BEANTOWN: ONE TOUGH PLACE TO PLAY

Many blacks are concerned that Boston and its teams are rife with racism
August 18, 1991

OUR SERIES CONCLUDES WITH AN EXAMINATION OF BOSTON, A CITY THAT IS ANATHEMA TO MANY BLACK ATHLETES; A PROFILE OF NBA HALL OF FAMER DAVE BING, NOW A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESSMAN IN DETROIT; AND, ON PAGE 78, A POINT AFTER IN WHICH HARVARD PROFESSOR HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. CALLS SPORTS AN "OPIATE" FOR BLACK YOUTH.

Traffic is slow on Tremont street on a Saturday afternoon in Boston. Robert Foggie and John Bynoe stand outside Foggie's barbershop and take a bit of the sun. Foggie has been cutting hair for 55 years on this block. This is the ghetto, Roxbury. The slow tide of gentrification has stopped on the other side of Massachusetts Avenue, and the walk-around population is black, all black, as it has been for the longest while. The barbershop is a gathering place for conversation. A social center. This is where black athletes from the local teams always come for a shave and a trim. This is where a small-town heart of color beats in the midst of an often hostile city. Foggie and Bynoe are voices of that heart. The subject is sports.

Foggie: "Did you know the Red Sox had six black players in 1967?"

Bynoe: "Six?"

Foggie: "I've won a lot of money on this question. People can't believe it. I know there were six. I cut their heads."

Bynoe: "Six? Can't be."

Foggie: "George Scott. Reggie Smith. Elston Howard. John Wyatt. Joe Foy...."

Bynoe: "Earl Wilson?"

Foggie: "No, Earl was gone by then. Counting Jose Tartabull, there were six. I worked on all of them."

Six black players? The Red Sox? The number somehow seems unbelievable on a warm day in the summer of 1991.

It has been 24 years since those six men played on the team that went to the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Those 24 years have not been kind to this city. Not kind at all.

" 'The most racist city in America,' is what you hear before you come here," Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn says. "Sure. I heard that a lot when I signed."

"Friends of mine, when I was drafted, were saying, 'Uh-oh, you're going Up South to play," Boston Celtics guard Dee Brown says. "That's what they said. 'Up South.' They were joking about it, telling me to watch myself."

"I remember, I was drafted late, in the seventh round, so I was happy to go anywhere," New England Patriots defensive end Brent Williams says. "Initially, I was very happy. Then someone said to me, 'Man, you're going to Boston.' That's when I first thought about it."

The image is...the image is...the image is what? The image is swan boats and Paul Revere's house and cobblestone streets. The image is Harvard, on the other side of the Charles River, and the Kennedys. The image is the Atlantic Ocean and maybe Spenser: For Hire and certainly Cheers and...hate. The hate won't go away. Not in the image that is held by black America.

The pictures that dominate are mostly from the middle '70s, pictures of black children being taken to formerly white schools under police guard as angry white faces shout angry words and fists pound on the windows of the buses. A classic picture, which won a Pulitzer Prize, shows a black man named Ted Landsmark being attacked in front of City Hall by a gang of white kids, one of whom is lunging at him with a pole that holds a large American flag. Other pictures from other places have followed, most recently the pictures of Rodney King being kicked and beaten by members of the Los Angeles Police Department, but the Boston pictures from forced busing and school integration came before, and they will not leave. Not in black America.

"It's like everything came to light with the busing, and since then it just won't quit," former Celtics guard Dennis Johnson says. "That's the way Boston is perceived."

Even in sports—maybe sometimes abetted by sports—the image is strong. The Red Sox forever are known as "the last team to integrate in the major leagues," and this year, until the midseason arrival of Vaughn, they had only one black player, outfielder Ellis Burks, on their roster. The Celtics are lampooned by black filmmaker Spike Lee as the white man's team of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and 1950s basketball. The Patriots, with one of the largest black rosters in the National Football League, still are not one of the more desirable NFL stops. Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, a potential Pats first draft choice, let it be known early that he didn't want to go to the team because they weren't offering enough money and, Boston, well...he would rather be in Atlanta or Dallas.

"It's almost an impossible thing to shake," Red Sox president John Harrington says. "I don't know how you do it. I've been told it will take 50 years, generations, before this thing is gone. I won't be around and you won't be around. It's just impossible."

The everyday realities of a city of neighborhoods with a black population of 136,679 out of 574,283 residents provide a requisite number of slurs and snubs and horror stories to keep the bad news rolling. Trouble in the schools. Trouble with the gangs. Trouble with the police. In Boston, there seems to be an exaggerated racial edge to everything that happens. The Charles Stuart case, in which the alleged white murderer claimed his wife was killed by an unidentified black man, sent the police chasing through the minority community. It was a nationally reported incident. Ah. That's Boston.

The black athlete, coming to the city to play his game for money, is put into the middle of all of this. (The black high school athlete, thinking of enrolling in a Boston college, is warned extensively of both potential and imagined dangers by recruiters from other schools in other cities.) Decades of social history seem to have stalled in Boston. Or at least that is the image. Old battles still are being fought. If anything, the steps toward racial equality have been backward. Or so it seems.

For every black athlete who has come to Boston, played out his career, stayed and prospered....

"I can't talk about anyone else who might have had problems, because I'm sure problems exist, but Boston has been awfully good to Ron Burton," former Patriots running back Ron Burton, a John Hancock Insurance executive who has been with the company for 25 years, says. "I've carved out a group of friends here who are second to none. I mean that. Second to none."

Someone else tells a different story....

"There is an air of hostility here that doesn't exist in any other big city in America," says former NBA referee Ken Hudson, who is black and is now vice-president of community affairs for the Celtics. "I don't know how to explain it, except to say that you're uncomfortable here. People feel you're intruding. I was with Bob Lanier, the former Piston, recently. He said, 'How can you stand this town?' I don't know. It's just uncomfortable. I go to Providence, to Hartford, and I never feel uncomfortable. They're not very far away. It's just different here."

Where does it end? The talk shows hum on this sort of controversy. The Boston Globe recently ran an extensive series on blacks and baseball in Boston. Numbers always seem to be mentioned. Numbers of blacks on the bench. Numbers of blacks on the field. Numbers of blacks in the stands. Is there any other city so concerned—still—with numbers? Is there any other city that has to be as concerned? The image lingers. The image says numbers are important.

"It's strange," says Scott, the first baseman on the '67 Sox. "I've never had any problems with Boston. The people were pretty good to me when I was a player and they're pretty good to me now. But I was in California not long ago, and I went into the Yankees clubhouse. I was talking with a couple of guys, Jesse Barfield and Mel Hall, and they were saying they didn't see how I ever could have played in Boston. What happened? When I came here to play, everybody wanted to come here. This was the place to be. Now nobody wants to come here."

Bynoe: "The Red Sox are the ones. They've been racist all the way back to when they wouldn't sign Jackie Robinson. You ask the kids around here, none of them like the Red Sox. There's some old people who like 'em, but that's because they can't get around much and they just like to watch baseball. The kids, none of them like the Red Sox. Why should they?"

Foggie: "The Red Sox were the last to bring up a black ballplayer. Right? And when they did, they brought up a mediocre one. They didn't bring up a star, if you know what I mean. Pumpsie Green, he tried, but he was mediocre. It was like...'O.K., so now you see why we haven't done it.' "

Bynoe: "The Red Sox never created the atmosphere in this town for black people to like baseball. For so many years, a black person would go over there and have to put up with so much b.s., people yelling things and the Red Sox wouldn't do anything about it. They've done some things now, hiring that woman lawyer and all, but it seems like window dressing to me. How many black kids do you see selling the hot dogs and the soda? Even Boston Garden. You go to a Celtics game and it seems everyone's white who's working. The only time you see any blacks is at halftime, when the two black dudes come out on the court. Pushing brooms."

The Red Sox management says there was no plan to wind up with only one black on the roster until the middle of this year, when Vaughn joined the team and doubled the number. The voices in the black community say, "Sure." The Red Sox management says it always has been looking for black players, citing this player and that who did not sign or simply did not climb through the minor league system. The voices in the black community say, "Sure." The Red Sox management protests the protests. The protests continue.

"It's like an albatross around our neck," general manager Lou Gorman says. "It hangs there and hangs there, and we just can't shake it."

No move is made by this team without the element of race being mentioned. The departures of recent black players such as Lee Smith, Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, Dave Henderson and Jim Rice seemed to be surrounded by controversy. Why wasn't Rice given the 21-gun send-off of a long-term superstar? Why wasn't the potential of Henderson seen, especially when he hit those dramatic postseason home runs in 1986? Why wasn't the Can resigned? Why did he have such an emotional tenure in a Red Sox uniform? Why was Smith shipped to St. Louis and Jeff Reardon, a white player, brought to town to do the same job? Why? There is an explanation for every individual move, but an overall explanation is harder to find.

Why are there so many problems?

"Every one of these situations was unique," Harrington says. "Rice and Oil Can...you have to know the people involved. Henderson...we had Ellis Burks set to go to be our centerfielder. Lee Smith...it was a gamble. We thought we would be able to trade one of the two relievers for a top-line starting pitcher. It turned out we couldn't do that and traded Smith for Tom Brunansky. Things just worked out that way. They worked out so that, to our embarrassment, we had only Ellis on the roster for a year. That wasn't a plan. What you should know is that there isn't a malicious bone in anybody's body here. We're trying. We're trying a lot of things."

There have been some front-office changes—starting with the hiring of a black woman, Elaine Weddington, who is now an assistant general manager, and going down to the hiring of black clubhouse boys and batboys—but the whiteness of the team on the field and of the fans in the stands is what is noticed first. The team's history is unshakable. The past and the present combine for an argument of racism that is hard to deflect.

Why didn't the team sign Robinson or Sam Jethroe at that long-ago Fenway tryout in 1945, held only because of the pressure from Boston city councillor Isadore Muchnick? The anonymous quote from a club official, "Get those niggers off the field," is part of the story. Why was the promotion of Green, a black player who didn't arrive until 1959, so late? Why Green? Why not someone else? Why has the team lagged in the signing of black players ever since? Why has Rice been the team's only black superstar?

At the least, there has been a record of bullheadedness and insensitivity. At the least.

"Do you know what I think happens?" Scott says. "You hear about the Curse of the Bambino when the team doesn't win. Well, there isn't a Curse of the Bambino. The curse is the way the Red Sox develop their ball club. They're always looking for those strong guys to hit the ball over the leftfield wall. Big, strong, righthanded hitters. They've never looked for speed. They're still building teams for the '40s, '50s and '60s. These are the '90s. They've never changed to the modern game.

"That's what's killed them. That's what kept them away from black guys. I like to think it's a baseball decision, not a racial decision. I have to think that way. They're my team, and I'm pulling for 'em. If something else is involved, I don't want to know."

"I tell our scouts to forget about the dimensions of the ballpark when they go out, but that's sometimes hard to do," Gorman says. "A lot of them have been working for us for a long time. One thing you should remember, though, is that our teams mostly have been pretty successful. That's left us in a low position most of the time in the draft. We haven't been around to draft a Dwight Gooden, a Darryl Strawberry. The superstars haven't been available to us. We've drafted blacks, but most of them haven't worked out."

The charges against the Celtics are more curious. The Celtics are the team that did everything right in the racial history of the NBA, the team that in 1950 signed the first black, Chuck Cooper, and put him on the court; the team that went ahead and started five blacks for the first time, quotas be damned; the team that hired the first black coach in professional sport, then hired another and yet another. This is supposed to be a racist organization? Aren't the Celtics the Brooklyn Dodgers of basketball? The fact that the Branch Rickey figure in charge of all those moves—club president Red Auerbach—still is on the scene would seem to make them bulletproof. It has not.

"What happens, I think, is that people forget their history," former Celtics forward Tom Sanders says. "Young people come along and it's forgotten. Which is a shame, but true."

"I think it's the Boston part of the Boston Celtics," former forward M.L. Carr says. "If they were just the Celtics, there'd be no problem. I never saw anything racist about that team. Guys from other cities would start talking to me about it, about the fact that we had six white guys on the team. I'd say, 'All right, who do you think we should trade? Do you think we should get rid of Larry? Do you think we should get rid of Kevin? What about Danny Ainge?' Larry Bird's the greatest player I ever saw before number 23 for Chicago came along."

"I've never drafted a player because of color," Auerbach says. "How could I do that? How could I be prejudiced? I'm a little Jewish guy from Brooklyn. How could I be prejudiced against anyone?"

The Patriots, situated in Foxboro, 25 miles from the city, have been removed from the troubles of the city. Even though their roster, heavy with black players, is the one roster that should be counted, no one counts. The games seem to be played far away. The players mostly live in the suburbs. Even the name, New England, substituted for Boston, brings a relief. The image does not exist for the Patriots. The Patriots seem to be insulated.

Except, of course, when they become involved with Boston.

"I wanted the opportunities of the city," defensive end Garin Veris, the only Patriot player who lives in the city, says. "That's why I moved there. I'd gotten a bleak picture—living in Mansfield and Norwood in the suburbs—but I wanted to see for myself. What I have to say is that the picture turned out to be correct. From my experience...I'd grown up in Ohio, gone to school in California and been in just about every state in the country, and I'd never been called 'nigger' or 'colored boy' or any of that. Until I went to Boston. I suppose you can say those comments could happen anywhere, but what I have to say is they happened here. In Boston."

Foggie: "I remember when the Celtics started five black players for the first time. Willie Naulls was the fifth. I remember when it happened. Tom Heinsohn was hurt, so Willie Naulls started. Naulls, Bill Russell, Satch Sanders, Sam Jones and K.C. Jones. I cut their hair. I cut Russell's hair."

Bynoe: "Russell said he hated it here, but at that time he hated everything. I think he mostly hated himself. He owned that place [Slade's Restaurant] across the street. People would come in all gooey about meeting a star. He treated 'em like dogs. He was always talking about how he hated white people, then he married a white woman."

Foggie: "You know this, though. Those teams were putting up the flags every year and nobody came. Only time they'd sell out was in the playoffs. Any other time, you could walk right in. Then Russell leaves and the fair-haired boy, Dave Cowens, comes in, and now Larry Bird, and you can't get a seat."

What has to be done? How is the image changed? Would the Red Sox help if they traded for Gooden and Strawberry and Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson all at once? Would the Celtics help if they sent their whole team, say, to Detroit in exchange for the Pistons? How are minds and attitudes changed? How many have to be changed? How many black minds? How many white? "The most racist city in America." How do you attack that? Where do you start?

"Whenever things have happened to our players, I've told them that it's individual," Auerbach says. "I say that each incident is individual. If a guy can't buy a house, then the problem is with the individual who is selling the house. It isn't with everyone else. It's individual."

How are these individuals convinced? And just who are these individuals?

"I was shopping with my family," M.L. Carr says. "There was some traffic, and I ran across the street. My wife and kids stayed on the curb. A car came by, some young guys, and they yelled at my wife, 'Out of the road, you black bitch.' I went crazy. I jumped in my car and went after 'em. I cut 'em off, jumped out of the car. They recognized me. They said, 'Hey, M.L., we didn't know it was you.' I told 'em I should beat their butts. Instead, I tried to use it as a teaching experience. I told them how I felt."

"I had the most racist thing of all happen just a few weeks ago," Veris says. "I came into Logan Airport, put down my bags and waited for a cab. The guy drove away from me and up to someone else. I knew just what he was doing. I went right up to the guy. I called him a bigot and everything else. What are you going to do?"

The most celebrated incident of the past year involved Brown, the Celtics' top draft choice. Planning to get married, starting life in a new place, he was in the process last fall of purchasing a house in Wellesley, an affluent suburb. He and his white fiancèe, Jill Edmondson, were still living in a hotel, waiting for the deal to be completed. They had their mail delivered to the Wellesley Hills post office. While sitting in his car, reading his mail, his fiancèe beside him, Brown was surrounded by local police with guns drawn, taken from the car and forced to lie on the pavement while he was searched.

Why? A bank across the street had been held up a few days earlier by a black male. One of the employees, looking through the window, spotted Brown and decided he could have been the robber. The bank manager called the police. The police responded in a hurry. The incident made the news wires. That's Boston.

"It really was just one man," Brown says. "It was the way the dispatcher phrased it that made it sound as if I were the robber. It was scary to be lying on the ground, guns pointed at you."

The fact that this wasn't exactly Boston—that it was Scarsdale in relation to New York, Beverly Hills in relation to Los Angeles—didn't matter to the rest of the country. Local black groups urged Brown to pursue legal action. White groups hurried to apologize. Brown simply defused the matter. Individuals doing individual things. He went ahead and bought a house in Wellesley. He went ahead and married his fiancèe and became the NBA slam-dunk champ and had a strong rookie season.

"All the talk about Boston really didn't affect me," Brown says. "I'm from the South, so I know about discrimination. I think there's a lot more prejudice in the South than there is here. I'm happy. I like the city, with all the neighborhoods, Irish and Italian and black. I like that. I like Wellesley, the town where I live. You take me to New York, that's where I'm scared. My wife and I were there, and we couldn't wait to get out."

Is this the attitude that is needed? Optimism in the face of pessimism? There have been black athletes who have stayed in the area at the end of their careers, athletes like Carr, who is a hard-charging businessman, talking about "the new frontier of minority business" in Boston. Rice has stayed. Scott has stayed. K.C. Jones and Sanders stayed for the longest time. There have been athletes who have left, angry with the city, notably Russell and Cedric Maxwell and Oil Can. There have been athletes who have played in Boston and returned home as a matter of course.

"Boston was fine with me," says Dennis Johnson, with whom Maxwell once joked that "Larry and Kevin's pictures always are in papers when we win, and black guys' pictures always are in when we lose."

"I lived in different parts of the city," says Johnson. "I didn't have any problems. I lived in other cities. I had a good time in Boston. I go along with the saying 'a heart has no color.' "

The best statement of all might have come from the new arrival, Vaughn, the Red Sox first baseman. An immediate fan favorite—his name, Mo, is chanted every time he goes to the plate at Fenway Park—he has chosen to wear Jackie Robinson's number 42 on his back. He says he wears it in honor of Robinson, in honor of the doors Robinson opened.

"I'm not going to say Boston's a racist town," Vaughn says. "I never prejudge. If it's here, let it come. I can handle it."

Forty-six years after the tryout, the Red Sox finally have their man. Jackie Robinson lives. None too soon.

Foggie: "There will always be racism."

Bynoe: "Always."

Foggie: "You know what the truth is? This is 1991, and there are still places black people can't go. You could take the worst-looking white bum, give him a shave and haircut and dress him in some nice clothes, and he could go to any swank place you want. Bill Cosby, for all his money, couldn't go to those places. I'm not saying that's just here—that's everywhere in America—we just got it strong."

There is a pause. The two men idly stare at the proceedings on the street. Some kids are on a corner, all of them wearing Los Angeles Dodger caps. Familiar faces nod as they go to the smoke shop next to Foggie's place. Foggie and Bynoe nod in return. A younger barber works inside the shop. Foggie is thinking about having a little lunch.

Foggie: "You know the sport I like best? Hockey. My wife worked for the Bruins. I'd get tickets. I went to hockey all the time. I know it sounds strange, a black man liking hockey, but that's my game."

It should be noted—for what it's worth—that the Boston Bruins had the first black player in the National Hockey League. His name was Willie O'Ree and he played two games in 1958 and 43 more in '60-61. Foggie, alas, did not cut his hair.

PHOTOMANNY MILLANBROWN (7) FOUND THAT PLAYING AND LIVING "UP SOUTH" CAN BE UNSETTLING. PHOTOROB KINMOUTHDEE AND JILL HAVE PUT LAST FALL'S CONFRONTATION WITH THE WELLESLEY POLICE BEHIND THEM. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINTHE FANS AT FENWAY ARE MOSTLY WHITE, AND SO ARE THE RED SOX, THOUGH RLCE (BELOW) WAS A NOTABLE EXCEPTION. PHOTOJOHN D. HANLON[See caption above.] PHOTOPHIL BATHTHE ROSTER OF BLACK RED SOX BEGINS WITH GREEN (SHOWN HERE WITH TED WILLIAMS) AND ENDS WITH VAUGHN (42). PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER[See caption above.] PHOTONAISMITH MEMORIAL BASKETBALL HALL OF FAMETHE CELTICS BROKE THE NBA COLOR BARRIER WHEN THEY SIGNED COOPER IN 1950. PHOTOJERRY BUCKLEYDESPITE HAVING STARS LIKE FRANK RAMSEY (23), BILL SHARMAN (21), RUSSELL (REAR), BOB COUSY (14) AND HEINSOHN (15), AUERBACH'S 1958-59 CELTICS DIDN'T DRAW WELL AT THE GARDEN. PHOTOASSOCIATED PRESSTHE BRUINS BROKE THE RACIAL ICE IN THE NHL WHEN THEY PLAYED O'REE IN '58. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)