A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
The Jake Powell Incident
NEW HAVEN, Ct. — While many fans and media members were shocked at the racially charged comments made by former KNBR radio talk-show host Larry Krueger back in 2005, it really should come to no surprise that the sport of baseball has had a history of bigoted comments made against minority ballplayers.
Despite the contributions and great legacy that several African-American and Hispanic ballplayers have left in the “national pastime”, those same players have been the target of numerous unflattering comments tinged with a more than a bit of racism.
While many remember the comments of an Al Campanis or a John Rocker, one such incident in 1938 may have been the most notorious. Before a game against the Chicago White Sox in July of that season, New York Yankee reserve outfielder Jake Powell was being interviewed by WGN broadcaster Bob Elson.
Powell, who had the reputation of being a hothead, was asked by Elson how he kept fit during the off season. The Dayton, Ohio resident responded by saying “Oh, that’s easy. I’m a policeman and I beat niggers over the head with my blackjack while on my beat”.
The station was immediately swamped with angry phone calls by both black and white listeners. An embarrassed Elson issued a public apology the next day Speaking to the Chicago Defender, Elson said “I want to repeat that the remarks by Mr. Powell were as offensive to me as it was to many of my good friends”.
Despite his actions, some in the media tried to defend Powell’s comments. The Sporting News, which was known as the “Bible of Baseball” during the day went so far as to blame the pre-game interview process itself.
The newspaper stated ““The player’s mind, naturally, is on the game in which he is about to participate, and his ‘ad lib’ comments in these interviews frequently lead him to indiscreet remarks, which he would not make, if given an opportunity to think, or if furnished a script”.
They also took the position that “baseball players were so stupid, or so bigoted, that they couldn’t help embarrassing themselves if allowed to voice their unedited thoughts over the radio”.
Powell was promptly suspended for ten days by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who described the ballplayer as acting not “intentionally, but carelessly.” However, there were some that found Judge Landis’ actions hypocritical given the Commissioner’s role in the “gentleman’s agreement” that kept African-American’s out of the sport.
One white columnist, Westbrook Pegler of the Chicago Daily News , accused Landis of attempting to “placate the colored clientele of a business which trades under the name of the national game, but has always treated the Negroes as Adolf Hitler treats the Jews.” The legendary writer Wendell Smith added that “Major League Baseball will offer the Powell incident as an example of their deep sincerity. However, we all know that he’s being used a pawn by the Commissioner and by the Yankees, who were set to send him down to the minors because of his history of foul play and unsportsmanlike conduct since joining the team”.
During an August 20 visit to the New York office of the Chicago Defender , Powell issued an apology which read in part: “Honest, you can believe me when I say I regret the slur as I had no intention to hurt anyone, or their feelings”.
“Members of the Negro race have helped to earn my bread and butter and no one knows that better than I do. . . . I have two members of your race taking care of my home while myself and wife are away and I think they are two of the finest people in the world. I do hundreds of favors for them daily.” When Powell returned to the Yankee lineup on August 16 at Washington, fans threw bottles at him as he stood in the outfield. Over the next three years, Powell would play a total of 12 games for the Yankees before being traded (ironically, to the Senators) in 1943.
Powell remained in the majors until 1945. Three years later, he was arrested in Washington, DC for passing bad checks. While in the police station, the former Dayton policeman shot himself to death. He was forty years old.
The Powell incident remains as another one of many racially charged chapters in the not only baseball history, but social history as well.
NOTE: Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game 1933-1953, BostonBaseball.com, and the Baseball Library all contributed to this story.