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.