New York, NY A story came and went last week without being the subject of any serious analysis. Current Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker claimed that someone defecated in the Cubs dugout in the place where he usually stood during games when he managed the Chicago team sometime at the end of the 2006 season – which was his last on the North Side.
In a story about the struggles of trying to win on the North Side, Baker told (Jon Paul Morosi at) FOX Sports “At the very end, somebody took a dump right where I stood in the dugout every day, That was the low point. The grounds crew guy cleaned it up. He said, ‘Oh, I think it’s dog crap.’ I said, ‘No it ain’t. That’s human crap.’” Baker said the “crap” incidents happened around the same time he was receiving racially-charged phone calls and letters.
Baker said Monday’s interview was the first time he had discussed the incident publicly. He doesn’t know who the perpetrator was. The episode occurred around the same time that Baker received menacing â€” and often racially charged â€” letters and telephone calls. But Baker, now the Cincinnati Reds manager, has moved on.
Well, it’s pretty obvious that Dusty Baker has not moved on if he cares to tell a reporter about an incident from September of 2006 in Chicago. But why would this matter upset him so? What may have triggered his reaction?
Boston Celtic Hall of Fame center Bill Russell may be the starting point in this exercise. Russell, despite his success as a player and a coach, was not welcome in the Boston suburbs that he dared to call home. Russell had the gall to move to Reading, a white suburban enclave.
While he was stacking up 11 championships in 13 seasons â€” making the Celtics the envy of the sports world in the post-Babe Ruth era â€” a group of white hooligans broke into Russell’s home and defecated in his bed as part of an unending campaign to drive him out of their homogenous neighborhood
Russell, who just this month received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, acted as a guide to young African-American athletes when they came to Boston, according to the book “Shut Out” by Howard Bryant. He did this for infielder Pumpsie Green, the first African-American player for the Red Sox (Boston was the last team to integrate, as Green joined the team in 1959, a full twelve years after Jackie Robinson first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers).
He also talked with a young and talented outfielder who grew up in Compton named Reggie Smith. On page 91 of “Shut Out”, Bryant describes how “Smith gravitated towards Russell’s special energy”. Much like Russell, Smith did not back down or hold his tongue.
Smith was eventually traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. Oone reason given is that Smith answered “yes” when a reporter asked him if Boston was a racist city. Reggie also took exception when a Red Sox official said that he had “the kind of body that could last a long time in baseball. Blacks have the kind of body”.
He was later traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Who would be his teammate on the West Coast from 1976 to 1981? Dusty Baker. Baker joined the Dodgers after playing for the Atlanta Braves for eight seasons, where he had a front row seat to see Hank Aaron’s chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record – and the vicious and threatening hate mail Aaron received for having the temerity of trying to overtake a white man’s mark.
I am sure that Smith and Baker talked about these issues, as many African-American players discussed race in baseball, and especially race as it related to playing Boston – as a visiting player or as a home town player. I was able to hear Smith and Frank Robinson talk about this touchy subject during spring training in 1982, when Robinson was managing the Giants. (To complete the circle, Frank Robinson was a high school basketball teammate at McClymonds High School in Oakland of Bill Russell, and Vada Pinson and Curt Flood were Robinson’s fellow outfielders at “The Mack”.)
The experiences and stories told by Bill Russell surely went from Reggie Smith to Dusty Baker, and a story like the defecation on Bill Russell’s bed definitely was passed on to numerous African-American athletes. Also, if these men read E.L. Doctorw’s book “Ragtime”, they would see that defecation (in this case, on Coalhouse Walker’s car by the white firemen) was a way to put “uppity” African-Americans in their place. Perhaps they saw that this method of insult is still happening today at the cemetery where legendary opera singer Marian Anderson, who was once denied the ability to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington, is buried outside of Philadelphia?
Defecating on a star African-American’s athlete’s bed, racial threats and vile taunts are unfortunately part of the actual history that Russell, Smith, Aaron, Baker and Robinson experienced and shared. It may not have been a racially motivated incident, but institutional memories, contemporaneous racist mail and popular culture could justifability create the perception of racism. Dusty’s perception is his reality, and there is enough reality and social context in our past that would make him unwilling to let go of this event.