BOSTON There was a time when Fenway Park was not a welcoming venue for African-Americans, becoming the last team in the majors to sign an African-American player.
On Tuesday night at Fenway, one of the most storied baseball fields in the nation played host to one of the nation’s oldest civil rights organizations. The National Urban League is holding its annual convention in Boston as it celebrates its 101st anniversary.
Marc Morial, the head of the National Urban League, threw out the first pitch.
Five youngsters from Boston — from the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan — who had never been to Fenway before served as bat boys and bat girls.
“And finally two words we all want to hear…”
That announcement came from 11-year old Steven McConnell, who was there with his mom, Davita McConnell, and dad. None of them had ever been to Fenway Park before.
“We came into a situation where we inherited a lot of extraordinary things in the Red Sox legacy, and included in those bundles of very good things was one very negative thing, and that’s a history of racial intolerance.”
“I went to Celtics games, I went to the Boston Garden all the time, and we had wonderful experiences, but we just didn’t go to Fenway,” Davita McConnell said. “It just didn’t seem to be a place where we would be well received. It didn’t seem to be a place that was necessarily safe in the ’70s and ’80s.”
Dennis Wilson, who was born and raised in Roxbury, taught history for 30 years and still coaches sports teams at Madison Park High School. He also hosted a sports show for Boston cable TV.
“There’s many African-Americans who love baseball, who love baseball, who played baseball, who know baseball, and they would the attend the games and they were really hostilely treated,” Wilson said. “A lot of racism took place, a lot of name-calling and trash-throwing at individuals. It was really a scary and uncomfortable and dangerous situation.”
Wilson has seen a change in the past 10 years with the new ownership.
“Over the years, thank goodness, things have gotten much better with the likes of owner John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner,” Wilson said. “They now have changed the atmosphere, where now people of color feel a lot more comfortable going to games. I know I’ve gone to games and the atmosphere has changed drastically. They’re not staring at us like we have four heads and six eyes and that we’re aliens, or anything.”
Red Sox President and CEO Larry Lucchino is part of the ownership team that took over in 2002.
“We came into a situation where we inherited a lot of extraordinary things in the Red Sox legacy, and included in those bundles of very good things was one very negative thing, and that’s a history of racial intolerance,” Lucchino said. “We saw it as an opportunity to change the perception of the Red Sox by changing the reality of the Red Sox and the Fenway Park experience.”
From the beginning, the new owners of the Red Sox tried to break away for the legacy of the Tom Yawkey ownership years. They reached out to Harvard University law professor Charles Ogletree for advice on how to make Fenway Park more inclusive.
“The Red Sox were the last team to hire a black player,” Ogletree said. “There was a lot or resentment on race lines from the ownership of the Red Sox. And Larry Lucchino and John Henry and Tom Werner have changed that by providing scholarships for our children to go to college, by having Jackie Robinson Day with people like Bill Russell coming over to speak and talking about what it was like in Boston when he was an NBA player, by creating opportunities for young people to come to the stadium and watch the games free. It’s a different place than it was then.”
Davita Coleman knows there have been changes.
“People know that certain behavior that would make other people feel unwelcome is no longer something that would be allowed,” Coleman said.
The Red Sox still have to live with a legacy that includes passing up on opportunities to sign Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. Robinson actually had a tryout with the Red Sox in 1945. Two years later he became a Brooklyn Dodger, integrating Major League Baseball. Twelve years after that Pumpsie Green became the first black player for the Red Sox.