I’m a massive baseball fan and, as someone with deep connections to the city of Boston, I was perfectly content with the Red Sox winning their fourth World Series of the 21st century. But Boston and Boston sports have earned their reputation as an exceptionally racist locale. So with baseball and race on the mind, let’s get into it. At Boston’s Fenway Park in 2017, an angry, emboldened Red Sox fan hurled a bag of peanuts at Baltimore Orioles’ center fielder Adam Jones. Moments later, a voice from the amorphous blob of misplaced rage berated Jones with racist taunts and epithets.
The next day, CC Sabathia—a pitcher for the New York Yankees and another one of the 62 Black players on MLB rosters to start the 2017 season—claimed that Fenway Park was the only professional stadium in which he’d ever heard the n-word. “When you go to Boston, expect it,” said Sabathia (Los Angeles Times, “Yankees Sabathia on Playing in Boston,” 05.03.2017).
Two years ago, my sister and my dad went to a Red Sox vs. Yankees game at Yankee Stadium. As anyone who has ever sat in the bleachers for a Sox-Yankees game can attest, Yankee fans are not especially kind to any Red Sox player within 300 feet. The most riotous of Yankee fans are affectionately referred to as Bleacher Creatures—an audacious, predominantly working-class group located in the cheapest, loudest part of the ballpark.
It so happens that right field is the position at Yankee Stadium most likely to be rained down upon by the taunts of the Bleacher Creatures. It so happens that the two best right fielders in baseball are on the Red Sox and Yankees, respectively. It so happens that both of those players are Black.
So, a particularly historically astute (and nonetheless problematic) Yankee fan decided to heckle Mookie Betts—the Red Sox otherworldly right fielder—in what he thought would be the most cutting way possible. He yelled to Mookie (and I’m paraphrasing here, but you should still read it in a thick New York accent), “They don’t love you in Boston, Mookie! Ask Bill Russell, Mookie! Ask Jim Rice! Ask Adam Jones! They don’t love you in Boston, Mookie! They never will!”
Russell and Rice are perhaps the two most famous Black athletes in Boston sports history (Russell, obviously, more so than Rice). They also have never attained the same kind of respect and adoration in Boston that the likes of Larry Bird, Ted Williams, Bobby Orr and Tom Brady have.
No one ever broke into Larry Bird’s house, defecated on his bed and painted racist graffiti on the walls like a group of Boston burglars did to Russell. No Red Sox team event ever explicitly excluded Ted Williams, like one did to Jim Rice as late as 1979. (Yes, all-white parties at Elks Clubs were still common practice just a year after Mormonism formally integrated…shocking.)
The ferocity of Boston sports’ racism should not be surprising to anyone remotely familiar with the city’s history of racial tension. It should, however, be surprising to anyone naive enough to believe that athletic talent can transcend institutional prejudices.
Case in point: although famed sportswriter Bill Simmons has Russell ranked as the third-greatest NBA player ever, if you drive through Weymouth, MA (adjacent to my dad’s hometown of Quincy), you’ll see a mural with 10-ish Boston athletes on it…all of them white. The egregiousness of the Red Sox’s exclusionary proclivities are perhaps most explicitly realized in just how much it cost them to maintain their exclusivity.
Howard Bryant, the author of a 2002 tour de force titled “Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston,” has done much in the past 20 years to detail Boston’s—and specifically the Red Sox’s—vicious history of racism as it relates to sports. In “Shut Out,” he emphasizes just how sinister the Red Sox’s history of exclusion is by relating a set of harrowing tales. These stories often reify just how powerful and consequential the organization’s racism was.
In 1945, the Red Sox held a pseudo-tryout for three Negro League players, one of whom was Jackie Robinson. Years later, Robinson acknowledged that all three players “knew that [they] were wasting their time trying out” (WBUR News, “Why The Red Sox Gave Jackie Robinson a ‘Tryout’ Before he Joined the Dodgers,” 04.12.2013). The middling Sox had no intention of including any Black players in their club.
Four years later, in 1949, Red Sox scout George Digby agreed to a contract with a 17-year-old Willie Mays. Mays was set to be the first Black player to join the Red Sox minor-league affiliate, the Birmingham Barons. However, Owner Tom Yawkey and General Manager Joe Cronin vetoed the signing, citing the fact that they did not want to integrate the team. Mays ended up being the greatest baseball player of all time.
Ten years later, in 1959, the Red Sox became the last team in the Major Leagues to integrate.
Suffice it to say, the Yawkey family, which presided dictatorially over the organization from 1933-2002, has a lot to answer for.
Last October, the Red Sox signed Alex Cora to be their manager. Born in Puerto Rico, Cora is the first non-white manager in the history of the organization. While negotiating his contract, Cora demanded one extra stipulation: “that the Red Sox charter a plane of relief supplies to his hometown of Caguas, [Puerto Rico]” (ESPN, “How Alex Cora Built a Championship Culture,” 10.29.2018).
Just 371 days after making Cora the head coach—with his stipulation realized—the Red Sox won the World Series. But anecdotal success does not tell the larger, more disheartening story.
Today, about 60 percent of rostered MLB players are white, 28.5 percent are Latinx, 8.3 percent are Black (down from 18.7 percent in 1981) and 1.7 percent are Asian. Going up the hierarchy, 87 percent of coaches are white, 87 percent of General Managers are white and 97 percent of CEOs/Presidents are white.
Indeed, the higher up you go, the whiter the involved parties become. That’s the Yawkey Way. That’s the MLB way. That’s the American way (Vox, “This is why baseball is so white,” 10.24.2017).
A year prior to Adam Jones’ incident at Fenway Park, a reporter asked him why Black MLB players do not protest the National Anthem. He replied, “We [Black baseball players] already have two strikes against us…so you might as well not kick yourself out of the game … In baseball, they don’t need us. Baseball is a white man’s sport” (USA Today, “Adam Jones on MLB’s lack of Kaepernick Protest,” 09.13.2016).
No wonder it’s called America’s Pastime.