Yankee outfielder Jake Powell (left) is presented with a wallet as a token of esteem from fans of Laurel, Maryland, where he once played semi-pro baseball. Presenting him the wallet is Mayor E.E. Hatch of Laurel.

Yankee outfielder Jake Powell (left) is presented with a wallet as a token of esteem from fans of Laurel, Maryland, where he once played semi-pro baseball. Presenting him the wallet is Mayor E.E. Hatch of Laurel.

Library of Congress

Baseball and the word that must not be said

A word that troubles us today caused trouble in the 1930s, too.

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Bob Elson is not the sort of person you’d expect to touch off one of the most notorious racist incidents in the history of Chicago sports.

A former choir boy who sang with the famous Paulist Choir, his golden voice made him a natural for radio.

But that’s the thing about racism. It’s a snake; you never know when it’s going to spring out of some hidden recess and bite you.

Opinion bug


In the 1930s, Elson broadcast both Cubs and Sox games. The Bears, too. On days when there were no home games, he would sit in a windowless studio and recreate out-of-town contests from telegraphed reports.

Finding something to put on the air was a constant challenge. The “Man in the Dugout” interview was Elson’s idea: Fill time before the first pitch talking to players.

On a lovely late July day in 1938. Elson was at Comiskey Park with his live microphone, chatting up players. He buttonholed Yankee slugger Jake Powell, who batted .455 in the 1936 World Series.

“How do you keep in trim during the winter months in order to keep up your batting average?” Elson asked. A lazy pop up of a question. But Powell muffed it, big time.

“Oh that’s easy,” he replied. “I’m a policeman. I beat ...”

And here he used the plural of a word that I’m not even going to hint at. Not my choice — I would just lay it on you, full bore, and trust you would not shatter like glass.

“... over the head with my blackjack.”

Mary DeVoto, a veteran history teacher at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School, more recently used the word, trying to contextualize offensive sports team names. Now she’s out of a job.

Maybe she should have said “the n-word” — the Sun-Times put it in the subhead, so it’s probably OK. Unless it’s not. A UIC School of Law professor Jason Kilborn dashed the word out in the hypothetical of a civil procedure test and was still suspended.

So discretion is in order.

The irony of these situations is they never snag actual racists. Mother McAuley is in Mount Greenwood, and while I don’t want to stick my arm in that hornet’s nest, let’s just say that were you to decide to start punishing racists there, DeVoto is not the obvious place to begin.

Back at Comiskey in 1938, after Powell unleashed the word, Elson immediately apologized to his listeners. The Chicago Defender called for Powell to be fired.

Whenever I read one of those history-is-supposed-to-make-you-uncomfortable essays, ridiculing Republican snowflakes for shamefully trying to literally whitewash the past so they don’t feel bad about being revanchist bigots — not that they do — I consider this word’s banishment and think: The past shouldn’t discomfit everyone, apparently. Not when it comes to this word.

This unsayable word seems to have morphed into a sui generis landmine that blows up, not toxic bigots, who seem to exist safe in a parallel universe where naked racism only increases their star power — Joe Rogan sure isn’t losing his job — but humble history teachers and third-tier law professors and late-career newspaper columnists.

So I tread carefully, while working this out in my mind to reach a position that isn’t mere compliance. I can do what I’m told with the best of them. But I like to make sense of it, too.

When baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis called Powell into his Chicago office, the slugger “didn’t remember saying anything offensive.” There are still people like that.

I certainly see the offense. Maybe never using the word is one way of recognizing all that history that bigots don’t even perceive, never mind try to address. There are 200,000 words in the English language. I can give up this one and still get by.

That said, I don’t believe banishment is a sign of progress but the harvest of low hanging fruit. Maybe even the old racist system of unwritten rules, the one that for centuries would chew up Black people, now re-formatted to bite random whites careless enough or naive enough not to master its complexities.

Not me. I can touch my hat and step off the sidewalk when required. Maybe that’s a kind of fairness. Maybe not.

Elson fought in World War II, broadcast thousands of games and lived to 76, admired and respected. Powell was suspended for 10 days for making “an uncomplimentary reference to a portion of the population.”

He then played major league ball until 1945, stealing items from teammates’ hotel rooms and intentionally sliding into Jewish Tigers star Hank Greenberg, breaking his wrist and putting him out for the season.

Powell ended very badly — people aren’t bigots because they’re so happy and well-balanced. Arrested for passing bad checks, Powell shot and killed himself in a police station in 1948, saying, ”I’m going to end it all.”

Though of course he didn’t end it all: The evil that men do lives after them, on and on and on.

Editor’s note: This column has been changed from its earlier version, which included a photo with an incorrect caption.

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