Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Curt

Curt Schilling, the bloody-sock hero of the 2004 Red Sox, says he’s leaving Massachusetts for Tennessee, where he expects that people won’t be so mean to him. I’ve never been to Tennessee, but I hope people there aren’t as racist, transphobic and full of hate as Schilling has become over the years.

In 2017, Travis Waldron wrote an excellent in-depth piece for HuffPost on Schilling’s descent from apparently normal conservative in his playing days and the immediate aftermath into an all-purpose terrible person.

Yes, Curt Schilling should be in the Hall of Fame

Curt Schilling in better days. Photo (cc) 2007 by Andrew Malone.

We have a good discussion under way on Facebook about whether Curt Schilling should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I say yes, even though he’s devolved into a terrible human being who’s mocked trans people and joked about journalists being murdered in the years since his playing days ended.

The argument against Schilling, one of the great post-season clutch pitchers, is that the Hall of Fame has a character clause, and there’s no doubt that the Schilling of today is someone of exceedingly poor character. But the clause should pertain to how he conducted himself as a player. Schilling always respected the game, unlike cheaters such as Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Pete Rose. With Clemens, it wasn’t just steroids; it was also his adolescent meltdown in the 1990 playoffs. Clemens was thrown out, and the Red Sox lost the game and the series. Of course, that probably would have happened anyway given Clemens’ miserable record in big games.

Sean McAdam of the Boston Sports Journal wrote a terrific piece the other day about the man Schilling used to be before becoming a deranged right-wing extremist. I was particularly struck by McAdam’s account of Schilling’s leadership in awarding full shares of the team’s 2004 World Series money to low-paid clubhouse attendants and the like. Here’s how McAdam put it:

After the fact, I was told that Schilling was behind the gesture. (For those suspicious that Schilling was the source of this information, he was not). He argued that for the players, the difference between a full share of, say, $300,000 and $250,000 was minuscule, relatively speaking. But by including more non-players in the distribution of full shares, they could impact the lives of so many who didn’t make seven- and eight-figure annual salaries.

Indeed, some bought houses, paid off mortgages or paid tuition bills with that money. And indirectly, they have Schilling to thank.

None of us knows what happened to Schilling. Obviously something went haywire along the way. In some respects his Hall of Fame credentials are borderline, and we can only imagine the unhinged speech he’d give at Cooperstown if he were actually inducted. But that shouldn’t enter into it. He deserves a plaque.

Hank Aaron could have played in Boston — and he’s still the true home-run king

Hank Aaron. Photo (cc) 2015 by David Valdez.

Imagine if the Braves had never left Boston. The great Hank Aaron, whose death at the age of 86 was announced Friday, might have played here. Of course, Boston was a notoriously racist city when Aaron was playing, and we still have plenty of problems. But it’s interesting to ponder what might have been.

Like many fans, I remember watching the Braves as Aaron approached and then surpassed Babe Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable record of 714 in 1974. Braves games were carried on national TV during Aaron’s pursuit, which meant that the entire country could watch. Sadly, the obits all go into some detail about the hate to which Aaron was subjected for having the temerity to break a white man’s record.

On Friday, Twitter was abuzz with the possibility that Major League Baseball’s recent decision to regard the Negro League as “major” might mean that Aaron’s final home-run total of 755 would be revised upward — conceivably by enough to pass Barry Bonds’ steroid-tainted 762. But apparently that’s not going to happen. Mike Oz of Yahoo Sports addressed the matter in December:

One thing that would have caused a tectonic shift in the record books was if Hank Aaron’s 1952 season in the Negro Leagues counted. He hit either eight or nine home runs that season, depending on the source, but Barry Bonds sits atop the all-time home run leaderboard by seven, so either one of those being accepted would have made Hank No. 1 again.

Alas, the 1948 cutoff was chosen because most of the top talent fled the Negro Leagues after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, making the leagues more like the minor leagues than the majors by the time Aaron arrived.

That’s a shame, and maybe MLB will revisit the issue. Either way, though, Henry Aaron will always be the truth home-run king.

Sports and justice

The question is what else will and should the players do beyond boycotting games? The NBA has some real leaders, from LeBron James to Jaylen Brown. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

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Rashida Tlaib and the perils of our first-across-the-finish-line elections

Photo (cc) 2008 by H2Whoa!

I was reading a New York Times story about a serious primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib when I came across this sentence: “Had the 2018 primary been a head-to-head race, many believe Ms. Jones would have prevailed.” Jones is Brenda Jones, the Black president of the Detroit City Council, against whom Tlaib is running once again. I decided to look a little more deeply to find out what had happened.

Tlaib, as you no doubt know, is a member of “the squad” — four progressive women of color, all Democrats, who were elected to the House in 2018. (The others are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley.) What I didn’t know was that Tlaib’s brief political career stands out as an example of what’s wrong with our first-across-the-finish-line method of determining elections.

Tlaib first ran in a special election to replace John Conyers, who resigned following charges of sexual harassment. She came in second in a multi-candidate field. Jones, the winner of the Democratic primary, received 37.7% of the vote, becoming the acting congresswoman. (In Tlaib’s district, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the election.) Tlaib came in second with 35.9%

A few months later, another primary was held to choose a regular replacement for Conyers. This time, in a five-candidate field, Tlaib finished first, with 31.2%, and Jones came in second, with 30.2% Note that Tlaib’s support had actually dropped nearly five points since the special election. About 69% of voters cast ballots for someone other than Tlaib. But she was declared the winner, which is how it works under our system.

According to Ballotpedia, the 2020 primary, which will be held Aug. 4, will feature just two candidates, Tlaib and Jones, thus guaranteeing that the winner will receive a majority. That’s the way it should be. If no candidate receives a majority, then there ought to be a runoff election between the top two finishers or ranked-choice voting. (I wrote about ranked choice, also known as instant-runoff voting, and other election reforms for WGBH News in 2018.)

In any case, this will be an interesting primary to keep an eye on. The outspoken Tlaib, who’s Palestinian-American, is, along with Omar, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Jones represents a more moderate African American constituency.

At least this time, we’ll have a chance of finding out whom voters actually prefer.

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There’s a context for what happened to Adam Jones. We need to put a stop to it.

There’s a context for the racial taunts directed at Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones at Fenway Park during Monday night’s game. After all, we had just learned that a Trump supporter from Winchester, one of the wealthiest communities in the state, had written a letter to his community weekly complaining about those “Hate Has No Home Here” signs that have popped up here and there (including in front of our house).

“It is offensive to imply that the rest of us — who don’t have a sign and who don’t think the way you think we should — are haters,” wrote John Natale in the Winchester Star. “That’s insulting.” It was a breathtaking display of cluelessness and insensitivity. And we never would have heard about it if a seventh-grader’s righteous response hadn’t gone viral.

There has been an enormous amount of commentary about the Fenway Park incident in the past few days. Here are three you ought to take a look at.

  • In The Boston Globe (owned by Red Sox principal owner John Henry), columnist Adrian Walker wonders why more steps haven’t been taken to curb racist fans. “Bad behavior can be stopped,” writes Walker. Indeed. As we have been reminded, Boston is one of the most inhospitable cities in the country for visiting black players. It’s disgusting. I’m glad that fans gave Jones a standing ovation Tuesday night, but it shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.
  • In the Boston Herald, sports columnist Steve Buckley gives Red Sox president Sam Kennedy high marks for acting decisively but criticizes him for blaming the problem on “an ignorant few.” Buckley’s response: “Every time the ignorant few do their handiwork, another episode of ‘Boston is a Racist City’ gets played out on the national stage.” It may be an ignorant few who drunkenly spew the N-word in public, but something is making them feel empowered to do it.
  • At WBZ Radio (1030 AM), Jon Keller draws a distinction between “real Bostonians” and “fake Bostonians.” The trouble is, though real Bostonians would never engage in racist taunting, they’re not doing enough to stop it, either. Says Keller: “Time for the real Bostonians to do more to see to it that the fakers are exposed, isolated and shamed.”

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Remembering Muhammad Ali

Malcolm X photographs Muhammad Ali after his first defeat of Sonny Liston. Photo via Wikipedia.

There was a time when those of us in our 50s and 60s cared about boxing. The one and only reason for that was Muhammad Ali, who died Friday at the age of 74. Ali was a great boxer, but it was his persona that made him so appealing: smart, funny, antiwar, an outspoken voice against racism.

I was not a huge boxing fan. Besides, in those days boxing was a big business, and you couldn’t see major bouts without paying money to watch it on closed-circuit TV in a movie theater. I never did that. But I remember organizing a betting pool among my fellow ninth-graders in Middleborough for the first fight between Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971.

My most vivid Ali memory also did not involve seeing him actually fight. His epic battle with George Foreman in what is now Congo took place on the night that I attended my first Bruce Springsteen concert—October 30, 1974. Everyone was convinced that Foreman would crush the aging, smaller Ali. After three and a half thrilling, exhausting hours of the 25-year-old Bruce, the promoter came out at 12:30 a.m. to announce that Ali had won. Pandemonium ensued.

No one cares about boxing anymore, and I think Ali had a lot to do with that, too. When he was young, it seemed as though he never even got hit. In the latter stages of his career, unfortunately, his strategy—as in the Foreman fight—was to absorb a terrible beating, and then to come out swinging once his opponent was exhausted. It almost certainly led to his Parkinson’s, and it’s a big reason why boxing has moved off center stage and into the shadows.

You have to wonder if football will be next.

Tom Yawkey, racist

Tom Yawkey and his wife, Jean, at Fenway Park in the 1930s. Photo (cc) by the Boston Public Library
Tom Yawkey and his wife, Jean, at Fenway Park in the 1930s. Photo (cc) by the Boston Public Library

Excellent column by noted baseball fan Adrian Walker in today’s Boston Globe on the racism of the late Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey. Somewhere in the mists of my memory I seem to recall that when the Sox finally did sign their first black ballplayer, Pumpsie Green, Yawkey’s reaction was: “They really do have funny names, don’t they?”

Walker suggests that both Yawkey Way and the MBTA’s Yawkey Station be named for Ted Williams, who not only was “racially enlightened,” as Walker writes, but was also perhaps the greatest Latino player in major-league history.

Sounds like a good idea to me. But as an alternative, why not rename Yawkey Way for Williams and the T station for Jim Rice, a Hall of Famer and an African-American? Rice was the team’s best player at a time when Boston was considered the most racist city in America. Yet, incredibly, he was often criticized around here for his all-business demeanor and his frosty relations with the media.

Charles Fountain’s colorful new take on the 1919 Black Sox

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Print the legend?

Charles Fountain doesn’t.

Meticulously researched and colorfully written, his new book, “The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball” (Oxford University Press, 290 pages, $27.95), offers a host of new information about the often-told 1919 Chicago Black Sox saga.

He’s unearthed a ton of fresh material, including the papers of American League founder Ban Johnson and the files of cover-up maestro Alfred Austrian.

Fountain, a long-time Northeastern University School of Journalism friend and colleague, sorts through the myriad versions of how and why the World Series was fixed, never resorting to easy conclusions. He separates what’s ain’t from what’s so. When the facts are murky, he’s content to present — not pontificate.

This tapestry of baseball and social history encompasses 19th-century game-throwing, the 1920s melange of politics, sports and gambling, and colorful portraits of legendary lawyers and sportswriters.

61zSPKXvyGL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_We learn that “hippodroming” — game-fixing — is as old as organized baseball itself, as supposed amateurs took “sporting men”’s money to drop flies and strike out. And we see the machinations of White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis as they try to contain and manipulate the burgeoning Black Sox scandal.

Fountain, the author of two well-received sports books (on famed scribe Grantland Rice and on the history of spring training), is especially good on tracing the incestuous relationships between writers and their subjects — and on the wink-and-nod clubbiness and vicious newspaper competition that prevented the biggest baseball story of the (or perhaps any) era from leaking earlier.

“The Betrayal” is a treasure trove of bizarre incidents, including Keystone Kops detective efforts fueled with Scotch, fishing trips and apartment-sharing with a conspirator’s paramour. There are vignettes galore about larger-than-life characters like lawyer-jury rigger William Fallon and criminal mastermind Arnold Rothstein.  Fountain even manages to bring in “Jazz Age siren” Peggy Hopkins Joyce for a cameo.

Fountain also offers a reporting primer. The criminal trial of seven players and four gamblers began in torrid heat. How hot? Ninety-four degrees. (Fountain looked up that day’s weather report.)

From Attell (Abe: boxer, bagman and one of the saga’s host of double-crossers) to Zork (Carl: gambler and plotter), “The Betrayal” is a richly detailed page-turner.

There’s only one real rattlesnake here but plenty of two-legged ones in executive offices and judicial robes — as well as in dugouts.

“The Betrayal” is a must-read for anyone interested in American sports, morality and justice — and how they occasionally mesh.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

A few thoughts on the Deflategate decision

Tom_Brady_vs._Vikings_2014
Tom Brady in 2014. Photo (cc) by Andrew Campbell. Some rights reserved.

We’ve had a lively discussion of this on Facebook, so I thought I’d post it here as well.

My first reaction to Deflategate was that Tom Brady was responsible. I based my opinion on his refusal to defend himself beyond a few vague statements. He said nothing after the Wells Report came out. I also had no idea the commissioner’s office was so corrupt — not too strong a word.

I changed my mind after we learned that Brady had denied under oath that he had any involvement or knowledge of footballs being deflated. Not only do I have no reason to think Brady is the sort of person who’d lie under oath, but he gave that statement knowing that Lenny and Squiggy could emerge from their lair and contradict him.

I see Judge Richard Berman’s ruling as total vindication. I know he had to be careful in ruling on narrow legal grounds rather than on the facts, but the facts mattered. He asked a lot of factual questions during the hearings, and of course he was well aware of Brady’s denial. There’s also the matter of the false ESPN report — clearly a smear job by the NFL. I can’t prove this, but I believe that if Berman thought Brady was responsible, he might have knocked the suspension down to two games on procedural grounds but wouldn’t have vacated it entirely. Judges are human, and they can’t help but let the facts influence their legal rulings. (And what’s wrong with that?)

Goodell now says he’s going to appeal. Frankly, the best outcome would be if the NFL owners decided he should spend more time with his family. What a clown.

I’m not even a football fan, but I’m glad Brady won. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Berman’s ruling legitimizes the Patriots’ championship. I never would have believed it, but the NFL really was out to get them.

As for all the media attention this has gotten, so what? I’ve heard a lot of comments along the lines of “this is so unimportant given what’s going on in the world.” Well, sports is a combination of entertainment and culture, and it’s something a lot of us follow — along with the presidential campaign and the horrors of ISIS and the refugee crisis in Europe. We all care about many different things. I’m not going to criticize anyone for caring about this. I care too.