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Sunday, August 21, 2016

How Jake Powell Exposed Baseball's Racism

Baseball is no stranger to having those connected to the game being called out for insensitive and/or inappropriate comments. From the 1999 John Rocker Sports Illustrated feature and ensuing suspension, to the more recent termination of Curt Schilling from ESPN, among others, there is an unfortunate history. One of the first such incidents that rose to national attention occurred in 1938 when New York Yankees outfielder Jake Powell caused wide-spread furor over racist comments he made on the radio while doing a live dugout interview prior to a game.

Between 1930 and 1945 Powell played parts of 11 seasons with three different teams (Washington Senators- two tours, the Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies). A .271 career hitter, he was a starter for his first two full seasons but a platoon player thereafter, as the right-handed batter handled southpaws well but was much less lethal against righties. He was also frequently injured due in part to an aggressive style of play and standard hazards of the day. He was known for having a hot head, including staging a one-day walk-out in 1945 while a member of the Senators. At a time when most players worked in the offseason, he was no different, finding employment as a policeman.

If it weren’t for his inappropriate radio remarks, Powell would likely be best remembered for his heroics in the 1936 World Series as a member of the Yankees; collecting 10 hits in 22 at-bats and scoring eight runs, which went a long way in beating the New York Giants in six games.

On July 29, 1938, the Yankees were in Chicago to play the White Sox. Prior to the game, Powell sat down with WGN White Sox announcer Bob Elson to give a “dugout” interview. When asked what he did in the offseason to keep in shape, Powell responded, “I’m a policeman in Dayton, Ohio, and I keep in shape by cracking n-----s off the head with my nightstick.”

Although the United States and Major League Baseball were deep in the throes of segregation at the time, it was something that was not talked about in such direct terms. The radio station cut the broadcast after Powell uttered the shameful words but a large number of people were listening. In fact, the station was barraged by angry callers, leading to a half-dozen on-air apologies, including pointing out that they could not control what was said during live segments.

A group of black leaders visited baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, whose office was in Chicago, and demanded Powell be suspended for life. They didn’t get what they asked for but action was swift, as the outfielder was suspended on July 30th for 10 games. However, it can be surmised that the punishment was more to quell the outcry than as a punishment for a wrong. This was reflected in Landis’s official announcement of the suspension. "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."

To make matters worse, Powell denied what he said, claiming the next day that “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 Negro section of town.”

His manager, future Hall-of-Famer Joe McCarthy, was wishy washy about the decision, originally telling reporters, “There is nothing I can say. The commissioner’s decision is alright with me.” However, he later expressed his frustration over how it was handled, explaining, "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."

The galling part of the decision to suspend Powell was that it was a public display of condemning the man for his racist words, while the sport he played for continued to refuse to employ people of color for nearly another decade. When Landis famously said, “If a Negro player was ever to show the kind of talents necessary to play in the Major Leagues, there is no rule to stop it,” one must wonder how he was able to spout such hogwash with a straight face.

When Powell returned in a game versus the Senators, the matter was not forgotten, as fans bombarded him with soda bottles while he was manning his position in the outfield. That didn’t stop McCarthy from vowing he would continue to play the disgraced outfielder even “if they throw 1,000,000 pop bottles at him.”

Coming as no surprise, there was an extensive effort to downplay Powell’s comments. The Sporting News issued a weak excuse: “The player’s mind, naturally, is on the game in which he is about to participate, and his ‘ad lib’ comments in these interviews frequently lead him to indiscreet remarks, which he would not make, if given an opportunity to think, or if furnished a script”.

The Yankees ownership group also owned a brewery, and there was talk that bars in predominantly black areas of New York might boycott their suds. Powell was ordered to go on an apology pub crawl to keep the kegs tapped. Acclaimed baseball writer Red Smith later detailed in his book, To Absent Friends, that attempted apology. "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."

He also issued a horrible public apology shortly after his suspension ended, stating, “Honest, you can believe me when I say I regret the slur as I had no intention to hurt anyone, or their feelings”.

“Members of the Negro race have helped to earn my bread and butter and no one knows that better than I do... I have two members of your race taking care of my home while myself and wife are away and I think they are two of the finest people in the world. I do hundreds of favors for them daily.”

Not all the writers let him off the hook. He was taken to task by Westbrook Pegler of the Pittsburgh Press, who likened baseball’s treatment of blacks to how Adolph Hitler was treating Jews. He went on:

“Powell was only giving expression in crude, brief wordage to the unspoken but inflexible policy of the organized baseball industry. Moreover, his remark was thoughtless and probably untrue, whereas the men who employ him and Judge Landis have given solemn study to the problem and confirmed their decision by their conduct…”

“But the baseball business does nothing at all about this discrimination, and Jake Powell can argue plausibly that he got his cue from the very men whose hired disciplinarian has benched him for an idle remark.”

“The Yankees or one of the Chicago teams easily could try the experiment of using a star Negro player from one of the semi-pro clubs. The customers would suffer no shock, and the Southern white boys (of which there were many in the majors at the time) would find after a few games that it didn’t hurt them much after all.”

The following winter, Yankees President Ed Barrow was asked if the team was going to bring Powell back. The legendary front office man was incredulous he was being asked such a question, telling reporters that he was under the impression from his black friends that all had been forgiven and there were no lingering hard feelings. “There has been no outburst of resentment anew,” said Barrow. “Why keep stirring the matter up?” Despite his controversial presence, Powell remained with the team through the 1940 season before being sold to the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League.

As it turned out, Powell had an even stranger past that most fans had no idea about. He was not truthful about himself and was no stranger to the law.

In 1933, while playing in the minor leagues for the Dayton Ducks, he was caught trying to steal the fan, draped and bed spread from the hotel room he was staying in.  Because the items were returned, charges were not pressed, but as his manager Ducky Holmes said, “He probably would have taken the mattress if he could have got it in his suitcase.”

It also turned out that Powell was not a police officer. He had unsuccessfully applied for a job with the Dayton force but was not hired. Subsequent reports indicated that he may have passed a civil service exam but never got further than being added to a wait list for a possible future position.

Little more than 10 years after his unfortunate turn on the radio, Powell was dead at the age of 40. After passing bad checks to a hotel in Washington, D.C., he and his mistress Josephine Amber were taken into custody on November 4, 1948. She explained that they were to be married the next day, until she called it off after finding out he had written $300 worth of rubber checks over the previous several days. Their marriage would not have been legal since he was still married to his wife Elizabeth at the time.

In the midst of his interrogation, Powell asked to speak with his paramour, which was granted. He gave her fare for taxi and sent her away, but while she was within earshot, he suddenly blurted out, “To hell with it—I’m going to end it all.” He then whipped out a revolver from his pocket and shot himself in the chest and head before officers could reach him. He died almost immediately, leaving behind the two women in his life and a 15-year-old daughter.

The Dayton Daily News printed a very apropos obituary; "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."

The Powell incident was shocking not only for what the player said but also because of the blatant hypocrisy that ensued from baseball. While it’s a shame that is ever happened, it can at least be remembered as a starting point where intolerance and hatred slowly began to lose its entrenched position in the American pastime.

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  1. Wow... never heard this story before. Thanks for writing it up, Andrew. That guy was obviously troubled.

  2. Powell claimed to be a Dayton police officer, but he was not. Also, the exact quote is uncertain since it was not recorded.