Guest Post – A Look At How 1950’s Boston Sportswriters Addressed Racism

You may have read in many places that for years Boston sportswriters “tiptoed around” the issue of racism in the Red Sox organization. Mike Passanisi found one example that might be of interest in the Boston Globe on October 3, 1954.
Thanks to Mike for the submission.
By Mike Passanisi
The fall of 1954 was an interesting time for baseball fans. It was not because of the Red Sox, who had finished fourth, an incredible 42 games behind the Cleveland Indians. Their 69-85 record marked the third straight year of sub-.500 ball and would soon lead to the firing of manager Lou Boudreau.
But it was also the year of one of the World Series’ most shocking upsets, a four-game sweep by the New York Giants over Cleveland, who had set a season record with 111 wins. The tempo of that series was set in the first game, in which Willie Mays made his famous over-the-shoulder basket catch of Vic Wertz’s long drive. Mays’ play kept the contest tied at 2, and New York would go on to win 5-2 in 10 innings. Behind two victories from young Johnny Antonelli, the Giants easily took the next three contests. The series is today part of “Indians Curse” folklore.
As the Fall Classic ended, a curious piece by the Globe’s respected Harold Kaese on October 3rd, 1954 was entitled “No Segregation in the Big Leagues.” Kaese, a learned man with interests beyond baseball, was making the point that even before the Supreme Court’s recent Brown vs Board of Education decision calling for school desegregation, baseball had almost fully integrated.
Citing black stars like Mays, Al Smith, Hank Thompson, and Ruben Gomez, he wrote “ten years ago these men would have been unknowns to all except the comparative few who followed Negro League ball. They would not have been heard of in New England.
Kaese does not totally dodge the “elephant in the room” issue of the Red Sox being one of only four teams (the Yankees, Phillies and Tigers were the other three) which were still totally white. He does mention the “tryout” of Jackie Robinson and two other black stars at Fenway in 1945, but says only that “they heard nothing more from the Red Sox.” He also tells a story, possibly true, that some Boston players stated that they would not let a “Negro” into their clubhouse. Hy Hurwitz, another Globe icon, apparently arranged for Ted Williams to bring Joe Louis in when the team was in New York. According to Kaese, “every Sox player wanted to shake his hand.”
The most direct mention of possible racism appears around the middle of the article, speaking of the all-white teams. “None of these clubs admits to be segregatioinistic. They do not openly favor racial discrimination. What they say is ‘we are perfectly willing to employ a Negro player when we find one we think can help us.’ ‘ A very familiar racist line, as we have come to find out.
One glaring omission was made by Kaese. He expresses a hope that the Sox “can find a Willie Mays or Henry Thompson before too many World Series are played in other cities” What Kaese must have known is that the Sox could easily have had Mays. He had played for the Negro League’s Birmingham Black Barons. Boston had a minor league team in Birmingham and, by league rules, would have had first shot at signing Willie Instead, he went to the Giants in 1951 and the rest, of course, is history.
Imagine Mays patrolling center field in Fenway with Williams in left and future MVP Jackie Jensen in right ? How many more pennants would the Sox have won? Kaese’s article is common among writers for many years regarding the team’s organizational racism. Gently criticize, but don’t dig too deep.

Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 3 vs. the Rockets (M.L. Carr Speaks With BSMW)

Celtics (2-0) vs. Houston (0-2)
April 13, 1980
The Summit

The Celtics took command of the Eastern Conference semi-finals series against the Rockets with a 100-81 victory at the Summit in Texas.

Led by 20 points and 10 assists from Nate Archibald, the Celtics moved one step closer to advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.  Similar to the Celtics’ current playoff opponent in the New York Knicks, the 1980 Rockets had firepower in Moses Malone (28 points, 9 boards) and Robert Reid (23 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists). but the rest of the team was rendered ineffective.  The Celts were able to find Houston’s weaknesses.  Even though Malone was constantly double-teamed, he did not accumulate one assist the entire game.  In an interview with BSMW, longtime Celtic M.L. Carr — who was capping off a very successful first season with the Celtics — spoke about his team’s success against Houston.

Our team’s talent was unbelievable, but the other part of it was that there was a hunger among the guys.  Tiny had not won, Cowens had, but hadn’t won in a while and he was trying to get another one, Chris Ford had never won a championship, Pete Maravich had never won, I had never won, so there was an incredible hunger, along with the collection of talent, and we were truly about the team.

ML Carr

Coming in that year, the Celtics were rebuilding.  Obviously, they’d had one of the worst years of their time, but Red was adamant about bringing the team back to where it should be.  The team went out and drafted the Larry the year earlier, brought Chris Ford in the year before it, and signed me and Gerald Henderson as free agents.  We had no idea it would go as well and as quick as it did.

I always wanted to be a Celtic.  Saying that could have hurt me in negotiations, but they really pursued me hard.  Red was very, very good, and sold me on the fact we could turn this team around.  He laid out a role for me, and I had been a Celtics’ fan since I was a child growing up.  Red was very involved, and that helped us get on track.  After we won the division, we were so excited after the game.  We were jumping up and down, and Red walked into the locker room.  Red asked, “what are you all doing?”  We told him we were so excited to have won the division and had the best record in the league.  “We don’t celebrate division titles here,” Red said.  “We only celebrate championships.”  He brought us right back to reality.

We had Cowens, Max, Tiny, these guys who had gone through a very tough time the year before.  But, for me, it was a chance to come from the Detroit Pistons.  In three years there, I’d been to the playoffs only once.  I knew this was a chance to be a part of something special.

Rockets coach Del Harris had predicted his team would shoot close to 50 percent from the field back at the Summit.  That number never came to fruition, as Houston shot 41 percent from the field (32-for-78) but allowed eight more shots and twelve more successful attempts for the Celtics.  The C’s, who only made eleven free throws and went 1-5 from long distance, hit 51 percent of their shots and stretched an eight point halftime lead to 14 after three quarters, and then went for the jugular in the fourth and final frame.  Chris Ford stood out with his third consecutive superb game, finishing with an all-around line of 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists.

The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan detailed the Celtics dominance in the series:

The Celtics are simply burying the Rockets with superior team play at both ends.  When Tiny Archibald got hot, for example, Chris Ford passed up a wide-open 18-foot jumper from the right to pitch the ball back to Archibald at the top of the key.  Tiny obliged by swishing a jumper.  But perhaps the most impressive displays were on defense.  One, in particular, pleased Bill Fitch.

“It came in the third quarter,” Fitch said.  “Rick Barry made a good penetration, and he wanted to throw the ball back out to an open man.  It was a smart play.  But Tiny did the thing we’re always preaching – he pursued.  He picked the pass off and turned what would have been a good offensive play by Barry into a good defensive play for himself.  And there were two other times when Rick Robey came from behind Malone to intercept passes.  The reason he could do it was the pressure on the ball, which prevented the pass from getting there until Rick could get in front of Malone.”

Jan Volk

Jan Volk, who served as the team’s general manager from 1984-1997, started with the Celtics organization in ticket sales in 1976.  By the spring of 1980, his role evolved to assisting team president Red Auerbach in the front office.  Volk was also gracious enough to share some time with BSMW discussing the season, the playoff run, and how the team emphatically removed the losing culture that had crept into the Boston Garden.

There was a renewed appreciation for what winning was all about that season, said Volk.  We began asserting ourselves with a new cast of characters.  The team, centered around Larry Bird, had many great players.  We were a contender and the appreciation, particularly by the fans, was even more intense because they now really appreciated what they had.  I think that’s pretty common to appreciate what you have after you lose it, and we had got it back.  We had a period of time where we were in transition both on the court and in ownership.

Though it was a small sample size, Bird performed brilliantly in the playoff spotlight.  He shined in game three with 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists.  Volk admitted that even the Celtics were impressed with Bird’s immediate impact in the league, but also noted that this was not Larry’s team, a fact that was freely accepted.

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Larry came in recognizing this was Dave Cowens’ team.  Larry is a very confident guy, but he did not assert himself in deference to Dave Cowens the way he ultimately did subsequently after Dave retired.

Volk also touched on a couple of areas where the rookie from Indiana State surprised even Red Auerbach:

I don’t think anybody knew Larry was going to be as good as he turned out to be for his entire career.  Red would say that he was particularly pleased that Larry was such a good rebounder.  He did not realize, at that point [when Bird was drafted], he was such a good rebounder.  And, despite the fact that he didn’t look to be a terrific defensive player, he was a very good team defensive player.  So those were two aspects of his game that were underappreciated by the time he was drafted.

Draft Bird early and waiting a season may look easy now, but the Celtics suffered through a miserable season while Bird dominated at ISU.  And there was no guarantee that Bird would sign with the Celtics, though thanks to the Bob McAdoo move with Detroit, Boston could have actually drafted Bird with the top choice in the 1980 draft.  Fortunately, he signed and revitalized the Celtics with an MVP-caliber year that earned him Rookie of the Year honors.  Volk recalled the process that led to drafting Bird:

Portland had two picks.  They picked Mychal Thompson with their first pick, and they had the seventh pick.  We had the sixth and the eighth.  If we didn’t take Bird with our first pick, that sixth pick, he would have gone to Portland.  Portland was the only other team we felt could take a chance, more reasonably take a chance than the other teams, but there was a reasonable likelihood that the other teams couldn’t wait the year, and there was an argument to be made that we couldn’t wait, either.  But we did.

We sold out a game on a Wednesday evening early in the season against the World Series.  If you went out on the street, you couldn’t have found one-out-of-a-hundred-people who could name two players playing [on the opponents].  And yet, we sold out.  That was a testimony to what we had, which turned out to be extraordinarily special.

Volk still admires the relationship that Bird and Auerbach formed, beginning in the fall of 1979.

Red respected Larrry, not only in his abilities, but also his work ethic.  I know Larry respected what Red had accomplished.  I don’t think there is much an understanding of historic perspective today, but Larry knew what it was.  Larry was happy to be here: he didn’t want to be any place else and we didn’t want him to be any place else.

Ryan touched on Bird’s impact in his first playoff series in the Globe:

Larry Bird hooked up with his roommate, Rick Robey, for three consecutive baskets in one stretch, and each was different in nature.  The first was a bullet pass from the right wing to a cutting- across-the-lane Robey.  The second was a great left-to-right, fast- break lead.  The third was an artful little pick-and-roll bounce pass.  “When Rick comes out, sets his pick and rolls quickly,” explained Bird, “I can see the whole floor.  If he sets his pick and stands there, it clogs things up.  But he knows how I play now, and we work together real well.”

Larry Bird_Boston Celtics

Fitch on Bird’s offense in this series: “I’d give him a 7 on a 10 scale, but only a 5 on a Bird scale.  The encouraging thing, however, is that he’s coming.  He’s going up instead of down.”

The Celtics were still trending upward, though no one, even those in Philadelphia, had the prescience to know that was going to change any time soon.  The C’s remained in Houston and looked to sweep the Rockets the following night.



Game 3

Mike and Tommy? How about Red and Tommy? When Heinsohn Was The More Objective Man in the Booth.

These days Tommy Heinsohn is probably best known to the younger set of Celtics fans as the helplessly homer voice on the Celtics television broadcasts, who complains nightly about the refereeing and the atrocities committed against the home town team.

Mike Gorman, a pro in every sense of the word, oftentimes has to talk Tommy down from the ledge in the middle of a broadcast. I can only hope I have half the spirit and vigor that Heinsohn has when I’m going to turn 79.

Heinsohn has been calling Celtics games on television since the 1960’s. If you can believe it, one of his early partners in the booth was none other than Red Auerbach. Can you even imagine that?

The book Dynasty’s End: Bill Russell and the1968-69 World Champion Boston Celtics by Thomas J Whalen of Northeastern University has a very interesting section on the time that Heinsohn and Auerbach spent together in the booth, as well as how Heinsohn got his start in broadcasting.

While Heinsohn may be regarded as a caricature these days by some, this view disregards his contributions to how the game of professional basketball is broadcast on television. 

I’ve obtained permission from Professor Whalen as well as the publisher, University Press of New England, to reprint an excerpt from the book in which Heinsohn details his beginnings as a broadcaster, and his time with Red in the booth.



If Boston fans became disillusioned by [Jim “Bad News”] Barnes’s lack of production, they were positively upbeat over the pairing of former Celtics star Tom Heinsohn and Red Auerbach in the television booth to cover the team’s games for channel 56, a Boston station that specialized in old movie reruns and local sports programming. “It worked out pretty well,” Heinsohn later said of the experience. “We had a lot of fun doing the broadcast. Red was definitely pro-Celtic. He would go after referees, what have you. I think Red brought a different look to the broadcast, a different sound and a different attitude. Johnny Most was doing the radio at the time and he had built up such a huge audience on radio because when the Celtics began winning all those titles that’s who they listened to. It wasn’t television. So he was the voice of the Celtics and we were trying to capture our own audience and at the time channel 56 was still a UHF station. In order to get it, you had to buy a special antenna. We had a limited audience at the time and we tried to build an audience, [but people] had to go out of their way to tune in.

For those fortunate enough to tune in, however, Auerbach and Heinsohn provided more than their fair share of entertaining moments, especially when the competition heated up on the floor.There was, for instance, the time when the duo were broadcasting a playoff game in Philadelphia. Auerbach, who had fallen into the habit of eating peanuts during telecasts, dropped a bag on the floor just as Philadelphia’s Chet Walker was viciously fouled by Larry Siegfried going to the hoop. But Auerbach had missed this crucial part of the play. He was too busy retrieving his peanuts. “Everyone in the arena and watching television at home had seen the play except Red,” Heinsohn later explained. “He had been involved in a more important matter. Walker was stretched out when Red finally looked to the court. ‘What’s he doing?’ he screamed into his mike. ‘Is he pulling that same old jazz about 20 seconds?’” Even when Heinsohn gently informed his old coach that Siegfried had knocked him down, Auerbach remained unconvinced.

“He was not in the play!” he insisted.

“Okay, Red,” Heinsohn replied. “Have it your way. He was not in the play, but would you settle for this — he was in the movie?”

As is the case with most innovative concepts, the idea of putting Auerbach alongside Heinsohn as a color man came about by sheer accident. During a road contest against the 76ers in the middle of the 1967-68 season, Auerbach was having difficulty finding an empty seat in the then-packed Philadelphia arena. Seeing that Heinsohn, who was broadcasting the game solo, had an opening next to him, the Celtics GM ambled on over to claim his prize. “And the next thing I knew,” he said, “I was on the air.” Equally significant was the fact that Channel 56 officials liked what they saw in terms of the charismatic energy Auerbach brought to the proceedings. The soon signed up the opinionated Brooklyn native as their number two basketball man in the booth. This new arrangement sat well with Heinsohn because he had been lobbying station officials for some time to provide him with on-air relief during broadcasts. “I had to at least go to the men’s room,” Heinsohn later joked.

Fortunately, providing television commentary was not something new for Auerbach. He had previously worked as a color man on a number of ECAC college basketball games. “But that was different,” Auerbach said. “I would just sit there and tell the folks that one team was using a 3-2 defense and the other team was in a full-court press. Technical stuff like that. When I do the Celtics game, I’m emotionally involved.”

Indeed, Auerbach became so personally wrapped up in a game that he never gave a thought to how unfair and biased his comments sometimes were. During one contest he telecast, for example, referee Earl Strom came down with a painful leg injury, thus temporarily putting a halt to the action on the floor. Instead of expressing sympathy, Auerbach seized the opportunity to settle an old personal score he had with Strom. “Shake it off!” he yelled into his mike. “I never thought a referee could get hurt. If he stands there nursing it everybody will get cold. Let’s go! Doesn’t he know there’s a 20-second rule? He’s only got 20 seconds to get back in there.”

Heinsohn prided himself on being the more professionally polished of the two, as he had been regularly doing the team’s games since 1966. “Hey,” Auerbach informed him over the summer break that year, “we’re going to be televising road games this season in Channel 56. Are you interested in doing the play-by-play?” It didn’t require much arm-twisting by Auerbach to bring Heinsohn on board, especially since the latter had been itching to get back into the game following his retirement as a player in 1965. But before taking over the telecasts, Heinsohn had to first serve a brief apprenticeship with veteran broadcaster Marty Glickman, a longtime voice of the Knicks. “I acquired the feel of the microphone, the pace of the game, the commercials and the entire mechanics,” Heinsohn later wrote of this formative period. “I borrowed the Celtics videotape equipment and practiced at home games. Fred Cusick, the sports director of Channel 56, would sit alongside and review my homework after the Boston Garden games.

Satisfied with the progress he was making behind the mike, Heinsohn decided he was ready to fly solo for a contest against the Bullets in Baltimore. “I had no color man, nothing,” he later recalled. “I did every commercial, every lead-in and the halftime interview without a problem, which made me feel great – like the night I scored 47 points [as a player] in Seattle. Only this time, a star was born in Baltimore. I sweated frequently that first show but I drank enough Cokes to cool me off. That led to the discovery of an occupational hazard of TV announcers. It is called the relief stop by truck drivers and other patrons of the highways. It is called something more descriptive by ballplayers when they go to the dressing rooms at half time.”

Apart from this call of nature, Heinsohn made only one major gaff during the entire broadcast. That occurred when he read a promotional announcement for the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy. Heinsohn pronounced it “Yenkel Doodle Dendy.” Thinking of a way to extricate himself from this embarrassing lapse, he quickly came up with an improbable yet amusing explanation. “Of course, that’s a Jewish movie,” he told viewers.

As the years wore on, such mistakes grew less frequent as Heinsohn became increasingly more comfortable in front of the camera. He particularly enjoyed broadcasting games from historic arenas like the old Madison Square Garden of New York and Boston Garden. “You were in the first row of the balcony in the overhang [of these arenas], so you had the game close to you and you were hanging over the action,” he said. “Subsequent to those buildings going down, all the other buildings that were built [after them] put you further up and out of the action or they put you actually on the floor where you were being blocked out by the coach standing up or the referees standing in front of you.”

While taking in this unique perspective of the game, Heinsohn also found himself mastering the nuts and bolts of television broadcasting. “I was learning to deal with different directors and producers because that’s what they did on the road those days,” he said. “They didn’t travel everybody, just the broadcasters. So we always had a different producer or director. One of the producers he collaborated with in New York in particular proved helpful. “I would give him verbal cues so he would have an indication this is where we needed to go in tight on this picture,” he related. “From that we started to develop a different way to broadcast pro basketball – to catch the action, not just do hero shots.” By “hero shots,” Heinsohn was referring to the unfortunate tendency of sports television producers of this era to allow cameras to linger on players after they made a basket, instead of following the rest of the action on the floor. He felt this hamstrung the efforts of conscientious game announcers like himself to give an accurate depiction of events as they occurred. Indeed, the fast-paced nature of professional basketball required a different broadcasting approach altogether. As he later explained, “You have a certain rhythm in football and baseball where there is a stoppage in action, times between plays to get across your thoughts. In basketball, there is extreme pressure to be succinct. You have only four or five seconds to tie all the pieces together.”

Heinsohn would later incorporate these novel ideals into his work as an analyst for NBA telecasts on CBS-TV in the early 1980’s. His approach was straightforward and simple. He believed his main purpose was to educate the general public on the strategies and inner workings of the game. “Part of my preparation is to be the coach of each team,” he said. “We meet with each coach before the game and I verify the thoughts I have. I script out a series of potential replays which will help in the early stages to give the story line. And the players on each team make the plot work.” To be sure, this was a far cry from the way the sport was covered when he first started out in the business. “We’ve gone from televising the high-flyers, which made it seem like the game was so easy with no defense, to the highly sophisticated game. There has been an evolution in presenting a more sophisticated approach to pro basketball, I game which I feel has been maligned for years. The challenge is to make the broadcast so the first-time viewer doesn’t have to be Albert Einstein to understand it.”

© University Press of New England on behalf of Northeastern, Lebanon, NH. Reprinted with permission excerpts from pages 126-129.