In 1881 the future National League wanted to upgrade its image and target a more upscale fan base by doubling ticket prices, banning gambling, and outlawing alcohol sales. Several team owners who happened to be brewers refused to accept the new rules and banded together to form what would eventually become the American League. The National League attempted to discredit the new league by dubbing it the Beer and Whiskey League. This, of course only made the new league more popular. Duh!

Thursday, March 18, 2004

The Real Reason the Red Sox Suck

As any casual baseball fan knows, the Red Sox are supposedly cursed for having sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees (although I think they were still technically known as the Highlanders at the time but I could be wrong). While this makes for a cute little story to help fuel that really annoying rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox, I've always contested that the true curse of the Red Sox has nothing to do with the Babe and everything to do with Jackie Robinson.

In The Hardball Times, an excellent new baseball page, Alex Belth does an interview with Howard Bryant, a sports columnist for the Boston Herald, who has recently published a book entitled Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the whole Jackie Robinson story, the Red Sox were actually the first team to give Robinson a try out but they decided to pass on him. Considering Boston's history as a site of freedom for slaves in the 19th-century and the generally progressive racial attitudes once held by Bostonians, the idea of the Red Sox being the first team to heroically break through the color line would have made a wonderful story. Instead, they let Jackie Robinson slide through their fingers.

Just think, in 1947, Robinson breaks into the Major Leagues with a .297 batting average and in 1949 he takes the NL MVP with a gaudy .347 batting average. Imagine if he were hitting in front of Ted Williams ... just think how much better his numbers would have been (and maybe even Williams' numbers would have jumped). "Dem Bums" of course went to the world series both those years (only to lose to the dreaded Yankees both times) but in the ten seasons that Robinson played for Brooklyn, they won the NL Pennant six times! During those same ten years, do you know how many times the Red Sox won the AL Pennant? That's right, ZERO.

Oh, by the way, did I also mention that the Red Sox later passed on this young fella by the name of Willie Mays? Yep ... the Red Sox were the last team in the major leagues to integrate.

Now most of this is rather common knowledge. What makes Bryant's book so fascinating is the depth to which he examines what one might call the legacy of the Jackie Robinson fiasco. Basically, he suggests that Boston's not signing Robinson is not significant in and of itself since no one was ready to integrate baseball in 1945 (except for Branch Rickey, of course). No, what truly undid Boston was its continued refusal to sign black players; in fact, Boston did not sign a black free agent until ... drum roll please ... 1993! Yes, that's 19-friggin-93 and the player they signed was a hometown boy by the name of Mo Vaughn.

Anyhoo, so this got me thinking about some very good books about baseball and race. Also, as someone who studies race for a living and follows baseball as a hobby, it has always been my dream to one day teach a course on the history of baseball as seen through the prism of race. In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (which, by the way, is a novel by Earnest Gaines and not an actual autobiography), the title character comments that in her old age (she had been born a slave a few years before the Civil War), she enjoys sitting by the radio listening to Dodger's games because "the colored folks" all rooted for the Dodgers. The white folks had the Yankees but the colored folks had Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers.

Anyhoo, so if I ever get the chance to teach such a class, two other books I would definitely put on my reading list and that you should read (for no other reason than they are such excellent baseball books):

Halberstam, David. October 1964. Although it's much more of a narrative about the 1964 World Series, Halberstam also does an excellent job pointing out that the demise of the Yankees was brought about, in part, because of their refusal to embrace integration. The Cardinals, on the other hand, were one of the most integrated teams in baseball and with the help of players like Curt Flood, Lou Brock, and Bob Gibson the Cardinals went on a very impressive streak during the late 60s and early 70s.

Khan, Roger. Boys of Summer. Khan follows the 1952 Dodgers. The book is more autobiography/memoir than baseball chronicle but there is plenty about race.

And finally, for good measure, since I mentioned the Kevin Costner baseball trilogy in an earlier post, I offer here Richard Pryor's two classic baseball movies:

Brewster's Millions -- Hey, Richard Pryor and John Candy together! That's two great tastes that taste great together.

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings -- Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams, and James Earl Jones all together.