Hardball Questions: Howard Bryant

Howard Bryant is a baseball columnist for the Boston Herald and the author of “Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston.”

Born in Dorchester, Mass., the story of racism in Boston is one that is close to Bryant’s heart. In fact, it’s what got him into sportswriting in the first place. THT correspondent Alex Belth recently had a chance to speak with Bryant. Here is their exchange.

THT: How personal was the process of writing “Shut Out”?

Howard Bryant: Well, I mean the book was probably 85-95% personal because there is no way you can be African American and a baseball fan and then a journalist as well and not be cognizant of the history [of race in Boston] and not be moved by it. And not only be cognizant of the history, but also be cognizant of what hasn’t been written.

When you grow up in the African American community in Boston, everybody knows the story; everybody knows what’s happening. And to your side of society, it’s one of the most important, if not the most important pieces of Red Sox history. But to the mainstream society it wasn’t. And that makes you wonder about your values and it makes you question the value of your point-of-view. That’s why the book was so important to me. Because it wasn’t just about what had been written but about what hadn’t been written.

THT: Did you aspire to be a sportswriter growing up?

Bryant: No.

THT: How did you get into the business?

Bryant: My original aspirations? When I was in college, I wanted to be a political writer. I wanted to be a political columnist. And then I got really disillusioned with that because politics was no way near as noble as you might have thought it was in college.

As I went forward, you know, I wanted to be an editorial writer. I was at the Oakland Tribune in 1992-93 and I wrote editorials. And then I went to the San Jose Mercury News to cover technology. It was then that it started to hit me that this Red Sox story was a story that needed to be told. At that point I started to kind of tailor my career to a position where I would have the opportunity to write the book.

THT: So “Shut Out” is what brought you into sportswriting?

Bryant: Absolutely. I needed to find a way to have the sourcing to get the book. So my whole career was shaped around getting this book. “How do I get it?”

When I was covering technology, I would go down and get some credentials from the A’s and from the Giants and go down to spring training, but doing these hit-or-miss, in-and-out interviews, I didn’t have the relationships with these people to get them to really open up. Therefore, I wasn’t able to get the story the way I really wanted it.

Then the Oakland A’s writer at the Mercury News quit right before Opening Day. It was three days before the season started in 1998. There was an opening and I jumped on it. What I figured was that I would stay on the beat as long as it took me to do the book. And then I ended up enjoying it and as it turned out, things worked out. I got to do the book and I kind of enjoy what I do now.

THT: How long did you cover the A’s?

Bryant: I covered them for three and a half seasons. And then in 2001, I went to the Record in Bergen County to cover the Yankees.

THT: With Bob Klapisch.

Bryant: Yup. Klap was my boy. He and I worked together for a year and a half and then the book came out in September of 2002. Then I went to work for the Boston Herald. “Shut Out” is what got me the job in Boston.

THT: Did you enjoy your first year covering the Sox in Boston?

Bryant: No. Not really, in the sense that coming home to write about a Boston team was a big thing for me. I enjoyed the writing opportunity the Herald gave me, because you get to actually try to write instead of following the beat writer minutiae about Derek Jeter’s sore elbow, which pitcher will receive an extra day of rest, etc.

That was wonderful, because you learn what kind of writer you are, and the eons of distance you must travel before you can even call yourself good. The other stuff, covering the hometown team, for instance, is overrated and distracting. I actually think I became a better reporter by not covering the team I grew up with. There was no instinctive desire one way or the other to take an interest in the final score.

THT: Did you root for the Red Sox growing up?

Bryant: Not really.

THT: Were you a baseball fan?

Bryant: I was a fan. But I rooted for players more than any team. I was a huge Dave Winfield fan.

THT: How long did “Shut Out” take to write?

Bryant: About two and a half years. The best thing that came out of it was that I learned that I really enjoy book writing. Sports writing is fine, but I find myself much more drawn to the human stories in the game. I didn’t find myself drawn to baseball just to be a baseball insider. I like the history of it all. That’s the best part of it. Without that, there is no story.

THT: What makes Boston’s racial dynamic, or racial dilemma, as you often refer to it in “Shut Out,” unique?

Bryant: What makes Boston’s racial history unique is its history. You know, Boston did a real 180 over a hundred-year period. Boston fancied itself as the place that didn’t have the type of difficult racial problems that existed in other northern cities and especially in southern cities. Boston liked to fancy itself during the 1800s, and even in parts of the 1900s, as a place that was beyond the struggles that were taking place in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Birmingham and all these other places.

THT: Was this a legitimate claim?

Bryant: It was legitimate in the sense that Boston had a pedigree, sure. In the 1700s and 1800s, hundreds of African Americans in the United States lived better in Boston than they did anywhere else. Boston was a destination of the Underground Railroad. Boston was a place that, if you were black during slave days, that you wanted to go to because you were afforded a level of freedom that you really weren’t in places like New York, Philly, or in the the south.

So Boston has a proud history. And because of that history, the people here really began to believe that, in more modern times, Boston had been able to escape some of the real difficult elements of Civil Rights. The busing crisis of the 1970s really splashed water in the face of the city that African Americas and white people alike – people of all races in Boston – had been living a real lie. I think the inability of the city to confront the racial dilemma, as I call it, made for an incredibly ugly time in the 1970s.

In fact, the irony of it is that while Boston was a symbol of what not to be terms of race relations in the 1970s, during the ’70s, the same places that the city had collectively turned its nose up at, or looked down their noses at, had already overcome many racial problems. By the ’70s, everywhere else had already dealt with these things head-on, and Boston was still in a real state of denial.

THT: Could you talk about the Jackie Robinson tryout, and the fact that the Red Sox passed over Willie Mays as landmark moments in Red Sox history?

Bryant: They weren’t at first. The reason why the refusal to treat Robinson with any dignity, or the reason why failing to sign Willie Mays was a problem for the Red Sox was because of what they did later. Because not only were they the last team to integrate, but they had horrible problems with black players as the ’60s and ’70s continued. And of course, the ’80s.

That gave the past much more weight. Had the Red Sox integrated in ’52, ’53 along with same lines as every other team, the Jackie Robinson tryout wouldn’t have meant anything. Because no team was going to integrate in 1945. The Red Sox weren’t any different from the Yankees or the Giants or the Dodgers. What gave that tryout weight was what came after, because the Red Sox were in constant conflict with not just African American journalists and white Journalists alike who wanted equality, but also the city statutes and state law.

You had the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination suing the Red Sox on two occasions for not hiring, not only black players, but secretaries, janitors and grounds crew people as well. Because of those histories, you have this paper trail that began to grow and grow and grow. That’s where it all comes from.

THT: It’s ironic then that the Celtics were the first NBA team to integrate.

Bryant: It creates a real contrast, sure. When you look at one team that was incredibly reticent to move forward and then another team, the Celtics, that had broken all of those early taboos, yeah.

THT: In the same town.

Bryant: Sure. You recognize that and say, “Yikes, what’s going on around here.” But at the same time, you have to recognize that the Celtics were a better-run organization than the Red Sox. You really can’t compare the two. The Celtics had their own ironies as well. They were very simple: After being pioneers for all that time in the ’60s, they were considered the club that didn’t know how to reach black players in the ’80s. They were considered the white fan’s team in the ’80s. The Celtics irony has nothing to do with the Red Sox, but plenty to do with the city. You could do a book very similar to mine about the Celtics instead of the Red Sox.

THT: I thought it was striking how different Bill Russell and Pumpsie Green were. Especially since Russell took Green under his wing.

Bryant: Well Russell befriended everybody. You know Russell was like Jackie Robinson. He was a God to the black players during those times because he was so accomplished and he was so polished. And he came first. He looked at it as part of his duties to help the younger players out so that they would understand what they could look forward to.

THT: There is a profound moment in the ESPN Sports Century episode on Russell when Bob Cousy spontaneously breaks down crying. Essentially, he was describing what Russell had to go through and he expressed his own guilt or shame for not having recognized it more at the time. It was an incredibly moving and a tribute to the difficulties Russell and other black athletes faced at the time, not only in Boston.

Bryant: Absolutely. You asked me the question as to why the racial dilemma in Boston was unique and it’s because you parallel tracts between city and team. I always make the argument that the city of Boston – still to this day – can be reflected through its sports teams. Very few cities, if any, can say that. I don’t think the Yankees are necessarily a reflection of New York. Maybe the Knicks are the most reflective team of all the clubs in New York City. But most sports teams today are just teams. That’s all they are. But in Boston, they still have weight.

THT: Talk about the change that occurred with the Red Sox when Dick O’Connell became the general manager late in 1965.

Bryant: To me, Dick O’Connell is the most underrated person in Red Sox history. He was the first Red Sox executive to look at the club and make baseball decisions and not crony decisions. That is very significant because at the time the Red Sox were a country club. You know people talk about the Red Sox as one of these landmark franchises, as one of the standards, but you have to remember that in 1964-65, the Red Sox had essentially been a last place team for fifteen years. Tom Yawkey during this period was really trying to move the club. He was fighting with politicians to get a new stadium. People talk about Fenway Park being this gem of a ballpark. Fenway Park was an eyesore to Tom Yawkey in the ’60s.

Between the years 1952 and 1966, Tom Yawkey didn’t really come around the ballpark. He didn’t want anything to do with the Red Sox. He was trying to find a way to gracefully escape the responsibilities of the Red Sox. Then here comes Dick O’Connell and Dick replaces Pinky Higgins, who was a devout racist and he begins to make policy changes, begins to look at this club differently than any Red Sox executive had since the championship days in the ‘teens. And everything changed.

THT: What separated O’Connell from the other men who worked for Tom Yawkey over the years?

Bryant: Well, he wasn’t part of the club. One of the things that hurt Dick O’Connell was that he wasn’t part of the Yawkey Crony Club. He was a Bostonian, he wasn’t from the south. He was never the guy who was invited down to the plantation in South Carolina. He was a different guy. And because he was outside of the club, he was given free reign.

Actually, the best thing that happened to Dick was the fact that the Red Sox were losing and that Tom Yawkey was really disinterested. This lack of interest allowed O’Connell to proceed unfettered. And he brought in guys like Reggie Smith and George Scott and Lonborg. Although he did also trade Earl Wilson.

THT: Not to mention Reggie Smith and Cecil Cooper. But those trades didn’t seem to be racially motivated, right?

Bryant: The Earl Wilson trade was racially motivated because of the incident in Florida, which is in the book. But to me the two most significant Red Sox executives in terms of changing the culture of the Red Sox from bad to good are Dick O’Connell and Dan Duquette.

THT: How did the environment change when Jean Yawkey fired O’Connell?

Bryant: The thing to do when you talk about this book is to not get caught up in the he said-she said of the story. Was Tom Yawkey a racist? Who did this, who said that. If you follow that line of thinking, it’s really a subterfuge. It’s really a way to get people to not think about the club as it looks.

If you are looking for the most damning document of the Red Sox, look at the documents themselves. Look at the decisions that were made in terms of personnel. You asked me about Yawkey and O’Connell in 1976, well as soon as Dick O’Connell was fired in 1976, within two and a half years, by 1979, the Red Sox had one black player and that was Jim Rice.

The Red Sox had not made a move for a single black free agent and they wouldn’t until 1992. After Dick O’Connell got fired the Red Sox were sued by one of their own, Tommy Harper, for racial discrimination. If you look at all that stuff, you don’t really need a great deal else. The information is right there.

THT: The other aspect of the book that was fascinating was the relationship between the press and the Red Sox’ racism.

Bryant: Yeah well, the media in Boston chose to make a deal with itself at the expense of the reader and at the expense of the truth. And that deal was to ignore this part of the story. That’s what they wanted to do, and that’s what happened. There is no way around it.

THT: The relationship between Will McDonough and Peter Gammons was especially interesting.

Bryant: Well, those two guys hated each other. Their hatred for each other manifested itself in the coverage. You could see what was happening by how they treated certain incidents. Will McDonough was a guy who signed onto the Boston Red Sox mantra. He was friends with Joe Cronin, therefore he chose not to look at Joe Cronin’s history; he was friends with John Harrington, so he looked the other way at things that Harrington did.

The same thing holds true for Peter Gammons to a lesser degree. Peter was a guy who rose as the Red Sox rose, you know. Peter’s career went as the Red Sox became a good team again. As the Red Sox became influential, so did he. This is not a coincidence. Let’s face it. We all know what happens when you cross certain people. When you cross these guys, you are going to lose a little bit of access; you are going to lose influence. And how many people are willing to pay that price? Not many.

THT: Out of all the guys you interviewed for the book, which one made the biggest impression on you?

Bryant: Ellis Burks was my favorite. He was great guy to talk to. He was one of the few guys who had the courage to talk about this stuff as an issue. If anything, I was disappointed that the players were the ones put on the spot so much for this story. We shouldn’t be talking to the players about this, we should be talking to the John Harringtons and the Lou Gormans and the guys who were the decision makers who created this culture. The players were simply people passing through in a larger story.

THT: You said that this book is what got you into sportswriting. Now that you’ve written it, were you happy with how it turned out, and where does that leave your career?

Bryant: I really enjoyed the book, and I was happy with the way it turned out. I wish it were my second, third or fifth book because I wouldn’t have made the same mistakes with it. When you learn about publishing. Contractual mistakes, mistakes when it comes to editing. About realizing that there isn’t much of a safety net between the finished product and the work in progress. So yeah, there is a lot you have to learn.

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