Commentary

Bigot unwittingly sparked change

Jake Powell's racist words started a dialogue in segregated baseball

Updated: February 22, 2014, 12:27 AM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN.com

Jake PowellESPN IllustrationJake Powell used a racial epithet while saying he beat black people to keep in shape.

He batted in the middle of an order that included Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey and Tony Lazzeri. He was a ballhawk in center, a threat to steal on the bases and a .455 hitter in the 1936 World Series, when the Yankees beat the Giants of Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott and Bill Terry in six games.

But Jake Powell should be less remembered for what he did on the baseball field than for what he said during a dugout interview before a Yankee game at Chicago's Comiskey Park on July 29, 1938.

Asked by WGN radio announcer Bob Elson how he stayed in shape during the offseason, Powell told Elson that he was a policeman in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, and "I beat n-----s over the head with my blackjack."

That remark ignited a nationwide uproar that would force commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to suspend Powell for 10 days. According to the legendary sportswriter Red Smith, the outfielder chose an additional penance:

"The next time Powell got to New York he went up to the top end of Harlem. He went alone, after dark. He worked down from north to south, stopping in every saloon he came across. In each, he introduced himself. He said he was Jake Powell and he said that he had made a foolish mistake and that he was sorry. Then he ordered drinks for the crowd and moved on to the next joint."

That account can be found in Smith's classic book, "To Absent Friends," under a passage entitled "A Guy Who Made Mistakes." But that nighttime walk in Harlem was not exactly as it was described, and Powell's claim that he was a Dayton police officer was an outright lie.

Alvin Jake Powell wasn't just "a guy who made mistakes." He was a thief, a gambler, a bigot, a philanderer, a drinker, a prevaricator and a soul so tortured that he ended his own life by shooting himself in a Washington, D.C., police station.

What is true is this: It took a racist like Powell to lay bare the racist hypocrisy of baseball and build support for the integration of baseball. As Chris Lamb, a professor at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis school of journalism, writes in his book, "Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters And The Long Campaign To Desegregate Baseball": "The publicity surrounding the Powell story made it harder -- though obviously not impossible -- for baseball to ignore the issue of race."

Landis and baseball owners had resisted integration both on the field and in the stands for years. But because of the public outcry over Powell's interview and threatened boycotts wherever the Yankees played, Landis and the team had to do something. "Jake Powell was not alone in his opinions," Lamb says. "He just didn't have the impulse control to hide his feelings, or the common sense to know a radio audience might react differently to his wisecrack than teammates and writers might. Basically, though, he was a miserable human being."

[+] EnlargeJake Powell and Job Cronin
AP PhotoJake Powell's faults often were overlooked until he said something so publicly controversial that baseball's commissioner could not then ignore it.

That he was. But because he was also a decent ballplayer, his foibles were usually forgiven. Born and raised in Silver Spring, Md., Powell was scouted and signed by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith. Trouble first surfaced when his Dayton Ducks were in Zanesville, Ohio, and Powell was caught trying to leave his hotel room with a circular fan, the drapes and the bedspread. He returned everything to avoid charges, but his manager said, "He probably would have taken the mattress if he could have got it in his suitcase."

After hitting .361 for Albany in the International League, Powell was promoted by the Senators, even though he was fined $200 for missing the train north from spring training. In his first full season, 1935, he hit a robust .312 with 98 RBIs -- remarkable considering he was being hounded by creditors in Dayton, who eventually threatened to sue the club to settle his debts.

The Yankees also had a problem outfielder, namely Ben Chapman, a virulent anti-Semite who taunted Jewish fans in the Bronx with Nazi salutes. In the spring of '36, sensing that rookie Joe DiMaggio was going to take away his playing time, Chapman demanded to be traded, and in June the Yankees did just that, sending him to the Senators for Powell, who was catching heat for running over Jewish first baseman Hank Greenberg on a routine play and breaking the Tiger slugger's wrist.

In other words, the trade was one miserable human being for another, straight up. Shortly after the deal, Powell collided with Senators first baseman Joe Kuhel, touching off a brawl in which several Senators jumped on their former teammate. When Powell returned to left field, Senators fans threw bottles at him, and he picked them up and threw them back.

In a baseball sense, though, the trade helped both teams: Chapman hit .322 for Washington and made the American League All-Star team, while Powell batted .302 and became a World Series hero. If sportswriters had kept OPS back then, Powell's would have been a gaudy 1.175 in that Series.

For playing on the winning World Series team, Powell received a check for $5,000 -- which he promptly gambled away, Lamb notes.

Powell played in 97 games for the Yankees in 1937, but his average fell to .263 and, just as Chapman was eclipsed by DiMaggio, Powell lost playing time to rookie Tommy Henrich. By 1938 he had become the Yankees' fourth outfielder. He was still a headache, though -- in May of that year he was fined and suspended for three games after getting into a fight with Red Sox player-manager Joe Cronin after Powell was plunked by opposing pitcher Archie McKain.

Elson, the broadcaster who approached Powell for a radio interview after batting practice on July 29, 1938, was hardly a provocateur. He was just a hard-working pro in the middle of a 40-year career that would take him to Cooperstown. (At the time, he was calling White Sox and Cubs home games.) Like many of his colleagues, he probably saw Powell as a colorful character who played hard and spoke his mind.

No tape of the interview exists, but the Chicago Defender, a newspaper for African-American readers, reported the following exchange between the broadcaster and player:

Elson: "How do you keep in trim during the winter months in order to keep up your batting average?"
Powell: "Oh, that's easy. I'm a policeman, and I beat n-----s over the head with my blackjack."

As soon as the words came over the radio, WGN cut off the interview. Irate listeners were soon calling the station; the Commissioner's Office, which happened to be in Chicago; and the Yankees' team hotel. The station and Elson tried to apologize over the air, and Powell would tell reporters, "To the best of my knowledge, I said I was a member of the police force in Dayton during the winter months, and simply explained my beat was in the colored section of town."

Too little, too late: Pandora's box had been opened, and the evil of bigotry was in the air.

Powell did not show up at Comiskey the next day, but a delegation of Chicago's black leaders did, presenting a petition to the umpires calling for Powell's suspension. The chorus was so strong that Landis had to act, suspending Powell for 10 games. But Landis' official statement was more apology than indictment: "Jake Powell of the New York Yankees made an uncomplimentary reference to a portion of the population. Although the commissioner believes the remark was due more to carelessness than intent, player Powell is suspended for 10 days."

Nearly as despicable as Powell's remarks were the many defenses and rationalizations that popped up in the press. Dan Daniel of the New York World-Telegram, one of the most influential baseball writers, wrote: "Powell could have been more careful. But he is a hustling ballplayer, aggressive, and always getting into a jam." Jack Gallagher of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Powell had been baited by Elson, and The Sporting News suggested the remedy was restricting radio interviews. Even enlightened writers missed the significance. Shirley Povich of the Washington Post wrote that blacks in Dayton need not worry if Powell "is no more effective with a police club than he is with his bat."

For their part, the Yankees came down harder on the messenger (radio) than the message. Yankees manager Joe McCarthy said, "Perhaps he just meant to get off a wisecrack. So the radio people ran off cold with apologies, and I'm out a ballplayer in the thick of a pennant race." General manager Ed Barrow assured writers that his two "colored servants" thought it was an unfortunate mistake that wouldn't happen again.

But the African-American newspapers and The Daily Worker, the organ of the Communist Party, did not let up on Powell or baseball. And they picked up an unexpected ally in syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler, a conservative and something of a gadfly.

Baseball, he wrote, "has always treated the Negroes as Adolf Hitler treats the Jews," and he ridiculed the premise that black ballplayers simply weren't good enough to play in the major leagues. Wrote Pegler, "Powell can argue plausibly that he got his cue from the very men whose hired disciplinarian has benched him."

The Chicago Defender called on Landis to ban Powell from the game and the Dayton Police Department to fire him. The problem with the latter request was that Powell never belonged to the force. He had applied for a job in the department but was never hired.

As for Powell's walk through Harlem, well that was part of an apology tour ordered by the Yankees, Lamb points out. Powell visited various newspaper offices, businesses and bars, and the foray lasted a couple of days. While he did buy drinks for patrons, he was accompanied by a community leader named Hubert Julian. And his apologies were only half-hearted: He tried to claim that Elson used the N-word in his question, even though thousands had heard otherwise.

Powell finally returned on Aug. 16, at his old stomping grounds in Washington. There were several game delays as black groundskeepers cleared bottles thrown by black fans at the white outfielder. To avoid further trouble, McCarthy kept Powell on the bench the rest of the season.

For some reason, the Yankees held on to Powell and didn't send him to another team -- perhaps they didn't want to do what the black newspapers kept urging them to do: trade him. But he only played in 31 games in 1939. In the spring of '40, he hit his head running into an outfield wall, limiting him to just 12 games. And he was ejected from three of those. At the end of the season, the Yankees finally gave up on him, selling him to the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League.

Powell remained in the minors for two years, until the Senators, desperate for ballplayers during World War II, brought him back. After the 1944 season, he did join the Rockville, Md., police force as a safety officer, over the objections of a Montgomery County official who happened to be Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson.

Midway through the 1945 season, the Senators sent Powell to the Phillies, who were managed by none other than Ben Chapman, the bigot he was traded for nine years earlier. "One can only imagine the conversation those two civil libertarians had with each another," Lamb says.

[+] EnlargeJackie Robinson and Ben Chapman
Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty ImagesBen Chapman (right) behaved so poorly toward Jackie Robinson it actually encouraged others to accept Robinson to counterbalance the behavior.

Two years later, Chapman would help galvanize support for Jackie Robinson by his open hostility toward the first black player. Chapman rode Robinson mercilessly from the bench and even instructed Phillies pitchers to throw at him on 3-0 counts.

Powell, in the meantime, returned to the minor leagues, playing in the Florida State League, first for Leesburg, then for Gainesville. While down there he took up with a woman named Josephine Amber, who was unaware that he was still married to his wife, Elizabeth, back in Dayton.

Powell may have been unwanted by major league teams, but he was wanted by Florida police for passing bad checks. On Nov. 4, 1948, D.C. police arrested him and Amber after the hotel they were staying at had tried to cash $300 worth of his empty checks.

With Amber threatening to leave him, the police ready to arrest him, and another round of bad news looming, Powell reportedly said, "Hell, I'm going to end it all." He pulled a .25-caliber revolver out of his jacket pocket and shot himself twice, first in the chest, then in the right temple. Alvin Jack Powell was dead at the age of 40.

His obituary in the Dayton Daily News read: "He died in Washington, D.C., not as a cop as he often dreamed of being, but as a man arrested on a bad check charge, the last of a series of his madcap adventures."

Red Smith was a little kinder, calling him "a guy who never knew fear and never knew what was good for him, a guy who always acted on impulse and was wrong more often than not."

That narrative -- Powell as an aggressive ballplayer who just couldn't help himself and was willing to take his lumps -- was fostered by the sportswriters of the age.

The problem is that it just doesn't stand up under the scrutiny of research. "When I was working as a reporter for the Dayton Daily News," Lamb says, "I got a call from someone in the Dayton police department who wanted to set the record straight because it was a black eye against Dayton."

But there is an irony to the life of Jake Powell. He inadvertently opened a national dialogue that helped pave the way for baseball's integration. One of his wrongs did help to make a right.

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer

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