November 27, 2014

To Preserve History–Or Not To

January 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

In my last blog (“Censorship The Hall of Fame Way”), I wrote about the editors of the Hall of Fame’s membership publication, “Memories & Dreams,” censoring the last article I wrote while still working at the Hall of Fame. I urge you to read that article if you haven’t, since this is a follow-up to some points I made there.

The key issue was three changes the editors made to my article, all involving the word “nigger,” which was deemed too inflammatory a word to see the printed light of day. The first two changes were fairly simple, though I wondered why the same word was altered in two different ways. Once it was printed as “______” and the other time as “(racial epithet),” suggesting that two different words had been expurgated. The third change involved the senseless deletion of an entire paragraph which I felt was the strongest thing in the article: Jackie Robinson’s grandmother’s definition of “nigger,” a poignant, forceful definition given by Robinson during testimony at his 1944 court-martial.

I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on the article, but here I want to address a comment made by one reader, who wrote, “In fairness, the Hall was between a rock and a hard place in respect to using the n-word. If they had used it, they would have been criticized from both sides of the political spectrum. Although I agree with your analysis and that the word was necessary in the context in which you used it, I can’t really blame the editor for deciding that discretion was the better part of valor.”

I appreciated that comment, which echoed some that I had heard already. I strongly disagree, however, and want to explain why. The Hall of Fame’s official mission is to “preserve history, honor excellence, and connect generations.” Following their own mission would have been the best reason to include the definition of “nigger” provided by Robinson’s grandmother, a slave. First, it was history. That’s what Robinson said, and you can’t preserve history by pretending that it wasn’t said. Second, it was excellent, a perfect way not only of answering the question posed to him, but also of showing the depth of Robinson’s character which allowed him to withstand the racism he faced during his later baseball career. Third, it was a way of connecting generations, of reminding people today of the harsh reality of racial prejudice that forced so many people (many inspired by Robinson) to fight it and pave the way for today’s (somewhat) more enlightened society.

There is a more important way in which the editors’ decision was misguided; it reflects a double standard which is not out of character for the Hall of Fame. I don’t think the reader who made the comment sympathetic to the plight of the editors is aware of this, which is why I’m going to the trouble of mentioning it here. “Memories & Dreams” is primarily distributed to people who subscribe to the Hall of Fame’s “membership” program, that is almost entirely adults.

On the third floor of the Hall of Fame Museum is a terrific exhibit honoring Hank Aaron which opened a couple of years ago. It includes dozens of items donated and loaned by Aaron himself, including an example of the hate mail he received when he was approaching Babe Ruth’s hallowed record of 714 career home runs. The hand-printed letter was indeed loaded with hate, including the place where the writer called Aaron a “dirty old nigger man.” In case you can’t read the printing, the Hall of Fame’s curators placed a typewritten transcription next to the original. They don’t want you to miss the fact that some bigot called Aaron a “dirty old nigger man.” (If they can display it twice, so can I.) In the “Pride and Passion” exhibit on the museum’s second floor, devoted to the history of African Americans in baseball, is another hate letter directed at Aaron in which he was referred to as a “niger” [sic].

So there are two places in the museum where the word is prominently on display. Thousands and thousands of people–families, parents and children–walk past those exhibits every year. There’s the word. The curators knew that it was an important part of Aaron’s history, something that people today might not even know about if they were reminded of it–that even as he was about to break baseball’s most ballyhooed record, the greatest achievement of his career and his most glorious moment, he was victimized by racist hatred.

That’s history. That’s how it happened. It’s right there in the museum so that children who see it can ask their parents about it, and the parents can explain what the world was like back then. People can learn from it. It connects generations.

But the editors chickened out, so I can’t see where they were between a rock and a hard place. They had the precedent of the museum itself to draw from, and a much narrower audience to consider. I believe it might have been different if my article had come out of nowhere. However, I was asked to write the article, and surely the editors must have known that it’s impossible to write about Robinson’s court-martial without dealing with the issue of racism. It is, as the man who wrote the comment acknowledged, necessary.

The editors dropped the ball, pure and simple. They had a perfect opportunity to fulfill all three of the Hall of Fame’s missions by leaving in the most powerful, important paragraph in the article. Instead, they fulfilled the mission of all racists, which is to intimidate innocent people into fearful avoidance of the truth. Way to go!

Gabriel Schechter grew up within ten miles of the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium, is a lifelong Reds fan, and once attended games in Los Angeles and San Diego on the same day. From 2002-2010 he was a Research Associate at the library of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and is the author of Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGraw’s Giants; Unhittable: Baseball’s Greatest Pitching Seasons; and This BAD Day in Yankees History, as well as the blog Never Too Much Baseball.

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