Boston cursed by their own racist policy


AMERICA AT LARGE:THE GATES of Boston’s Fenway Park were locked on the morning of April 16th, 1945 when a trio of Negro League players – Sam Jethroe, Marvin Williams, and a recently discharged US army lieutenant, Jack Roosevelt Robinson – were put through their paces in a charade described as a “tryout” for the Boston Red Sox, writes GEORGE KIMBALL

There were few witnesses to this momentous event: Isadore Muchnick, the crusading Boston City Councillor who had pressured the Red Sox into conducting the sham audition, was there, along with half a dozen newspapermen.

A handful of team officials, including general manager Eddie Collins and field manager Joe Cronin, watched from a perch in the stands. Thomas A Yawkey, the millionaire sportsman who owned the ball club, arrived later.

The “tryout” was going to be brief in any case – the Sox, who would open the ’45 season in New York, were due to depart on a train from South Station at 1pm – but it came to a premature curtailment when a disembodied voice from on high was heard to bellow “Get those niggers off the field!”

The episode appeared in none of the dispatches filed by the newsmen covering the audition. Clif Keane, there as a reporter for the Boston Globe, said later that he believed the order came from either Yawkey, Collins, or Cronin.

Since everyone present that day is now dead, we will never know. (Thirty years ago Sam Jethroe told me he believed it was Yawkey who uttered the phrase.) What we do know is that, after expressing admiration for the skills displayed by the three “boys” (as Cronin described them) that day, the Red Sox made no effort to sign any of them.

When he debuted three years later with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play major league baseball, and over the next decade emerged as one of the greatest performers in the annals of the National Pastime.

In 2007, the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s inaugural season, players throughout the major leagues honoured his memory by displaying a miniature of his uniform number 42 on their sleeves.

Many major league teams rushed to keep pace following Robinson’s breakthrough. Signed by the Boston Braves in 1950, Jethroe was 32 years of age when he was voted the National League’s Rookie of the Year.

Marvin Williams continued to toil in obscurity, playing out his career with the Negro League Philadelphia Stars and Cleveland Buckeyes, along with stints in Mexican and Venezuelan leagues. He never played major league baseball.

And it would not be until 1959 Elijah (Pumpsie) Green made his debut in the uniform of the Red Sox, making that team the very last in major league baseball to integrate its roster.

Opening Day of the 2009 season is barely a week away and the second World Baseball Classic has just concluded. Once again the Americans were relegated to a bridesmaid’s role in the latter event, ousted in the semi-final by Japan.

The winning pitcher in that game was Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox. Japan went on to defeat South Korea 5-3 at Dodger Stadium on Monday night in a championship game in which neither team has a single Caucasian player on its roster. (Though Japanese pitching star Yu Darvish does have an Iranian father.)

Concomitant with these events comes the US publication of a new book, Jerry Gutlon’s It Was Never About the Babe: The Red Sox, Racism, Mismanagement, and the Curse of the Bambino (Skyhorse), a reappraisal of the factors underlying the Boston team’s long history of frustration.

While a generation of fans entertained it as popular lore, the so-called “curse” was a late addition to the mythology.

The thesis of Dan Shaughnessy’s 1990 book The Curse Of The Bambino held that imprecation was a result of the penurious Boston owner Harry Frazee’s decision, after the 1919 season, to sell the iconic Babe Ruth to the hated New York Yankees for $125,000 – a transaction that altered the fortunes of both franchises for decades to come.

While the Yankees were playing in 39 World Series and winning 23 of them, the Red Sox didn’t hoist a championship banner between 1918 and 2004.

Gutlon argues that the Red Sox were cursed, all right. For more than 80 years they were cursed by a policy of institutionalized racism and a mind-boggling litany of wrong-headed business decisions.

Gutlon’s book, published by Skyhorse, isn’t exactly groundbreaking in this regard. Howard Bryant’s 2002 book Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball, had previously addressed the racial issue, and Glenn Stout and Richard Johnson had offered an enlightened historical analysis in Red Sox Century, originally published in 2000.

But, although he is a professional journalist by trade, Gutlon is first and foremost a lifelong Red Sox fan, and what he brings to the table in his eminently readable new book is a comprehensive accumulation of anecdotal evidence delivered from that perspective – the winning argument, if you will, in a hypothetical bar-room debate on the subject.

(Full disclosure is probably in order here. I met Jerry Gutlon when I was a guest on his campus radio station in his student days at Graham Junior College – he’s now 56 years old, so you do the math – and was interviewed extensively for It Was Never About the Babe).

That the practices perpetuating their long-running failures were banished when a more enlightened ownership assumed control of the Boston franchise in 2002 should not minimise Gutlon’s thesis.

If nothing else, the book makes it abundantly clear that the Red Sox exorcised the ghosts of the past by winning the 2004 World Series (and repeating as champions in 2007) despite their sordid history, not because of it, and with the passage of time the old Red Sox regime will likely be viewed as one of those imponderable chicken-and-egg conundrums: Were they racists because they were stupid, or stupid because they were racists?