This article originally appeared in the August 17, 1976 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
He burst sensationally into baseball in 1947, batting .297, hitting 12 home runs, stealing a league-leading 29 bases. He led the Brooklyn Dodgers to the National League pennant and carried away Rookie of the Year honors. In nine years with the Dodgers, Jackie Robinson would bat .311, contribute to six pennant-winning teams and carve himself a niche in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
But the man who broke baseball’s color line took some bitter memories from the game as well, and one in particular bears repeating here. On April 16, 1945, Robinson and two other stars of the old Negro leagues were invited to Fenway Park for a tryout.
“Black players,” wrote Robinson in an autobiography published just before his death in 1972, “were familiar with…hypocrisy….The tryout had been brought about because a Boston city councilman had frightened the Red Sox management. Councilman Isadore Muchnick threatened to push a bill through banning Sunday baseball unless the Red Sox hired black players….
“Not for one minute did we believe the tryout was sincere,” Robinson continued. “The Boston club officials praised our performance, let us fill out application cards, and said ‘so long.’ We were fairly certain they wouldn’t call us, and we had no intention of calling them.”
Robinson’s account of the tryout ends there. But there is more to it, according to an unconfirmed report resurrected by the Globe after Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey’s death last month. Yawkey, the story goes, stood in the back of the ballpark with the team’s general manager to observe the tryout, then finally turned to his companion.
“All right,” he allegedly said, “get those niggers out of the ball park.”
The year, recall, was 1945. World War II was still raging, Harry Truman was president and major league baseball was all white. Or, as Red Sox public relations director Bill Crowley would put it, “What was then was then.”
“That just never sounded right to me,” said Crowley. “That would have been completely foreign to Mr. Yawkey. Why, down at his estate in Carolina, the man he hunted with the most – his constant companion – was a black.”
Crowley’s assessment of Yawkey’s racial feelings is not shared by everyone. One American League official, when promised anonymity, confided, “It’s no secret Boston lagged behind the rest of the league in the signing of nonwhites, and it’s no secret the reason was that Tom Yawkey came from South Carolina. They just weren’t interested in ‘em for a long time. But it’s better now.”
Today, the 1976 Red Sox boast a great deal more color variety than their 1945 counterparts, with five nonwhite players currently on the 25-man roster. (That number is a bit low compared to most other teams, but not inordinately so.) Three of the five – Luis Tiant, Ferguson Jenkins, and Jim Rice – are today genuine stars and another, Cecil Cooper, is slowly gaining recognition as one of the best ballplayers on the squad. There is, too, no apparent racial discord on the team.
Yet the subject keeps cropping up. Thirty-one years after they snubbed Jackie Robinson and 17 years after they put their first black on the field, the Red Sox frequently find themselves labeled as racist.