This week Baltimore Orioles All-Star outfielder Adam Jones spoke candidly about the racism he faced in Fenway Park. On Monday, a group of “fans” shouted at him from the outfield stands, calling him “n—–.” One threw a bag of peanuts at him. After the incident, he told USA Today: “I just go out and play baseball. It’s unfortunate that people need to resort to those type of epithets to degrade another human being.”
This was an appalling event that demands a response greater than the apologies issued by the Red Sox and the city’s mayor, Marty Walsh. Their words don’t address the multivolume history of the intersection of Boston sports and racism.
Earlier this year, Saturday Night Live comedian Michael Che created an uproar when he called Boston “the most racist city” he’s visited. Bigotry rankings aside—and I am not arguing that the city has any kind of exclusive rights on hatred—one can speak about the enduring history of Boston racism just by looking at its sports world. In 2004, Barry Bonds caused an uproar when he said, “Boston is too racist for me. I couldn’t play there. That’s been going on ever since my dad (Bobby) was playing baseball. I can’t play like that. That’s not for me, brother.”
Certainly, Boston is home to remarkable people and anti-racist activists. But as these same activists will tell you, denying the presence of racism—or saying “not all Boston fans”—does not reckon the problem. It’s a weak dodge, avoiding the task of figuring out how to confront it. Massachusetts-born Sports Illustrated writer Albert Breer illustrated this exact problem on social media when he demanded “proof” of the incident, tweeting: “Is it horrible to want some proof? I dunno. I’ve probably been to 200 games at Fenway in my life. Never heard a slur yelled at a player.”
Breer’s comments disturbingly privilege his own experience over generations of the best players in the game while erasing an entire oft-discussed thread of Boston sports history. Bottom-feeding sports-radio hosts at WEEI mimicked this approach.
Demanding proof of racism is an ugly road to walk down. But regardless, black ballplayers from Jackie Robinson to Willie Mays to Jim Rice to current Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia have been speaking about their experiences of racism in Boston for decades. As Jones said the day after the Fenway incident, “I’ve spoken to players from different eras and a lot of the things they’ve told me [they heard slurs in Boston], I can’t say.” Either there are racist fans at Fenway Park, or there is a 70-year conspiracy to lie about it.