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The Boston Red Sox, Jackie Robinson, and a Legacy of Racism

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Message Chris Lamb


     On April 16, 1945, three black baseball players - Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams - arrived at Boston's Fenway Park for a tryout with the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox agreed to the tryouts only after a local politician forced their hand. Nevertheless, the team had the chance to make history by ending segregation in professional baseball.

   The Red Sox, instead, humiliated the ballplayers by having high school kids pitch batting practice. Team executives watched from the bleachers and, as one Boston sportswriter later remembered, one of them yelled racial slurs at the ballplayers.

     Unbeknownst to Robinson and just about everyone else, Brooklyn Dodgers' president Branch Rickey had been secretly scouting black baseball for the right ballplayer to integrate baseball. A little more than four months after the Fenway Park fiasco, Jackie Robinson sat in Rickey's office and signed a contract to play for Brooklyn's top minor league team, the Montreal Royals.

   After playing the 1946 season with Montreal, Robinson broke major league baseball's color barrier with the Dodgers sixty-five years ago on April 15, 1947. The Dodgers came to represent racial equality and equal opportunity; the Red Sox stood for racial intolerance and bigotry. Twelve years later, the team became the last in the major leagues to sign a black player.

   Organized professional baseball had prohibited blacks since the 1880s. Iin the 1930s and 1940s, civil rights activists began campaigning for the end to the color line.

   In March 1946, Boston city councilman Isadore Muchnick threatened to revoke the Red Sox's Sunday permit if the team didn't give blacks a tryout. Wendell Smith, sports editor of the influential black weekly, the Pittsburgh Courier, brought Robinson, Jethroe and Williams to Boston.

   Boston general manager Eddie Collins initially agreed to the tryout but then ignored the players, who remained in Boston. Robinson told Smith he was prepared to make a stand. "We consider ourselves pioneers," Robinson said in words that became prescient. "Even if they don't accept us, we are at least making the way easier for those who follow. Some day some Negro player or players will get a break. We want to help make that day a reality."

   Dave Egan of the Daily Record put pressure on the Red Sox by ridiculing Collins for putting bigotry above equal opportunity. "We feel obligated to inform you that since (last) Wednesday," Egan said, "three citizens of the United States have been attempting vainly to get a tryout."

The tryout came, but it was a farce. Smith called it demeaning to put the Negro league stars with a bunch of kids. Robinson agreed. "It would be difficult to call it a tryout because they had these kid pitchers throwing," Robinson remembered. "I sort of laughed within myself at what I felt was the uselessness of the venture. I didn't feel anything would come of it."

The Red Sox told the ballplayers they would contact them, but the ballplayers never heard anything.

Boston sportswriters barely covered the tryout. Clif Keane of the Globe later said that he had heard someone with the team yell, "get those niggers off the field!" Keane said he thought it was Collins.

Baseball historian Glenn Stout, who has written widely about the Red Sox, said there is no way of knowing who -- or if -- anyone yelled the racial epithet at the ballplayers. But one fact is beyond debate. The Red Sox were the last team to have a black player on its roster when it signed "Pumpsie" Green in 1959.

The blame for this has justifiably gone to team owner Tom Yawkey and those he hired. Doc Kountze of the Boston Guardian, a black weekly, once asked a Red Sox official why the team wouldn't sign a black player. The official motioned his finger toward Yawkey's office. George "Pinky" Higgins, who managed the Red Sox for several years in the 1950s and 1960s, said there would"no (blacks) on his team if I have anything to do with it."

The Brooklyn Dodgers became the dominant National League team in the decade following Robinson's first game on April 15, 1947, in no small part because they put the best players on the field, and not just the best white players. The Red Sox paid the price for their bigotry. They won no American League pennants from 1947-1966.

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Chris Lamb is a professor of Communication at the College of Charleston, in Charleston, SC, he teaches courses in journalism and media studies. He has written hundreds of newspaper columns that have appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles (more...)
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