Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Thu 19 Sep 02 09:04
Howard Bryant covers the Yankees for the Bergen Record. He grew up in Boston and has written extensively on race and baseball. "Shut Out" traces the Red Sox ownership's slow progress toward integrating the team in the city which had its own very public struggles with racism. Moderating the discussion is Steve Bjerklie. Steve is a journalist and editor who over the last 22 years has published articles, editorials and commentary in dozens of publications, including The Economist. A Well member since 1995 and a baseball fan since 1958, when he saw Willie Mays hit two out of old Seals Stadium in San Francisco, he roots for the Oakland A's when asked about favorites, but supports more generally and enthusiastically baseball as a whole. Please join us in welcoming Howard and Steve!
Howard Bryant (ohmy) Thu 19 Sep 02 11:48
Thanks for having me, and Steve every time I shopped at my old Safeway on 16th and Potrero, I thought of which aisle I had to stand in to be in Mays' center field spot!
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Thu 19 Sep 02 16:27
Probably somewhere near the sugar, don't you think -- the "sweet spot"? Or maybe where the cans o' corn are sold.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Thu 19 Sep 02 22:33
But anyway. On to the book! Howard, the two sentences you wrote to open "Shut Out"'s third chapter compellingly capture a thousand stories and legends and probably a million or more hot-stove-league debates: "Virtually everything about Boston baseball is conditional. >>>What would have happened if...?<<<" Perhaps a good place to begin our conversation here is by taking on what is arguably the Red Sox's biggest "if" of all. Howard, would you give us the details and comment on the meaning of Jackie Robinson's humiliating 1945 tryout for the Red Sox?
Howard Bryant (ohmy) Fri 20 Sep 02 20:07
The Robinson tryout is one of the more interesting pieces of Red Sox history because, at the time, no one had thought much about the significance of humiliating Jackie Robinson at the time, for no one in baseball had in 1945 even begun thinking too seriously about integrating the game. Still, in this environment, Robinson and two other players, Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams were reluctantly invited by the Red Sox to try out at Fenway Park in April 1945. I say "reluctantly" because the Red Sox were pressured by a city councilor named Isadore H.Y. Muchnick, who had threatened that he would seek to revoke the club's permit to play Sunday baseball. This was a major threat to the Sox ability to generate income. Bowing to pressure, the Red Sox allowed Robinson, Jethroe and Willias to don Sox uniforms, take hitting and fielding practice. Hugh Duffy, the old Red Sox legend, ran the tryout. Joe Cronin, the manager, was there, and apparently said nothing. When it was over, Duffy informed the three players the Red Sox would be contacting them soon. No one heard from Boston again. Robinson would go to his grave bitter at the Red Sox, so much that 22 years later, when the Red Sox were locked in the great pennant race of 1967 with the Twins, Tigers and White Sox, Robinson said he hoped anyone would win it but Boston, because "everyone knows Tom Yawkey is one of the most bigoted men in baseball." Cronin, who later said the tryout went nowhere, "because he was afraid many blacks didn't want the Negro Leagues broken up" and that he felt "everyone thought it was better to have separate leagues" never reconciled with Robinson, either. Nine days before a blind, diabetes-stricken Robinson died, Cronin refused to appear on the same field with him for a opening-day, pregame ceremony in 1972, though he was the president of the American League. According to Monte Irvin, who worked in the commissioner's office, Cronin sat under the stands at Riverfront Stadium, eating a hot dog, waiting for Robinson to leave.
Andrew Alden (alden) Fri 20 Sep 02 21:20
Hi Howard. My wife and I still recall you fondly from your days with the Oakland Tribune. I'm in the middle of the book and I notice that you include a lot of quotes from the Tribune and Bay area writers, like Ray Ratto and Monte Poole and Leonard Koppett. So you've been working on this story for at least a few years. You come from Boston. Tell me how this story grew upon you and how you decided that the history of the postwar Boston Red Sox is an illuminating vantage of the wider American struggle over race.
pointy, but rarely undeservedly savage (vard) Fri 20 Sep 02 23:13
Hi Howard! The book is amazing. I'd like you to talk a little bit about the circumstances in Boston - not just the ownership and the management, but the political climate during the late 40s and 50s, and what you have been able to find out about the attitudes of the other players who were on the Boston roster during that time. By which I mean: do you think that Boston was materially more backward than everyone else? Obviously they were last, and that stands for something, but is that the single definitive fact?
Howard Bryant (ohmy) Sat 21 Sep 02 23:01
Hi <alden>! Sorry we missed you at the book signing in SF at ACWLPB. As Steve noted, Art Howe, Brad Fischer and Kenny Macha were there, happily talking baseball. For me, the book was a natural. It was just a matter of having the opportunity to write it. Throughout the research, one issue came back to me consistently and it was, "how come no one had written it before?" It is not a new story, especially for people who are close or familiar with the club. The Red Sox became a focal point for two major reasons, the first being I had always been fascinated by their relationship with the Af-Am community in Boston. I think in the intro I relayed a story to new Sox owner John Henry about how when I was a kid virtually no one in the black community born before 1970 rooted for the Red Sox. The old timers, like my grandfather, was very pointed about it. He was a Dodgers/Cardinals man, and others were "anything but the Red Sox" men. This fascinated me, because in the 1940s and 50s the Red Sox were no more or less racist than any of the other teams, with the marked exceptions of the Dodgers, Giants and Indians. Why did the Red Sox legacy linger when others remained into history? That question never went away. A side note to this was the visceral reaction so many black former players had toward Boston. In 1993, I was 24 and working on a piec for the Oakland Tribune on the Negro Leagues. Joe Black, the old Dodger and the first black pitcher to win a WS game, asked me where I was from. I told him Boston and he looked at me with a firmness that elevated the intensity of the conversation. He was still bitter about the way the Red Sox had treated Jackie Robinson and he was angry that a young black kid, a reporter, no less, rooted for a team he knew nothing about. It was such a humbling and demoralizing moment for me that I resolved to find out about this team. I can answer the second part of your question by saying that the Red Sox began to serve as a mirror of the city for me because of their import as an AL flagship. I don't think the story has the same power if the Red Sox weren't such a culturally dominant team in baseball. I became intrigued by how the club _ which in reality, not the imagination of the fan _ has been over the past half-century one of the least dynamic in terms of promoting real change and progression in the game could have so much power, in the Commissioner's office, the media, and (post-1967) as a real force as a New England institution. To me, the contrast of that power against how bitter black players _ even those who never set foot in Boston _ struck me as a very fertile ground to leap into some of the real issues in the game and the country.
Howard Bryant (ohmy) Sat 21 Sep 02 23:24
Hi <vard>! Thank you for the kind words on the book. I did my best. You've asked two great questions, and I found myself stumped on both. The first _ the political climate in Boston _ is tricky in of itself because of Boston's schizophrenic personality between the Harvard set and the blue-collar political "machine" that found itself constantly immersed in some form of corruption. Unlike some of the bigger cities _ Chicago, NY, LA_ the black migration hadn't touched Boston so much during the Robinson era and earlier that would have forced its hand in how its politicians and the financial powerhouses dealt with African Americans. As late as 1949, Boston's black population was as low as 4 percent. Therefore, the relationship between the black population and City Hall was one of minor concern, really, on both sides. Blacks never demanded much from the politicos, preferring instead to rely on the goodwill built from the forceful ties built in the previous century. The black condition had completely changed _ abolition and the "special relationship" was long dead by the end of WWI nevermind WW2 _ but the black electorate in Boston preferred compromise to protest. Besides, they were in a terrible position, anyway, because _ unlike the Irish _ they couldn't produce the voting numbers to scare the power into action. Also, in 1949, what chances blacks had to mobilize politically went out the window when a charter change turned city council seats into at-large positions, meaning a black candidate _ at 4 percent of the population _ would virtually never be able to win a citywide election. Therefore, this reality makes the moves of Izzy Muchnick _ the forgotten, misunderstood Jewish City Councilor _ even more courageous and dangerous. By putting his name on the line for a cause no one seemed to support seems all the more like political suicide. In short, there was nothing _ outside of that old strain of Boston liberalism that held from the Garrison-Sumner-Douglass mythology _ happening in Boston at the time to suggest integration had more of a chance there than anywhere else. As for the ball club, I don't think the Red Sox rank-and-file were even in a position to have an opinion. The one thing we do know about the Red Sox of those days is that they would have never crossed Tom Yawkey. He paid them so well _ for the times _ that they never did anything to upset the apple cart. Thus, it is no surprise that during the strike vote before the first labor stoppage in 1972, the Red Sox were the club most opposed to walking out. All of which brings us to one Mr. Theodore S. Williams. I just returned from Boston a few hours ago and still, to this day, despite the 1966 HOF speech and him being the only player to warm up and welcome Pumpsie Green that first year, there are still many people in the black community who believe Williams to have been the secret engine behind the Red Sox' reluctance to integrate during the 1950s. I don't think I buy this, for 1) it simply seems too convenient to blame the biggest star on the club's hiring policies and 2) I found no evidence of it at all in any research I did.
pointy, but rarely undeservedly savage (vard) Sat 21 Sep 02 23:34
Why would people want to believe that? That's astonishing.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Sun 22 Sep 02 09:00
Howard, before we get too far removed from the ill-fated '45 Jackie Robinson tryout and into other interesting territory, I want to ask you a question that occurred to me when I read about the tryout in "Shut Out": Was that the first tryout of a black player for a meajor-league team in the 20th century? Or were there others before? If so, do you know what was the first? I'm curious, because it'd be interesting to know if any other teams besides the Dodgers were actively -- not just giving lip-service to -- considering hiring black players to break baseball's color line.
Howard Bryant (ohmy) Sun 22 Sep 02 09:51
To my knowledge, and I believe I say this in the book, Isadore Muchnick's forcing of the Red Sox to try out the Robinson trio was the first time anyone came away with a *result.* In the past, there had been demands for tryouts. I believe in 1944, there was a protest in NY of both the Giants and Yankees, that was quelled quickly by Commissioner Landis. From everything I've read and gleaned from the few people who are still with us _ cutting the Buck O'Neil chapter from the book was truly agonizing _ no one believed integration would begin in earnest until Landis was dead. I believe this, because once he died, integration came rather quickly. WW2 may have had plenty to do with it, but I don't think that's the only factor. After Fenway, the Chicago White Sox held a tryout for two black players later in 1945 that came and went with little notice. The Dodgers, in either late '45 or early '46 did the same before settling on Robinson. I believe this Dodger tryout was a lip-service tryout, and there had been talk that Branch Rickey was annoyed to have been pressured politically by black activists. He took umbrage to that approach for change. <vard>, I too believe the Williams talk to be absurd. Art Rust Jr., an old black journalist who wrote a book with the title "Get that nigger off the field," (in reference to the rumored slur yelled at Robinson during the tryout), called me the other day 1) 'cause he wanted a free book! and 2) to tell me he knew many of the characters in the book said he believed the same, that Williams may have mellowed, but during his heydey was the backbone behind the Sox racist policies. There's only evidence to the contrary about this, but I think it is illustrative of many blacks' need to *find some plausible explanation* for why the Red Sox were so recalcitrant during those times. And remember, Williams was the public figure, Yawkey stayed behind the scenes. I have a moment in the book about Mabray "Doc" Kountze, a black journalist who worked for the Boston Guardian, the old black weekly. He believed this about Williams, too. In the late '80s, Glenn Stout, who wrote the fabulous "Red Sox Century" told Kountze about Williams' '66 HOF speech and it made Kountze cry. For all those years _ though he never wrote it _ he thought Williams was a racist. He wrote Williams a letter apologizing to Ted for even *thinking* ill of Williams. Williams wrote him a long letter accepting the apology, and easing Kountze's conscience.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Sun 22 Sep 02 10:33
That was a sweet anecdote to have included, Howard. I thought it spoke very well of both men. I suppose one big challenge in writing any baseball book is choosing the anecdotes.
David S. Greene (dsg) Sun 22 Sep 02 12:08
Howard, I think you've done a huge service to baseball, informed discussions of race and society and to history both in Boston and the country as a whole, in exploring this subject. The topic of racial relations and how they relate to the sports life of the Boston community has been just below the surface here in Boston for as long as I can remember, but it's rarely tackled head-on. In the past generation, Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, Jim Rice and Mo Vaughn have publically commented on being part of the organization's history, and I've personally heard Vaughn muse on the impact he'd like to have had on the team and the community. As I haven't yet had a chance to pick up a copy of "Shut Out" (I will, I promise), can you speak to the effect of Mo's tenure here, his efforts to be front and center while he was wearing the Red Sox uniform, and whathis impact could have been had he stayed?
Howard Bryant (ohmy) Sun 22 Sep 02 14:43
To me, Mo Vaughn is THE seminal figure in Boston's sports history. As Boston Herald baseball columnist Tony Massarotti said, "When Mo first got here, Ellis Burks was the only black face in the clubhouse, and now it's all different." The thing I love most about Mo is how he was the first black baseball player in Boston to not shy away from the obvious issue that comes with being a black player in Boston. He was the first black player to expect to be treated on his own terms and to welcome the responsibility that came with that. When you think of the other black players who have played for the Sox, they usually fall into two categories, 1) the meek and quiet, even if they aren't by nature (Pumpsie Green, Cecil Cooper, Bob Watson, etc.), players who will avoid all racial discussions even if they are burning a hole in their skin. Those guys just won't get involved. The other is the emotional player, the Oil Cans and Reggie Smiths of the club who seemed so affected by every slight, and simply couldn't enjoy playing in Boston for a minute. Mo didn't fall into either category, which is a tribute to his self-confidence as a person. He proved that a black player could be embraced, could enjoy Boston and be the face of this franchise. That is new and significant. Even Bill Russell, for all of his greatness, couldn't navigate Boston, couldn't corral the public. It took nearly 30 years after he retired for Russell and the city to face one another with positive reflection. Not only did Mo love it there, but he never wanted to leave, either. He goes beyond race. He always talked about being "The last of the Great Red Sox," which is amazing in an era where players no longer tie their personal legacy to that of a team. Mo wanted that, esp. in a place that needed it the most. I could talk about Mo for days, obviously...
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Mon 23 Sep 02 05:57
Howard, (to repeat a question I asked at your reading), what was it that Mo did in Boston to become the seminal figure in Boston's black sports history, and how did he do it? You mentioned at the reading that he is a New Englander (Connecticut, I believe). Was this a factor? And in the book you write that Mo "wore his blackness unabashed"; can you tell us what you mean specifically? And then there's the matter of Mo's relationship with Dan Duquette, who you identify as the other person in the modern Red Sox to have made a huge and productive difference in terms of black athletes, even though Duquette is pretty much universally despised as a human being (and no longer has a job with the Red Sox)...
Howard Bryant (ohmy) Mon 23 Sep 02 09:55
For years, black players were nervous about playing in Boston. Part of the reason was the fragile racial climate, but mostly it was because other blacks in the game saw how unhappy and difficult the experience had been for Reggie Smith, Jim Rice, etc. That made players not want to play there. When Mo arrived, he didn't shy from racial issues. He took it upon himself to bring difficult questions into the open instead of brooding and allowing it to weigh on him. By doing this, Mo took the pressure off of his teammates. Mo was one of the first black players _ certainly the most important _ who said good things about the city and truly enjoyed playing in Boston. Where Rice always seemed beaten down by the climate, Mo said there was no other place he'd rather play. He went into black neighborhoods and cultivated community groups that had long boycotted the Red Sox as an entity. His charity work, his presence, for the first time allowed blacks in Boston to believe that the Red Sox belonged to them, too. As for his personality, my argument was that black players were so fearful of being roped into the discussion of race in Boston _ by interviews, commentary, etc. _ that they rarely said or did anything that attracted attention to themselves. Mo was different. He hung out with rap stars, even infamous ones like the late Notorious B.I.G. and Puffy Combs. He was part of that black celebrity lifestyle and Bostonians were not used to seeing that in a black athlete. By doing this, I believe, Mo made it possible for other players to be less fearful of Boston because he proved it was just like any other place. You could be yourself there.
Andrew Alden (alden) Mon 23 Sep 02 10:59
In one place you talk about the razzing that ballplayers do (or did) with their opponents. In the all-white days, the guys would insult each other's ethnic groups with impunity. When black (and latino) players started coming up, this couldn't be done. The taunts ("hey porter, get my bags") were too harsh. You quote an exchange between pitcher Clem Labine and writer Roger Kahn. Labine didn't quite get it: "If someone called me a French-Catholic bastard, I'd tell him to go fuck himself. I wouldn't come crying to you." Kahn replied that "in Mississippi they're not lynching French-Catholic bastards, only niggers." So I guess white players had to learn new razzing behavior. (I assume they haven't given up the habit.) What are the guys yelling these days?
Howard Bryant (ohmy) Mon 23 Sep 02 11:56
Today's players are more part of a club. The established players hardly razz anyone anymore. They are all part of the million-dollar fraternity. I was talking to some of the older reporters and players. Yogi Berra told me even as early as the start of the 1960s, bench jockeying was a dying art, and most people seem to think integration was a big reason for that. As Don Zimmer said, "We did it then, but there's no place for that now." After watching his documentary, I think Hank Greenberg might think there was no place for it then, either.
Howard Bryant (ohmy) Mon 23 Sep 02 17:06
Sorry, lost train of thought. As for Dan Duquette, I truly went into this project expecting him to emerge as a hero. There was just one problem: No one would say a good word about him. The reason? The way he treated people. Regardless of how much credit I believe he deserves for changing the culture of the Red Sox _ before his tenure the Red Sox had signed exactly two black free agents in the 18 years of free agency _ his lack of interpersonal skills and downright meanspiritness prevented even people who are usually pretty fair to dislike him intensely.
David S. Greene (dsg) Mon 23 Sep 02 18:36
Big surprise. Any thoughts on how the new regime might behave, from what you've seen and heard?
Howard Bryant (ohmy) Mon 23 Sep 02 21:56
Had two very interesting conversations with the Post-Yawkeys. The first was in the intro with John Henry, the new owner. What I didn't add into the intro, 'cause I was 1) off the record and 2) fearful of being turned into a puppet, was Henry's telling me that he has for some time been looking for a minority partner for a piece of the Red Sox. This would be gigantic if only to send a message that the new days aren't the old ones. That was in April, and nothing seems to have happened yet. The second conversation was with Charles Steinberg, a member of the Henry group that Peter Gammons recently touted as being a "necessity" for the commissioner's office in some capacity. Dr. Steinberg spoke at length about the need to "corral a generation" of new fans to provide the antidote to the way the previous generations of black fans thought of the Red Sox. He didn't specify how he and the New Sox intended to do this, but certainly they are very aware that at least in the short term, my book makes them look good.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Tue 24 Sep 02 08:43
Howard, one of the (many) fascinating items you report in the book is that Tris Speaker, Boston's great star of the pre-World War I period (and arguably the best Red Sox until Ted Williams; the second hald of Speaker's bifurcated career was spent with Cleveland), was a member of the Klan. To tell you the truth, this news saddened me greatly, as I've long admired Speaker. More importantly, I haven't seen this reported about Speaker anywhere else -- nice work. In your research, did you find other players who belonged to the KKK?
Howard Bryant (ohmy) Tue 24 Sep 02 09:36
There certainly were pockets of players who belonged to such organizations, esp. members of the Detroit Tigers, whose names I've actually been stumbling upon (I'll name names when I'm sure). The hard part of the discussion is reconciling how these facts affect the admiration you have for certain players _ Ty Cobb, of course, being the greatest example. The part easier to accept is that Speaker's playing days coincided with the most pronounced rise of racism in the nation's history. I would imagine in certain towns, especially the Southern ones, the real surprise wasn't who was a member of the Klan, but the people of a certain age who weren't. I cannot _ damn it all! _ take full credit for Speaker. His KKK affiliation has been documented in a few places, one of which is the Hall of Fame (where I found it), accompanied by a photo of Speaker chomping on a cigar, wearing a suit and hat, while sitting on top of an alligator. Peter Golenbock's book "Fenway: An unexpurgated history of the Boston Red Sox" also makes mention of Speaker, and Smokey Joe Wood, page. 46: "In 1916, the two star players of the Red Sox, Tris Speaker and Smokey Joe Wood, mysteriously were no longer members of the Boston Red Sox. History has recorded that Speaker was traded on the eve of opening day because Lannin didn't want to pay his high salary. Wood has said he quit the Red Sox in 1916 because of a salary dispute. Maybe. "There is evidence that Speaker and Wood may have left the Red Sox because, as non-Catholics, they didn't get along with their Irish Catholic teammates in Irish Boston. Speaker, a Texan, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. His best friend Wood, was an Orangeman. Both were Masons...Speaker in particular did not hide his contempt for his Catholic teammates, including Babe Ruth, Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper." I had been told of a deep Catholic/non-Catholic rift in the first half-decade of the Yawkey regime as well, which was surprising considering that Eddie Collins and Joe Cronin were both rising to power in the Boston hierarchy during the mid-1930s. And not to be exclusionary, old Sox third baseman Frank Malzone, among others have long known the Red Sox of those days to be very anti-Italian, which explains _ similarly to the black experience _ why Boston's huge Italian-American population was alway partial to the Yankees, which of course was the team of Italian America during those years.
Andrew Alden (alden) Tue 24 Sep 02 09:55
Along these lines, I learned from your book that ball clubs were not segregated before 1884. I imagine that by 1946, when reintegration began, there was no trace of this historic experience left in the game. This should be old news, I know, when we see how long it's taken minorities and women to make progress in our lifetimes--but I'm still impressed with the weight and depth of inertia in social institutions. A new owner can't come in and wave a magic wand. It takes decades of concerted effort, even for a lousy baseball team. For those not familiar with the structure of baseball, could you say why it has been so hard to change?
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Tue 24 Sep 02 10:20
>>>Speaker in particular did not hide his contempt for his Catholic teammates, including Babe Ruth, Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper.<<< Wow. For one thing, I didn't know Ruth was Catholic. For another, the Burns/Ward book "Baseball," from the television series, has a nice page of photos showing Speaker and Hooper as roommates in a Boston boarding house. I'm not doubting the report of Speaker's anti-Catholicism, just feeling surprised that he could abide the rooming arrangement. Please tell me Harry Hooper, a Stanford grad, was all right. He's my absolute favorite old Red Sox, even above Speaker. (I'm not counting Ruth.)
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