I would like to follow in the footsteps of many middle-aged male academics and write an essay about baseball. I would like to depart from the general tone of those essays and focus on three words: “fucking,” “niggers,” and “our.”
#1. “Fucking.” As in “This is our fucking city.” On April 20th, 2013, this is part of what Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz told the assembled crowd when the Red Sox appeared at Fenway Park for the first time after the Boston Marathon bombings. It was a Saturday, at the end of a terrible week, a week that began on Monday – social media timelines curdling into horror confusion. I had a busy afternoon at work, but opted out of a ceremony to honor scholarship winners to go home and sit in front of a TV and watch mass media churn the same stew of horror and confusion.
I was fortunate not to have any friends or family hurt or killed in the bombings, but I took the whole thing hard. As a Boston native, it was hard to watch the horror unfold in such a familiar place from my work in South Carolina. I tried to reclaim those streets in an essay published here, but the events of the rest of the week subsumed that reflection. As I observed to a journalist friend, having a beat that is usually things that happened 350 years ago means that I rarely have to rip up my story, or watch it get punted into irrelevance. That’s however, exactly what happened, as a story that was too close and too scary got closer and more personal, as events moved from Boston, the city of my birth, across the river to Cambridge, the city where I was raised. Intense investigative and surveillance work tracked the suspected perpetrators to a house that happened to be on the same block as my godchild’s family; old and dear family friends have a son who was wrestling co-captain with the younger suspect. And then Friday was a cop killing, a lockdown, with chases through more familiar streets, and a shootout in Watertown. Sean Collier, the MIT campus police officer killed early Friday morning was a friend of friends. In an attempt to do something, I paid for a couple of pizzas from the local pizzeria for Clemson University campus PD to redeem. I imagine that the Clemson PD have seen a lot of things, but probably not a middle aged man bearing pizza gift certificates and trying to explain without bursting into tears.
Then on Saturday, the Red Sox took the field. As is the custom, the Boston Red Sox wear white at home, with their team name on the front of the jersey; on the road, they wear gray, and their city name on the front of the jersey. Saturday was different. There was a ceremony, and David Ortiz explained: “All right, Boston: This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say Red Sox. It says Boston. We want to thank you, Mayor Menino, Governor Patrick, the whole police department for the great job that they did this past week. This is our fucking city. And nobody gonna dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
I happened to see this on live TV, but with no audio while I was ordering a sandwich. Once again, social media indicated that something had happened, so I found a clip when I got to the office. It was exactly what a hurting city needed. (Watch the clip to see exactly what that exactly was, exactly). Ceremonies surrounding baseball games tend to have a rote quality – honor guards, national anthems, first pitches, dignitaries. But look at David Ortiz: Big Papi does not remove hat or sunglasses, and holds the mic the way people do on MTV, not how they do on ESPN.
It starts predictably. The burly DH thanks the mayor and the governor, and the police (one of the strange things about terrorism is how it makes people embrace law enforcement officers), and then “this is our fucking city” – he might as well have dropped the mic on the Fenway infield. I was moved to celebrate the moment by making stickers, which I have been sending to people who helped, or who ask for them and explain how they helped. As the spring unfolded, and as I worked on a Boston-related thing for my day job, I started to reflect on this incident in the context of another word:
#2: “Niggers.” As in “get those niggers off the field.” The last decade or so has been a good one for Boston sports fans like me. The Patriots won their first Super Bowl the day after I got married, and won two out of the next three; with Big Papi’s help, the Red Sox broke their 86 year title drought, and added another in 2007; the Celtics returned to their championship ways, and even the Bruins snared the Stanley Cup in 2011. For long-time Red Sox fans, one of the best parts of the resurgent Sox was seeing men of color clasped to the collective bosom of the Red Sox nation: Ortiz, Ramirez, Martinez. In the middle oughts, I started seeing Latino and Black kids around Boston sporting Red Sox gear, which was not done in the 80s. The Red Sox, Boston, New England, etc, all have work to do on this front, but we’ve moved forward from another time when someone loudly uttered a bad word at Fenway Park.
This is legendary, and possibly apocryphal, but does capture the spirit of Boston and the Red Sox in those days. In 1945, the Red Sox bowed to local pressure and offered a tryout to Jackie Robinson, Marvin Williams, and Sam Jethroe. While they were being put through their paces, a voice boomed from the pressbox area “get those niggers off the field.” The voice may or may not have belonged to Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey. True or not, the Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate, in 1959, with the immortal Pumpsie Green. It’s not for nothing that Howard Bryant was able to publish a 320 pp. book on the vexed history of race and baseball in Boston. As a native of the Dominican Republic, David Ortiz does not fit readily into the black/white dichotomy that defines a color line like the one that Jackie Robinson broke, but it’s fair to say that Sox manager Pinky Higgins would not have been in a hurry to find a spot for Papi on his roster.
#3 “Our.” As in “this is our fucking city.” When a man in a baseball uniform stands on a baseball field, takes a microphone and says a bad word on national television on a sunny April afternoon, people notice. NESN, aka New England Sports Network uses a censored version of Ortiz’ performance in its promos. However, what’s interesting about “This is our fucking city,” is not the cuss, but the word right before the cuss – “our” – because of who said it, and where. “Our” is really the key to the whole thing. This word was on my radar because of some academic writing I was doing in the spring, about an early American historian named Samuel Eliot Morison. Morison literally embodies the field as it existed for many years–there is a statue of him two blocks up and one block over from the marathon finish line, labeled “Sailor, Historian.” “Our” can either be an embrace or a stiffarm; my research considered some of the ways that Morison uses the idea of “our” to create a narrow sense of who gets to be part of American history, and who gets to write this history. When Morison publishes a book “Builders of the Bay Colony: A gallery of our intellectual ancestors,” he means “our ancestors” in a literal, biological sense, and not some sort of hazy, nationalistic sense. Morison’s work stretches over some three hundred years of a city that has understood that “us” more as a stiffarm and less as a hug. When I teach early American literature, John Cotton leads off with “Gods Promise to His Plantations,” a sermon delivered to the English settlers of Boston as they get ready to leave England. His text is 2 Samuel 7:10: I will appoint a place for my people…. As Cotton applies it, the message is pretty much, that’s our fucking city over there. John Winthrop usually follows with a “Modell of Christian Charity,” and its famous image of a city on a hill, (which, via Peggy Noonan, found its way into a Reagan inaugural speech); importantly, the city is not on a hill to make it easier to reach. In later years, even an out-of-town paint magnate like Silas Lapham had a hard time making a go of it in Boston. Jackie Robinson completed his Hall of Fame career for the Dodgers in 1956, three years before Elijah “Pumpsie” Green debuted for the Red Sox, making them the last team in major league baseball to integrate.
It would be nice to claim that Pumpsie Green brought a new era of racial harmony to Boston, but it would be incorrect. Bad things continued to happen, inside and outside of Fenway Park. I was born in 1969, and my childhood memories include my parents trying to explain why people were rioting about getting on a school bus, and sitting in section 33 and hearing fellow Sox fans taunt Jim Rice.
There are probably some parents throughout the very real imagined community of the Red Sox Nation who were sorry that their kid’s hero, David Ortiz, DBA “Big Papi,” the most beloved athlete in New England, said a bad word. But it’s worth a dollar in a swear jar. There he was, a dark-skinned native of the Dominican Republic, speaking for his team, and his city, and talking about an “our” big enough for anyone who wanted a piece of it. Papi was there to speak for us, to speak through us in a moment of fear and pain. Unlike Morison’s “our,” Papi’s “our” is not contingent on which boat brought you to New England, or what your parents look like. Like every American city, Boston still has a long way to go on race relations. As a nation, we need to try to understand what made the bombers hate. Some people hate sports, and they have good reasons for feeling that way. However, sports also create possibilities. On a Saturday afternoon in April, sports made it possible for a DH in wraparound shades to help heal wounds old and new.
—Jonathan Beecher Field: Who is Stan Papi?