist who covers the New York Yankees for the Bergen Record, seeks to understand the culture of racism that pervaded the Red Sox organization for much of the twentieth century and has sundered any bonds of affection between African-Americans in Boston and the team. It is something of a personal journey. Bryant grew up in the black community of Dorchester in the 1970s, during the height of the antibusing hysteria that paralyzed the city. His grandfather once admonished him for rooting for the Red Sox rather than the St. Louis Cardinals: “We don’t care for the Red Sox around here, because the Red Sox have never had any niggers.”
As every student of baseball history knows, the Red Sox are the answer to the question, What was the last team in the major leagues to integrate its roster? That was in 1959, twelve years after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson was already retired from baseball when the Red Sox called up infielder Pumpsie Green and, a week later, pitcher Earl Wilson. Of course, other teams, including the Yankees, were nearly as dilatory.
Not only were the Red Sox the last to integrate, they also squandered an opportunity to be the first organization to break the color line. In the spring of 1945, Jackie Robinson, along with two other black ballplayers, tried out at Fenway. Their appearance was the result of a threat made by Isadore Muchnick, a liberal member of Boston’s City Council, that if the Red Sox did not begin to evaluate black players then he would vote against granting them a permit that was required to allow the team to play on Sundays. With the team’s profits at stake, Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, general manager Eddie Collins and manager Joe Cronin permitted the players to take fielding and batting practice. According to reporters, Yawkey and Collins remained in their offices and Cronin barely watched. As the workout concluded, someone shouted, “Get those niggers off the field.”
For Bryant, the moment constitutes the team’s original sin. Red Sox management had made a covenant with racial hatred. Yawkey, one of the wealthiest men in America, had bought the team in 1933 and controlled it until his death in 1976. He surrounded himself with cronies who shared his worldview, one shaped by his uncle/adoptive father, who had owned the Detroit Tigers and whose closest friend was Ty Cobb, perhaps the most openly bigoted man ever to play the game. In addition to Collins and Cronin, Yawkey’s friends included Pinky Higgins, who became manager in 1955 and swore that he would never field a black player. By the time the team desegregated, on July 21, 1959, Collins was dead, Cronin was president of the American League and Higgins had been fired some three months into the season. A suit brought against the team by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination revealed that it wasn’t simply a matter of not signing a black player: The team did not employ a single person of color at any level, whether as secretaries, grounds crew, concessionaires or custodians.
Integration was one matter; acceptance another. Black ballplayers on the Red Sox would continue to feel ostracized and oppressed well into the 1990s. Bryant tells numerous poignant stories, none more revealing than the team’s attitude toward the whites-only invitations issued by the Elks Club in Winter Haven, Florida, where the Red Sox trained each spring. Year after year, white players would have free dinners at the club, while black players were not invited. Tommy Harper complained privately about the practice in 1973. Jim Rice alerted a reporter to it in 1979. Harper returned to the team as a coach in 1980 and discovered that the exclusionary practice still went on. Finally, in 1985 Michael Madden, a young journalist at the Boston Globe, broke the story. The team’s response was to deny any relationship with the Elks and, after the season, to fire Harper. He filed a discrimination suit against the team, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission eventually ruled in his favor.
Harper’s story highlights another factor, beyond the culture of racism within the Red Sox organization, that explains the team’s failure to confront its odious record on racial matters: The Boston press failed to do its job. Bryant’s censure of the press carries with it a special passion; one senses that he is thinking hard about his own responsibilities as a journalist. “Save for a few reporters,” argues Bryant, “the Boston media showed little interest in pressing Yawkey on racial issues.” In the 1950s and ’60s, the Herald owned the radio station that broadcast Red Sox games. Bud Collins, then a young writer for the paper, was explicitly dissuaded from covering racial issues. And the Globe was a generally bland paper that avoided controversial subjects.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s the Globe came alive and its sports section became nationally renowned. Bob Ryan covered basketball, Francis Rosa covered hockey, Will McDonough wrote on football and other Boston sports matters, and Peter Gammons began to earn a reputation as the best baseball reporter in the nation. In 1973 the paper hired one of its first black sportswriters, Larry Whiteside. Moreover, the Red Sox were thriving in the aftermath of the team’s success in 1967, when a squad that included three African-American starters, George Scott, Joe Foy and Reggie Smith, made it to the World Series.
But the newspaper did nothing to identify the racial undercurrents that still engulfed the team. In part, the editors wanted to keep sports depoliticized at a time when front-page news was dominated by reports of social upheaval, whether protests against Vietnam or busing. And in part, the personalities of the reporters shaped how they covered the team. Whiteside talked to the black ballplayers about race, but he felt he would violate their trust if he reported what he knew. McDonough took umbrage at the idea that the Red Sox organization was racist, and he denied that the team had a history of discrimination. Gammons was on his way to becoming the ultimate baseball insider. Although he would ask about the team’s reluctance to feature an African-American as its marquee player, or question whether there was a relationship with the Elks Club, he often took management at its word and, in Bryant’s most stinging indictment, “never used his influence to institute real change.”
Bryant is too harsh on Gammons and is reading back an influence that the journalist and television commentator certainly enjoys today but did not have thirty years ago. Those who tried to expose the racism of the team paid a price for their behavior, and no one suffered more severely than the players themselves. For telling the truth about being victims of discrimination, Earl Wilson and Tommy Harper were dispatched. For not conforming to racial stereotypes and playing a submissive role, Reggie Smith, Dennis Boyd, Jim Rice and Mo Vaughn were pilloried by fans.
At times in Red Sox history, the team has been led by general managers who struggled to overturn the organization’s reputation as racist; but their efforts could do little to offset the institutional bias installed by Yawkey and cemented by the racialist culture of the city. In 1989, for example, Charles Stuart was found with a bullet in his stomach and his murdered pregnant wife beside him. Stuart claimed that a black man had assaulted him, and the police invaded Boston’s African-American community in search of the murderer. They found someone willing to confess, but it turned out that Stuart himself had murdered his wife. Ellis Burks, at the time a rising star in his third year with the Red Sox, still cannot forget the atmosphere: “When you throw black into it, oh boy. What a city.”
At one point during Burks’s tenure with the team, the manager warned him about going out to clubs with white women. This was the early 1990s, not the 1950s. When Burks became a free agent in 1993, the Red Sox did not even make him an offer. At that point, even if the organization wanted to shake its legacy of racism by pursuing available black players, the players did not want to come to Boston. Some went so far as to get clauses in their contracts specifying that they could be traded to any team in baseball except the Red Sox.
Shut Out merits attention because it is the first book devoted to detailing and analyzing the racial problems of the Red Sox. Although Bryant repeats himself too often, he succeeds admirably in discussing the role of executives, athletes and journalists in the saga of race and baseball. Unfortunately, the people of Boston are missing from his account, and without them the story remains incomplete. Bryant interviewed dozens of players and writers but he does not report on the fans–neither the black ones who refuse to go to games nor the white ones who castigate players of color. Boston is a far more complicated city than the clichés allow, a city with a liberal tradition and a place where tensions between white ethnic groups have run nearly as deep as conflicts between whites and blacks. Bryant is too good a journalist to declare simply that Boston is a racist town. Giving voice to the fans would have helped bring the city into focus while illuminating the forms of modern-day prejudice.
Bryant is in a position to offer such testimony, and there should be more of him in the book. His powerful opening vignette of being warned away from the Red Sox by his grandfather invites us to want to know more about Bryant’s childhood in Dorchester and his decision to become a sports journalist. In Red Sox Century, by Glenn Stout and Richard Johnson, Bryant asserts that his grandfather’s words stung and made him feel “diminished.” But they did not defeat him. The poison of Red Sox racism had seeped into an apartment in Dorchester, where it turned a young black man who once rooted for the team into a seeker of the truth.
Bryant ends on a hopeful note. In December 2000, Manny Ramirez became the first nonwhite player to sign as a free agent with the Red Sox while in the prime of his career (this after more than a quarter-century of free agency). And Bryant believes that the new owner of the team, John Henry, would like to build ties with Boston’s black community.
It will not be easy. Racial prejudice remains one of the most pernicious problems in America, made all the more insidious because so many Americans today congratulate themselves on being enlightened. In 1997, at ceremonies honoring the fiftieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game in the major leagues, President Clinton declared that “we have achieved equality on the playing field.” Sadly, it has not been achieved in the executive offices (where few African-Americans serve as managers or general managers) or in the stands (where few people of color can be found). Bryant’s book is an antidote to false optimism, required reading for anyone who cares about the history of racial prejudice and the game of baseball.