Baseball is often called “America’s pastime.” Since the 19th century, baseball has been one America’s most popular sports. Unfortunately, baseball has always had a messy relationship with race and the Cincinnati Reds are no exception The Reds, founded in 1882, were the first professional baseball team, but its members have frequently lacked racial harmony. The organization and some Reds fans still treat African-American baseball players as lower class based on their skin color.
There are many examples of racism throughout the Reds’ history. The front office has committed some fairly blatant racist acts. Greg Rhodes, Reds Hall of Fame director and co-author of three books on the Reds, said the Reds were one of the last five teams to integrate and when they finally did in 1954 they chose a very light skinned man – Charles Harmon.
Another example of racism from the front office occurred from the 1960s through the early 1970s. During this period, the Reds’ front office and field manager tried to separate white players from other players. Pete Rose wrote in his autobiography about how the Reds told him to stop spending time with some players of color. He wrote, “Once I was even called into the office and this one guy said I had to watch myself because I was hanging around with the colored guys too much, and he said a few of the white guys on the team were resenting it.” They didn’t want their most popular player to be seen with African-American players because it might anger people. Even though they were a team, the Reds tried to stop teammates from interacting.
The most recent example of racism in the Reds front office came in the early 1990s, when Reds owner Marge Schott was quoted in a Time Magazine article as calling two of her players “million dollar n***ers.” Outrage in Cincinnati was limited over this comment. Displaying such little outrage and allowing Schott to keep the team shows the Reds and their fans still saw African-American players as second class. Also, during the early ’90s only one out of 45 employees in the front office was African-American. The front office is only part of the problem. The fans make up the other half. Historically, Reds fans have been ruthless to African-American baseball players. The first example came in 1947 during Jackie Robinson’s first season. The book Opening Day tells a story of how Reds fans were so ruthless, vulgar and vicious toward Robinson that one of Jackie’s white teammates left his position on the field to put an arm around Jackie, telling Reds fans to stop.
I talked to John Erardi, writer from the Cincinnati Enquirer, about former Reds players and their time in Cincinnati. He said many former Reds felt like fans treated them poorly and that they were discriminated against. Erardi specifically mentioned Frank Robinson, who said racial slurs were the major way fans discriminated against him, and that what really affected him was when fans would use slurs against him when he was with his family in public.
Sports are tied into our culture. If we tolerate racism in something like baseball we will permit racism everywhere. Cincinnati does not have the best race relations and the city struggles with equality and tolerance. The Reds and their fans need to embrace African-American players to be seen as a great franchise. The Reds and their fans can uplift black players and try to improve race relations. It is up to the city of Cincinnati and the organization to decide.