The Boston ‘White’ Sox, Tiger Woods, & Representing Race in American Sports

After reading Sharon O’Brien’s piece on the ethnic and racial history of the Boston Red Sox, I was shocked to discover that my hometown squad was the last team in Major League Baseball history to integrate. Growing up in a suburb just outside of Boston, I became a Red Sox fan at a very early age. The first professional sporting event I ever attended was a game at Fenway Park. As I grew older, I began to follow the team religiously, closely studying the makeup of the roster each year and slowly learning more and more about the franchise’s heartbreaking reputation as the team that, in my father’s words, could be counted on to “always snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Until reading this paper, I felt that I had a relatively comprehensive understanding of the history of the Boston Red Sox. After all, as O’Brien astutely points out, “When you grow up in New England, you grow up with stories about why the Red Sox haven’t won the World Series since 1903—why the team is doomed, why a black cloud hangs over Fenway.” And none of these stories had anything to do with racism. Needless to say, seeing the projected All-Star lineup for the Red Sox in 1950 – which could have included Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, and Ted Williams had Boston started signing African-American players sooner – was incredibly painful.

The fact that, even now, in 2013, the Boston Red Sox official 100th Year Anniversary timeline omits any mention of Pumspie Green – the franchise’s first ever African-American player – is, quite frankly, embarrassing. Even more embarrassing is the fact that, upon further inspection, I found research that suggests that the Red Sox did not employ a single African-American, in any capacity, until 1959. There were no Black janitors, ushers, groundskeepers, or secretaries, let alone players. The organization was exclusively white.

Still, the current Red Sox ownership group has used Green as a trophy, flying him into town on several occasions to throw ceremonial first pitches and, consequently, flaunting him as a symbol of triumph; a critical first. But what is there to celebrate? Being the last team to integrate is a milestone that no organization should ever want to be saddled with. Yet this is, arguably, one of the best-kept dark secrets in all of professional sports. How? Because of the influence of big business on professional sports; because the media and large corporations (if you can call a baseball team a corporation) have become experts at calculatedly portraying messages that are specifically tailored to market athletes, massage negatives into positives, and – in the case of the Red Sox – erase history.

Similarly, Henry Yu’s piece on Tiger Woods addresses the fact that the media and major sponsors of the PGA tour consciously constructed Tiger Woods’ racial identity as an African-American and specifically highlighted it in order “to paint Tiger in a darker shade… pulling for [him] to be a heroic black man who would save America from its racist past.” Although Nike, for instance, portrayed Woods as an African-American to directly combat the history of racial exclusivity within the sport of golf, Tiger Woods’ sponsors largely failed to tap into his potential to be used as a vehicle for racial diversity by classifying and marketing Woods as solely “black.” Yet, according to an article cited in Yu’s piece, Tiger Woods’ father was “a quarter native American, a quarter Chinese and half African American” and his mother was “half Thai, a quarter Chinese and a quarter white.”

Maybe Yu put it best when he wrote: “As the sports star progeny of the black military hero and the Asian wife picked up in the United States’ foray into Vietnam, Tiger Woods might have seemed to be an ideal symbol of racial diversity that went beyond black and white.” But, unfortunately, the racial identity that the media chose for Tiger Woods “did not quite manage to represent the complexity of Tiger.” Having such a mixed ethic background, the potential was there for Woods to become a symbol for diversity and inclusion in sports. But, instead of capitalizing on this rare opportunity to promote social growth, his sponsors opted to focus on the value of marketing Woods as an African-American hero fighting against the adverse conditions of competing in a predominantly white sport. Golf and its sponsors took the easy way out.

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