Bill Russell will finally have a statue in Boston. Time has healed some old wounds. The greatest champion in the history of American sports will have a permanent place outside of the fabled Boston Garden. Forty-four years after he played his final game for the Celtics.
Thanks in part to President Obama, who awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, and the persistence of two members of the Boston City Council and Mayor Tom Menino, but also thanks in part to former Celtics beat writer Paul Flannery, who wrote about the idea of the Celtics honoring Russell with a statue in a December, 2010 Boston Magazine piece. The statue is now complete and will be unveiled before this season’s home-opener on Friday, November 1. The statue is long overdue. Russell played in Boston during a time (1956-1969) in which the city was in many ways a polarized place. With the exception of some of it’s more progressive college campuses and more diverse neighborhoods like Cambridge and Brookline, much of Boston was home to racial hostility and deeply segregated neighborhoods. The busing crisis of the mid-1970’s reignited the city’s reputation as a racially volatile place. While tolerance and diversity have increased in the Greater Boston area over the decades since Russell’s retirement, the city cannot escape it’s racist past. When the Boston Bruins lost to Washington Capitals in the 2012 NHL playoffs, on a goal scored by African-American hockey player Joel Ward, many Bruins fans made racist comments on twitter, causing the team to apologize publicly. According to Yahoo sports, during Game 2 of this year’s American League Championship series, there were reports of a racist fan in the bleachers of Fenway Park shouting derogatory comments toward Tigers fans. While these moments are not necessarily indicative of Boston sports fans on the whole, they confirm that the air surrounding a small segment of Boston fans remains mixed with a hint of hate. While it’s too easy and simplistic to say, “Boston is a racist town,” it’s not unfair to say, “Boston still has a long way to go.” When the loudest, most obnoxious segment of any population feels free to shout hatred, the entire population is impacted. I have been in the stands at Fenway Park and at the Boston Garden. I have heard it myself. Sporting events throughout the country contain loud and obnoxious fans, some of whom are sexist, some of whom are homophobic, and some of whom are racist. Boston doesn’t corner the market on hateful morons, but it remains impacted by the long shadow of its past.
During Russell’s career, he received death threats, his home was invaded and defaced with racist messages and feces. Much of his time in Boston was embattled, and Russell was open in his criticisms of both outright and institutional racism. Russell’s legacy of the athlete as openly political is stark in contrast to today’s one-man corporation brand of celebrity athlete. Unafraid to speak his mind, Russell makes today’s athletes look like CEOs, afraid of tarnishing their brands, of losing sponsors and potentially alienating a few hundred thousand people with a comment on society, race, or anything remotely political. When sports became big business, the athletes stopped talking and started spouting cliches. Michael Jordan would be exhibit A. A self-obsessed egomaniac intent on gathering his riches, the retired Jordan has become an overly proud lunatic, afraid to admit that today’s stars could beat him in games of one-on-one. And the media runs with every Jordan quote they can find.
Now, to claim that Russell was a saint would be disingenuous. John Taylor’s 2005 book, The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball, references Russell’s notoriously prickly demeanor. Russell alienated Celtics fans by saying, “You owe the public the same it owes you, nothing! I refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies.” This supported the opinion that Russell (who was the highest paid Celtic) was egotistical, paranoid and hypocritical, and even the FBI described Russell in his file as “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children.” These quotes shed light on the fact that Russell was not always the victim of attacks, but sometimes made his own life more difficult by asserting a defensive stance when it wasn’t always needed. And yet, it tells us as much about the time period as it does about Russell. In 1960, an athlete was expected to smile and nod and be a role model when the kids were around, and yet was expected to turn a deaf ear to the racism he encountered from belligerent fans and narrow-minded reporters. In many ways, Bill Russell and Red Auerbach survived and thrived because they depended solely on themselves and each other, and not the good graces of the citizenry surrounding them. They both took chances and lived according to their own codes, and the sporting landscape as well as the American cultural landscape progressed in part because of that fierce defiance.
Russell was heroic in his stance on Civil Rights, taking an active role in 1963’s “Freedom Summer,” organizing integrated basketball clinics in Jackson, Mississippi. Russell marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963, and was outspoken in his advocacy for the Voting Rights Act in 1964. His legacy as an athlete was matched by his courage and conviction as a person, and his position as both a superstar athlete and a passionate and courageous politically-aware citizen helped force some of the more important elements of social progress America has made.
In 1959, Russell had played only three of his thirteen seasons and collected only one of his MVP award. The Celtics total attendance in 1958-59 was 244,642. Divide that by thirty-six home games and you get an average of 6,796. Less than 7,000 people went to Boston Garden to watch those Celtics, which ranked Boston 3rd out of the 8 teams in the NBA in attendance that season. This despite the fact the team won 50 of its 72 games and the franchise’s second championship. Of course, the NBA was in its infancy in the late 1950’s. It had not yet become the major American sport that it is today. Several of the league’s eight franchises in the 1950’s were in tiny markets (Rochester, Fort Wayne, Cincinnati, Syracuse) In contrast, the Red Sox teams of the mid-1950’s led by Ted Williams, drew more than twice as many fans, averaging between 14,000 and 16,000 fans per game. The Boston Bruins, who had great success during the mid-1950’s but were one of the worst teams in the NHL for much of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, continually drew between 10,000 and 12,000 fans per game.
1959. This was the same year the Boston Red Sox famously became the last major league baseball team to integrate, signing weak-hitting second baseman Pumpsie Green. Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, one of the more openly anti-black owners in Major League Baseball in the 1950’s, was known to have shouted “Get those n***ers off the field!” in the middle of a tryout involving Jackie Robinson in 1945, two years before Robinson would become the first African-American to play major league baseball.
In an article published in the Massachusetts Historical Review in 2004, sportswriter and Best American Sportswriting Series Editor Glenn Stout paints the picture of how the 1945 tryout even took place. http://indiepro.com/glenn/tryout-and-fallout-race-jackie-robinson-and-the-red-sox/
More than any other event, World War II paved the way for the breaking of baseball’s color line. Prior to the war, virtually the only calls for integration of the national pastime came primarily from the African American and leftist press. But the war exposed the inherent contradiction and inequality of baseball’s unwritten policy, providing the unassailable argument that if a man risked dying for his country on the battlefield he deserved the right to play baseball. In 1944 Boston city councilman Isadore Muchnick, troubled by the segregation so obvious in major league baseball and emboldened by the moral authority provided by World War II, pushed for change.[ii]
A child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Muchnick grew up in Boston’s old West End. He graduated from Harvard University in 1928 and Harvard Law School in 1932. Elected to the Boston city council in 1941 representing Mattapan, a neighborhood 99% Jewish, Muchnick rapidly developed a reputation as a progressive, principled politician unafraid to support social justice regardless of the political fallout.
A sense of justice motivated Muchnick to take on baseball’s color line, not political expediency in response. He was not, as erroneously reported in intervening years, responding to political conditions caused by a change in racial makeup of his constituency. Although today Mattapan is now an overwhelmingly black neighborhood, during Muchnick’s tenure in office that change had not yet taken place.[iii]
He chose an ingenious method to force change. In Boston, so-called “Blue Laws” banned the playing of baseball on Sunday. In order to make use of this lucrative weekend date at their home parks both the American League Red Sox and the National League Braves needed a waiver from the city council, one that customarily had been granted for years with little debate. In March of 1944 Muchnick used the waiver as a cudgel to force the two ballclubs to confront their acceptance of organized baseball’s unwritten rule that barred African American’s from playing in either the major leagues. He threatened to block the waiver unless the two clubs considered African-American applicants.[iv]
That got the attention of Boston general manager and Hall of Fame infielder Eddie Collins. Much taken aback, he wrote Muchnick and made the disingenuous claim that, “We [the Red Sox] have never had a single request for a try-out by a colored applicant.”[v] Muchnick released Collins’s response to the African American press, which disseminated his comments all over the country. Shortly thereafter, Muchnick received another letter, this time from Wendell Smith, the sports editor of the African American weekly newspaper thePittsburgh Courier, an important publication that enjoyed nationwide distribution and served as the defacto paper of record for many African-Americans. Smith disputed Collins’s contention and informed Muchnick that in fact African-Americans wanted to play in the major leagues, something Muchnick undoubtedly already knew. By then, however, the 1944 season was at hand and for the time being Muchnick chose to let the matter drop. A year later, in March of 1945, he revisited the issue and again threatened to block the waiver.[vi]
Collins contacted the councilman once more.[vii] In a letter dated March 16, 1945, Collins wrote: “I have been connected with the Red Sox twelve years and during that time we have never had a request for a try-out by a colored applicant . . . It is beyond my understanding how anyone can insinuate or believe that ‘all ballplayers regardless of race color or creed, have not been treated in the American Way’ so far as having equal opportunity to play for the Red Sox.”[viii] The letter went on to say that the Red Sox, intended to hold a hold such a tryout if any players wished to play for the club.
The Robinson tryout took place in 1945. Tom Yawkey, whose name still graces the street on which Fenway Park resides (Yawkey Way) would remain sole owner of the Red Sox from 1933 until the day he died in July, 1976. Howard Bryant’s excellent examination of the darker side of Tom Yawkey’s impact on Boston Red Sox history, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, unveils much of the evidence of bigotry.
The Red Sox had several black players in their farm system during the 1950s. Many would have good seasons but then, without explanation, be traded away or even released outright, while the slow, lumbering power-oriented white players that typified the Red Sox were no longer in style in the major leagues. Against his personal wishes, Yawkey finally allowed the team to be integrated. In 1959, the Red Sox became the last major league team to field a black player, (Pumpsie Green), twelve years after Jackie Robinson’s rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers and two-and-a-half years after Robinson’s retirement. Robinson would later call Yawkey “one of the most bigoted guys in baseball.”
Even after integrating, racism was believed to play a role in future Red Sox moves, notably the trades of star outfielder Reggie Smith in 1973 and slugging young outfielder Ben Oglivie for aging Tiger veteran second baseman Dick McAuliffe shortly afterward. During that period, the Red Sox went from perennial contender to failing to finish within ten games of first place for 17 years (1950–1966).
Unlike Tom Yawkey, Red Auerbach was a pioneer in breaking down barriers for African-Americans in basketball. Auerbach drafted the first African-American player in 1950, Chuck Cooper. Auerbach was the first coach to have an all-black starting five, and was also the first GM to hire an African-American coach (Russell, who was still playing, and became a player-coach, in 1966). Auerbach hired Satch Sanders and then K.C. Jones to coach the Celtics in later years.
From Sports Illustrated’s October 26, 1959 NBA preview:
Last season: Won 52, lost 20; first in East
Top scorer: Bill Sharman, 20.4 average
Top rebounder: Bill Russell, 23.0 average
The Celtics are the world champions and they can hardly be better than they were last year when they took a long early lead, held it for three months and then breezed past Minneapolis in four straight games for the title. This year’s champions will be the team that can beat Philadelphia and Wilt Chamberlain, and the Celtics surely have the best chance in the East. They have balanced scoring power:
up front they have Tom Heinsohn, an amazing shooter whose occasionally erratic temperament is the only thing that has kept him from true stardom,
the rugged Jim Loscutoff and Bill Russell, who was the second-best percentage shooter in the NBA last season. In the backcourt they have Bill Sharman and the incomparable Bob Cousy, who have both averaged 18 points or better per game for many years. In reserve are two men who can play either the front or back court: the speedy Sam Jones and Frank Ramsey, the game’s greatest sixth man. In the battle with Chamberlain, however, two other factors could swing the tide.
First is the savvy of Coach Red Auerbach, whose explosive courtside behavior has long obscured the fact that he has one of the keenest minds in the game.
And second, of course, is Cousy’s brilliant generalship, which probes for rival weaknesses and exploits them relentlessly.
None of which takes into account Russell’s determination to maintain his rating as basketball’s best defensive player.
Gene Conley and K. C. Jones are vastly improved players, and three rookies, John Richter, Gene Guarilia and Maurice King, are all ready to play pro ball. King, a guard, has a tough job of breaking into a squad loaded with backcourt talent. Richter, battling for a corner spot, seems the best bet to stick past cutdown date.
For a deeper understanding of Bill Russell, read Aram Goudsouzian’s King of the Court
In an unfortunate twist leading up to Russell’s ceremony, the 79 year-old has been in the news, having been cited for attempting to travel from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with a loaded gun in his luggage. If he had checked the luggage, and taken the bullets out of his gun, there would have been no incident. Russell admitted that he’d accidentally forgotten to remove the weapon from the bag. In a statement he released on October 20, “Before boarding my flight from Seattle to Boston, I had accidentally left a legal firearm in my bag. I apologize and truly regret the mistake. I was issued a citation by the TSA, whose agents couldn’t have been more thorough and professional when dealing with this. I really appreciate their efforts to keep air travel safe.”
The worst part: this incident has will get play over the next two weeks, focusing on one man’s oversight instead of his legacy as one of the most important American athletes of the last sixty years.
Is it a surprise that the greatest defensive player in NBA history has been unable to stop playing defense long after his career ended?
It’s unfortunate that for all the progress that we have made in America in terms of race-relations since Russell’s heyday, the mid-1960’s, racial hatred continues to plague us, continues to force us all to be defensive. The need to defend ourselves should not include a gun. And yet, for Russell, even at age 79, it does.