The media and sports radio establishment of Boston are calling for the head of All-World baseball player Barry Bonds.
In an interview with the Boston Globe, Bonds was asked a cream puff question about whether he would consider finishing his career in Beantown. Bonds shook his head and said, “Boston is too racist for me. I couldn’t play there. That’s been going on ever since my dad (Bobby) was playing baseball. I can’t play like that. That’s not for me, brother.” When the reporter countered that the racial climate has changed in Boston, Bonds responded, “It ain’t changing. It ain’t changing nowhere.”
Boston is a city that treasures its image as a liberal enclave of elite universities and tweedy baseball poets so Bonds’s words have gone over like a 4th of July Picnic in Fallujah. He has been roundly criticized including winning the “Just Shut Up” award from ESPN radio. By calling on Bonds to “just shut up” the media is just doing what pitchers have been perfecting all season: avoiding confrontation with the six-time MVP. To be clear, it is not like Boston has cornered the market on bigotry. Every city has its stories of both racism and resistance. Yet Boston’s history is particularly nasty. The most violent anti-busing demonstrations in America were not in Birmingham or Biloxi but Boston. In 1989, when Charles Stuart, a wealthy white businessman murdered his pregnant wife, he told police that a “Black guy” did it. The police believed him without a whisper of doubt. They launched a vicious manhunt, fanning out through housing projects and sweeping the streets. State politicians whipped up a further frenzy by calling for reinstatement of the death penalty. When Stuart committed suicide after his brother blew the whistle, all police spokeswoman Margot Hill could say without shame was, “(Stuart) took advantage of the environment he was in. He knew exactly what he was doing.” It is precisely what Ms. Hill calls “the environment” that has found expression in the world of sports. The Boston Red Sox were the last team in major league baseball to integrate. They waited so long to sign African-Americans, that the hockey team, the Bruins, actually beat them to it. The Sox removed their color line in 1959 twelve years after Jackie Robinson broke through with the Brooklyn Dodgers. They begrudgingly brought marginal infielder Pumpsie Green up from the minors. But it didn’t have to be Pumpsie.
In April 1945 the Red Sox held a private tryout at Fenway Park for Robinson himself. With only management in the stands, someone yelled “Get those niggers off the field,” and the door was shut. In 1949, the Red Sox laughed off the chance to sign Bonds’s godfather, the legendary Willie Mays, who would go on to hit more career home runs than all but one man before him and awe crowds with his speed and defense. As Juan Williams reports, “One of the team’s scouts decided that it wasn’t worth waiting through a stretch of rainy weather to scout the black player.” That decision killed the possibility that Mays and Ted Williams might have played in the same outfield.
In the 1950s, as teams immeasurably strengthened themselves by signing players like Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Elston Howard, and others, the Red Sox stood pat with an all white hand. (The next time you hear a Boston fan complain about “The Curse of the Bambino”, correct them that their “Curse of the Racism” has had a much more adverse effect.)
As the Civil Rights Movement blossomed, New England’s Black baseball fans would root for integrated clubs over their own home team. In other words, they practiced their own form of ABB – Anybody but Boston.
Therefore unlike other cities, such as New York and Chicago, where rooting for an integrated team actually helped advance people’s consciousness and challenge racist ideas, the Red Sox were proudly planting themselves on the wrong side of history. In the 1950s, if you were young and black, Fenway park was about as safe a space as Bull Connor’s back yard.
But the racism in the Boston sports scene didn’t stop at the Green Monster. During the 1950s and 1960s Boston was treated to the most successful run in the history of team sports with the NBA’s Celtics winning 11 championships in 13 seasons. The mainstay of that team was a player of immense skill, unselfishness, and leadership: Bill Russell. Russell won five MVPs to go with his 11 rings. In 1967 he became the first African American coach of a pro team. In 1974 he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, and in 1980 the country’s basketball sports writers voted him “The Greatest Player in the History of the NBA.”
Russell also felt a deep desire to resist racism. Once in Marion, Indiana, he had been given the key to the city only to be refused service that evening in his hotel’s dining room. Russell went to the mayor’s home, woke him up, and returned the key.
His fierce pride (which the media called “a bad attitude”) mixed about as well with Boston fans as a John Ashcroft sing along at the Apollo Theater. The result was that the greatest player in Boston team sports history was the target of a constant campaign of racial harassment. When Russell tried to move from his home in the Boston suburb of Reading to a new home across town, neighbors filed a petition trying to block the move. When that failed, other neighbors banded together to try to purchase the home that Russell wanted to buy, said Tom Heinsohn, a close friend of Russell’s who played with him from 1956 to 1964. Once, vandals broke into Russell’s home and defecated on his bed. Heinsohn said two white sportswriters from Boston told him they wouldn’t vote Russell the league’s most valuable player because he was Black.
Russell’s achievements during his days in Boston, from 1956 to 1969, drew national acclaim but never won locals fans’ hearts the way later Boston sports heroes did, from hockey player Bobby Orr to baseball player Carl Yastrzemski to basketball player Larry Bird. Despite all the rings, the Boston Garden averaged 8,406 fans during Russell’s playing career, thousands short of a sellout. “We always sold out on the road, but rarely when we played at home,” said Satch Sanders, who played with the Celtics from 1960 to 1973. By contrast, the Celtics teams led by Larry Bird in the 1980s sold out the 14,890-seat Garden for 662 straight games, from 1980 to 1995. “I didn’t play for Boston,” he once said, “I played for the Celtics.” Another time he called Boston a “Flea Market of Racism.”
Despite this mountain of evidence, Bonds is being told to “shut up.” The few Boston writers, who to their credit have chosen to actually engage with what Bonds is saying, like the Globe’s Bob Ryan have argued that “there may be a bad history, but it has gotten much better.” Has it? Last fall, WEEI Boston Sports Radio host John Dennis, after looking at a photo of a gorilla that had escaped from the Franklin Park Zoo and lurked near a bus stop, said the animal was “probably a Metco gorilla waiting for a bus to take him to Lexington.” Dennis was referencing the Metco program, under which more than 8,000 children of color from Boston and Springfield have attended suburban schools over the past 37 years. Despite an outcry, he was neither fired nor disciplined.
And to think, Bonds dares say out loud that the Boston sports scene is racist. No wonder ESPN wants him to “shut up.” I guess the truth hurts.
DAVE ZIRIN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His sports writing can be read at edgeofsports.com.