Monday, February 7, 2022

Baseball and the word that must not be said

Yankee outfielder Jake Powell, left, is presented with a wallet as a token of esteem from fans of Laurel, Maryland, where he once played semi-pro ball, by Laurel mayor E.E. Hatch. (Library of Congress).

     Bob Elson is not the sort of person you’d expect to touch off one of the most notorious racist incidents in the history of Chicago sports.
     A former choir boy who sang with the famous Paulist Choir, his golden voice made him a natural for radio.
     But that’s the thing about racism. It’s a snake; you never know when it’s going to spring out of some hidden recess and bite you.
     In the 1930s, Elson broadcast both Cubs and Sox games. The Bears, too. On days when there were no home games, he would sit in a windowless studio and recreate out-of-town contests from telegraphed reports.
     Finding something to put on the air was a constant challenge. The “Man in the Dugout” interview was Elson’s idea: Fill time before the first pitch talking to players.
     On a lovely late July day in 1938. Elson was at Comiskey Park with his live microphone, chatting up players. He buttonholed Yankee slugger Jake Powell, who batted .455 in the 1936 World Series.
     “How do you keep in trim during the winter months in order to keep up your batting average?” Elson asked. A lazy pop up of a question. But Powell muffed it, big time.
     “Oh that’s easy,” he replied. “I’m a policeman. I beat ...”
     And here he used the plural of a word that I’m not even going to hint at. Not my choice — I would just lay it on you, full bore, and trust you would not shatter like glass.
     “... over the head with my blackjack.”
     Mary DeVoto, a veteran history teacher at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School, more recently used the word, trying to contextualize offensive sports team names. Now she’s out of a job.

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  1. Somehow I seem to remember hearing that story about Powell. Needless to say if that happened today the person would be banned for life, it seems like we haven't come very far since 1936.

  2. In 1957 the Little Rock Nine were terrorized as they entered their high school in accordance with 1954 Brown v Brown Supreme Court decision. The white mob and their legions of sympathizers were horrified of the effect this integration would have on their precious white children. Flash forward 65 years and now a large segment of the white population is horrified to teach about this incident and the real racial history in our country because of the damage it will do to their precious white children. Progress? And about flying that American thanks.

  3. African Americans often use a derivative form of this word liberally , sometimes two or three times in one sentence. There is great dissagreement amongst Black people regarding this.

    You can find its prevalence in music , film , standup, and writing.

    While people of other ethic and cultural persuasions almost universally agree it is not to be used ever in any context . I wonder if you have ever engaged in a discussion about this with Black people?

    1. Thanks for the tip, FME. I haven't seen much sign of disagreement—one "s"—among Black people on this one. Perhaps you cast a broader net than I do. And if you think I believe "it is not to be used ever in any context," then you didn't read today's column carefully.

  4. Mark Twain was a master of irony, but I don't think he intended that his liberal use of the not-to-be-spoken noun in Huckleberry Finn be an example of such. But the heroism and compassion of Jim stand out in contrast to the denigrating appellation and enrich it in my opinion.

    I think it's a big mistake to outlaw the word per se.


    1. It also troubles me that a word used with no malice intended, as in Ms. DiVoto's case, should be outlawed. Or the transgressor so severely punished. I also agree with the comment about Huckleberry Finn. I read it when very young and it didn't make me a racist. Quite the contrary.



  5. The use of this word is a complex issue in the African American community. Discussions about this can be found easily on the interwebs. Mostly older people who experienced horrible incidents in their past trying to convince younger people that taking ownership of this word to rob it of its power is a form of self hatred and demeaning.

    I appreciate your nod to Black History Month . BUT, maybe instead of how use of this pejorative affects Black people instead of white people like ms. DeVoto would be a better acknowledgment of its significance.

    I read your column carefully. thats why I said almost.

  6. I remember many lazy afternoons and warm evenings of listening to Bob Elson doing the White Sox games on WCFL.He had a laconic style, and a delivery that could put you to sleep. No endless chatter and reams of stats, just balls and strikes and the play-by-play. But Bob Elson had a forty-year broadcasting career (1930-1970) that put him in the Hall of Fame. On the other hoof, Powell is in Baseball's Hall of Shame. Fights, suspensions, and other troubling events during an eleven-year MLB career. I'd read about that incident, but I couldn't recall who said it.

    The story appears in Red Smith's classic book, "To Absent Friends," under the title of "A Guy Who Made Mistakes." Then I looked up Powell's bio, and his numbers. For starters, his claim that he was a Dayton police officer was an outright lie.

    Alvin Jake Powell wasn't just "a guy who made mistakes." In addition to being a liar, he was also a thief, a gambler, a bigot, a womanizer, a boozer, and a miserable human being. But he could also hit. Scouting report: A pretty fair ballplayer, but a total a-hole. .

    Commissioner Landis (and the baseball owners) had resisted integration for decades. But because of the huge stink over Powell's interview, and threatened boycotts, Landis had to do something. Jake Powell was not alone in his racism, he was just too stupid to hide it, and lacked the sense to realize that a radio audience might not appreciate a wisecrack that teammates and writers probably would. Previous bad behavior was largely shrugged off, until he said something so publicly controversial that baseball's commissioner could not ignore it. Hence the ten-day suspension. But because he was also a decent ballplayer, he was forgiven.

    Somewhat surprisingly, Powell was not a Southerner. Born and raised in Silver Spring, MD, his first MLB team was the Washington Senators. At this same time (the mid-30s), the Yankees also had a problem outfielder, Ben Chapman, a racist and anti-Semite who taunted Jewish fans in the Bronx with Nazi salutes. They traded him to the Senators for Powell, who was catching hell for breaking Hank Greenberg's wrist. The 1936 trade was one a-hole for another. Your racist can help us, our Jew-hater can help you. On the field, that is.

    Shortly after the deal, which actually benefited both clubs, Powell touched off a brawl in which several Senators jumped on him, proving that even his own teammates had hated his guts (and his thievery). Senators fans threw bottles at him. He picked them up and threw them back. What a piece guy was.

    Red Smith was too gentle in his book. He described Powell as "a guy who never knew fear and never knew what was good for him, a guy who always acted on impulse and was wrong more often than not." Sportswriters of his era didn't knock players when they screwed up, the way they do today.

    Labeling Powell as an aggressive ballplayer who couldn't help himself and was prone to "make mistakes" just doesn't stand up under close examination, and even the most casual research. Magnifying glasses also produce heat, which Powell totally deserves. And calling him 'impulsive" and "mistake-prone" was--excuse the awful pun--nothing but a whitewash.

  7. I find it more concerning that Piwell’s statement apparently didn’t disqualify him from his off-season job.

    Grizz, I’d posit that in some ways Maryland is a southern state. Or maybe more of a hybrid.

    1. It's definitely a "border state", as it was during Civil War 1.0, when a Baltimore riot just one week after Fort Sumter left four Northern soldiers and twelve Southern sympathizers dead. Baltimore was mostly anti-war and pro-Confederacy in the spring of 1861.

      It was the Baltimore riot that pushed the two sides over the edge into full-scale war, as it was the first real bloodshed between the North and the South, and made a compromise almost impossible. After the Maryland riot, anger and hatred on both sides could no longer be controlled.

      I believe that history is about to repeat itself, in very a similar fashion, and fairly soon. At that point, Version 2.0 will be inevitable and unstoppable. The gasoline is already available. Something like what's currently happening in Canada will be the spark that sets it off.

  8. While this is irrelevant to the overall discussion, I'm just going to note that had Powell said "Black guys" instead of ....... in the quote, it wouldn't really have made it much less incendiary. It wasn't just the word.

  9. Quite a good post, Grizz. I too listed to Bob Elson, The Commander, on my Zenith transistor radio. WCFL 1000AM. His voice was like a Quualude.
    Neil, another unlikely connection presented perfectly!


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