From ignoramus radio talkers to bigoted fans and a checkered past, Boston baseball has a race problem
Kalek Briscoe worked as a bartender in the State Street Pavilion inside Fenway Park for a decade. When he heard in May that Baltimore Orioles player Adam Jones told Boston media that a fan called him the “n-word” and threw a bag of peanuts at him while he was in center field at Fenway, Briscoe was not surprised. While he says he never personally experienced racism at the ballpark, being born and raised in Boston, he says those things “are bound to happen.”
The response from the city was swift, as officials and Red Sox brass scrambled to condemn the behavior. The following night, the Fenway faithful even gave Jones a standing ovation. Red Sox President Sam Kennedy said in a statement, “No player should … be subjected to any kind of racism at Fenway Park. The Red Sox have zero tolerance for such inexcusable behavior.”
In his turn, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker added, “There is no place … in Boston … for that kind of language or that kind of behavior,” while Boston Police Department Commissioner William Evans said, “We all come out strongly against anything of that derogatory nature. That’s not what the city’s about,” with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh echoing those comments: “The City of Boston, the Red Sox organization doesn’t condone this type of behavior,” adding it is “not who we are as a city.”
But is that true?
There is a long and documented history of discrimination against Black residents of Boston. If their lived experience tells us anything, it’s that there is good reason to doubt statements by officials about what is tolerated here and what isn’t.
In one recent example that made national headlines, Saturday Night Live cast member Michael Che called this “the most racist city” he had ever visited. A recent poll from Boston University and the Boston Globe backs him up, showing that people in the Hub are split clearly along racial lines in whether they think the city is racist: 57 percent of people who identify as Black said the city is racist, while just 37 percent of those who call themselves white agreed with the label.
Jones isn’t the first baseball player to complain about racial slurs and verbal abuse coming from Boston fans. After he reported the incident to the media, multiple Black MLB players echoed his sentiments and confirmed his experience. New York Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia said the only park where he’s ever been called the “n-word” is Fenway. “We [Black major leaguers] know,” he told Newsday. “We all know. When you go to Boston, you expect it.”
BPD Commissioner Evans has said his department comes out strongly against “anything of that derogatory nature.” In practice, however, the department itself is responsible for well-documented racist policing practices. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts found that, even after controlling for crime, Boston cops were more likely to initiate encounters in Black neighborhoods and to initiate encounters with Black people.
Politicians, meanwhile, argue that racism doesn’t define Boston, despite a history of discriminatory policies, starting with those that have impacted housing for hundreds of thousands, that have led to inequality and segregated neighborhoods. According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, people of color are still more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods because of a host of historical and contemporary factors that facilitate segregation. Any suggestion that these systemic issues have not infiltrated and manifested at the ballpark is unfounded, and it can only be made against the available evidence.
The racist history of baseball in Boston is nothing new, nor is the racist history of the sport itself. At the turn of the 20th century, Albert Goodwill Spalding envisioned baseball as a way for white American men to teach nonwhite men and people from non-American cultures to become “civilized and rational.” Even after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1946, the Red Sox remained the last holdout when it came to integration, not signing infielder Pumpsie Green until 1959, 58 years ago this week. Beverly Mire says that, as a child in Malden, she remembers her grandparents listening to games on the radio and rooting for any team besides the Red Sox.
“My sisters still don’t root for the Sox,” she says. Nevertheless, Mire began cheering for her hometown team once they finally integrated.
The street that flanks Fenway Park to the west, Yawkey Way, is named for Tom Yawkey, owner of the team 1933-1976. He was also a well-known racist. When Robinson worked out before the team in 1945, it is suspected that it was Yawkey who yelled, “Get that n***** off the field!” That makes it somewhat ironic that the city just renamed the Yawkey Way extension after David Ortiz, a Dominican man. “It’s not lost on me, the significance of this event,” Mire says. “And I’m sure it’s not lost on a lot of people, not least the owners.”
In his book Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, author Howard Bryant recounts how, for many Black Bostonians like himself, it is hard to love a team that’s never loved them back. Over the years, some Black ballplayers have gone so far as to have language written into contracts that expressly prevented them from being traded to the Red Sox. Even star player Jim Rice, who was the 1978 American League MVP, whose number the Sox have retired, and who currently works as an analyst on NESN, dealt with discrimination and vitriol while playing in Boston, often noting how difficult it was to play here.
One highly noted case involved Tommy Harper, a player, coach, and front-office staffer under the former Yawkey-affiliated ownership. He filed state and federal discrimination complaints against the club in 1986 and received a financial settlement.
“They called it Red Sox Nation,” Harper told the Globe in 2014, “but it was never my nation.”
Boston sports media was quick to weigh in after the Jones incident. Many reporters and commentators supported the outfielder and took him at his word.
But not all did.
Albert Breer, a writer for Sports Illustrated’s NFL site the MMQB who often appears on 98.5 FM the Sports Hub, wanted “proof” of the offense. Curt Schilling, former Red Sox player and current host on the extremely vitriolic right-wing site Breitbart News, said Jones was lying and accused the Orioles player of having “an agenda.” “One needs to only look at his past commentary on race and racism to see it,” claimed Schilling, who has a history of making insensitive comments and was fired from his job as an ESPN analyst following a transphobic social media post. (He had previously been suspended from the network after writing an Islamophobic tweet.) The commentary to which Schilling was referring includes Jones calling baseball “a white man’s game”—which, it should be noted, is historically accurate—and weighing in on the protests of NFL player Colin Kaepernick, saying that baseball is unlikely to see such demonstrations during the national anthem.
Amid all the noise, perhaps the most explosive commentary came from the same place that it often does: Kirk Minihane and Gerry Callahan, the popular hosts on the WEEI-FM sports radio morning show. Their comments began on Twitter.
“Out of curiosity, did anyone at Fenway last night confirm this? Was it on social media? Any actual proof? Is it OK to ask questions?” Minihane tweeted. He continued: “Not saying it happened or it didn’t, but the rush to condemn Boston w/no proof is chilling. And, of course, the pandering is off the charts.”
After WBZ reporter Dan Roche said it would be nice to see Sox fans give Jones a standing O, Callahan weighed in next: “What if you think he’s making it up? Still want to stand and cheer?” he tweeted.
The radio hosts then spent the next week ranting about the issue on air and inviting Schilling to weigh in as well.
Sports talk radio is major business in Boston. In reports from 2015, Nielsen research showed that 23 percent of all Bostonians (ages 12 and up) listen to sports talk radio at least once a week. One in six male listeners, ages 25 to 54, listens to sports talk. That beats every other top 50 media market in the country.
The two stations that have a lock on the market are the Sports Hub and WEEI, with the latter partnered with the Red Sox to broadcast games. In the spring 2017 ratings, the Sports Hub won among men ages 25 to 54 by one-tenth of a point during prime weekday hours. In the coveted morning show slot, WEEI’s Kirk and Callahan beat out the Sports Hub’s Toucher and Rich, finishing a point and a half in front of Toucher and Rich and becoming the top-rated morning show in the market among men 18 and over, as well as among men between 25 and 54, 35 and 64, and adults between 25 and 54 overall.
WEEI reformatted to a 24-7 sports station in 1991 and in 1993 became one of the first affiliates of Imus in the Morning from WFAN in NYC. The host of that show, Don Imus, would later be fired from CBS in 2007 in a well-publicized incident involving his use of a racial slur. Before that, in 1999, Boston Globe Executive Sports Editor Don Skwar banned all of his newspaper’s writers from appearing on certain WEEI shows after racial slurs were used on the station. The feud between the Globe and WEEI lasted a decade.
Of its talent, the WEEI website states that its “on-air personalities [are] trusted by our listeners to deliver the constantly unfolding drama of sports with passion, candor and an unfettered voice.” And some of their personalities are indeed balanced, fair, and thoughtful; take, for example, Dale and Holley with Keefe, which airs from 2 to 6 pm on weekdays. The hosts are unafraid to tackle racial issues thoughtfully, though much of that commentary falls on Michael Holley, who is African-American.
The WEEI morning show, however, is well known for the right-wing views of its hosts and has a reputation of trafficking in conservative talking points and lambasting people of color, as well as women, gay people, and trans folks. Indeed, the hosts’ personal Twitter accounts, as well as their show’s account, regularly share articles from Breitbart News. WEEI did not return multiple requests for comment for this story, but according to the station’s website, “both [Minihane and Callahan] are very good at keeping listeners tuned in with unique and creative content and typically mock the ordinary … sports talk segments.” According to WEEI, this makes them “arguably the best sports talk show in the market.”
The Kirk and Callahan (formerly Dennis and Callahan) hosts are no strangers to controversy. The hosts often called Dominican Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez “Pedro the Punk” when he played. In 2014, Minihane called FOX sportscaster Erin Andrews “a gutless bitch.” After Seattle Seahawks player Richard Sherman was deemed a little “too intense” following an incredible play during the 2014 NFC Championship game (when he had every right to be hyped up), the Dennis and Callahan show used the word “thug” 12 times in two minutes. When SB Nation reporter Charlotte Wilder wrote a story called “The Patriots have a Trump problem” earlier this year, the hosts—fans of both Trump and the Pats—not only attacked her on air for months, but their Twitter followers shot a slew of violent harassment her way. It wasn’t the first time they went after Wilder; when she worked at the Boston Globe, they referred to her as “Charlotte Wildebeest.”
In 2003, Callahan and then-host John Dennis were suspended for comparing a gorilla who escaped from the Franklin Park Zoo to a Black high school student. In response to the comments, then-Attorney General Tom Reilly requested a meeting with WEEI management, while an editorial in the Boston Phoenix called the hosts “spewers of hate.” ESPN Radio personality Paul Finebaum recently called them “toxic pieces of waste.”
In another time slot, Glenn Ordway hosts Ordway, Merloni, and Fauria from 10 am to 2 pm. A WEEI veteran who created and hosted the Big Show from 1996 until he was fired in 2013, Ordway was brought back two years ago. Following the Jones incident, Ordway tweeted at WBZ reporter Dan Roche, “So you’re saying 38,000 at Fenway are racists Dan ???#panderingfool.” Such behavior fits a pattern; Ordway’s co-host, Lou Merloni, tweeted during the Black Lives Matter highway blockade protest in 2015, “I have a 34-31 C271 in my trunk. I’m doing everything I can to control myself with these protesters causing traffic on 93. Ps. That’s a bat.”
Offensive comments and controversy aside, these hosts are winning in the ratings, proving that there is indeed a massive audience for such bigoted rhetoric in Greater Boston.
Asked to comment on this story, a former WEEI intern told me, on the condition of anonymity, that her dream had always been to work in sports radio. But in practice, she says she “found the morning show”—which played in the background in her office—“unlistenable.” “The whole experience made me not want to work in radio,” she says. Of the insulting dialogue, the former intern adds, “My boss told me to just ignore it because ‘it’s nonsense.’ But the producers and promoters seem to encourage it.”
“The culture there is so bad,” another former intern told me. “With the way it is in Boston, they are never going to be disciplined because there will always be people behind them.” The latter intern, who was with the station for two years, said the culture’s only gotten worse: “They’ve transferred the harassment to trolling people online where everyone can see it and feed off it, instead of just the people listening to the show.” Twitter has allowed the show to become interactive, with the hosts’ ranting encouraging listeners to join in, and sometimes escalate, the harassment.
Former WEEI intern Jashvina Shah was herself a victim of the hosts’ and listeners’ ire. After tweeting an unfavorable opinion about Tom Brady, she faced sexist and racist comments to the point that she had to lock her account. After she pointed out that she had once been a station employee herself, Minihane tweeted back to Shah that harassment is to be expected—“how it works”—when you share an opinion that others disagree with.
Red Sox management wants the public to believe that it takes all these issues seriously and that there is a no-tolerance policy for racism in Fenway Park. And there has been progress—Larry Lucchino, former president and CEO of the Red Sox, acknowledged this fraught history and worked to change it, even consulting Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree for guidance. More recently, the night after the Jones incident, a fan was removed from the park and banned for life for using a racial slur.
At the same time, just last year the Sox agreed to a seven-year contract extension with WEEI that will keep the games airing on the station until 2023. A spokesperson for the Red Sox told DigBoston that the team does not reveal the value of its partnerships publicly. The previous one, however—a 10-year, $200 million deal—was the most expensive radio rights contract in Major League Baseball.
In an email statement provided to DigBoston, a spokesperson for the Red Sox said that they have no control over the content of the chatter on the station and that their influence is limited to the content of the game broadcast, including pregame and postgame shows.
“None of the opinions or sentiments expressed on WEEI or any of the 57 radio affiliates throughout New England are those of the Boston Red Sox,” said Zineb Curran, senior director of corporate communications for the Red Sox. “We understand the frustration of those who feel the opinions expressed are offensive and out of line. At times, we feel the same way.”
Of the Red Sox partnership with WEEI, former Fenway employee Briscoe says, “I think it’s indicative of all of the US turning a blind eye to the facts … The almighty dollar plays into it because ratings mean money.” Indeed, if there’s one thing to be learned from the recent backlash against ousted Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, it’s that companies will support divisive rhetoric until it’s no longer profitable—like when sponsors pull out.
Just one month after Jones endured racist violence at Fenway and the club apologized profusely, one of their long-time NESN television broadcasters, former player Jerry Remy, commented that players shouldn’t be allowed to have translators on the field. “I don’t think it should be legal… Learn baseball language. Learn—it’s pretty simple. You break it down pretty easy between pitching coach and pitcher after a long period of time,” he said. The statements forced the team to apologize for and condemn racist comments for the second time in just four weeks, stating that the Sox “do not share the views expressed” by Remy.
The Red Sox aren’t alone in trying to distance themselves from the hateful language that is common on WEEI (and on the Twitter feeds of the latter’s employees). In 2014, Dunkin’ Donuts ended its longtime endorsement deal with Callahan. Still, there are many willing advertisers, including 99 Restaurants, Shaw’s/Star Market, and Uber, which did not return a request for comment about its ads on the WEEI morning show. Cumberland Farms took the slot vacated by Dunkin’ Donuts. On its website, the station boasts, “When you build a marketing campaign around WEEI, you’re appropriating a portion of our brand equity.”
Looking to the future of the Red Sox, Black superstars are poised to make their mark on the team and the city. There are games in 2017 where the entire outfield is composed of African-American players, with Mookie Betts in right field, Jackie Bradley Jr. in center, and Chris Young playing left. For Betts and JBJ, in particular, as well as Aruban shortstop Xander Bogaerts, they are likely to play in Boston for a long time.
But Mire, who is old enough to remember when the Red Sox weren’t integrated, does not believe the athletes are taking the issue seriously. Following the Jones issue, Betts was the only player to publicly comment on social media, tweeting, “Fact: I’m Black too … Literally stand up for [Jones] tonight and say no to racism.” Young told the media, “You shouldn’t just be talking to the Black players about it” because the issue affects everyone, while JBJ called the incident “unfortunate” and said you “can’t generalize a whole city” based on one person’s actions.
Black athletes are up against a lot in baseball, and asking them to stick their necks out could be asking them to risk their careers. It’s understandable why they would want to just put their heads down and play ball. But Mire feels that the athletes themselves need to be the catalyst for change. “Change will come when athletes demand it,” she says. “When athletes say they’re not talking to sports talk hosts who have a history of racial remarks or intolerant action, change will come.”
If the team and the city want to solve the problem, the first step is to admit it still exists. While much of this is history, it’s still relevant today. And Boston can’t get past the problem if people pretend that we already are. Hate will always have a platform as long as it’s profitable.
ED. NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly noted that Kirk Minihane “was neither fined nor suspended” for calling FOX sportscaster Erin Andrews “a gutless bitch.” Minihane was suspended for a week with no pay. We regret the error. As was reported in the Boston Globe, the host also “punctuated a verbal apology [to Andrews] by suggesting that Andrews’s success is based on her looks rather than ability, saying if she ‘weighed 15 pounds more she would be a waitress.'”