On Tuesday night at Fenway Park, Adam Jones received a standing ovation from the Red Sox fans during his first at-bat. It wasn’t an entirely spontaneous act, but rather an orchestrated “mea culpa” from the Red Sox organization to the Orioles outfielder, who was the target of racial slurs from a section of fans the previous night. It was a nice gesture, coupled by apologies from both the organization and the city itself, but the truth is that Monday’s incident has raised pressing issues that won’t be settled by a symbolic act.
For starters, for many, it wasn’t shocking that this incident happened at Fenway Park. New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia has mentioned that the only place he’s “been called the N-word” was in Boston (he emphasized that this was before his time with the Yankees). He then added, referring to other African-American MLB players, “We know. There’s 62 of us. We all know. When you go to Boston, expect it.” Current Red Sox starter David Price has said that he received racially-motivated taunts at Fenway, as has retired Minnesota Twins outfielder Torii Hunter.
It’s also not surprising that these comments have been received with skepticism from Red Sox fans. There’s a feeling among locals that Boston often gets unfairly vilified as being uniquely bigoted when racism is a universal, omnipresent issue in this country. The recent local backlash about Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che calling Boston “the most racist city I’ve ever been to,” is a perfect example of that defensiveness.
Yes, there are many whose vision of Boston’s racial history dates back to the 1970s and the most turbulent years of the busing crisis. Yes, there are those that believe that the actions of a relatively small number of bigoted, drunken numbskulls represents an entire community. No, none of this is particularly fair to Boston or the majority of those who live here, but all of it is quite besides the major point of this discussion: Boston still needs a lot to do in order to escape the shadow of its own racial legacy.
Let’s start with Fenway Park itself, which lies on 4 Yawkey Way, a street named in honor of Tom Yawkey, owner of the Boston Red Sox from 1933 until his death in 1976. During his tenure, Yawkey earned a reputation for being one of the most racist figures in baseball even by the standards of the times. Yawkey’s beliefs were the main reason why the Red Sox were the last of the pre-expansion MLB clubs to integrate. They did not have an African-American player on the major leave roster until calling up Pumpsie Green in 1959, over two years after Jackie Robinson retired. There’s a reason that the Boston Celtics’ Bill Russell, the winningest player in Boston history, still keeps his distance from the city where he became a legend (he once described the city as “a flea market of racism”).
And yes things have gotten better, and yes the vast majority of Red Sox fans are not racists, and yes Boston has grown more diverse over the last few decades. Still, recent census results show that it remains one of the most segregated cities in America. When fans say that the Jones incident doesn’t reflect the city they know, it’s not that they’re being untruthful, it’s that what they know might be an entirely different city than what others’ know.
It’s not just the city that deals with segregation, it’s also the sport itself. What happened on Monday in Boston was particularly harmful for baseball, which is desperately seeking more involvement from the African American community. Maybe the most telling portion of Sabathia’s quote about Boston was where he mentioned “there’s 62 of us,” effectively casting the entire population of black baseball players as an entirely too small club. Jones himself has pointed out that “baseball is a white man’s sport,” with African Americans making up 7.1% of the MLB population. There’s a wide variety of reasons for this, but incidents like Monday will only hurt the perception of baseball being behind the times and potentially unwelcoming to certain groups of players.
In other words, this incident is probably something both Boston and the MLB would prefer to just move away from as quickly as possible. They might have gotten their wish. After the orchestrated standing ovation, the story of the Red Sox/Orioles game became Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale throwing behind Orioles third baseman Manny Machado and Machado’s subsequent post-game rant. While pitchers throwing at batters remains a much less heated topic of conversation than racism in the sport, it’s one that’s far less uncomfortable for all involved.