Red Sox World Series victory underscores progress on team’s race issues

Brian Wright O’Connor | 11/6/2013, 11:25 a.m.
If the first World Series title of this century buried "The Curse of the Bambino" and the second threw dirt ...
Red Sox slugger David Ortiz hits a grand slam in game two of the World Series. Ortiz has been instrumental in three World Series victories for the Sox. Courtesy of Boston Red Sox

David Ortiz was named most valuable player for the 2013 World Series.

(Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox photo)

David Ortiz was named most valuable player for the 2013 World Series.

If the first World Series title of this century buried “The Curse of the Bambino” and the second threw dirt on the grave, then the third may finally put to rest the ghost of Jackie Robinson.

After the umpire called the final out of the World Series last week, Red Sox fans of every race, color, and creed erupted in the sort of elemental joy that only the Olde Towne Team can inspire — a soul-stirring pleasure that feels like redemption in a city built on Puritan gloom and Catholic guilt.

In the decades after World War II, blatant institutional racism emerged as an even darker side of the city’s heritage. When Army veteran Jackie Robinson showed up at the “lyrical band box of a ballpark” in 1945, the team offered a phony tryout, with no intention of ever signing the speedy hitter who went on to become the first African American in the major leagues and a star with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Red Sox general manager Joe Cronin later passed on a chance to pick up a young phenom named Willie Mays from the Birmingham Black Barons for the Filene’s Basement discount price of $5,000.

In 1959, the Boston Red Sox, owned by South Carolinian Tom Yawkey, became the last team in baseball to integrate, and, perhaps not coincidentally, the one to suffer nearly the longest drought without a world title.

The contrast between the antebellum era of the Yawkey regime and the current team could not have been clearer as the eruption at Fenway Park — and in a million living rooms across Red Sox Nation — took place in the final hour of a balmy October night on the cusp of Halloween.

The undisputed star of the series was David “Big Papi” Ortiz, a Dominican of African descent, who has given more on and off the field to the fans of Boston than perhaps any player in the history of the carmine crew. In the 6-1 series-clinching victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, Ortiz walked four times, a testament to the power of his bat during his MVP post-season performance, which included hitting .688 in the series and sending a line-drive grand slam over the wall in a key pennant win over the Detroit Tigers. Ortiz starred in the 2004 and 2007 championships as well.

In becoming the face of the bearded Red Sox — whether at the plate, at the bodegas and barbershops of Jamaica Plain, or at scores of charity events — the massive designated hitter with the infectious smile has pushed to the background the resentment of fans from communities of color towards a team that for years was run more like a plantation than a professional sports franchise.

Under current owner John Henry, who helped register black voters in the South in the 1960s, the Sox have a racially diverse line-up, ranging from star Japanese closer Koji Uehara to 21-year-old Aruban shortstop Xander Bogaerts. While opening up the team, the management has also opened up the ballpark to a broader spectrum of fans.