Friday, July 24, 2009

A Number Goes Up...Should Another Come Down?

This weekend, James Edward Rice will take his rightful place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And on Tuesday, he will become just the seventh player in Boston history to have their number retired by the Red Sox. His "14" will reside between Ted Williams and Carlton Fisk. Nice company.

Watching this happen makes one wonder when the next number will go up, or even if it will. There are a couple of big numbers that are still not in circulation: Clemens' "21" and Wade Boggs' "26". Considering that Clemens is going to have steroid issues to deal with for years to come, I can't see his number going up. But Boggs meets the requirements of 10 years with the Sox and reaching the HoF (that "retired with the team" clause came to an end with Fisk). I think he should go up, but we'll see what happens.

But for now, the focus is rightly on Rice. I'm not going to argue about whether he belongs in the HoF or not. That issue has been settled. Personally, I think he deserved to be voted in. Regardless, he met the criteria and more than earned the right to have his number retired.

He is also the first African-American to wear a Red Sox cap into Cooperstown. And when you consider that, you also have to think about the long history of the Red Sox. And how much of it was tainted by institutional racism.

I'm not breaking any new ground here; Howard Bryant covered it brilliantly in his 2002 book Shut Out. The simple truth is that while Tom Yawkey owned the Red Sox, they were run with a racist mentality. And Yawkey perpetuated that racism by hiring managers and general managers who held the same benighted views that he held himself. Men like Eddie Collins, who was GM of the Sox from 1933-47. Men like Herb Pennock, who ran scouting from 1935-44.

And men like Joe Cronin, who was manager from 1935-47 and GM from 1947-58.

Joe Cronin was Yawkey's right hand man. His close friend and a soul mate when it came to the idea that a black man had no business being on any baseball diamond, let alone the one in Fenway Park. And those reprehensible views had more to do with Boston not winning a championship between 1918 and 2004 than the mythical "Curse of the Bambino" ever did.

Cronin and Yawkey's racism was responsible for Boston missing out on two of the greatest African-American ballplayers to ever strap on the spikes. Jackie Robinson came to Fenway for a tryout in 1945 where he was humiliated by Cronin and Yawkey, an experience that led to Robinson loathing the Red Sox for the rest of his life.

Then in 1949 the Sox scouted a young player by the name of Willie Mays. But thanks to the racism that permeated the upper echelons of the team, Boston passed on one of the all-time greats in the game because he had the audacity to be black.

And here is one you may not know about. In the mid-1950s, the Sox passed on signing Billy Williams, aka "Sweet Swingin' Billy", also known today as the Hall of Fame outfielder who played for the Chicago Cubs from 1959-1974. And why? Well, we all know that by now, don't we?

And for each one, for each ignorant decision, there were two constants: Tom Yawkey and Joe Cronin.

Imagine a Boston team in 1946 that, instead of having a reprobate like Pinky Higgins at third, had a young Jackie Robinson.

Imagine a Boston team in 1951 that had Robinson, Doerr and Vern Stephens in the infield with Williams and Mays and Dom DiMaggio in the outfield.

Imagine a Boston team in 1967 that had the iconic Mays in the outfield along with the exciting, in-their-prime duo of Billy Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, and Reggie Smith coming off the bench.

All of this was, probable. There was no reason all of this couldn't have happened, except for the fact that Cronin and Yawkey didn't like black people.

So why do we honor two men that did more damage to this team than Harry Frazee ever did? Why is a street named after Yawkey while Cronin's "4" hangs in a place of honor? They combined to mismanage and hold back this franchise for over 40 years. Yawkey finally gave in on African-American players because he had no choice in the matter. Not that he didn't still try to move them along now and again.* Rice's best move ever was joining the Sox when Yawkey was only a year away from kicking the bucket.

Solving the Yawkey issue is easy; just say the street is named after his wife. Jean Yawkey was a committed philanthropist to many charities and organizations, including the Jackie Robinson Scholarship Program.

But Cronin...I know we get into a dicey area here. You could look at a racist like Ty Cobb who is honored in Detroit and say "Well, should they pull him down?" But the difference there is that Cobb's racism, abhorrent as it is, didn't affect the team. Perhaps it may have if Cobb had played in the 40s and 50s. But it didn't. But Cronin's racism did affect the team in many negative ways. Hell, the Sox didn't employ a single African-American in any capacity in the late 1950s!

I know that the HoF is based on the numbers you put up and that something like your views on race doesn't play a role (again, look at Cobb). But to retire someone's number...if they were a manager and GM as well, shouldn't their decisions in that arena count as well? I think they should.

And with that in mind, I think the Red Sox should revoke the retirement of Cronin's number. His racist views were a negative impact on this team for almost two decades. He cost the Red Sox some of the greatest men to ever play the game. How can you honor a man like that by retiring his number?

This isn't a rant to just single out the Sox. Other teams suffered from the taint of racism as well. Bryant's book points out the negative effect racism played in the Yankees organization, in particular the effect George Weiss had on the team. It was only their deep farm system that mitigated the effects until 1964, at which point the Yankees wouldn't see the playoffs again until 1976.

But that is for Yankee fans to deal with. My concern is that the Red Sox honor a man who has no right to be honored. If there is justice in this world, then the day will come when Cronin's number is no longer on the wall.


* Yes, I am referring to Reggie Smith getting traded in 1973. Because why else would you move a two-time All-Star who just came off a season where he hit .303 and belted 21 homers?

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