Some younger sports fans must have been confused when, in the summer of 2007, power forward Kevin Garnett initially quashed a proposed trade to the Boston Celtics. The familiar storylines emerged soon, for those old enough to remember; another African American athlete, reluctant to play in the veritable seat of northeastern racism. Another proposed deal that summer was said to hinge on the willingness of Phoenix Sun Shawn Marion—also black—to accept a trade to Boston. Again, racism was seen as the culprit in many circles. To hear some critics tell it, the long residuals of the nativist sentiments that had made many American cities inhospitable for immigrants in the early twentieth century never entirely faded from the scene. In many cases, the resentment grew to incorporate the sports world (Schultz, 2008).
In the midst of an athletic renaissance in which many of the city’s most cherished heroes have been non-white—David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez—it appeared Boston had still failed to shed the prejudiced tag engendered by high profile conflicts—witness Stanley Forman’s 1977 Pulitzer Prize winning photo of a young white protester proudly attempting to spear a black man with the American flag outside City Hall in Boston during a demonstration against public school integration and busing—and a cloistered mindset born of survivalist intolerance. And, as had been the case many times in the past, the racial ‘issues’ of the city came creeping up through the cracks of its hallowed sports tradition (Denton, 1980).
While traditionally known as a socially liberal enclave since its days as an abolitionist outpost, the greater Boston area was overwhelmingly white until World War II. In the early to mid twentieth century, Boston was the only major northeastern city with too small a black population to sustain a single Negro League team—though it had enough baseball fans to sustain two major league clubs (O’Brien, 2002). Writer and Bostonian Sharon O’Brien blames the lack of quality black baseball in the area for the reluctance of Red Sox management to embrace the possibility of African American players later on; the Red Sox were famously slow to integrate, becoming baseball’s last all-white team before the big league club brought up Pumpsie Green in 1959 (after leaving him mired in the minor leagues for six years) (Barney & Barney, 2007).
While Green languished in the minors, Red Sox manager ‘Pinky Higgins’ made his thoughts on integration known. He was famously quoted as saying "They'll [sic] be no niggers on this ball club as long as I have anything to say about it" (Barney & Barney, 2007, p.4). He was a notorious racist, and, according to many, “his consistent and obvious ineptitude as field manager was both tolerated and even retained in the crony-oriented world of the Yawkey-owned (Red Sox).” (Barney & Barney, 2007, p.4)
Of course, the Red Sox could just as easily have been trailblazers. In the mid 1940’s, the team started to feel serious pressure from journalists and City Council members fishing for black votes (O’Brien, 2002). In 1945, the Red Sox relented and invited three Negro League players to try out at Fenway Park for Joe Cronin, Hugh Duffy, and assorted members of Red Sox management (Bryant, 2002). According to familiar baseball lore, one of the players, a young man named Jack Roosevelt Robinson, displayed a particularly dazzling array of baseball skills. Nevertheless, as the three prepared to depart, an unidentified voice—presumably belonging to a member of management—descended on them from near the entrance to the team front offices above: "Get those niggers off the field!" (Barney & Barney, 2007, 4) According to some, the voice belonged to Sox’ owner Yawkey himself (Bryant, 2002). In any case, none of the three ever heard back from Boston. A similar story was later told about a young Willie Mays. No dark-skinned ballplayer would wear the red ‘B’ until 14 years later (Bryant, 2002).
The world of Boston race relations was complicated well before the Green era. The influx of black workers during World War II caused tremendous unrest among white Bostonians, who felt they were being pressured out of their jobs. This sense of anxiety was arguably related to the uneasiness that had surrounded the ascent of black athletes near the turn of the century (Schultz, 2008). The black population grew too large for the traditional black enclave--nee ghetto--of Roxbury, and families spilled over into traditionally white neighborhoods. The typical exodus of white homeowners began, and with it, racist sentiment grew (O’Brien, 2002). In the 1960’s and 1970’s, a virtual war raged over the issues of integrated schooling and forced busing, stoking flames of tension between working class white and black Bostonians in particular (Green & Hunter, 1974).
Of course, Boston’s mien of xenophobia and class conflict was nothing new. Irish immigrants and native Bostonians had tangled since the mid nineteenth century (O’Brien, 2002). Boston Irish racism was linked to the Irish working-class “sense of being an oppressed minority themselves” (O’Brien, 2002, 178). Indeed, early Irish immigrants to Boston received exclusionist treatment in most sectors of society, being refused service and employment on the basis of race. This history of reciprocal prejudice brings us closer to a contextual perspective for thinking about the Red Sox' reluctance to sign black players in the middle of the twentieth century (O’Brien, 2002). In his history of the Boston Irish, Thomas O’Connor contends that Boston’s rejection of the Irish has deeply affected everything that followed:
The Boston Irish, despite the political power they came to enjoy, have a deep-felt belief that they are a beleaguered minority, combined with a need to consider themselves higher in the social and economic scale than African-Americans—and an inability to see the ways in which their class position in fact links South Boston and Roxbury. (O’Brien, 2002, p.179)
Michael Patrick MacDonald related the sentiments of his friends and family member in South Boston during his childhood. To people in his neighborhood, the desegregation of Boston schools was a “WASP plot…(that) allied the Yankee elite with Ireland’s English oppressors” (O’Brien, 2002, p.179-180). Naturally, the plotting ways of the ‘Protestant cabal’ included engineering social integration to steal jobs and other opportunities from the Irish. Among some members of the working class, such thinking became natural, especially in times of economic hardship. (O’Brien, 2002)
To find the true 'source' of Black-Irish enmity, though, we must go back even further. There had once been signs of an alliance between African Americans and Irish, during the nineteenth century (O’Brien, 2002). As fellow members of a common disenfranchised lower class, the two ‘races’ had been seen as natural brothers-in-arms by some leaders (O’Brien, 2002). The potential coalition was shattered when new Irish immigrants found themselves thoroughly beaten down in the new country, targeted by nativist sentiments and sometimes even pushed below slaves in the social hierarchy. (O’Brien, 2002) Naturally, says historian David Roediger, the Irish Bostonians did anything to advertise their own whiteness. “They sought to become insiders, or Americans, by claiming their membership as whites…Thus, blacks as the ‘other’ served to facilitate the assimilation of Irish foreigners” (O’Brien, 2002, p.180). When working class Irish Bostonians stayed put in working class neighborhoods, the influx of African-Americans combined with Irish feelings of resentment led to a cataclysmic racial divide that scorched everything it touched.
Boston was left with an ethnic majority—the Irish--still considering itself a minority race, despite its political control of the city. The African American ethnic minority, traditionally absent from Boston, sought to work its way up the ladder, but inevitably clashed with the prejudices—and memories of prejudice—of the old-guard Irish (O’Brien, 2002).
Similarly, the Red Sox management that kept the team so stolidly stuck in the segregationist era was predominantly Irish-American, featuring fan favorite heroes like former players Eddie Collins and Joe Cronin (O’Brien, 2002). Success by African American athletes was seen as a threat to the dominant social order—financially and implicitly. (Schultz, 2008) So, in the 1950’s, when teams like the Brooklyn Dodgers cashed in on the ‘new’ stream of talent from the Negro Leagues, peppering rosters with legitimate stars like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe, the Boston club would have no part of it. Many a Red Sox fan has bemoaned the loss of what ‘could have been’—some have speculated about a potential 1950 lineup featuring Robinson and Mays along with white Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr and stars Vern Stephens, Walt Dropo, and Dom DiMaggio—but it seems doubtful that a Red Sox team featuring black stars would have gained widespread appeal at so early a date anyway. (O’Brien, 2002)
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Boston Celtics, while important to the cultural fabric of the city, were far more open to the inclusion of black athletes than the Red Sox, and thus far less popular at their peak. Red Auerbach was a New Yorker, a Jewish outsider with no connection to the Boston Irish community (O’Brien, 2002). He had no qualms about breaking the social taboos of the city’s complex ethnic network—or building a dynasty around a black superstar, Bill Russell (O’Brien, 2002). While the Celtics were a seminal dynasty, they never achieved anything quite like the Red Sox’ level of popularity.
Russell is said to have hated Boston. He was once quoted as saying, "I would rather be in a Sacramento jail than be mayor of Boston," and he called the city a “flea market of racism” (Bryant, 2002, 54-58). He was often embittered by the lack of attention the city gave him and his team, to say nothing of several well documented cases of overt harassment (Heaphy, 2005). Even if Mays and Robinson had found themselves in crimson, it would have been a hard road to stardom in Boston.
The Red Sox’ structure of institutional racism—and the prejudices of some of the fans--may have held the team back on the field, but the all-encompassing grudges of the organization stretched beyond Yawkey’s reign, into the bleachers, concession stands, and press box: as late as Pumpsie Green’s inaugural season at Fenway, not one African American was employed at any level of the organization, “not even as a janitor or ticket collector” (Essington, 2004). One of the Red Sox’ most vocal public ‘representatives’, Will McDonough, the beloved Boston Globe baseball writer of the 1960’s-1980’s, “advocated an Irish stance on all sorts of issues, integration among them.” (Barney, 2007, 7) That there was a well-known ‘Irish’ stance on integration speaks volumes about the temperament of the times. McDonough “pandered to the party line crafted by Yawkey and his associates” and steadfastly denied allegations of institutional racism, discrediting the work of many of his colleagues in the process. (Barney, 2007, 7) By the time McDonough retired, the belief that Boston was a racist sports town was akin to scripture among the professional athletic fraternity. Into the 1990’s, black players wrote clauses into their contracts stipulating they not be traded to Boston (Essington, 2004). The change, assuming a change has occurred, was recent indeed.
While many of the old wounds associated with Boston’s sports past have seemingly healed, it’s impossible to say how many still fester.
As recently as 2002, the Red Sox were criticized for featuring only two entries between 1941 and 1967 on the team’s “Special Moments in Boston Red Sox History” web page. The two signature dates omitted were those of Pumpsie Green’s debut, in 1959, and Earl Wilson’s 1962 no-hitter. While such criticism may seem to fall a bit on the facile side, modern Boston is still the third ‘whitest’ major metropolitan area in America, and is far from colorblind in its rooting interests. Even almost a half century after the Sox caved and let Green on the field, seeds of dissent remain (O’Brien, 2002).
In a 2002 panel discussion featuring the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and Boston Magazine, racism and segregation were the topics of discussion. Harvard professor and CRP co-founding director Gary Orfield quoted statistics to the effect that Boston is becoming a “city of minorities”: In the 1990s, the white population fell by one percent, while black and Latino populations rose by 30 and 47 percent, respectively. (Potier, 2002) In short, the racial makeup of the city is gradually beginning to resemble the racial makeup of one of the city’s cherished sports teams.
While a special murmur still goes through the crowd when little-used Brian Scalabrine, a white man, checks into the game for the Celtics, it bears repeating that, although old habits die hard, progress is being made. The fact that the nearly anonymous bench player arguably fetches more cheers than any of the Celtics’ African American superstars doesn’t need to be an indicator of still-lingering hatred. This, too, can be seen as a long residual of the intense nativism that long dictated the rooting patterns of Bostonians (Schultz, 2008). Scalabrine is light-skinned with red hair. In him, the fans see something of their past. But as the city itself becomes more diverse, fans arguably need look no further than teammates Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and company to see something of their present and future.
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Edes, G. (2004, June 18). Blasting zone: Bonds makes a powerful statement on, off field. The Boston Globe, p. C1.
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