Get That Nigger Off the Field

by Art Rust Jr.

Book Mail Services (1992)

I reached for this book at the library thinking it was about the Red Sox. I'd heard of Jackie Robinson's tryout at Fenway Park, which was supposedly interrupted by those words. The quote turns out to be from Cap Anson. Of the 38 people profiled and/or interviewed here, only Fergie Jenkins played for the Red Sox, and he doesn't mention them. Art Rust begins by explaining his title:
The bookstore owners tell me that I dare not use the word "nigger" because I might offend the black customers who would otherwise buy this book. Hell, black people know what a nigger is because they're called it silently every day of their lives. We live with it in the same way every other racial group lives with the epithets that have been used by their oppressors to define them. I say, rather, that most people are afraid that I'll offend the white customers who don't want to be caught leafing through a book that has "nigger" on the cover. Too much shame; too much guilt... But I decided that I'd rather be honest than inoffensive.

The author grew up in New York City, and part of the book is a memoir of his double life as a baseball fan before 1947. He watched Don Gutteridge leg out a hit at the Polo Grounds, and said, "Fastest guy I've ever seen in a baseball uniform." Then he remembered seeing Cool Papa Bell at a Negro League game there two weeks before, in the same park. As a boy Rust would ask white players for autographs, and some would spit at him or insult him. His favorite team, the Cardinals, was full of "crackers". People told Rust he was crazy, but he loved baseball enough to keep coming back.

Art Rust eventually became a radio and television sportscaster and New York newspaper columnist.  He and broadcaster Bill White were often the only blacks in the press box at Yankee Stadium.
There are interviews collected over the years with Negro League stars, players from the "break-through" era, and stars of modern times. Many of the old timers remember Josh Gibson, the black catcher who died in 1947. Gibson was a tremendous home run hitter, but none of his homers went into the white man's book, so they didn't count.There isn't much film of Josh playing either, so we can only rely on the memories of those who saw him. Bill Veeck said of Josh Gibson, "He was at minimum, two Yogi Berras."

There are interviews with Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, who were recruited, along with Jackie Robinson, for the fictitious Brown Dodgers—invented by Branch Rickey as a cover to scout and sign black players.

Campy and Newk were sent to Nashua, where manager Walter Alston told his team that if he got thrown out of a game, Campanella would act as manager. Campy figures it must have been because he already had fourteen years experience catching in the Negro Leagues. This is a stunning realization: a man who won three MVP awards, and had his career cut short by a car accident, had a whole previous career we know almost nothing about, with the Baltimore Elite Giants. Exactly how great a catcher was Roy Campanella? The numbers will never tell.

Campy, who grew up in a mixed neighborhood in Philadelphia, was not the militant type. The more hot tempered Newcombe tells how one summer in the mid-fifties he and Robinson got sick of staying at a separate hotel in St. Louis—they desperately wanted air conditioning. Campanella declined to join them on a visit to the manager of the Dodgers' regular hotel. It turned out that the manager didn't want them in the hotel swimming pool. "My God," fibbed Jackie, "I don't even know how to swim!" They were given rooms, Newcombe notes ironically, on the side of the hotel facing away from the pool.

Players from the fifties and sixties repeat over and over their debt to Robinson, and say they never could have gone through what he did. Many thought Monte Irvin—a better player than Jackie— would be the first to break the color barrier. But Irvin didn't get to play much ball during the war, and it took him awhile to get his game back together; in the meantime Robinson was chosen. Monte was 30 by the time he made the Giants; he was still a slugger, but his speed was diminished. He was elected to the Hall of Fame for his achievements in a "split" career, but Irvin admits to being bitter.
Quotas are often mentioned; blacks had to be stars to stay in the big leagues. The Braves' Sam "Jet" Jethroe, Boston's first black player (it's said that unlike Robinson, Jethroe had no one among the white players to stick up for him), was a star for a couple of years, but had one subpar season and was shipped out. This stars-only type of quota has been dying only slowly; you still wonder about the untalented white subs on many rosters.

Among the modern stars interviewed, I would question whether the fans in Pittsburgh turned on Dave Parker merely because he was a black millionaire. Dave also got fat, snorted coke, and stopped hitting, reasons enough for ordinary baseball fans to dislike him (if not throw batteries). But no one ever questioned Henry Aaron's character. The death threats and hate mail that Aaron received, when he was chasing Babe Ruth's record, are among the sickest incidents in baseball history.

The book lists the first black player on each major league team. Pumpsie Green is, of course, the last on the list. ESPN recently did a program on race and sports. They surveyed 700 fans on various subjects. 30% of those surveyed believed that race was a factor in the hiring practices of some franchises. When those 30% were asked to name teams, the only ones mentioned more than once were the Celtics and Red Sox. ESPN had a panel discussion with some Boston fans, which wasn't very conclusive, except to postulate that racism had kept Kirby Puckett from signing here.
Puckett may have just wanted to stay in Minnesota but there are have been enough incidents—the last team to integrate, the spurious arrests of Oil Can Boyd and Dee Brown, the treatment of Tommy Harper—to make a black player think twice. Only one minority player (Bob Watson) has ever won the 10th Player Award, chosen by fan vote since 1975.

After waiting so long, the Sox in 1967 put Scott, Foy, and Smith in the starting lineup, with Wyatt, Tartabull, and Howard in reserve. But somehow things went backwards after GM Dick O'Connell was fired. Jim Rice was the only black regular for four straight seasons; at times coach Harper was the only other black on the team bus. That leaves an impression. A lot of the prejudice in the Sox organization is probably so unconscious they don't even know they're doing it. Recently the Red Sox have tried to make fundamental changes by bringing in new scouts and hiring minority front office workers. Maybe someday Boston fans can stop counting how many black faces there are in the team picture.

Reviewed by David Nevard (1993)

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