What Progress???

By Cecil Harris
Updated: October 31, 2009

NEW YORK — When I joined the New York Yankees beat in 1995, I became the first black sportswriter ever assigned to cover the Yankees full-time (spring training, regular season games, playoff games, home games, road games).

I know that is mere trivia to some people, but it mattered to me. Yet at the same time, I didn’t accept congratulations because it was really an indictment of my profession.

I had done my homework on blacks in the sports media, and I learned about such men as Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American and Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, pioneers who wrote for black-owned weekly newspapers.

Lacy and Smith wrote cogent columns that championed the cause for African-Americans in Major League Baseball before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

Smith helped find black families with whom Jackie and Rachel Robinson could stay in National League cities during an era in which racism precluded a black ballplayer from frequenting the same hotel or restaurant as his white teammates.

I recall the story of how Lacy had actually been barred from the press box at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field because of racism only to have several white sportswriters, including Dick Young, join him during the game on the press box roof in solidarity.

I knew I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to cover Major League Baseball games were it not for men like Lacy and Smith and Art Rust Jr. of the New York Amsterdam News (and later WNBC-TV in New York) and Chuck Johnson of USA Today and Larry Whiteside, a former Boston Red Sox beat writer for The Boston Globe.

Those men opened the door for me.

Nobody ever tried to bar me from the press box. The overt racism of the past is gone, but it’s still extremely rare to find a black beat writer in Major League Baseball.

Why? The overwhelming majority of sports editors at daily newspapers are white men and they tend not to assign blacks to cover baseball. Why? Only those sports editors can answer that. And I know they have not done nearly enough soul searching to formulate a coherent response.

To this day black sportswriters at daily newspapers tend to be segregated into two sports: basketball and boxing.

Black athletes are predominant in both of those sports. But that alone does not explain why black sportswriters at daily papers are steered toward those two sports.

In the National Football League, roughly 70 percent of the players are black. But there aren’t many black football beat writers, either.

Why? Again, only those sports editors can answer that.

I honestly don’t believe any of this will change unless a white sports editor at a prominent daily newspaper does an Al Campanis — he publicly says or writes something so egregiously racist about the lack of racial diversity on the sports staffs of daily newspapers that it shames the industry into taking corrective action.

If I were you, I wouldn’t hold my breath until that happens.

I never had a racial slur directed at me in a press box or anywhere else within a stadium. But once I began to travel outside New York to cover sports events, I sometimes encountered difficulty. The gatekeepers did not recognize my face, so my entering an out-of-town ballpark was not always a guarantee.

I have found over the years that men who are elderly and white often guard the press gate. And an inordinate number of those men are retired police officers or moonlighting police officers.

And generally, their only significant contact with a black man has been as a “collar,” their suspect or detainee. So their antennae become activated, and their pulse probably quickens, when a black man approaches — even a harmless one like me with media credentials.

How do I know this?

Well, the vigor with which these men have sometimes challenged my right to enter a stadium compelled me to find out what they do or have done for a living.

Even after I began wearing my credentials (then a 2-1/4-inch x 3-1/2-inch card from the Baseball Writers Association of America and a credential for that series of games issued by the home team) in a pouch on a chain around my neck, press gate guards would give it a scrutiny far beyond that reserved for white reporters.

Had this happened once or twice, I would have said no big deal. I wouldn’t even be telling you about it. But to be misidentified as a messenger or, worse, an intruder at major league ballparks in Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Oakland, Minneapolis, and Toronto, to name just a few cities, constituted something more insidious than a mere coincidence.

On a Yankees road trip to Minnesota, I sensed my colleagues’ skepticism about the frequency of my difficulty entering stadiums. So five of the eight regular beat writers assigned to cover the Yankees agreed one day to arrive at the Metrodome at the same time (we didn’t always travel from hotel to stadium together) and walk past the guard one by one. Each man would show his credentials to the guard and walk on by. I would go last.

Well, the New York Daily News, Newsday, The Record of Bergen County (New Jersey), and The Star-Ledger of Newark (New Jersey) all went inside without a hitch.

Then in walked the black guy from Gannett-Westchester Newspapers.

“Hey, hey!” the elderly white guard snapped while grabbing my right arm. “Where you goin’?”

My colleagues laughed. The guard clearly had not looked at my credentials at all. He looked only at my skin.

My face, usually a rich brown, probably turned crimson because I could feel it burning, more out of anger than embarrassment.

“He’s one of us,” the Daily News guy told the guard.

Those words seemed to satisfy the guard more than the official media credentials I had on a chain around my neck, no more than a few feet from his nose.

Unfair as this may sound, I still believe I could have walked into the Metrodome that day behind Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and Albert DiSalvo and I would have been the one that guard grabbed for in anger.

It’s all about the hue . . . and the occasionally warped reaction that it engenders.

My colleagues never doubted me again, at least not on that issue. They urged me to complain to the Minnesota Twins organization.

That’s what I hoped they would say. Prior to that episode, I always considered the press gate slights part of the treacherous territory, and I honestly believed no team official would do anything about it unless there were eyewitnesses.

This time I had four. A Twins media relations man apologized. I accepted it and moved on.

That’s as bad as it got for me as a Major League Baseball beat writer, until my final days on the Yankees beat, which in the overall scheme of things, paled in comparison to what Messrs. Lacy and Smith had to bear.