November 18, 2018

Alvin Dark and the Persistence of Racial Stereotypes

November 20, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

It was inevitable that Alvin Dark obituaries after he passed away on November 13 would include the controversy provoked by a pair of Long Island (New York) Newsday columns in the midst of the 1964 pennant race in which, as manager of the competing San Francisco Giants, he was quoted as saying that “Negro and Spanish-speaking players on this team … are just not able to perform up to the white players when it comes to mental alertness.” Coming at a time when black and Latin players were among the very best in the game, and as integration was being consolidated in the major leagues with increasing numbers of minority players making big league rosters as core regulars on their teams, Dark’s comments were a reminder that major league baseball was still grappling with the race issue.

Alvin DarkDark’s ill-fated remarks were made to Stan Isaacs, a respected sports columnist who was out West on assignment (meaning he was not there to cover the Mets), on July 22 after the Giants had lost seven of nine games. The Giants were playing badly and Dark clearly felt his team could have been, indeed should have been, maybe two or three games up in the standings instead of in second place, one game behind the Phillies. He specifically singled out Puerto Rican-born Orlando Cepeda and Dominican-born Jesus Alou for “dumb” base-running mistakes.

Giants regulars who were “Negro and Spanish-speaking players on this team” also included shortstop Jose Pagan from Puerto Rico and pitching ace Juan Marichal from the Dominican Republic, not to mention Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and 1964 rookie sensation Jim Ray Hart (who missed out on NL Rookie of the Year honors only because Philadelphia’s Dick—then known as “Richie”—Allen was even more sensational).

Aside from the public relations firestorm Dark, as quoted by Isaacs, created for the Giants, the team’s Latin players in particular were incensed by their manager’s opinions of them, which primarily concerned their baseball work ethic. Said Dark: “You can’t get Negro and Spanish players to have the pride in their team that you can get from white players.” … “You can’t make them subordinate themselves to the best interests of the team.” … “They [their mistakes] are not the kind of things a manager can correct–missed signs and such–but they are inabilities to cope with game situations when they come up.” And he topped it off by saying, “I only know what I’ve seen on this team and other baseball teams.”

Dark’s remarks were disturbing on several levels. As the manager, and one who emphasized the importance of the team over the individual, he singled out a particular subset of players for criticism, which was not only inappropriate but foolish because the Giants’ best players were blacks and Latinos and now he seriously undermined their faith in his leadership. Dark quickly tried to backtrack, claiming he was misquoted and that his remarks were presented out of context by Isaacs.

Even if Dark had not really meant what he said, but rather was venting because his whole team was playing below their collective potential, he nonetheless betrayed prejudices that, at their most benign, were reflected in persistent casual racial and ethnic stereotypes that were not unusual in America at the time. While certainly insensitive and ill-informed, the racial and ethnic stereotypes held by many in America’s overwhelmingly majority-white population were not necessarily mean spirited (it was not, for example, unusual for stereotypes to be played for comic effect on television shows during the 1960s), but they were revealing of widely-held perceptions in a still largely-segregated society about specific minorities that many quite likely believed contained seeds of truth. In the absence of a more integrated society than there was at the time, and when it was still popular to see the United States as a great “melting pot” where all citizens of whatever background assimilate into the dominant culture (although this concept was beginning to unravel in the 1960s), there was little understanding of cultural differences and the perspectives of minorities, and little effort was made to understand them. Nor was there much doubt that the dominant white-majority culture offered the best that was possible in America.

In major league baseball, despite their no longer being any doubt that blacks could play–and star–at the major league level, black players continued to be dogged by racial stereotypes whose characteristics were rarely impugned on white players who failed to meet expectations. What was particularly insidious about these stereotypes was that they repeated the same arguments about the “personal characteristics” (if you will) attributed to blacks that major league owners had used nearly twenty years before to justify their opposition to the integration of organized (white) baseball. And these stereotypes were brought into the cultural realm when it came to Latin players from Caribbean basin nations as they became more prevalent on big league rosters.

According to James S. Hirsch in his 2010 authorized biography of Willie Mays, it was Mays who quelled a clubhouse rebellion by convincing his black and Latin teammates not to give up on Dark because they were in the heat of a pennant race. Mays forcefully argued that regardless of what they thought about Al Dark, a managerial change in mid-season would derail their pennant prospects. As it was, Isaacs’ columns hit the news in the San Francisco area in early August, when the Giants were hanging on to second place, close behind the front-running Phillies. Whether Dark’s opinion of them depressed the pennant-chase drive of the Giants’ black and Latin players is unknowable, particularly because of the month-long loss of Marichal–who was 15-5 through July–with back problems, but the team lost six in a row in mid-August, after which they were in third place, 8-1/2 games behind and fading fast.

That the Giants got back into the pennant race was only because the Phillies’ monumental collapse in September breathed unexpected life into their prospects. Notwithstanding that in 1962 he had led the Giants to their first pennant since moving to San Francisco in only his second year as manager, Alvin Dark was unable to recover from his controversial remarks, not to mention an outside-of-baseball lifestyle that was equally controversial as far as Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham was concerned, and was fired when the season was over. Dark went on to manage the Kansas City Athletics, Cleveland Indians, Oakland Athletics–who he skippered to two division titles in 1974 and 1975 and one World Series championship (1974) in his two years there–and finally the San Diego Padres before the sands of time ran out on his dugout years. (He later served in the front offices of both Chicago teams.)

Although he might best be remembered today for his career as a manager, let’s not forget that from the late 1940s into the mid-1950s, Alvin Dark was one of baseball’s premier shortstops–along with Phil Rizzuto of the Yankees and Pee Wee Reese of the Dodgers. He was an indispensable player on three pennant-winning teams: the 1948 Boston Braves in his rookie season, in which his .322 batting average helped earn him Rookie of the Year honors; the 1951 New York Giants, the team that Bobby Thomson made famous; and the 1954 Giants that Willie Mays made famous with arguably the catch of the century that helped spark a four-game sweep in the World Series of the favored 111-win Cleveland Indians.

The following is a link to The New York Times obituary on Alvin Dark: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/14/sports/baseball/alvin-dark-giants-shortstop-and-manager-dies-at-92.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A8%22%7D

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