Sometimes I read the New York Times sports section (which paradoxically can be the most political part of the paper) hoping that I’ll learn something despite the likely ideological assault. In that spirit, I started reading Sunday’s story about Roberto Clemente by historian Michael Beschloss. I made it to the ninth paragraph. After an eight-paragraph buildup about the racism Clemente faced as a “black Latino,” Beschloss writes:
After a stellar performance when the Pirates defeated the Yankees in the 1960 World Series, Clemente smoldered when he was denied the award for Series most valuable player. (The winner, Bobby Richardson, remains the only player to receive the award despite being on the losing team.)
This disingenuous bit of politicized innuendo—with its implication that the baseball writers and officials who selected the MVP denied Clemente the award because of his race—struck a chord in me. Years ago, I had frustrated my ten-year old son with a trivia question: Who was the only World Series MVP from a losing team, and why did he win the award? When my son learned the answer, he started guessing the “why” with pre-teen earnestness: Did Richardson set the all-time record for batting average? Did he set the all-time RBI record?
I really flummoxed him by responding that I had no idea what Richardson’s stats in the Series were; I assumed they must have been good, otherwise he wouldn’t have won. Then I reminded my son how the Series had ended—a walk-off home run by Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7—and asked him when the World Series MVP award is announced. The light bulb went on: Richardson won because the sportswriters and officials had voted before the end of the game, when the Yankees were winning. (They’d voted before the beginning of the eighth inning, actually, with the Yanks ahead 5-4.)
So Richardson’s award wasn’t about stats. And it certainly wasn’t about racism. Rather, like the infamous New York Post editorial congratulating the Boston Red Sox on winning the pennant the day after Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run for the Yankees in the 2003 American League Championship Series, it was about deadlines.
Richardson’s postseason stats in 1960 were pretty awesome—certainly enough to justify the award if the Yankees had actually won the Series. He hit .367, with five of his 11 hits going for extra bases. And, as a matter of fact, his 12 RBIs did set an all-time Series RBI record—a record that still stands today. By contrast, Clemente batted .310 with 3 RBIs, which might not have earned him the MVP even if Mazeroski hadn’t bailed the Pirates out with his home run. (Mazeroski hit .320 in the Series, and pitcher Vernon Law started three of the four games that Pittsburgh won.)
And here’s another statistic that bears even more directly on Beschloss’s insinuation of racism: in 1960, nine of the previous 11 National League regular season MVPs—a far more prestigious award than the Series MVP—had been black: Jackie Robinson in 1949; Roy Campanella in 1951, 1953, and 1955; Willie Mays in 1954; Don Newcombe in 1956; Hank Aaron in 1957; and Ernie Banks in 1958 and 1959. You could look it up, as Casey Stengel often said. (In the American League, which had been slower to break the color barrier, the first black MVP was Elston Howard in 1963.)
Beschloss’s isn’t the worst bit of liberal bias I’ve ever seen in the Times sports section. A few years ago, with no sense of irony, they ran two adjoining articles on the front page: the latest scare story about football and concussions, and a fawning article about a girl who’d made her high school football team. Still, it’s unlikely that a historian like Beschloss would be so totally unaware of, or incurious about, the history he’s writing about. The other option, one fears, is that he’s willing to leave out certain facts in order to advance the Times’s liberal worldview. And thus an interesting piece of baseball trivia, with no racial or ideological content whatsoever, is forced to conform to this agenda.
I don’t doubt that Roberto Clemente, one of baseball’s towering figures, faced racism in the fifties and early sixties, but this was not an example of it.