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Red-faced Sox
Charles Hirshberg
October 28, 2002
A sportswriter describes the Boston Red Sox' long and shameful history of racial prejudice
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October 28, 2002

Red-faced Sox

A sportswriter describes the Boston Red Sox' long and shameful history of racial prejudice

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Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston
by Howard Bryant Routledge, $27.50

The Boston Red Sox have a historic problem, and it's got nothing to do with the 84 years that separate them from their last championship. Perennial heartbreak, after all, is part of the Red Sox charm, along with Fenway Park and fans who use the word wicked for emphasis. But there's nothing charming about the other Red Sox problem: Since 1959, when the team became the last in major league baseball to field an African-American player, the Red Sox have had a reputation for being the team least welcoming to blacks. In Boston there's an ongoing debate over the fairness of this charge.

But Boston-raised Bryant, who covers the New York Yankees for the Bergen County, N.J., Record, details the Red Sox' dismal record on race. The problem, as he describes it, is both the overt bigotry of old-timers such as manager Pinky Higgins, who swore "there would never be any niggers" on the team as long as he was skipper (he managed from 1955 through '59 and again from mid-1960 through '62), and the quieter prejudice of men like Joe Cronin, who admitted in 1979 that in the '30s and '40s, when he was a player and manager for the Sox, "we all thought it was better to have separate leagues" for blacks and whites.

Pumpsie Green, the Red Sox' first black player, says that in the early '60s coaches thought nothing of using the n word in his presence. In the '70s outfielder Reggie Smith was jeered by a white teammate for acting like "a white man trapped in a black man's body" (whatever that means). In '85 first base coach Tommy Harper protested a Red Sox spring training custom of dining at a whites-only Elks Club in Winter Haven, Fla., and the Sox repaid him by firing him after the season. (Harper sued the team for discrimination in '86, and the sides settled out of court.) In '89 outfielder Ellis Burks was the only African-American player on the team and claims that manager Joe Morgan warned him not to date white women. Even the staunchest Red Sox rooters must concede that these men can't all have imagined the racism.

Who's to blame? Bryant says it's Tom Yawkey, who owned the team from 1933 until his death in '76, and his surviving partners. Bryant argues that as bigotry simmered on the team for decades, Yawkey & Co. did almost nothing about it, thereby sending a signal that it was fine to use African-Americans as targets and scapegoats. It's a shame—a wicked shame-but new ownership may be the best prescription for Red Sox fans who want to see their team leave this grotesque legacy behind. As Sox co-owner John Henry, who bought the team last February, tells Bryant, "It doesn't have to be this way."

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