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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

Before Rocker: The Jake Powell Incident
By Chris Christensen

John Rocker's widely reported hate-filled rant directed at women, immigrants, gays, and a teammate he referred to as a "fat monkey"—first revealed in the December 27˝January 3, 2000 issue of Sports Illustratedˇis only the latest instance where the continuing presence of bigotry in our national pastime has briefly attracted the intense glare of the media spotlight. Before Rocker, it was Al Campanis who served as the lightning rod for public outrage over Major League Baseball's institutionalized racism when the then-Dodger general manager, during an April 1987 television interview on Nightline, said, among other things, that blacks "may not have some of the necessities to be . . . a field manager or . . . a general manager."

While Campanis was forced to resign as a result of his comments, baseball did little else to counter the ignorant mind-set that Campanis represented beyond consulting with black activist and sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards and adopting since-ignored policies intended to increase minority hirings in the sport's upper management ranks. In light of baseball's continuing failure to include more than a handful of non-whites within the game's executive positions, it's no surprise that the Rocker incident itself has already acquired the trappings of a soap opera—witness the huge media coverage (with more than three hundred of its members in attendance) focused on the June 29–July 2 Mets vs. Braves series that marked the "return" of Rocker to the New York environs and citizens that were the target of much of his SI tirade.

Rather than serving as an opportunity for baseball to examine and acknowledge its underlying racial issues, the Rocker incident will soon become "old news," and the Braves' relief pitcher viewed as nothing more than a curiosity. One can only hope that Rocker's career does not follow the same tragic, downward spiral as that of another southern-born player who gained infamy for his widely publicized racist remark: Jake Powell.

 

Yankee outfielder Jake Powell, in a 1938 radio interview, made a racially offensive remark, which caused an uproar. As part of his penance, Powell went to Harlem by himself after dark, walked into bar after bar, announced who he was, and bought everyone a drink. Ten years later, he was arrested in Washington, D.C., for passing bad checks. As officers watched in shock, Powell pulled out a gun in the middle of the police station and shot himself to death.
—from The Game That Was: The George Brace Baseball Photo Collection

 

The Powell story resurfaced during the past year in the wake of the Rocker incident, when Murray Chass of the New York Times (among others) reported that Rocker was the first player in baseball history to be suspended for offensive speech. Powell, in fact, was suspended for ten days. (Chass later made a correction.) Just as Rocker's punishment did nothing to address baseball's racial problems, Powell's suspension was also the ultimate in hypocrisy, given that blacks were barred from organized baseball at the time. (The color line wouldn't be broken until 1946 when Jackie Robinson took the field with the Montreal Royals of the International League.)

Unlike reporting in today's instant media age, information about the Powell incident was mostly gleaned from newspaper accounts, many of which contained inaccuracies and exaggerations that quickly became gospel. Repeated and embellished over the past five decades, the Jake Powell story has been viewed historically as merely another case of a racist ballplayer run amuck at a time when segregation was still rampant in the nation and our national pastime. While Powell's bigotry is undeniable, the facts surrounding the incidentˇand his life—suggest a troubled, driven man rather than a virulent race-hater in the image of Cap Anson, Ty Cobb, Ben Chapman, and others who might fill out a roster of baseball's all-time racists.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2000 issue.

CHRIS CHRISTENSEN grew up in Marion, Iowa. He is a regular contributor to Elysian Fields Quarterly, and lives in Portland, Oregon, with Bobbie Savitz and their cat, Gretta.

© 2000 Chris Christensen

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