A Black Eye For Baseball

By Tony McClean, BASN Editor In Chief
Updated: July 29, 2007
EDITOR’S NOTE: In light of the recent comments of Baltimore Oriole Luke Scott, BASN decides to re-run a story that first appeared on the site in the summer of 2005 and was updated just earlier this year regarding racial remarks by the late Jake Powell.
NEW HAVEN, Ct. (BASN) — Back in August of 2005, just a few days after the Larry Krueger “brain dead Dominicans” controversy hit the national airwaves, I penned a story about a previously similar racial incident from the 1930’s.

In “The Jake Powell Incident”, I wrote about some racial comments the former New York Yankee made on a radio broadcast back in 1938. Before a game against the Chicago White Sox in July of that season, Powell was being interviewed by WGN broadcaster Bob Elson.

Powell 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”.

Powell was promptly suspended for ten days by Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who described the ballplayer as acting not “intentionally, but carelessly.”

The basic premise of the story has been well circulated over the years and BASN has re-run the story at least once since its original appearance. However, an e-mail I received back in 2007 has shed a slightly different light on the late Mr. Powell and how the incident was reported.

It came from Mr. Jim Wheeler, a retired police sergeant from Dayton, Ohio and a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). He stated in his e-mail that in fact, Powell was never a Dayton police officer.

“This story came up in locally the mid-90’s when I happened to be assigned to the Chief’s Office on a special project”, Wheeler states.

“Also being a SABR member, his (Powell’s) claim interested me as a police officer position in Dayton has always been a Civil Service position and there have never been part-time officers.”

“I ran this story by our Chief at the time, Ronald Lowe (now deceased) and asked for permission to investigate Powell’s claim. Lowe, who is also an African-American, was very interested in the story and directed me to look into Powell’s claim.”

Wheeler adds that the City Personal Department checked all of the personal records and payroll records back to the time of Powell’s claim, and no record of Powell was found either as a City of Dayton Police Officer or a City of Dayton employee.

In fact, no mention of Powell’s name appears in any official police reports nor could anyone recall any employee by that name.

“I also placed a small letter to the editor under the name of Chief Lowe in the Dayton Daily News, explaining to the community that Powell never was a Dayton Police Officer”, said Wheeler.

“The responses that were received from several former co-workers of Powell’s were telling in what the truth actually was.”

According to reports, Powell actually worked during the off-season in one of the large GM auto plants in Dayton and was employed as a security guard at the plant.

This was the basis of Powell calling himself a Dayton Police Officer and not any actual employment with the City of Dayton. “Interestingly enough, one of Powell’s co-workers contacted me by phone and indicated that Powell was a braggart and liked pushing people around with his “authority” at the plant”, said Wheeler.

Wheeler added that in 1999, a fellow SABR member and college professor, Chris Lamb wrote an exhaustive and scholarly review of the entire Powell Incident focusing on the differences in the reporting of the story between the white and black press of the time.

Mr. Lamb’s article is called ” L’Affairre Jake Powell: The Minority Press Goes to Bat against Segregated Baseball.” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 76, No .1 (1999). Surprisingly, it was the black press that had investigated Powell’s claim and found it to be false.

Wheeler added, “The story appears to always live on as it is far more salacious to believe that Powell actually was a police officer rather than a simple plant security guard.”

“I like to refer to the Powell Incident as a “toothpaste story” in the fact much like that you cannot put squeezed toothpaste back into the tube. Sometimes an incorrect story has a life of its own regardless of attempts to get the facts straight.”

Wheeler added that in this day and age of sensationalism in the media (be it sports or otherwise), BASN did its due diligence in reporting the story as the sources indicated. But with this creature called the Internet, who knows what is actually fact or fiction.

As a national news gathering organization, we here at BASN pride ourselves on accuracy and fairness. In doing this follow-up on a racially charged story whose impact is still being felt, we feel that we have given the reader and those others involved in the story the accuracy, fairness, and balance that they deserve.

We also thank Mr. Wheeler and others for their contributions in helping us seek that much desired goal.

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