The real Bosox curse was racism, not the Bambino
Jackie Robinson (left) congratulates Willie Mays (right) after the Giants clinched the 1954 National League pennant with a 7–1 victory over the Dodgers. | American Academy of Achievement

The Boston Red Sox have finally decided to atone for two of the most racist, self-destructive snubs in sports history. Like so many other bigoted decisions, the team—and the town—paid a fearsome price.

And it did NOT come from the infamous “Curse of the Bambino.”

That one happened in 1920, when my dad was a two-year-old living in the shadow of Fenway Park. It was about money, not race.

That year, the shady Bosox owner sold the great Babe Ruth to the hated Yankees for $125,000. He used the cash to fund a musical.

Soon, Ruth led New York to more championships than we can bear to count. We wouldn’t win again until 2004, a “cursed” wait of 86 years.

But selling the Bambino was NOT the dumbest thing the club ever did.

Just after World War II, the team shunned not one but TWO players as great as Ruth. And it happened not just from stupidity, but also from explicitly stated racism.

The two passed-over African Americans both went to New York, one to the Dodgers, the other to the Giants. Their names are hard for a Sox fan to say, but here they are: Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays.

In part to atone for those two terrible shunnings, Red Sox ownership has decided to finally strip from a small street next to Fenway the name of Tom Yawkey, the man responsible.

A wealthy South Carolinian, Yawkey owned the Sox from 1933 until he died in 1976. He treated the club like a rich man’s toy. His widow hung on until she passed in 1992.

Yawkey did hire Ted Williams, maybe the game’s greatest natural hitter. His maternal grandparents were born in Mexico, which was not widely known. In 1941, his batting average was .406. No one has since come close.

When I was 15, my grandfather and I, seated near first base, saw Williams hit a looping line drive over a low right field fence the Sox had set up just for him. Then he spat at a fan.

In 1960, Ted slammed his final homer off the wall in deep centerfield. The crowd went wild. But Williams refused to come out to tip his hat.

That infamous moment was memorialized in John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” which forever changed sportswriting. It was a very sad departure.

Decades later, I saw David Ortiz hit one to pretty much the same spot. Born in Santo Domingo, the endlessly endearing Big Papi charmed us all. After a big hit like that one, he never failed to tip his hat and flash that wonderful smile. He also helped the Sox win the World Series three times (Williams won none) and holds the team’s single-season home run record (54).

Which brings us to Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and what might have been. Before he went to the Dodgers and broke baseball’s color line in 1947, Robinson had a tryout at Fenway. Yawkey and company said NO.

Around the same time, a Sox scout in Alabama saw Mays as a teenager, pegged him for super-stardom, and told the front office he could be signed for a song.

The Sox said NO again. There’s no doubt the reason was race. During a Fenway tryout, somebody from management shouted the “N” word loud and clear. Yawkey served on an owners’ committee that wrote a long-suppressed memo rationalizing a whites-only league.

Boston’s basketball Celtics later won seventeen championships with Bill Russell, Jo Jo White, Robert Parish, Kevin Garnett and innumerable other black stars. But the Sox were the very last major league baseball team to integrate. Not until their lineup was thoroughly diversified did they win another World Series.

A lifelong member of Red Sox Nation, I still gasp at the scope of the loss. A lineup featuring Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Ted Williams might have been the greatest of all time. Certainly the Sox would’ve resumed winning championships in the late 1940s rather than the early 2000s. Imagine what that could have meant for a city full of baseball-crazy kids like me. Imagine the sadness we feel now.

Robinson and Mays both had legendary careers (Willie is now 86). Ted Williams passed in 2002, still remembered as one of baseball’s greatest hitters—and most complex characters.

But Tom Yawkey deprived us all for the lowest of reasons: racism. Had the Sox been owned by the community—as all major sports teams should be—instead of some rich out-of-towner, things might have been very different.

My red and green Boston blood boils at what might have been. Remove his name from that street, by all means.

The Sox-Yankees rivalry still burns red hot, which is as it should be.

But no matter who you root for, let’s never again let race sink the greatness of any team of any kind.

Originally appearing in Reader Supported News, this reflection is posted in PW by permission of the author.


CONTRIBUTOR

Harvey “Sluggo” Wasserman
Harvey “Sluggo” Wasserman

Harvey "Sluggo" Wasserman hosts the California Solartopia Show on KPFK-Pacifica Los Angeles 90.7FM and the Green Power Wellness Show on prn.fm. His "America at the Brink of Rebirth: The Life & Death Spiral of U.S. History, from Deganawidah to The Donald” is at solartopia.org along with “Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth.”

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