Monday, July 1, 2013

Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston

One of the things that has always bugged me the most about being a Boston Red Sox fan has been their poor history with African American players.

The Red Sox had the first shot at Jackie Robinson, along with Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams in 1945.  But it was not something organized by the Red Sox because they really wanted to integrate that early.  They were driven to do the tryout by a local City Councilman name Isadore Muchnick who threatened to withdraw his support of Sunday baseball games if they did not comply.  Since playing baseball on Sundays required unanimous support from the City Council, this could have potentially been a crippling blow.  So Boston was never really serious and even though team leaders felt the players could play well, the team passed.

Later on they had other chances with Piper Davis, who was actually in the team's system and was the first African American signed to a professional contract by the Red Sox but never made the Major Leagues, and the great Willie Mays.  Yes, Boston could have had both Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays.  That is sad.  Instead they were the last team to integrate in 1959 when utility infielder Pumpsie Green made his Major League debut as a pinch runner.

The author Howard Bryant posits the theory that a large reason for the team's dismal performance in the 1950's and 1960's was due to the team's unwillingness to fully integrate.  Even after Green and Earl Wilson, they still never really had more than a couple of black players on their roster at any given time until 1967.  Bryant also covers some of the individual stories of players, paying particular attention to the plights of Wilson, Reggie Smith, Jim Rice, Ellis Burks, and Mo Vaughn.  He also spends a great deal of time discussing some of the racial issues in the city of Boston at large, particularly in the 1970's and 1990's.

It is a very interesting read even though the tone is not overall very positive.  As I said, Boston had a rather poor history with black players.  It was so bad that many players refused to come to Boston after free agency began.  I remember particularly David Justice and Marquis Grissom putting no trade clauses into their contracts preventing them from being traded to the Red Sox.  That was one of the first moments that I realized that things were not terribly great there.  I still found it to be a fascinating read.

I did have a few complaints.  Bryant alluded to some issues with George Scott and Ferguson Jenkins in their time with the Red Sox, but it was never expanded upon.  In addition, one minor detail that was incorrect that was actually a very important one.  Bryant mentions Billy Hatcher as the Red Sox first black free agent signing.  In actuality it was Herm Winningham.  Both players were speedy outfielders from the Reds that came to Boston in 1992.  But Winningham was a free agent.  Hatcher was acquired in a trade for Tom Bolton during the season.  Finally, I do think that he glossed over the teams from the mid to late 1990's.  Boston was very integrated at that time featuring among others, the following players: Vaughn, Andre Dawson, Otis Nixon, Lee Tinsley, Wes Chamberlain, Troy O'Leary, Reggie Jefferson, Mark Whiten, Willie McGee, Dwayne Hosey, Tom Gordon, Heathcliff Slocumb, Shane Mack, Darren Lewis, Damon Buford, Butch Huskey, and more.

Bryant ends the book on a hopeful note with the purchase of the team from the present ownership group.  Unfortunately I do not feel that this group has been an improvement from a racial standpoint.  Dan Duquette had always had a number of black players playing for the team.  That number has declined dramatically since this ownership group took over.  It is to the point that Jackie Bradley Jr. has been the only non-Latin black player to play for Boston this year.  Of course the percentage of African American players in Major League baseball has a whole has been declining dramatically as well.  It just feels to me as if this ownership group has actually been a step backward.

This is an important issue and it is interesting to read the theory that the team's struggles may have been due to the failure to integrate.  To a large degree that appears to have been the truth.  It is certainly telling that as soon as the attitudes changed in the mid 1960's and Dick O'Connell was the general manager that the team's fortunes improved significantly.  This carried through the entire time O'Connell was there and once he was fired and the old practices returned, the team again struggled.  It does appear to be true.  There may be other explanations, but this was a part of it.

1 comment:

  1. I have that book as well. A very good read, and this is a great review of it.