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Fight the Power
2005-11-30 05:36
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

When Vic Power went into a restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas in the early 1950s, a waitress promptly told him, "We don't serve Negroes."

"That's okay," Power answered, "I don't eat Negroes. I want rice and beans."

On this date in 1952, Jackie Robinson appeared on the TV program "Youth Wants to Know" and was asked if the New York Yankees were bigoted toward black ballplayers. According to Jules Tygiel's seminal book "Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and his Legacy," Robinson replied, "I think the Yankee management is prejudiced. There isn't a single Negro on the team now and very few in the entire Yankee farm system." The two most notable black prospects in the organization were Vic Pellot Power and Elston Howard. Power, who passed away yesterday after a lengthy battle with cancer, remembered years later, "I think they were waiting for my skin to turn white."

Tygiel continues, "The Yankees had…followed the same begrudging path toward integration as the majority of other clubs. In the early stages of the great experiment, they had exceeded the efforts of most clubs. In the post-1951 era, however, the Yankee efforts lagged, as they recruited few additional prospects."

The Red Sox will forever be remembered as the last team to integrate. Their racism clearly got in the way of putting a winning team on the field. But the Yankees were not much better. The biggest difference at the time was that the Yankees were in the middle of one of the great runs in baseball history. But their narrowmindedness is still shameful. Again from Tygiel:

According to Roger Kahn, there was a high-ranking club executive, who assisted by several martinis, confessed that a black man would never be allowed to wear a Yankee uniform. "We don't want that sort of crowd," he slurred. "It would offend boxholders from Weschester to have to sit with niggers." In 1953 traveling secretary Bill McCorry growled, "No nigger will ever have a berth on any rain I'm running."

In 1949, the eighteen-year old Power was singed by former Negro League manager Quincy Trouppe to play in the independent Porvincial League in Canada for $800 a month. The following season he lead the league with a .334 average and drove in 105 runs in 105 games. Tom Greenwade, the Yankee scout who had signed Mickey Mantle, purchased Power for $7,500. Power was given $500 by the team's general manager, only to later discover that he was entitled to recieve the full $7,500.

In 1951, Power played for the Yankee farm team in Syracuse in the International League. In Richard Lally's entertaining, "Bombers: An Oral History of the New York Yankees," Power explained:

Syracuse itself was okay for me, no trouble. But in spring training we went to Tampa. Colored people had no hotels there, it was white only. The Yankees get me a room in the best house in the colored neighborhood, but the best house was a funeral parlor. So I slept next to a room filled with dead bodies! No one asked me how I felt about the arrangement. They just stuck me with all these corpses.

The young Puerto Rican batted .294 in '51. Power felt that his play merited a September call up to the majors, but the Yankees were not yet prepared to make him the first black man on their big league team. He wasn't invited to spring training with the major league club the following spring either. Instead he was assigned to the Kansas City Blues in the American Association where he'd hit .331, slugging 16 homers, 40 doubles and 17 triples in 1952. Somehow, it was still not good enough for a September call-up.

Years later, in Danny Peary's fine oral history, "We Played the Game," Power recalled:

"Maybe the Yankees didn't want a black player who would openly date light-skinned women, or who would respond with his fists when white pitchers threw beanballs at him. I was the only black on Kansas City, and every time one of my teammates would homer, the pitcher would throw at my head. There weren't helmets in those days, so I had to rely on my reflexes and my fists. I had to protect myself. I had a temper and got into some brutal fights. Being Puerto Rican, I would fight anybody, but I wasn't a troublemaker.

...In 1953 I had another great year. I led the league with a .349 average, had 217 hits, 115 runs, 93 RBIs. Now everyone knew about me. I figured the Yankees couldn't ignore me any longer. Elston Howard was my roommate on the Blues. He wasn't competition to be the Yankees' first black. He wasn't a star. He was a conservative player, and his numbers weren't too good. The Yankees couldn't justify picking him as their first black as long as I was in their organization."

Power also told Lally:

"Ellie Howard was my roommate, I loved him, a nice guy. More the kind of colored player the Yankees wanted. A little bit of a yes-man. But I don't criticize him for that. He had a family to support and did what he had to do so the Yankees would promote him. Back then, on one wanted the colored players to make even the tiniest waves. Like, in our clubhouse there was a bathroom that said, 'Whites Only.' When I asked where the black people went, one of the ballplayers said I talk too much. He thought I was making trouble. But, no, I just wanted to go to the bathroom!"

That winter, Power was in New Orleans in the process of shipping his car back to Puerto Rico when he read in a newspaper that he had been shipped to the Philadelphia A's. The bottom line was that Power was a flamboyant character both on the field and off, and not considered Yankee material. Some in the organization tried to run down his fielding abilities but by all accounts he was a slick, and elegant glove man. In fact, Casey Stengal once remarked that Power was "the best I've seen in 20 years at guarding the line against pull hitters. And that includes Lou Gehrig."

But Power was considered a showboat by the Yankee brass, who were perhaps more concerned about Power's penchant for light-skinned women than any of his supposed flaws on the diamond. "Since when is it necessary for a member of the Yankees to conduct himself according to the dictates of Emily Post," questioned the esteemed columnist Wendell Smith. A good question when discussing a team with the likes of Billy Martin, Mantle and Ford on it.

"I didn't care too much because I just wanted to play in the majors. I would have been a big attraction in New York because of all the blacks and Puerto Ricans, but the Yankees didn't want me. Or maybe they didn't want blacks and Puerto Ricans coming to Yankee Stadium. (In the mid-50s, the Puerto Rican fans would hold a day for me in Yankee Stadium. They had a trophy to give me before the games, but the Yankee organization wouldn't let them give it to me at home plate, so they held the ceremony in the stands. That game I hit 2 homers, on against each pole.) I would always hit my best against the Yankees."

Jackie Robinson himself detailed the particular obstacles that Latin players faced in his book "Baseball Has Done It":

Segregation comes as a shock to them for at home they know no color barriers. Some stay within their own Spanish-speaking communities. Others react with indignation and refuse to take second-class-citizenship in the United States.

Among the latter is Vic Power."

Steven Goldman discusses Power today in his latest column, and concludes:

Power's place in Yankees history was sacrificed to his "intractability." It's much easier now to root for the Yankees, when this sorry aspect of the team's history is far in the past. Two African-American Yankees, Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield, are now in the Hall of Fame. Rickey Henderson will be the third, Bernie Williams may someday be the fourth among many great Yankees ballplayers of all races and nationalities.

Power would have liked to count himself among them. "I liked playing in Yankee Stadium because of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and all of those guys. You feel like you're one of those guys. And Yankee fans — they're different." Sportswriters would ask him if he hit well against the Yankees because he was mad at them. "No," he would say. "It's because I feel so proud just to think that Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig were standing where I'm standing now."

At this year's Old Timer's Day, when Bob Sheppard reads off the list of players who passed away over the previous year, one hopes the fans will give Power an extra-long hand for what he should have meant to the franchise.

Amen to that.

Comments
2005-11-30 07:00:36
1.   debris
Thanks for this, Alex. I might add that there is no player in the history of baseball that was more fun to watch than Vic Power.

I'd also add that it was racism and general mis-management that kept the Red Sox from winning for 86 years. Imagine what they'd have been in the late '40s and early '50s if they hadn't passed on both Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. Vern Stephens, Bobby Doerr, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and Willie Mays would have been one of the most murderous teams in history.

This is all well documented in Glenn Stout and Richard Johnson's fabulous myth-shattering book, Red Sox Century. I haven't read it but if their book Yankee Century is half as good as their Red Sox book, it is absolute must reading for all those who frequent this blog.

And for those who really hate Boston and want to hate it some more, Howard Bryant's book on the systemic racism in Boston sports, both Sox and Celtics, Shut Out, tells quite an ugly tale.

2005-11-30 07:09:58
2.   Dimelo
I knew Power was a Yankee farmhand at some point in time, but never bothered to read more details about him and how it pertained to the racisst views of the Yankee FO at the time. This was really good to read and makes me want to learn more about Power. Great job, Alex.
2005-11-30 07:17:45
3.   Alex Belth
Both Stout and Bryant agree that it was the racism of the Sox front office that hampered the team far more than any silly "curse." All of Stout's Century books (on the Sox, Yanks and most recently, the Dodgers) are great reads. We've got excerpts from each in our "Excerpts" column along the right hand side of this page. I saw that Red Sox Century was recently updated. Stout's next big book will be about the Cubbies.
2005-11-30 07:30:12
4.   Rockbox
Forget the Sox's, its important to remember the extreme racism that it a great part of the Yankee's history.

But why stop there? What about the extreme homophobia that still exists as a part of the team. Wasn't it Mariano who allegidly called the Yankee's equipment manager a "faggot" after he disclosed that he is HIV positive? Why is everyone always able to embrace the rascist "history" of baseball but ignore the other ism's that exist in the sport?

Alex, like one of your favorite singers says, its time for "cha cha changes".

2005-11-30 07:45:13
5.   Alex Belth
Rockbox. Good point. Both about the racism that governed the Yankees front office for so long as well as the rampant homophobia that still plagues professional locker rooms, as well as sports fans in general. I think that homophobia is the one great taboo still out there when it comes to big time sports. Sad to say, but it's regrettably true.
2005-11-30 07:55:33
6.   Alex Belth
David Pinto argues that the reason the Yankees didn't promote Power was because they had a better first base option in Moose Skowren.

http://www.baseballmusings.com/archives/012420.php

Steven Goldman agrees but adds that the Yankees still could have used Power. Regardless, I still say that the bigotry of the front office severly effected the Yankees during the 1950s and early 60s.

2005-11-30 07:56:49
7.   Alex Belth
Over here at Dodger Thoughts, Jon Weisman also adds his two cents about Power:

http://dodgerthoughts.baseballtoaster.com/archives/293881.html#fold

2005-11-30 08:02:48
8.   rbj
Skowron may have been a better player than Powers, but that doesn't lessen the Yankees' culpability in perpetuating racism in baseball.

Personally, I don't care who a ballplayer's bed partners are, as long as they're all consenting adults. And don't make an issue of it either. The only sex life I care about is my own.

2005-11-30 08:05:14
9.   Shawn Clap
I seem to remember an incident in the 80s when an Umpire was either fired or suspended after he was outed.

I must have been 10 or so and asked my rotten old man, why they did that and he replied: The ump would be too busy trying touch the catchers ass. He wouldn't pay attention to calling balls & strikes.

Looking back, that's a lot of misinformation to lay on a 10 year old. But I guess it goes to show, all the "isms" could be removed in one generation. Parents to children.

2005-11-30 08:29:03
10.   debris
Alex,

I dunno how much the racism affected the Yanks of that era. The only pennants they didn't win in the '50s were 1954, when they won 103 games, and 1959. The only Series they lost were to the Dodgers in 1955, probably the weakest Dodger team they faced between 52-55, but they had to lose to them sometime and 1957 when they lost to a monster Brave team, losing three games to the best spitballer of the era. And a lineup containing Mathews, Bruton, Covington, Crandall and a guy named Aaron was no pushover.

Certainly by the end of the Stengel era the lack of black ballplayers in the system contributed to their decline but, then again, they were facing the same age issues they are today.

2005-11-30 08:43:03
11.   Alex Belth
More than anything, I think the Yankees' racism--along with the free agent draft--affected the Yankees from the mid-sixties on.
2005-11-30 08:43:52
12.   Alex Belth
I think I misspoke about their bigotry affecting the 50s team.
2005-11-30 09:00:36
13.   wsporter
Alex thanks for today's post. I'm glad people remember. The history of the Yankees like all major league clubs is lamentable in the area of race. The fact that there was ever a "color ban" is disgusting . One or another team's speed in setting that policy aside is merely a matter of length of culpability it does not release the industry as a whole from this stain nor does it mitigate its guilt. The Yankees did suffer during the 60's because they had not looked to African American ballplayers as a source of talent earlier. As I recall it though the reason they couldn't compete was too much Dan Topping early in the decade and too much CBS post 1966. CBS's Yankee GM, Mike Burke, was a lovely person and a good television man who knew jack spit about baseball. He was a lot of things, not many of them good for the Yankees, I don't think he was a racist however. By 1966 we had fallen in line and we didn't discriminate. We treated everyone like crap. We wouldn't pay for talent no matter if it was white, black, yellow or green. Not till the Boss took over anyway.
2005-11-30 09:24:04
14.   Simone
Good stuff here, Alex. In the first article that you linked to, Mr. Power said "…I'm very proud of my accomplishments. I had marvelous careers in Puerto Rico and the major leagues….People remember me…you remember me." Thanks to you and Goldman, he got his wish and that is a wonderful gift.

I'm always happy to read more about different facets of baseball history. I really dislike when people discount the negative impact segregration and racism have had on baseball (same applies to football). Many talented players of both African and Latino heritage were unfairly denied the opportunity to partially or fully participate in this game that they loved.

I know that Faye Vincent has been collecting oral histories from the old Negro League players so that their stories wouldn't be lost. I don't where he is in this project though, but seemed like a passion for him. We simply must not forget these men.

2005-11-30 09:31:09
15.   debris
wsporter brings to mind a great quote from Jim Bouton: "For a hundred years the owners screwed the players. For 25 years the players have screwed the owners - they've got 75 years to go."
2005-11-30 09:47:28
16.   Alex Belth
That is a good one from Bouton. Of course, that doesn't include the collusion years of the mid-eighties, but I'm just being picky.
2005-11-30 11:45:34
17.   JL25and3
The Yanks may have had Skowron, but I'm not sure that's a sufficient explanation for their keeping Power down. Casey Stengel, with his penchant for complex platooning, always liked to have as many options as possible. Power could also play a little outfield, so he would have fit quite nicely in Stengel's system.
2005-11-30 12:07:23
18.   Cliff Corcoran
Great stuff, Alex, I'm putting this on the sidebar.

Two notes: 1) the institution of the draft also kept the Yankees down in that '65-74 period, though I do think their failure on the race front followed by some more typical front office bungling and the CBS fiasco etc. were larger culprits during the '60s proper. 2) Talking to Goldman about Power last night it sounds like Power may just have been one of the greatest defensive 1Bs ever. The Stengel quote is odd, though, as Gehrig was never considered a good fielder.

2005-11-30 12:33:33
19.   Rob
shows where my head is, the first thing i thought about was Homer Simpson's Max Power... "The name you love to touch, but you can't touch max power"
2005-12-30 04:56:10
20.   The Mick 536
In addition to the racism, Mike Burke ran the team. The team lacked baseball business acumen, talent (old, injured, and unlucky), and a stadium. The South Bronx wasn't a pleasant place to visit. One could say it still is, but it has come far since then. Additionally, the public looked down on PRs (racist term). We didn't know the word hispanic. Very sad.

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