I promise not to get preachy, but it is hard to just idly pull out baseball cards and type without looking at the world around us.
Racism is alive and well. It is a blight on our history, a shame of our present and something all good people must fight.
I am guilty of it. I like to think that because I am not overtly racist or I am not one of those shitheads who went to Charlottesville with torches, this time without their hoods, that I am a good person.
But like all people, I have prejudices and biases that I may not even be aware of. I probably say and do things that will be shocking to future generations.
The best I can do is constantly try to learn, to listen, to have empathy and try to understand someone else’s situation.
I was going to write about Mo Vaughn later this month, but today seems like as good a day as any to talk about it based upon a specific memory I have.
Mo Vaughn was one of my favorite Red Sox players of all time. Seeing that I am a Red Sox fan. The Hit Dog was a native New Englander (like me, he was born in Connecticut.) He was a graduate of Seton Hall and a Red Sox first round pick in 1989.
As he moved up through the Red Sox farm system as a solid hitter with a ton of pop. He and Scott Cooper made Jeff Bagwell supposedly expendable down the stretch in 1990 which led to the Larry Andersen trade. That could have gone better.
Vaughn made his debut in 1991 and in 1992, had mixed results as the every day first baseman at age 24. His batting average was a sub par .234 but he did show some pop with 13 homers.
In between 1991 and 1992, the Red Sox were rumored to be shopping Mo Vaughn and looked like he was going to be dealt for Mark Gardner, an Expos pitcher.
I remember being pissed off by those rumors. The Red Sox had a horrific record with African American players, labeling many as trouble makers before going off to other teams and being model teammates. (See Smith, Lee.) And the Yawkeys were still in charge of the team. Those awful people not only were racist shits but also enabled a child rapist in their organization.
Then a wonderful thing happened between 1991 and 1992. Mrs. Yawkey died. And with her death, the Red Sox could finally crawl into the 20th century.
By 1993, Vaughn had established himself. He had some huge games for the Sox, including a pair of 5 RBI games. (Both were against the Oakland A’s). He had a flair for the dramatic that year. On May 23rd, he homered twice against the Yankees including a go ahead smash against ace Jimmy Key.
He finished the season leading the team in homers, RBI, runs scored, Slugging, OPS, On Base percentage, OPS+, Total Bases and second to Mike Greenwell in batting average.
He was heads and very broad shoulders the best player on the team. And he was great in the community, giving time to the Boys Club and other charities in Boston.
That winter, I went up to Boston to visit the family of my girlfriend. (She is no longer my girlfriend. It was 24 years ago.) She lived in a suburb that bordered the city and lots of old school Irish and Italian New Englanders were at her home for some party.
An old Irish uncle of hers was talking with me and knew how much I liked baseball and that I was a Red Sox fan.
“Do you know what player I like on the Red Sox?” he asked me.
“Who?” I replied.
“Bob Zupcic. I like him. He hustles. He is a good player. I call him Zipzuck.” Now nothing against Bob Zupcic, who made it to the majors for 2 full seasons and parts of 2 others.
He actually hit for a decent average in 1992 and gave the Red Sox 141 games in 1993. But he was no superstar. He was an average player by any traditional or advanced metric you want to have.
On a team where there was an All Star caliber slugger like Vaughn and he choose to single out Zupcic. I nodded.
“Do you know who I don’t like?” He asked. I figured I could guess where this is going.
“Who?” I asked with dread.
“I don’t like that Mo Vaughn. Don’t like him.” He said, shaking his head with contempt.
“He’s their best player” I responded. “It is isn’t even close.”
He shook his head and decided to teach me about the world. “You see, the history of the black people is mental errors. They can’t concentrate.” I’m not kidding. He said that to me.
It was the creepiest kind of racism. Racism masked with phony sociology and an understanding that I agree with him. That casual racism that can be found all around New England.
“Mental errors, like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson?” I countered.
“Look at the black players,” he continued, ignoring the point I made. “How often can you rely on them to do things like throw to the right base or hustle.”
“That’s a bunch of shit.” I said to him.
“Look at the history” he responded.
“I have. Their history is being beaten up by assholes and having to be better than everyone else because nobody will give them credit.” I said.
“No no no…” He continued.
I waved my hand and said “You are full of shit.” I walked away. I never talked to him again. That was in 1993. I assume he is dead. I hope so at least.
There is a lot of defensiveness from white Bostonians when anyone brings up the undercurrent of racism that flows through the culture. Besides, it is the city that gave us JFK, liberty and hardly a spot for the KKK. Watch the reaction when Adam Jones was called racist names at Fenway this year. All of WEEI and the Boston twitterverse claimed that the racism is always exaggerated.
Ask anyone of color about it, and yeah. They nod their heads. The people who have to deal with it confirm it and the people who don’t have to deal with it get defensive.
There are a lot of people like my ex girlfriend’s asshole uncle. I saw it in person when African American kids were bussed into my school district in the 1970’s in the MetCo program. Some parents would say “I don’t like those MetCo kids coming over.” Somehow MetCo became a slur.
That was the world that Mo Vaughn entered. He was briefly teammates with Ellis Burks, who famously said about Boston when he left for Chicago “Why would any brother want to play there?”
Mo Vaughn defied all of that. He became the face of the franchise and quickly a beloved player. Vaughn had huge power numbers and his home runs seemed to sail higher and farther than anyone else’s bombs.
He led the AL with 126 RBI, batted .300 and had an OPS of .963 as the Red Sox won the AL East title in 1995. Vaughn was named MVP. He shouldn’t have been named MVP. Albert Belle was the MVP. But writers didn’t like Albert Belle and the LOVED Mo Vaughn, so Mo won it.
He was even better in 1996, seeing his OPS soar to 1.003. By 1998, he and Nomar Garciaparra put together the deadliest 1-2 punch in the American League. And with the arrival of Pedro Martinez, the idea of a Red Sox pennant was not outlandish.
At the 1998 home opener, against Seattle, the Red Sox trailed 7-2 in the bottom of the 9th. The Sox went on a wild rally, going through four pitchers without getting an out before Paul Spoljaric faced Vaughn. Seattle lead was down to 7-5 and the bases were loaded.
Vaughn launched a walk off grand slam, sending Fenway into hysterics.
The Red Sox made the post season again, but all was not well. Dan Duquette, in all his infinite wisdom, picked fights with Vaughn whose contract was up at the end of the season.
Shortly after the Red Sox were eliminated by the Indians, Vaughn signed with the Angels and Boston fans were crushed.
His time in Anaheim and later the Mets were marred with injuries with the occasional huge blasts. But he was missed most in Boston.
He was a significant figure in Boston sports history. He was loved in ways that Bill Russell and Jim Rice were not during their playing days. (Thankfully Boston has embraced them in retirement.) His popularity led to the Pedro, Ortiz and Manny era in Boston. There is no way a team led by a trio of Dominicans would have existed in a pre Mo Vaughn Red Sox world.
Perhaps it was fitting that Vaughn exploded at the plate and with the community after the death of Mrs. Yawkey.
Vaughn was Big Papi before Big Papi. He was the heart and soul of the team who loved playing for Boston and understood his role.
He wore 42 back when that was just a number, 6 years before it was retired all around baseball. Vaughn picked 42 because it was Jackie Robinson’s number. And which club had the first chance to sign Jackie? That would be the Red Sox.
The Red Sox were the last team to integrate and whose horrible reputation continued through the 1980’s and the Tommy Harper lawsuit. Vaughn knew he had a big responsibility and it was more than just hitting homers.
Mo Vaughn continues to live the right way (although I am not sure if his love for strip clubs is still alive and well.) He works to help rehabilitate low income housing in inner cities
He has invested millions of his own money on upgrades and reinvestments in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Vaughn became a beloved black superstar in Boston. There was a point in time that would have been impossible. And there are plenty of people like my ex girlfriend’s uncle who no doubt passed the racist baton for another generation.
So racism may never go away. It may find new places to flourish. But don’t listen to the people who mask their own bigotry and ignorance as wisdom and intelligence. They must never win. And either try to show them the light or sit back and wait and hope they die soon enough.
Please enjoy Mo Vaughn’s walk off grand slam in 1998.