Before the NBA dealt with Kyrie Irving’s anti-Semitism, Baseball faced a similar dilemma.

After Kyrie Irving’s suspension for anti-Semitic remarks, it’s worth remembering that the Brooklyn Nets star is hardly the first professional athlete to be punished by a major sport for racist behavior. Most people don’t remember another New York City athlete, Jake Powell. He was suspended longer than the eight games he was forced to sit after Irving tweeted his approval of a widely condemned film that carried anti-Semitic tropes.

In the 1930s, Powell was a pretty solid baseball player, born in Maryland and raised there as well as in Washington. Powell first played for his hometown Washington Senators, where he was a strong fielder, a decent base stealer, and a pretty good hitter at times. During the 1936 World Series, Powell played for the Yankees and had the highest batting average of the series at .455. He also scored the most runs and had the most hits, helping the Bronx Bombers defeat the New York Giants for the championship in six games. Series star Powell finished better than future Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey and Tony Lazzari.

But no one remembers Powell for his hitting, pitching, or even base stealing. (He was the only Yankee to steal a base in a 36-game streak.) He is remembered for a 1938 radio interview with Bob Elson (a future Hall of Famer as a baseball broadcaster) on Chicago’s WGN. Elson asked Powell, a native white southerner, how he stayed in shape during the winter. The slugger replied that staying in shape is “easy” because “I’m a cop” and that he works out when he “beats niggers over the head with a blackjack” before being “thrown in jail.” Right after he said that, WGN cut the interview short.

The station, one of the Midwest giants, was bombarded with angry callers. The “Great Migration” of blacks from the South to the industrial North, especially Chicago, was well underway, and the new residents were changing the politics of the city. The Windy City boasted its only Black member of Congress, Arthur Mitchell, and two African Americans were on the city’s board of aldermen. The Chicago quarterback it was probably the most important Black newspaper in the country, with a circulation of over a quarter of a million. Blacks in Chicago faced extraordinary discrimination, but such blatant racism—using the N letter on the city’s most important radio station—was banned even in the 1930s, which was more or less like tweeting anti-Semitism while playing for Brooklyn in 2022. , like Irving, couldn’t have chosen a bigger, more ironic forum to air his bigotry, especially if he wanted bad publicity.

Former New York Yankees player Jake Powell.

The remarkable thing about Powell’s racist rant is that it’s an outright lie. Powell was not a policeman at the time. However, he had applied for such a position in Dayton, Ohio, where he had lived since playing minor league baseball. Powell didn’t need to embellish his racist credentials. He was already known as an all-out bigot who hated Jews as much as black people. In 1936, Powell intentionally ran into Detroit Tiger Hank Greenberg, injuring the Jewish first baseman so badly that he was out for the season after playing just 12 games. While playing for the Senators (before going to the Yankees), Powell ranted about Italian American players. Still, he was smart enough to shut his trap on this aspect of his bigotry when he teamed up with DiMaggio, Lazzari and Frankie Croseti.

Major League Baseball knew it had to respond to Powell’s flamboyant bigotry, even if it didn’t allow black players into its ranks. Black and leftist newspapers joined the league and the Yankees, demanding that Powell face sanctions. The NAACP and the National Urban League filed complaints against the White Sox, where the Yankees were playing when Powell was interviewed. Interestingly, conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler, proto Rush Limbaugh or Pat Buchanan, claimed that the major leagues “treat Negroes as Adolf Hitler treated Jews” and blamed baseball’s segregation policy for actually giving Powell’s bigotry a green light. .

Some journalists dismissed Powell’s comments, arguing that the star hitter had been misunderstood or misquoted, or that the reporter had encouraged him to make those comments. Since the interview was broadcast live, all these excuses were absurd. The public was not buying this fake news from Powell’s defenders.

At that time, the major leagues were completely segregated. Blacks have not played in any team. The owners and baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis stonewalled suggestions that it was time to integrate. But by this time there were breaks in the color line. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which Adolf Hitler and the Nazis thought would demonstrate their superiority, black athletes ran away with medals one by one. They were led by Jesse Owens with four gold medals and Chicago’s Ralph Metcalf (a future congressman) who won gold and silver. Joe Louis was the heavyweight champion of the world. But baseball was still segregated.

Nevertheless, despite Landis’ hostility to integration and the no-nonsense journalists ready to dismiss a racist rant, both Major League Baseball and Powell were under popular pressure (and perhaps felt political pressure, especially in Chicago). So Landis moved, though not with much force. He downplayed the import of the suspension by handing Powell a 10-game suspension, adding that he believed the “remark was more about carelessness than intent.” Powell’s racism came at a cost. Baseball Hall of Fame records show he was making $8,000 a year at the time. That would be about $160,000 in today’s dollars. Employment paid him 6.5 percent of his salary. That’s money he’ll surely miss. On the other hand, Kyrie Irving earns around $37 million annually. Losing an eight-day suspension would be a fortune for most Americans, but it won’t even be a rounding error for him. By Jake Powell’s standards, Irving’s pinky finger, his wrist, was pretty minor. On the other hand, it could lose millions from companies like Nike that release it.

Powell was sitting in the stands at a Detroit Tigers game when he was suspended and a fan yelled, “Say what you said on the radio again.” Powell turned to face the hecklers and saw Louis, the world heavyweight champion, staring at him. In a rare moment of self-control, Powell shut up.

While Powell was suspended, the Yankees ordered him to tour Harlem for several days to apologize to the residents. He roamed the streets of the cultural capital of Black America, stopping at shops, clubs, stores and bars. In an apology tour, Powell denied making the racist boast in a written statement. Hearing this false boast, WGN didn’t fool its audience and sway anyone in the Harlem bars where it took drinks home to apologize.

After Powell was suspended, he joined the Yankees playing the Senators in D.C. Black fans in Powell’s hometown pelted the disgraced player with soda bottles as he walked onto the field, prompting a 10-minute delay so crews could clear the area. glass.

It was the beginning of the end for the Maryland-born fan. He pitched just one no-hitter in the 1938 World Series against the Chicago Cubs. He hit just .256 in 1938; the following year, he played just 31 games with a .244 average. After 12 games in 1940, the Yankees sent him to the minor leagues. He would play for the Washington Senators in 1944 and 1945 and for the Phillies in 1945, whose manager was Ben Chapman, a notorious racist famous for yelling the N-word at Jackie Robinson when he broke the Brooklyn Dodger color line in 1947. In 1948, Powell was arrested for passing bad checks. At the police station, a 40-year-old man took out a pistol from his pocket and committed suicide in front of those who arrested him.

Powell’s story reminds us, the Brooklyn Nets and Kyrie Irving, that bigotry comes at a price if it leads to real social or economic sanctions. In many ways, Irving’s behavior is far worse than that of Powell, a high school dropout who did not have the advantage of attending elite private high schools and attending one of the world’s greatest universities, Duke. Powell lived in a separate world, within a separate profession, and had the silent (or not so silent) support of those in baseball. Professional baseball was to be curbed in Powell before 1938. But that didn’t happen, so he must have felt that no one cared about his racism and that he could embellish it. Powell had a long history of mouthing off, bashing opponents, and being an outspoken racist. He can read about Irving Powell and maybe learn about the history of racism and discrimination. But so should the NBA, NFL and other professional sports leagues.