Monday, April 16, 2012

Jackie Robinson's Fenway Tryout

On this day, April 16, 1945, the Red Sox held a work out for three Negro League players at Fenway Park. Of the three players, only Jackie Robinson achieved great success in baseball.  The irony of this day is if none of the players had been Jackie Robinson, there might be more known about the event itself. That is, a more accurate depiction of the day would be available if the details were not confused by politics.

Instead, because of Robinson's involvement and his subsequent role in integrating Major League Baseball, that day has been used by many to illustrate the prejudice that existed at that time.  Long ignored has been the work of the many forward thinking men that made that tryout happen.

I'll write their stories here in the near future including the efforts of Councilman Isadore Muchnick and his misunderstood role in forcing this tryout.

For now, enjoy John Thorn's three part series "Jackie Robinson’s Signing: The Real Story".

Monday, August 22, 2011

George Kimball on the Jackie Robinson Tryout with the Red Sox

[If you don’t care too much about the details of the Fenway Park tryout of three Negro Leaguers on April 16, 1945, please skip my rambling preamble and go right to George Kimball’s email response far below.]

To be frank I was unfamiliar with George Kimball's work when I read a column he wrote for the Irish Times entitled "Boston cursed by their own racist policy". [It’s available at the link by subscription only. If you don't have a subscription or proquest access, email me and I'll send you the story.] Later, when I read a little bit about him, I recognized him as a Boston writer I vaguely knew; I probably even read him before. But I'm terrible at reading and worse at remembering whom I've read. So I judged the story for what it was, yet another take on the tryout of three Negro League players by the Red Sox on April 16, 1945, and how it related to the reputation for racial tension the city of Boston harbored for lo these many years. That I was very familiar with.  I’d even written a bit about it myself and planned on writing a lot more.

Unfortunately, Kimball's story was no better than 90% of the stories on the subject.  

First of all, it was too short. It felt like he knew more about what happened, but chose not to go into it. Instead he wrote one sentence paragraphs - like bullet points in the outline of a draft - drawing a bland description of a much less than bland event.  Also, when it came to details, he repeated some of the same tired assumptions and mistakes many past writers on the tryout have. Other than a few wrinkles he added, which were so new I thought he had to have just made them up, Kimball basically wrote a piece that couldn't stand out from any amateur blogger's take on the tryout.

The new wrinkles though were enough to compel me to reach out to him just on the off chance there was some truth to them.

For one, he was sure Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey was in fact at the tryout. There weren't any sources other than Kimball's, as far as I knew, which could confirm Yawkey's presence there that day.  Most had assumed he was there, because it was his team and his ballpark, and why wouldn't he have been there?  But Kimball said, "Thomas A Yawkey, the millionaire sportsman who owned the ball club, arrived later." That was more than just an assumption; he was there, according to Kimball. That implied to me that he had direct evidence to the fact. I asked him what it was.

Next, Kimball mentioned that Sam Jethroe, one of the three players to tryout out, confirmed to him that the mysterious shout from the grandstand shadows, "Get those niggers off the field", actually happened.  That was news to me too. I had read everything I could find written on the subject, and I had never found anything where Jethroe said it had happened.  The truth was, there was not one confirmed witness to the tryout who ever claimed to have heard it. Jackie Robinson never said it happened. And the other player, Marvin Williams, said he never heard it. The third man, Sam Jethroe, suddenly spoke up from his grave.  I had to know where this interview happened.

Lastly, Kimball wrote that the former Boston Globe reporter, Clif Keane, the only man ever to have claimed to have heard the slur said in person, pinned the tale on Yawkey, General Manager Eddie Collins or Manager Joe Cronin. I've read two accounts from Keane on that day. In the first one, in an interview he did with Larry Whiteside of the Boston Globe in 1979, he said he didn't know who said it. The second account came in Dan Shaughnessey’s book, "The Curse of the Bambino", where Keane said, "It wasn't Yawkey. Yawkey wouldn't do that."  I assumed Kimball was just being sloppy here by remembering that Keane claimed to have heard it, but not bothering to research the text of the claim.  Then again, I thought Kimball likely knew Keane and could have spoken about it with him himself.

I wrote Kimball an email with those three questions and received back a column of my own via email, much better and more complete than the Irish Times piece. In it, Kimball backed off of all of the claims slightly. He even told me he researched the subject before writing me. Well, I researched Kimball in the meantime, and was flattered such an accomplished writer admired by so many of his peers, took the time to write me the fascinating account below.

Kimball not only offered some new information about the tryout, but a terrific treatment about the subject in general from a man who was at times both a Boston insider and an outcast.  His perspective was genuine and he even wrapped his narrative around a Bill “The Spaceman” Lee story.  (He had me at Bill Lee.)

In the email, he doubted himself and doubted the stories he'd heard. He retraced his steps and retold the tale. He drew on his experience as a writer and friend of sports to uncork the spirit of the tryout, its legacy and effect on how we write about it.  It was perfect.

The truth was that Kimball discussed the tryout all of about three minutes with Sam Jethroe in a New York City bar in 1980. It wasn't an interview. It was a coincidence.  Jethroe happened to walk into the bar, he said, and the tryout came up over drinks.  At that time, the tryout wasn't thought of as important in any way. It wasn't until later, when writers tied the Red Sox's missed opportunity to sign Jackie Robinson with a long, poor record on race relations by the team. Then, the tryout became the origin story of a super villain who would not die.  

His account of that day was terrific.  It was graceful and personal. It was even plausible, yet I was disappointed, because Kimball's story in the Irish Times, by comparisonseemed ghost-written. It had no guts. It made false claims. It had easy facts wrong, like the year of Jackie Robinson’s debut.  He even gave complete credibility to Clif Keane’s account in it, yet told me later that he had never spoken with him about the tryout and completely hated him, and then went so far as to blame Keane himself for uttering the slur! 

He explained that Jethroe never explicitly said he heard the slur shouted. And he really had no proof Yawkey was at the ball park other than remembering Jethroe saying it.

So why the change in tenor?

The problem with his Irish Times piece became obvious at its end.  Despite his insistence to me that it was a column and therefore somehow entitled to opinion, it was actually a sort of advertisement for his friend’s book on the subject of the Red Sox and race, “It Was Never About the Babe: The Red Sox, Racism, Mismanagement, and the Curse of the Bambino” by Jerry M. Gutlon. Near the end of the story, he made an awkward segue from the World Baseball Classic to a pitch for the baseball book. Just before disclosing that he’d known Gutlon for decades, he called the book “a comprehensive accumulation of anecdotal evidence delivered from that perspective”. “Anecdotal evidence” is not exactly the stuff of source material.  And Kimball had referred to it before writing me back.

To be sure “It Was Never About the Babe” was heavy on anecdotes and light on evidence. In it, facts were replaced with urban legends and the most repeated myths about the Red Sox. Yet people bought it and read it and believed it and, sometimes, reprinted its contents.

By all accounts, Kimball was a great story teller, and I’m sure he appreciated Gutlon’s anecdotal approach to history.  But it was obvious to me from Kimball’s response that he cared and understood quite a bit about the facts surrounding the Robinson tryout, and maybe even regretted not delving into it more himself.  It’s too bad he never did interview Jethroe formally, or give up his grudge with Keane long enough to cross examine him.  He could have written the authoritative piece on the tryout and what it really meant to the Red Sox.

George E. Kimball III died on July 6 of esophageal cancer at the age of 67. His email to me was written while in very poor health, just a few months before his passing. Of the many writers who praised his work, I think Charles P. Pierce, a former colleague at the The Boston Phoenix, remembered him best in the Boston Globe:   George Kimball, 1943-2011

I'm glad that, as far as I know, this letter was his last take on the tryout. But I'm sorry it's being reprinted as a testimonial.  I’m sharing it because I thought it should be public record for anyone interested in Kimball, the Robinson tryout or just good writing.


chris wertz


On Sat, Feb 12, 2011 at 10:15 AM, George Kimball, "" wrote:

HI Chris,
First of all, The Irish Times piece was written as a column, not an article, and while I have reason to believe everything in it to be accurate (with one nagging exception, which I’ll get to later), there’s no smoking gun here, but I’ll try to provide you with what I know and what I think I know, but bear in mind that nearly as much time has elapsed since I met Sam Jethroe as had gone by since he was part of the Fenway Park tryout then.
I wish I could retrieve the pretty extensive collection of notes I assembled for Jerry Gutlon a few years ago, but I can’t even find that. It may have been on one of this computer’s predecessors. As have you, I’m sure, I’ve also looked back at four separate accounts – Gutlon’s book, as well as Howard Bryant’s, Glenn Stout’s, and Mark Armor’s – in an attempt not just to reconstruct the episode, but to refresh in my mind my own thought processes when I wrote the column. (Obviously I wouldn’t have relied on Jerry as a source on the subject, since in point of fact I was one of his.) I know I’ve talked about the Robinson/Jethroe/Williams “tryout” with Glenn as well, though not recently, and I’ve exchanged emails with Clark Booth and Leigh Montville.

I can’t pinpoint the date of the Jethroe encounter, but it should be pretty easy for you to track down if you’re so disposed. It was in 1980, on the night before Bill Lee was to have appeared before Bowie Kuhn to hear his appeal after Kuhn fined him for saying he sprinkled marijuana on his pancakes. A couple of lawyer friends of Bill’s and mine were representing him pro bono, and had prepared some pretty extensive briefs challenging the ruling on both first amendment and procedural grounds that I imagine would have succeeded in pretty much any court the case got to, if it ever had.  Kuhn was a lawyer himself and I imagine he pretty much knew his legal position was constitutionally hopeless. In pre-hearing conference that day the commissioner’s office had made it clear that they didn’t want to make a big deal of this and just wanted it to go away quietly without them losing face or diminishing the authority of the office. By the time we got to New York, they’d already brokered a settlement where Bill would pay a $250 fine, but he could donate it to any charity of his choice, so he wound up donating it to some cause he’d have contributed to anyway, and that was the end of it. I vaguely recall that it may have been some Eskimo mission. 
So now we’re in New York -- me, Lee, a couple of lawyers (Alan Silber, who lives here, and Mary John Boylan, who’d come down with me from Boston. I knew her through the Ted Kennedy campaign, and she would not long afterward be appointed Assistant US attorney for Massachusetts) and a ten-pound stack of briefs that have already been rendered obsolete and are never going to see the light of day. It was a bit late to turn around and fly back to Boston, so we stayed the night as planned at the Gramercy Park Hotel, and that night we all went out to dinner at the Lions’s Head, which was my longtime saloon in New York.
We were there all night, first eating and then drinking at table in the back room. Later in the evening, either one of the bartenders or Wes Joice, the owner, brought back Sam Jethroe and introduced us, so he joined the party and we sat there talking for a couple more hours. I honestly couldn’t tell you how Jethroe came to be there, but Monte Irvin sometimes hung out at the Lion’s Head and was a friend of Wes’s. It’s possible that they came in together and Monte had left, or maybe Monte recommended the place, or maybe Monte had nothing to do with it and Jethroe just happened in. At least a couple of the bartenders were Boston guys who’d grown up in his era and would have recognized Sam Jethroe by sight. In any case, they knew we were there and brought Sam back. They figured we’d all hit it off and they were right.
A couple of things here: One is that I came from an era in which it wasn’t that unusual for sportswriters to socialize with ballplayers. It almost never happens now because the relationship has become essentially adversarial, but I hung out and drank with and chased women with a lot of the Red Sox guys in the 70s, and it was always clearly understood that what happened in the bar stayed in the bar. This didn’t mean that if something really newsworthy came up I wouldn’t have written about it, but under those circumstances I’d have felt obliged to clear it with the payer first. So I wasn’t taking notes or anything. This was just baseball banter and reminiscence conducted over many drinks, and in fact the subject of the Fenway tryout actually consumed a relatively small part of the night’s conversation. So when you ask if it was on the record or off the record, that never came up, because neither of us in any sense regarded it as an “interview.”
Two, I didn’t realize at the time, and didn’t for many years, how little Sam had said on the record about the 1945 tryout. His part in all of my anecdotal knowledge was so widely known that I assumed he must have addressed it many times. If I’d known then that this might be some sort of breakthrough revelation or that I was onto some kind of exclusive, I imagine I’d have at least asked Sam if it was OK if I wrote about it, or quoted him. I figured at the time he was just saying things he’d said many times before, and in fact he probably had – just not in the presence of a newspaperman.
And three, I can’t be absolutely certain of this without knowing the date, but I think this occurred within the stretch of about four months between the time I left the Phoenix and signed a contract at the Herald when I wasn’t even working for a paper, so it wasn’t as if I started rubbing my paws together thinking “Wow, this might make a neat column tomorrow,” because I’d have had no place for it to run anyway.
At some point the conversation turned to the tryout. I don’t remember that Sam said he had actually heard the “get those niggers off the field” line, but there didn’t seem to be any question in his mind that it had been uttered. (By then it admittedly was such a thoroughly accepted part of the lore, particularly in the black community that he would have believed it anyway.) His reasoning was that Yawkey had arrived at the park late, and when he did, the whole tryout came to a screeching halt; I think Sam never even got a chance to hit that day, so he’s saying something like ‘They bring you all this way and don’t even watch you hit and then they call it a tryout?’ To him it had been a dog and pony show, a charade, and to be honest, Jethroe seemed more bitter about the waste of time and the essential dishonesty of the exercise than about the verbal line and the use of the ‘N’ word. He’d have been used to that. 
The official excuse made for cutting the workout short, by the way, was that the team “had a train to catch.” Joe Cronin, obviously, had to be on it; I don’t know whether Eddie Collins was going on the trip or not. The beat writers who were there would also have been taking the same train. But Fenway isn’t that far from South Station, and I think the train actually was leaving in a couple of hours.
So if it was said, who said it? Cronin had been there throughout the tryout, although by most accounts he wasn’t exactly attentive. It wouldn’t have made any sense for him to suddenly blurt out something like that, and besides, a lot of people would have heard him – even some of the black writers were sitting with him, or near him, and would have known where it came from. I can’t be sure of this, but I believe even Muchnick was also near Cronin, and it isn’t something he would have let gone unnoted. I don’t know that Collins was in the stands at the time the remark was uttered but in every account I’ve read he was at Fenway Park when the tryout started, and at Fenway Park when it was over, which is why I placed him there. (On their way out, Collins told the guys that they would hear from him, or from the Red Sox, but of course they never did.) But for whatever reason, the whole exercise was cut short and everybody was suddenly running around picking up equipment and hurrying Jethroe, Robinson, and Williams off the field, so it obviously hadn’t a wisecrack from a groundskeeper, which is another story you hear. If you accept that somebody said it – and Jethroe, as I said, didn’t seem to doubt that it was said – then it stood to reason it had to have been Yawkey.
Bill Lee loved Yawkey, and that night he argued that it would have been very out of character for the man he knew to say something like that. Sam said something like – and I may paraphrasing here -- “Well, if it wasn’t him, who was it? Because when he said ‘Get those niggers off the field,’ they chased us niggers right off the field.”

In looking through what I have available, my basis was for saying in the story that Clif Keane believed it was “either Cronin, Collins, or Yawkey” appears to have been Mark Armour’s biography of Joe Cronin. In every account other I could find, Keane either says it was Yawkey, or that he thought it was Yawkey.
And in answer to your other question, Keane never told me anything. I quit speaking to the asshole at least 35 years ago and never regretted it.
Which brings me back to the one troubling aspect of the whole story. I didn’t know Tom Yawkey well, but Lee is right in that “Get those niggers off the field” doesn’t have the ring of something Yawkey would have said, at least aloud, even if it was what he was thinking.  On the other hand, it sounds exactly like something Clif Keane would have said, trying to get a laugh, and was easily within the man’s capabilities to have said it himself and then tried to put the words in somebody else’s mouth.
I’d be prepared to entertain that possibility but for one thing, which is that it resulted in a precipitate and unscheduled conclusion to the events. So unless you believe “Get those niggers off the field” to have been some fanciful urban legend – and there are those who claim that it was – Jethroe’s version of the experience seems to me the most persuasive.
I don’t think there’s any question that the tryout was a sham to get Muchnick off the team’s back and that the Red Sox would never considered signing any of the players no matter what they’d shown at Fenway that day, but this reflected an institutional bias, not some pervasive anti-black sentiment in the city of Boston. Yawkey might have been the most conspicuous anti-integrationist among team owners of his era, but there were a lot of other owners who shared his view, and the racial discontent that would later characterize Boston was still decades away. (Look where Jethroe played when he finally did get to the majors.) Cronin was right about one thing when he later pointed out that the Sox would have had no place to send him even if they had signed Jackie Robinson. The major league season had already started, and their triple-A team was in Louisville. If Jackie had a rough ride in Montreal, imagine what that experience would have been like!
Hope this helps,
George Kimball

[In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I interviewed Alan Silber, Mary John Boylan and Bill Lee in the last couple of days, and, although they all remembered drinking together at the fabled Lion's Head on that night in 1980, none remembered Sam Jethroe being there.  In fact, two of them, Lee and Silber, were sure he wasn't there.  But they all said that they missed George Kimball very much.]

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Spaceman Film is Taking Off!

Hello Bill Lee Backers,

The word from the makers of the new Spaceman film is good, very good.  They've reached their initial goal and then some, and are moving full speed ahead. See the update below and click through to the Kickstarter page. Kudos to all of you who helped. Why not join Bill for a drink in Boston on Monday?

Dear Backers - Thanks to you, we did it ... and we're still going! Nearly 30,000 projects have launched (or attempted to launch) by way of KickStarter since 2009, and HAVE GLOVE, WILL TRAVEL is earning its stripes amongst the best of them. So far we have raised over $40k, exceeding our minimum goal of $37k in 37 days. Currently we are working on the details for SPACE CAMP, and making a final push to end the campaign with a BANG. There are just a few spots left for Bill's Inaugural event. We are hosting a special dinner event with Bill at Anchovies Restaurant in Boston's South End (433 Columbus Ave between Braddock Park & Holyoke St) this coming Monday, starting at 6pm. The Spaceman will be there giving a play-by-play of the Red Sox game, we'll be holding a silent auction, and ringing a not so silent gong. If you're in the Boston area, drop by for what promises to be a great night of baseball, food, and drinks. ONE WEEK TO GO then it's on to phase two - let the games begin. In sincere gratitude, Brett

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Integration of Fenway Park

On July 21, the day was marked, as it is most years, with stories describing the anniversary of the 1959 debut of the Red Sox first black player, Elijah Jerry "Pumpsie" Green.  That event is remembered yearly because it happened an astounding twelve years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in April, 1947. Many writers took this opportunity to vilify the ghosts of Red Sox past for being at the lead of discrimination in a racist institution. Others allowed the shame to be passed on to the citizens of Boston at the time for not demanding a rapid change.  Regardless of where the blame belongs, the sad truth is that instead of Green’s place in history being celebrated as an accomplishment, his belated promotion in 1959 marks the end of the segregation era for Major League Baseball, and leaves the Red Sox with the appalling distinction of being the last team to field a black player. That fact should not be seen as an indictment of Sox fans or the city in general.  Many Bostonians were eager to see equality finally come to baseball, and were actively campaigning to achieve it. When the first black Major Leaguer came to the plate at Fenway Park on this day in 1947, he was greeted as no visiting player was before. He was applauded every inning.

Hall of Famer, Willard “Home Run” Brown was 32-years-old and had a reputation as a slugging outfielder for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League, when he was chosen to be one of four black players signed by the St. Louis Browns in 1947. St. Louis was desperate for homeruns and home fans, and they thought that Brown could help them with both.  He made his Major League debut against the Red Sox in St. Louis, on July 19, but it wasn’t until July 25 that he integrated Fenway Park by being the first black Major Leaguer to play there.  When he came to bat in the second inning, 34,059 fans stood to applaud him.  Brown responded with a line-drive double off of the center field wall. When he trotted out to right field at the end of the inning, they applauded again. And again, when he batted for the second time, they applauded. Brown smashed his second double of the night (the second of his career). With each plate appearance, and each time he took his position in right field, the Fenway faithful greeted Willard Brown with cheers which grew as the game progressed. 

According to Jack Barry of the Boston Evening Globe, "[Brown] received a fine ovation from the crowd as he trotted to his right field position at the close of each round." 

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, "Willard Brown, the cat-walking Negro rightfielder of the Browns, who runs like a hurried panther, last night earned some of the loudest cheering Boston has given to a visiting ball player here in years."

Jack Malaney of the Boston Post was equally impressed: "The crowd received him almost as they would Doerr or DiMaggio so far as applause was concerned, and credit for something done." 

The overwhelming turnout and warm welcome given to Willard Brown at Fenway could have been interpreted by Red Sox ownership as a clear sign that integrating the home team would not result in low attendance.

In fact, Dave Egan, the firebrand of Boston sportswriters, writing in the July 28 Boston Record, seized on the fanfare and prodded the baseball owners of the town to integrate the sport locally.  He dared them to not allow Boston to be “traitors to our heritage.” He even noticed how perfect a fit Brown’s right-handed swing would have been for Fenway’s wall, and wondered if Sox owner Tom Yawkey heard the applause.  Perhaps, he hadn’t.

Although the Boston Braves were among the first teams to integrate, the Red Sox languished nearly twelve years after Willard Brown’s historic debut at Fenway.  When Pumpsie Green made his own debut in Boston on August 4, 1959, the fans were true to form that day, receiving him as they had Willard “Home Run” Brown, with loud applause and appreciation. He too answered the standing ovation with a base hit.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Adrian Gonzalez-san

Kampai! Gonzalez,conjured his inner Ichiro in belting this three-run homer.
Read here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Radioactive Item Found in Boston

Update:  This turned out to be a link from some old surveying equipment.

This is the only news I've seen of it so far:



Thursday, April 28, 2011

$9 Flights to Boston?

Johnny Went to Boston.
Johnny Went to Town.
Watch out Johnny-wait a minute. Johnny paid 9 bucks? Ok, you can't fly to Boston for $9, because you have to buy a return trip ticket to Newark. Hell, blow off the flight back if you want and it's $18 for one-way.

Today only this deal is available here (Wicked Good Flying Deal).  Fly from Newark, NJ to Boston, and back for less than $20.  Have fun!

If you buy this, let me know. I still don't believe it.

...If You Ain't Got That Ring.