Academically-oriented houses don't usually publish sports books with $40,000 marketing budgets. But then Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston (Routledge, Sept.), by 33-year-old sportswriter Howard Bryant, who covers the New York Yankees for the Bergen Record, "is not your average baseball book," says Routledge publishing director Karen Wolny. "It's also the story of black Americans and white institutions."
Bryant, who grew up in Boston during the school busing crisis of the '70s, argues persuasively that the Red Sox's real curse came not from trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 (invoking the so-called "Curse of the Bambino" that has kept the Red Sox from winning a World Series), but from failing to address pervasive racism within the organization. Bryant hits his message home with a personal story: "One day I asked my Grandpa why none of us had ever been to a [Red Sox] game, and he essentially said, 'We don't care for the Red Sox around here, because the Red Sox have never had any niggers. Never have, never will.'"
What makes the story of Red Sox racism so surprising is that in Boston, "We always believed we were equal partners with whites," says Bryant. "There were no separate facilities. Blacks had property on Martha's Vineyard. Boston's pedigree was egalitarian, but the reality was different. Nobody really believed how deep the divisions were until busing." Or that they might also be played out on the home team.
It's not a new story, as Bryant makes clear. "This has been sitting in the middle of the living room for 50 years, and no one was paying attention," he told PW. "Pieces have been told from time to time. People knew that the Red Sox turned down the chance to have Jackie Robinson. But it didn't stop with Robinson. They had a chance to get Willie Mays." It would take almost 20 years from Jackie Robinson's tryout until the Boston team signed its first black player in 1959, Pumpsie Green, who Bryant calls "the accidental pioneer. He was just a guy who was caught in a moment in history."
For the book, Bryant spent four years tracking down not just Pumpsie Green and Pedro Martinez, but more than 100 players and sports figures, including the new principal owner of the Red Sox, John Henry. He got a rare interview with Jim Rice, the first black superstar for the Red Sox, who was just a rookie in 1975, the first year of busing. Many looked to Rice to speak out about racism. "He rejected this idea. He wasn't prepared to be the public face of a franchise," says Bryant.
To get buzz going for Shut Out, Routledge is planning a 20,000-copy first printing, which, says Wolny, "is huge for us." First serial rights were sold to Boston Magazine, and the book was written up in Alex Beam's column in the Boston Globe last month. In an advance article, the Boston Herald called Shut Out "one of the most anticipated baseball books of the season" and will make the book its September book-club pick. In addition, Routledge is planning a five-city tour for Bryant, kicking off in Boston. Other stops include New York, San Francisco, Seattle and either Washington, D.C., or Philadelphia; a 20-city radio satellite tour is also in the works.