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.]


cake said...

This conversation and insight is nothing short of amazing. To add Spaceman makes it magical. Thank you for sharing.

Mark Armour said...

Thanks for this post. I wish I had spent time with Kimball myself in preparation for my Cronin book.

One fact that I uncovered which many others seems to leave out is that Cronin not only attended the tryout--he sat with Wendell Smith, who wrote about their conversations in the Pittsburgh Courier.

Although I believe that tryout was a sham, I do not believe that the fateful words were ever uttered. Keane waited more than 30 years to make the claim, and at least for the last half of that period such a claim would have gotten Keane quite a bit of publicity and acclaim. And, of course, Keane was in hot water at the time for his own racist comments that he made on the radio about George Scott.

Kimball seems like a hell of a guy. RIP.

doubleplaycraig said...

That's one helluva story. Nice work, Chris.

doubleplaycraig said...

That's one hell of a story. Nice work, Chris.

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