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Archive for Thursday, June 24, 2004

Perhaps Bonds right about Boston

June 24, 2004

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— At the risk of upsetting folks from Southie, the North End and all over Boston, not to mention Barry Bonds haters everywhere -- which pretty much covers half the country once you figure in that last group -- but Bonds might be right.

If Boston isn't a "racist" city, as Bonds said the other day, then an alarming number of its inhabitants prefer white people.

Which isn't that great a distinction, if you think about it.

That many others have expressed the same sentiment mattered not when folks from all over -- not just Bostonians -- took cuts at Bonds, an easy target. He's as blunt as a fastball to the forehead. And outside San Francisco, he's not well-liked, mainly for reasons that have little to do with racism.

Plus, Bonds' case, unlike his swing, contained holes. Bonds cited no data and provided zero anecdotes. For all we know, Bonds has spent no more than a weekend in Boston.

None of this makes him wrong.

"Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," Howard Bryant's well-received book, is filled with true tales that built Boston's reputation. Bryant said on Tuesday that things have improved dramatically from the time he left after high school in the late '80s until two years ago when he returned to write a column for the Boston Herald. But he also said "when I get a letter, even if I'm not writing about race, people remind me I'm a black columnist."

According to Bryant's book, Willie Mays was to have a Red Sox tryout in 1949. Mays, Bonds' godfather, excitedly told fellow Negro League players he was "going to play alongside Ted Williams." But the scout didn't show, and Mays was humiliated.

Stories like this have been floating around baseball forever.

"It's true the Red Sox were the last team in baseball to integrate, and because they were last, and (longtime owner Tom Yawkey) was so racist -- he had a plantation -- it's understandable why it's very hard for those players whose dads were players to let go," said Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, assistant professor of the history of art and architecture and African American studies at Harvard University and granddaughter of Negro League player John Shaw.

"The most obnoxious aspect is that in the 19th Century, the city had a strong abolitionist movement, and in the 20th Century, none of that really seemed to make a difference for the people in fields like sports and entertainment," Shaw said.

Still, she insisted, "It has changed a lot in the last 30 years."

The Red Sox also had a phony tryout set up with Jackie Robinson, then waited 12 years after Robinson to sign a black player. There are stories of racial profiling. Alvin Jackson was hired as pitching coach only after much pressure. Tommy Harper was excluded at a team dinner in Florida.

Sports Illustrated polled 401 Massachusetts residents as to the "greatest athlete who ever lived or played for a team in your state."

The results were astonishing.

Ted Williams, 40 percent. Larry Bird 17 percent. Bobby Orr, 10 percent. Babe Ruth, 8 percent. Babe Ruth. A Yankee!

And finishing a distant fifth . . . Bill Russell, 4 percent. Eleven championships. Four percent.

"I think that's too bad," Shaw said. "But it's not surprising. Partly, that's because of a logrolling effect. People think Ted Williams. They see the Ted Williams Tunnel. They hear about his son freezing him, cryogenically. So, he's the one.

"Bill Russell retires, and moves on. It's not like he retired here."

I wonder why.

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