February 1, 2006
It was a long time coming.
”I played for the Red Sox,” Tommy Harper said. ”I coached for the Red Sox. I’ve worked in the front office for the Red Sox. And full disclosure: I still work for them. But I never thought I was a part of Red Sox Nation.
”There’s a difference between playing for the Red Sox and working for the Red Sox and feeling a part of the Red Sox family. I never felt a part of the Red Sox family — until now.”
This was yesterday morning, in the auditorium of the John F. Kennedy Library, where Harper, who at 65 has lost a few steps but still holds the Sox record for stolen bases in a season (54), was celebrating the memory of Jackie Robinson with 200 kids from Umana/Barnes Middle School in East Boston. Jackie would have been 87 today if diabetes had not cut his life short in 1972, three years after Harper, who as a kid growing up in Oakland dreamed of dancing off the bag with the same defiant daring he saw Robinson display, stole 73 bases for the expansion Seattle Pilots and dedicated the American League stolen base title to the man who broke baseball’s color line.
It is ancient history to these kids sitting in the auditorium, but Harper experienced some of the same outrages that tested Robinson’s mettle and manhood. Like the bus rides from Tampa to Fort Myers with the Cincinnati Reds, when the white players would shower after the game, pile onto the bus, and be taken out for a nice steak dinner, while the black players, including future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, would be given cab fare, told to fend for themselves, and given a time to meet the bus for the long ride back to Tampa.
”Frank said, ‘This is the last time we’re doing this,’ ” Harper said. ”The way Frank handled things, this is the way I’d choose to handle things. I learned from the way Frank handled himself. He said, ‘We’re not all going to make statements about this. Let me do it. Let me go to the front office. We don’t need the newspapers.’
”Frank went to the front office and said, ‘We’re not going.’ The next year, we went to the restaurant. I don’t know what he told the front office, but it changed.”
That was in the 1960s. It was in 1972 when Harper, newly acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers, had an encounter that would cast a pall over his career with the Red Sox. He was in spring training in Winter Haven, Fla., and saw some business cards sticking out from the top of some players’ lockers, but not his.
”I asked Reggie Smith,” Harper said, referring to his African-American teammate, ” ‘What are these?’ He said, ‘Cards to get in the Elks Club.’ I said, ‘Where’s ours?’ He said, ‘We don’t get one.’ ”
Harper never said a word about it when he played for the Sox. More than a decade later, when he was coaching for the team, a Globe reporter, Michael Madden, asked him about the Elks, who had maintained a whites-only policy. Harper told his story, and within a year he was fired by the team and wound up working in an auto body shop on Brookline Avenue. He filed an anti-discrimination suit that was settled out of court for a few hundred thousand dollars. It would be more than a decade before he returned, as a member of Jimy Williams’s staff, and now he works in the team’s community relations department.
But for years, the Elks Club experience would be the defining moment of his time spent in a Sox uniform.
”What people never understood,” Harper said yesterday, ”is I never had a problem with the Elks Club. I don’t have a problem with where you want to eat or what club you belong to. My problem was with the Red Sox. How can you let a man come in and distribute cards on a segregated basis, and still call me a teammate? Wait. You can’t call me a teammate or tell me I’m part of the Red Sox family when you let a man in who is segregating us.”
Funny thing is, Harper said, people assumed he’d gone running to Madden with the story, even as the reporter insisted he was the one who initiated the topic. ”They accused me of doing it for money,” said Harper. ”I didn’t use anyone for money.”
It is the kind of story that long has saddled the Sox with a shameful racist legacy, taking its place with Jackie Robinson’s sham tryout, the distinction of being the last big-league team to integrate, its word-of-mouth status as a team where black players didn’t want to play.
Sure, Harper said, the Sox ratcheted up their minority hiring, but only, in his view, under the threat of legal action and public pressure. ”So they hired a few people,” he said. ”It doesn’t mean anything. Fine, but it’s how you’re treated that counts.”
But on this morning, as Pat Williams, the former Orlando Magic executive who cut his teeth in baseball, told the kids about the lessons he drew from Robinson’s life — lessons of courage and self-discipline, character, competition, and leadership — Harper declared that at long last, the Sox are emerging from the shadows of their past.
”When John Henry, Tom Werner, Larry Lucchino bought the team, yes, there was a definite change,” he said. ”There are changes that maybe you can’t see, but I see. There’s a different attitude. There’s a feeling of genuineness. Nobody had to pressure John Henry to change things. He didn’t need anyone to tell him to change. He changed things because he wanted to.”
Harper mentioned how Luis Alicea is climbing up the ladder as a minor league manager. He noted how DeMarlo Hale is coming back to the organization, as the first African-American third base coach in the team’s history. It’s not just with uniformed personnel. He hears it when he walks around the ballpark, talking to other employees of color, ”just your average workers.” He hears it from the fans. He tells of walking out the center-field gate and having the female usher, who did not recognize him, ask him how he enjoyed the game and wish him a good night. Small changes, perhaps, but the cumulative effect is profound.
”I know where this team has been,” he said. ”I know where it is now, and I know in the future where it is going to be. There’s progress being made, and the reason I like it, the Red Sox are not out there saying, ‘Look at what we’ve done, we’ve done this, we’ve done that.’ No, no, no.
”Things are being done because these are good people. It’s inclusive. I don’t think a black person could come now to the ballpark and not have a good experience. The total experience. As a black person, yes, I do feel a difference. I can’t put a finger on it. But it’s not because they hired this guy or that guy. No, it’s not that. It’s not numbers. It’s how well you’re treated.”
There is much still to be done. The Sox, like so many teams in big league baseball, are underrepresented in the front office. Another former Sox player, Ellis Burks, vowed at the winter meetings to one day return as the team’s first black manager. Fewer African-Americans are playing the game, and there are few black faces in the stands.
But if there was a message Harper wanted to impart to those kids in that auditorium, it was this: ”Even though I experienced racial slurs in my career, I’m still here. It didn’t stop me, it didn’t stop Jackie Robinson. These young people, they’ll come in contact with that stuff, too — you’re not going to eliminate it fully — but they can’t let it stop them from their goals.”
A few months ago, Harper was in his living room, watching on TV, when he heard John Henry, agonizing over Theo Epstein’s departure, question whether he was fit to own the Red Sox.
”John Henry is a very private person,” Harper said. ”I know how much that all hurt him. But I’d like to say to John Henry, who was asking, ‘Am I deserving of owning the team?’, in my eyes, yes. Yes, yes, yes.”
Â© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.