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Fenway at 100: Howard Bryant on the Red Sox and race

ShutoutIt is not a requirement that you be a Red Sox fan to work at Beacon Press, but it let's just say that it helps. There are many Fenway faithful around our offices, and we are fans who must live with the complicated, not always admirable, history of our favorite team. And, ten years ago, we published a great book that addressed the team's history of racism.

The author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston is Howard Bryant, a native Bostonian who has since gone on to become a senior writer at ESPN and correspondent for National Public Radio. Shut Out won Spitball Magazine's Casey Jones Award for best baseball book of 2002, and he has also written two other acclaimed books on baseball: Juicing the Game and The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. When his book on Hank Aaron was released in 2010, we interviewed Bryant in the Beacon offices about his life as a baseball fan. We share that interview today in honor of Fenway Park's 100th birthday. 

Fenway seemed to be a pretty hostile place to non-white fans.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, the adults, the black adults in Dorchester, never went to Fenway Park. When we were kids, we never went to Fenway Park. And this was in the 1970s, when the Red Sox were really, really good. They were a great team--they went to the World Series in 1975. And yet, I'd never been to a baseball game.

And it wasn't until my family moved to Plymouth, fifty miles south of Boston, where you're in a predominantly white community, where the Red Sox were actually part of the family. Where you would go to games as part of your summer vacation. And I remember, when I got older, asking my aunts and uncles, why didn't they go to Fenway Park. And they told me--it was because it was a hostile place. And I remember one uncle, my Uncle Charles said to me one day, "Why would I go somewhere where I know I'm gonna get beaten up?" And that was quite a comment to me.

ThelastheroAnd today, under John Henry and Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner, I think they're cognizant of that. And I think today, when you go to a Red Sox game, that feeling of hostility is not there. I think that you have--you don't have great diversity because at very few sporting venues across the country are you going to have great diversity. But, at least when you walk in there as an African-American or as a woman or as any minority group, I don't think that you're going to go into a place where you don't feel comfortable. I think the Red Sox are trying very, very hard to make Boston baseball belong to everyone.

Do you want to talk about the fan bases about Red Sox vs. Yankees? How do you feel the Red Sox legacy affects the fan base? 

I'm sure it will be pretty embarrassing, and my friends probably not want to hear this, but they already know it because they lived it with me. When I was a kid, growing up in Boston and later in Plymouth on the South Shore, I was a Yankee fan. I will say it, it is true. And the reason was because, even today, as a journalist it's the same thing, I never rooted for teams as much as I rooted for players, and my favorite player was Dave Winfield. And the reason that I liked Dave Winfield was because as a young, African-American boy, I really was in need of role models. Of seeing someone confident, and Winfield was such a confident player. He looked like he never bowed his head to anybody. And he swung the bat with such confidence, he played in the field and he did so many things that you wanted to emulate.

And then, the black stars on the Red Sox always seemed so burdened. They always seemed as if they didn't feel so comfortable. They were always brooding in some ways. Oil Can Boyd had a very difficult time here. Jim Rice, naturally, had a difficult time in Boston. And Ellis Burks had a difficult time in Boston. And so, there were players that you really wanted to root for, and I rooted for all those guys, but they just never seemed happy. Winfield seemed happy, and I said, "That's my guy." So I ended up rooting for the Yankees.

I think that that is changing slightly, but not much, because the Red Sox haven't really developed African-American players since. So you don't have that evolution in terms of African-American players, but you have it with the Latino players. David Ortiz, for example, is as ebullient and fun-loving and wonderful a character as the city's ever had. Ditto for Pedro Martinez, and the same, in his own, wacky way for Manny Ramirez. So, you have that person of color who enjoys playing here, but it's been very specific to the African-American experience that the black player did not have as good, as comfortable an experience playing in Boston. So I'd like to say that that part of it is changing, but I haven't seen much evidence of it.

In Boston today, do you still see some of the racial issues that you talk about in Shut Out?

I think one of the amazing things about the city of Boston is its history, its evolution, and I think one of the things that I really enjoyed about doing that project was taking the time to look at the different issues in the city and see how they would play out over time. The book came out in 2002, and in the years since, so much has changed in Boston, both in the Red Sox and their ownership, and the fact that they've won two championships since then. And also, in the city itself. I think Boston has become much more of a money city. I'm not sure that this is all a good thing. I think on the one hand, as a native Bostonian, I liked the diversity of the city and I like the rough edges of the city even if, sometimes, those rough edges stung, they hurt. I think that today, because you have to earn so much money to make ends meet in Boston, that the city has lost a little bit of that ethnic flavor that made it so special. On the one hand, this is a good thing, because it's a much more tolerant city, it's a much more diverse city, it's got much better food. And I think that it makes for a more inclusive city. On the other hand, it can be bad because Boston is not the Boston that we knew before. Boston is not the same city that I remember growing up and that my dad remembers growing up. The neighborhoods have lost a little bit of that specialness that made the North End the North End, or South Boston... or Roxbury... but the one thing we do know is that the city is going to constantly be changing. Some of it's going to be for the better, and, on balance, I think it's a better place than it's ever been.