Making Fenway a Place for Everyone
By Phillip Martin
BOSTON — Scanning the stands at the start of a game at storied Fenway Park, black and brown faces are noticeably far and very few between; something not lost on Howard Bryant, a black Boston native and a Red Sox fan.
"Well, looking around the stands, you’re not going to see a lot of diversity in terms of African Americans," he said.
But Bryant and others argue that Fenway Park today is still a vast improvement over the color scheme of the not-so-distant past.
Sam Kennedy, the Red Sox chief operating officer, has been with the team for 11 seasons, arriving with the new owners in 2002. He says this most recent management team came with a strong vision they expressed from the start.
"No one sort of came in here with their head buried in the sand saying we didn’t have problems. We clearly did," Kennedy recalls. "The quote that Larry Lucchino had was something to the effect that the organization had an undeniable history of racial intolerance, and that was something for our leader to say that, and to say that on the record was a wakeup call to the region that there is a sort of new leadership group in charge."
Major league baseball owners, starting in 1887, reinforced an unwritten code of strict racial segregation. When Jackie Robinson and other black players were finally invited in April 1947 to try out for the Red Sox, owner Tom Yawkey — according to the late writer David Halberstam — famously asked his staff to get Robinson off the field, using racially derogatory expletives that might get someone fired today.
It took 12 more years — until 1959 — when the Red Sox, being the last major league team to integrate, finally recruited a black player. They got a second string baseman named Pumpsie Green, who was used mainly as a pinch runner.
Not surprisingly, Fenway Park's bleachers reflected this purposeful absence of diversity, says Boston sports historian Richard A. Johnson. "Certainly it was not a large drawing crowd for a black audience. I would think part of that would have been because of the composition of the team and the fact that there were other clubs, noticeably the Cleveland Indians and the White Sox, who had black players of note."
And In the 1970s, the Tom Yawkey’s reputation for bigotry fused with the political climate brought on by court-ordered school bussing. Those fears crept into the stands at Fenway Park.
"We were afraid of Fenway Park as black kids growing up, cause we were always told it was a dangerous place," said Howard Bryant, who is not just a Sox fan, he is also an ESPN sportscaster.
Bryant is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." Sitting in the stands, he recalls the Fenway of 30 years ago.
"As a kid, we never came here. I grew up in Dorchester two miles from here, and mostly because growing up in an all African American community the adults in that community rooted for the Dodgers. They were National League fans because of Jackie Robinson and the Red Sox were really not a part of the everyday life. And that’s due entirely to race; it's due to the fact that the black community did not embrace the Fenway and nor did the red Sox embrace the black community back then," he says.
"Most people think they are racist and they haven’t done anything to discourage that feeling," Harper said in an interview in 1986. In December 1985, Harper was fired from the Boston Red Sox after he complained about the team’s full-throated participation in a whites-only Elks club in Winter Haven, Florida, where they used to practice. Guest passes to the Elks Club were distributed inside the Sox clubhouse to whites only. In 1986, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sided with Harper and ruled that he was wrongly dismissed from the team.
That July, he spoke with WGBH reporter Marcus Jones for the 10 O'Clock News, now part of the WGBH Archives. "I went to them in private, not publicly, and gave them a year to rectify the situation," he said. "Then in the year of '85, when I realized that the situation was not going to change, a reporter approached me. I still did not go to the media. The media approached me and they asked me a direct question: ‘Can you go to the Elks Club?’ and I said 'no.'"
Today, Harper is back with the Red Sox. Along with his friends Carl Yastrzemski and Luis Tiant, Harper is working as a minor-league consultant for the Red Sox and spends most of his time in Pawtucket. He says under the new team ushered in in 2002, the culutre and direction of the Red Sox organization has actually changed dramatically from the past.
Red Sox COO Sam Kennedy agrees. Kennedy says the new owners learned much from their experience with the San Diego Padres.
“It’s important that you recognize that we need to make Fenway as warm, hospitable, as friendly a place for everyone. That’s something I learned in San Diego, ironically being from Boston, but that was how we embraced market in SD, literally broke down barriers, welcomed in fans from Tijuana and south of the border when in SD, opened door to East County and South Bay, and that hadn’t been done before with the prior Padres regime,” Kennedy says.
Meg Vaillancourt, director of the Red Sox Foundation, says the urgency of transforming the Red Sox’s historic racial dynamics was, until recently, quite evident on the streets of Boston. "One thing we noticed in the community, say before 2004 or 2005, if you saw black kids wearing baseball caps, generally they were wearing New York Yankees hats and I think the message from that was very clear: 'Not only are we not Red Sox fans, we are anti-red Sox fans. We are telling you that you aren’t rejecting us. We’re rejecting you!'" she says.
In 1978, in the fifth year of court-ordered bussing, the Yankees and Sox slugged it out for top honors in the American League East, and Yankee caps and jerseys proliferated in black communities. That was no accident.
John Gordon, executive director of Dorchester-Roxbury Little League, says, “We know there was a major rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox. The Yankees stepped up and did a lot of stuff in Boston. Actually, I think it was more because of A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez], because he anticipated coming to Boston at one point in time, but figured he was too hated to lay his hat here. At one point in time, the Yankees were spending a lot of money in this city.”
Little League baseball on a blustery day is underway in Dorchester. Gordon believes the new Red Sox can do more to engender loyalty to the sport that he’s been playing most of his life.
“Fourteen years ago I worked with the Red Sox rookie league. When we had equipment to give to the children and we had money for banquets for things of that sort, the children were more willing to come. And all those children are here today. The ones that didn’t get to experience the whole Fenway experience are not here," he says.
Vaillaincourt says that connecting with black and Latino youth is the key to the long term relationship with communities of color. The Sox have partnered with Yawkey Boys and Girls Club of Boston and the RBI Program to that effect.
"The RBI Program is reviving baseball in the inner city and the impetus is to look at communities of color and to make sure they have access to baseball," Vaillaincourt says.
Noah Jackson is executive director of the First Base Foundation, designed to allow young minority encourage black athletes to play baseball. He says Fenway's challenge is the challenge of the nation in regard to blacks and baseball. Jackson played collegiate baseball at Cal Berkeley and in the minor leagues with the Chicago Cubs.
“My eyes were opened by the experience: Once you got into the collegiate level and the professional level, there were no African American players at all. They just didn’t exist. As much as it’s been a nice gesture with the RBI program, overall I don’t think that it’s increased the amount of minorities playing baseball.
Last season, one study found that only 8.5 percent of major league players were African Americans, which is the third lowest number of professional black baseball athletes in decades. A Scarborough Research study found that only 9 percent of fans who attended a major league game in 2011 were African American. A separate Harris Poll found that only 6 percent of African Americans considered baseball to be their favorite sport.
Charles Steinberg is special advisor to the president/CEO of the Boston Red Sox. He says Fenway executives have their work cut out for them. He says they realize they can't start by saying "buy tickets and come to Fenway." It has to be the result of a major outreach effort and even ticket giveaways; a variation, if you will, of "If we build it, they will come.”
"If we go out into the neighborhoods, into the communities and embrace the ever-changing population of children, and help these children know that the Red Sox are their team, then over time I believe that as they grow up, they’ll come to Fenway. Over time, who wouldn’t want to come to Fenway Park?" he says.
SEE MORE FENWAY STORIES
About Fenway at 100WGBH News brings you local stories and historic moments from Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, as it marks a century in baseball history. (Fenway photo courtesy of the Boston Red Sox.)
Phillip W. D. Martin is the senior investigative reporter for WGBH Radio News and executive producer for Lifted Veils Productions. In the past, he was a supervising senior editor for NPR, an NPR race relations correspondent and one of the senior producers responsible for creating The World radio program in 1995. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1998. Learn more at liftedveils.org.
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