Equates to VICTORY for Julia, not me…
I am writing this as a result of a lost bet with a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan named Julia (@werbiefitz). During the recent World Series, I took the side of my favorite National League team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, while Julia stayed with the team she has stood with since her childhood, the Boston Red Sox. The loser of the bet (which turned out to be me) was forced to read a book chosen by the winner. Upon completion of reading the book, the loser was required to write an essay about the ten things they learned from the book. Not a book review, that wasn’t really the point of the exercise, but rather how did the book affect you.
The Red Sox won the 2018 World Series in five games to cap an incredible season which saw the team win a franchise high 108 games during the regular season. It represented the fourth World Series Championship for Julia since the Curse of the Bambino was broken in 2004. For me, it was a tough post-season. My favorite team, the New York Yankees, won 100 games but were eliminated in the ALDS by the Red Sox. Then, my favorite NL team gave me second life. A renewed opportunity to take down the mighty Red Sox. It was not meant to be and I suffered two heart-breaking series losses to Boston in the same October. Victory to Julia, and some book reading and an essay for me. I also had to change my FaceBook cover photo to one showing the Red Sox celebration for one week upon conclusion of the World Series.
The book Julia chose for me was Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston by Howard Bryant. At first glance, it would be easy to find the negatives in the book about the city of Boston and the Red Sox franchise, but admittedly, I found this a story of redemption.
I was shocked almost from the start when I found out the Red Sox had the first opportunity in Major League Baseball to sign the great Jackie Robinson on April 16, 1945 but passed due in large part to racism that existed within the fabric of the franchise. I didn’t know former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey but I do know that he hired his drinking buddies to hold key executive positions within the franchise and their racist beliefs prevented potential Red Sox teams that could have featured Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Ted Williams in the same lineup. It’s scary to think what the trio would have been capable of together. They certainly would have had a say in the great Yankees Dynasty of the 1950’s.
I qualify this book as focused on the Red Sox but to believe that racism did not occur within the halls of other MLB organizations, including the New York Yankees, would be very wrong. Even the Dodgers organization, as the first team to feature a black player on its roster in 1947, was later marred by the racist words of their former General Manager, Al Campanis, who was fired in 1987. The book briefly mentioned Elston Howard, who was the first and sadly only black player on the Yankee rosters for years during the 1950’s. Howard later played for the Red Sox.
Tom Yawkey purchased the Red Sox in 1933. Yawkey had admired Eddie Collins, a former second baseman with the Philadelphia Athletics and Chicago White Sox, and appointed him as the team’s vice president and general manager when he took over control of the team. Collins had been with the White Sox during the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919 when they threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds but Collins had been cleared of any wrongdoing. In 1935, Yawkey traded for Washington Nationals shortstop Joe Cronin, developing close friendships with both Collins and Cronin. From basically 1933 through 1958, Collins and/or Cronin controlled all player movement within the Red Sox organization. With these two men, I believe, Yawkey tarnished his legacy. Whether he was racist or not is not really the point, he allowed racism to exist to the detriment of the city and the franchise and that makes him responsible.
After passing on Jackie Robinson in 1945, the Red Sox had a unique opportunity to sign Willie Mays four years later due to an exclusive lease arrangement that existed between a Red Sox affiliate, the Birmingham Barons, and the Negro League’s Black Barons. Cronin, by that time the GM for the Red Sox, had been tipped off about the incredible talents of the 18-year-old Mays and he sent a reluctant and racist scout to Alabama to watch Mays. According to stories, it rained for three days and the scout sent the Red Sox front office a negative review, perhaps without ever laying eyes on the legendary Say Hey Kid. It was another missed opportunity for the Red Sox, although I am sure the New York/San Francisco Giants didn’t mind.
The Red Sox were the last Major League Baseball team to add a black player to its roster. While the rest of the Major League teams were slowly starting to integrate, it would take the Red Sox over a decade before they would finally add a person of color to their team. Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, Jr. was born in Richmond, CA (East Bay near Oakland) in 1935. His brother, Cornell, someone I’ve been aware of since my childhood, was a star defensive back for the Dallas Cowboys. However, I never knew who Pumpsie Green was until reading the book. Fighting through racism within the organization and at the team’s training facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, Green believed that he was going to open the 1959 season as the first black player for the Red Sox. At the eleventh hour, one of the noted racists within the Red Sox organization, manager Mike “Pinky” Higgins demoted Green to the minor leagues. Fortunately, it would prove to be a temporary decision. Higgins was fired 73 games into the ’59 season and replaced by Bill Jurges. By that time, Eddie Collins was dead and Joe Cronin had left the Red Sox to become President of the American League. Green finally got the call to join the Red Sox later during the summer and on July 21, 1959, Pumpsie became the first African American player to take the field for the Red Sox when he was inserted as a pinch-runner for Vic Wertz and stayed in the game to play shortstop in Boston’s 2-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox. After the game, Green wept in the clubhouse. I cannot begin to imagine the emotions he must have felt that day.
On a side note about Pumpsie Green, Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams routinely warmed up with Green before games. It became a superstition for Ted but for Pumpsie, he remembered Williams as one of few who treated him both as a ballplayer and a man. I personally haven’t followed Red Sox history, but the way Williams approached Green gives me newfound respect for the Hall of Famer.
Pitcher Earl Wilson might have been the first African American player for the Red Sox if not for a two-year military commitment. Originally drafted as a catcher, Wilson blossomed as a hard-throwing pitcher and roomed with Pumpsie Green for a time. But for Wilson, the Red Sox years were hard ones. After the ’59 season was over, Tom Yawkey fired Billy Jurges and restored the racist Pinky Higgins as manager. As their careers moved into the early 1960’s, Green’s career was quietly coming to a close (the lack of consistent playing time prevented him from realizing his potential) while Wilson was becoming more prominent. In 1962, Wilson (12-8, 3.90 ERA) threw a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Angels.
When Yawkey fired Higgins as manager in 1962, Wilson felt Yawkey was finally opening his eyes to what a divisive man Higgins had been. Unfortunately, Yawkey surprised everyone by making Higgins his general manager. Higgins was the GM in June 1965 when the Red Sox traded Earl Wilson to the Detroit Tigers along with Joe Christopher for Don Demeter and Julio Navarro. Wilson won 22 games for the 1967 Tigers, although the Tigers finished a game behind The Impossible Dream Red Sox that year, and he accumulated 338 victories overall for his career. Although Wilson lost Game 3 of the Series, he celebrated a World Series Championship with the Tigers in 1968. It’s sad that a pitcher primed for tremendous MLB success in Boston saw his greatest days in Detroit.
In a twist of irony, Tom Yawkey fired Pinky Higgins as GM on September 16, 1965, the same day Red Sox pitcher Dave Morehead tossed a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians. After his firing, while in Louisiana, Higgins drove his car into a group of black highway workers. He killed one man, a white World War II veteran and injured three others. He was charged with driving while intoxicated and sentenced to four years. However, he was paroled after serving only two months in 1969. But just two days after his release, Higgins dropped dead from a heart attack. As Earl Wilson would say while in Detroit when asked to comment on his former manager, “Good things happen to some people”.
I was appalled to learn that The Elks Club, as recently as the 1980’s, condoned racism. The Elks Club in Winter Haven, FL, the site of Red Sox spring training at the time would issue invitations to white players, but not the blacks. Growing up in the Midwest in the 70’s, my step father was an active member of The Elks Club and served as the Exalted Ruler for the local chapter in my hometown in 1978. I was unaware the organization condoned racism and I am deeply saddened to have been connected to such a pitiful organization. I may have been a kid but I feel a responsibility that I should have known better. I only hope that my step-father’s chapter did not practice racism like the Winter Haven chapter did. My mother and step-father have passed away so it is not a discussion I can have with them.
To back up a little, I vividly recall when Jim Rice and Fred Lynn burst onto the Major League scene for Boston in the mid-70’s. They were great players from the start. Living far away in the Midwest, I didn’t see how the players were treated differently in their own city. Jim Rice, backed by his superior talent, had the power to be a major voice for the black community but it wasn’t his personality. He was introspective and to the media, he was unfriendly and considered sullen. I know Rice has gotten into tiffs with Derek Jeter and CC Sabathia over the years for whatever reasons, but I am not trying to indict the man. He was an incredible ball player. In a career spent entirely in Boston, Rice hit 382 home runs and drove in 1,451 runs. His career batting average was a healthy .298 and he had 2,452 hits in a career that spanned from 1974 to 1989. He was an eight-time All Star, AL MVP in the Bucky “F**king” Dent year of 1978, a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner, three-time AL home run leader, and two-time AL RBI leader. Yet, his number (14) was not retired by the Red Sox until two days after his Hall of Fame induction in July 2009. No one wore the number after his retirement but still, Rice is among the Red Sox Legends and deserved better treatment. Rice was charitable and a humanitarian. I think he is misunderstood because of his personality and I’d like to think he could have done more to help pave the way for black players in Boston, but there is no denying the man was one of the best in the history of the Red Sox to pick up a glove, bat and ball. Noted baseball columnist Peter Gammons believed history would have been significantly different had Rice taken an active role in voicing his thoughts about the climate and culture of the Red Sox organization. To Rice’s defense, I’ll use this quote from the book’s author: “Had Rice been white, he would have been lauded as a modern-day Gil Hodges: strong, silent, important. Being black, though, meant Rice was moody, arrogant and distant.” These words prove to me that I have absolutely no idea what it was like to walk in Jim Rice’s shoes.
The next great superstar in the Red Sox organization was slugger Mo Vaughn. He was drafted in Rice’s last year in 1989. For an organization that had featured so many outsiders over the years, Vaughn was a New Englander. He was from Norwalk, CT and had frequently visited Boston while growing up. He was hailed as the first local Red Sox star since Carlton Fisk. As a Yankees fan, I despised Vaughn coming to the plate, much like how I’d later feel about David “Big Papi” Ortiz or more recently, Mookie Betts. These men knew/know how to use Fenway Park to their full advantage.
Vaughn was the AL Most Valuable Player in 1995. The city of Boston accepted Vaughn as their own and he was able to transcend the issue of race in his city. Vaughn loved the city of Boston and wanted to spend his entire career there. The GM at the time, Dan Duquette, brought an era of diversity to the Red Sox. He corrected many of the wrongs committed by previous regimes and reconnected with former black players like Tommy Harper, Dave Henderson, Reggie Smith, and Jim Rice. But for all his positives, Duquette had his faults. He had a reputation of being difficult to work with and he frustrated those who worked for him. The relationship between Duquette and Vaughn became irreparable in 1998 when Vaughn was led to believe that he would be offered four-year contract for approximately $42 million (Peter Gammons believed they had reached agreement). Yet, when the offer came, it was only two years for $17 million. Using the media, the Red Sox orchestrated a smear campaign on the popular Vaughn. Vaughn had put together six monster years for the Red Sox, but on November 25, 1998 as a free agent, he left the team to sign a six-year, $80 million contract with the Anaheim Angels. It was a sad day for Boston and for Baseball in general. Vaughn was not a So-Cal kind of guy. He was a New Englander who should have called Fenway Park home for his entire career. I certainly do not feel that Dan Duquette is a racist but this might have been one of the saddest stories while reading the book.
On February 22, 2002, the legacy of Tom Yawkey was ended when John Harrington sold the club to an ownership group led by John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino. It brought much needed closure for the Yawkey Era, and it set the Red Sox on a path that has yielded four World Series championships in fourteen years. Before reading the book, I am not sure that I fully understood the huge impact John Henry has had on the Red Sox organization and how he has, through actions and not just words, rebranded the Red Sox organization into an exemplary model of professionalism and class. Well, maybe not for Yankee fans like me, but the current ownership group should be applauded for making a difference.
As Julia pointed out to me, while the history of the Red Sox organization wasn’t always pretty, the other Boston sports franchises were ground-breakers with integration. Willie O’Ree is referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey” (the first black player in the NHL). He made his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958. Chuck Cooper became the first black player drafted in the NBA when he was selected with the first pick in the second round of the 1950 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics. Legendary Celtics coach/executive Red Auerbach put together the NBA’s first all-black starting five in 1964. In the inaugural American Football League draft in 1960, the Boston Patriots selected running back Ron Burton in the first round as their first-ever pick. Rommie Loudd became the AFL’s first black coach when he was named linebackers coach for the Patriots in 1966. Loudd later became the first black top executive in major league sports as the owner of the World Football League’s Florida Blazers in 1974.
There is so much more to the book than I’ve touched on with this short essay. Racism continues to be a big part of our everyday life in 2018 and it must stop. We’ve made some progress, but we are not where we need to be. We live in a current climate of hatred and blame which allows racism to survive. If I have one wish, it is a hope and prayer I live to see the end of racism as we know it. Even this week, there were reports out of the Seattle Mariners organization that their former Director of High Performance, Dr. Lorena Martin, has made allegations of derogatory comments made by GM Jerry DiPoto, Manager Scott Servais, and Director of Player Development Andy McKay with racial and sexist overtones. Maybe it is a case of a disgruntled former employee, but maybe it is not. Where there’s smoke, there’s generally fire. If true, this is unacceptable behavior that cannot be tolerated. I think all of us want a better tomorrow for our children and their children. The work to make it happen starts here. No looking back, the focus should be on now and the future, and how we can help each other be successful and live meaningful, rewarding lives. As they say, none of us are getting out of here alive. We should live these days to the best of our ability and to share love and happiness around the World.
That’s a wrap. While I wish that I had won the bet with Julia, I learned a great deal from the book and hopefully I can be a better person as a result. Enjoy your World Series championship, Julia. Your team earned it. But rest assured, the New York Yankees will be back, stronger than ever in 2019. Until next time…