The best baseball book of 2002 was Boston Herald reporter Howard Bryant’s Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston. Even growing up with the Red Sox, until reading the book years ago at the insistence of my non-Red-Sox-fan husband, I was never fully aware of the deep-rooted racial intolerance of the team under the Yawkeys. The owners only grudgingly tried out Jackie Robinson and Sam Jethroe, but the try-outs were a sham, and the team never contacted them again. They also passed on Willie Mays. Having star potential was not enough to outweigh color of skin. I remember when they hired Pumpsie Green, the last team in baseball to hire a black player, and again did it only because they had to. Other steps to set aside bias only limped along until the current ownership took over.
Memories of the bad ol’ days endure, as evidenced by Boston Globe writer Bob Hohler’s excellent article in Sunday’s paper about African-American Tommy Harper, a Red Sox center fielder, club MVP and league leading base stealer in 1973 until he was traded to the Angels. As Hohler points out, when Harper played for Boston, he got hate mail and racial slurs at Fenway. There were more indignities at spring training in Florida , especially when other players were given free guest passes to an all-white country club and he was not. Where were Yaz, Bill Lee, Carlton Fisk, Dwight Evans and others when all this was going on?
Apparently none of the Red Sox management or players – and certainly none of the owners – stood up for Harper. As Hohler points out, reporters remained silent until the mid eighties (Harper had by then been hired back as a staffer under MCAD pressure to diversify) when Peter Gammons and Michael Madden started looking into the continued segregation to which Harper was subjected at spring training.
When Harper spoke up, the Red Sox contrived reasons to fire him. He went to the EEOC, the Red Sox settled but never admitted wrong-doing. In the early ’90’s he became part of the coaching staff, and since 2002 has been a player consultant. Things changed under the new ownership, and in 2010 he was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame.
There are lessons still to be learned from the Tommy Harper experience. Hohler’s article is a compelling reminder that you can have laws and rules that bar wrong-doing, but it takes leadership at the top and buy-in from the team to change an institution’s culture and eliminate prejudice and indifference throughout its ranks. We’re seeing this today in the NFL’s turning a blind eye to domestic violence among its players. Getting rid of the man at the top, Roger Goodell, would have some symbolic value, but, just as improved race relations came from changed Red Sox ownership, so too would football benefit from football owners stepping up to the plate and providing leadership at the tops of their organizations. Drugs, domestic violence, head injuries – there’s plenty for them to work on.
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