L'affaire Jake Powell: The Minority Press Goes to Bat against Segregated Baseball

Article excerpt

During a radio interview on 29 July 1938, New York Yankee outfielder Jake Powell said he worked as a policeman in the off-season and kept in shape by cracking "niggers" over the head with his nightstick. Powell was immediately suspended for ten days. The "Jake Powell Incident" provided the catalyst to challenge segregation in baseball-mobilizing pressure from Black activists, journalists, and others who wanted to integrate baseball. This article examines how this story was covered by mainstream dailies; Black weeklies; and the Daily Worker, a Communist daily published in New York City.

During a pregame interview at Comiskey Park in Chicago on 29 July 1938, WGN radio announcer Bob Elson asked New York Yankee outfielder Jake Powell what he did during the off-season. Powell replied that he was a policeman in Dayton, Ohio, where he kept in shape, he said, by cracking "niggers" over the head with his nightstick. Before the next day's game, a delegation of Blacks presented a petition to umpires demanding that Powell be banned from baseball for life. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis suspended the ballplayer for ten days. The Sporting News reported that it was the first time that a major league ballplayer was suspended for a racist remark.l

"L'affaire Jake Powell," as The Nation referred to it, captured the hypocrisy of segregated baseball. Landis punished a ballplayer for making a racist remark, yet he and team owners had prohibited Blacks from the game since the nineteenth century.2 While baseball had thus far turned a deaf ear to criticism of its color ban, it could neither dismiss nor deny the outcry over Powell's remark, made live on radio and heard by thousands of listeners. Author William Donn Rogosin suggested that not only did the incident solidify the sense of outrage against baseball's color line, it illustrated the instability of segregated baseball, where a single intemperate remark embroiled the sport in controversy.3 Both Commissioner Landis and the New York Yankees, the best team in baseball, were forced to take action to mollify the outrage in the black community.

It's doubtful whether Landis, known derisively in the Black press as

"The Great White Father" for blocking all attempts at integration, would have

suspended Powell without outside pressure.4 Furthermore, the Yankees' management, responding to the threat of a boycott of their games, met with Black journalists and activists, asking what could be done to improve relations with the Black community. The team also ordered Powell on an apology tour of Black newspapers and Black-owned bars in Harlem. And finally, L'affaire Powell provided a single incident to unify segregation critics in the press-Black, Communist, and liberal-who had become increasingly impatient and vociferous in their criticism. Powell's intemperate joke left no one laughing. But it shook baseball at its seams, publicizing the existence of the color ban, putting the game's establishment on the defensive, and unifying critics who would use the remark as a metaphor for the unfairness of segregation.

Throughout the 1930s, the black press had grown increasingly frustrated over segregated baseball. Sportswriters such as Rollo Wilson and then Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, Frank "Fay" Young of the Chicago Defender, Joe Bostic of the People's Voice, Dan Burley of the Amsterdam News, and Ed Harris of the Philadelphia Tribune let their readers know that segregation denied Black players an opportunity to play in the major leagues and white spectators the opportunity to watch some of the best ballplayers in the country.5

In 1934, Rollo Wilson wrote that racism precluded the possibility of Blacks playing in the white leagues.6 Two years later, Ed Harris criticized baseball's ban on Blacks as unfair, unreasonable, and unprofitable. He said that the addition of Black players would weaken racial stereotypes, improve the game, and put more fans in major league ballparks. …