(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Conservative commentators have been having a lot of fun with the New York Yankees’ recent decision to end their tradition of playing Kate Smith’s stirring rendition of “God Bless America” during their games.(1) The justification, as all the world knows, is that back in the 1930s Smith recorded two songs with racist lyrics.
An essay in the Federalist points to the Yankees’ long history of refusing to sign black players and concludes: “The only fair and just thing to do here is for the New York Yankees franchise to fold. ... If Kate Smith is being cancelled for her actions 80 years ago, then so must the New York Yankees be.” And here’s the Wall Street Journal editorial page: “The Yankees explain that they are ‘erring on the side of sensitivity.’ Sure — and they are being ridiculous.”
I don’t always agree with my friends at that end of the spectrum, but when you’re right, you’re right. If eight-decade-old history is to guide our decision on whether someone deserves admiration, then surely more recent history is better.
And by that standard, alas, the Yankees are found wanting.
Let’s begin with Casey Stengel, regarded by some as the greatest manager in the history of baseball. Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play Major League Baseball, was among those who claimed that Stengel was a racist. And it’s true that after the Yankees signed Elston Howard, Stengel famously lamented, “I finally get a ------, and he can’t run” — both using the now-forbidden epithet and playing the stereotype that black athletes are supposed to be fast.(2)
Stengel’s defenders think they have that needle threaded: “Casey did use language that would certainly be considered offensive today, but was quite common vernacular in the fifties. He was effusive in his praise of black players.” But this defense, we learn from the Kate Smith episode, is impermissible. It makes no difference whether the offensive words were common at the time; our standards of linguistic rectitude are absolute. That’s what erring on the side of sensitivity is all about.
Or consider another popular manager, Billy Martin. According to former Yankee great Reggie Jackson, Martin used racist and anti-Semitic slurs — not, like Kate Smith, in songs recorded in the 1930s, but in running the team in the 1970s and 1980s. Why on earth, then, is Martin still honored by the team with a retired number? Or with a plaque in the team’s Monument Park?
And let’s not forget George Weiss, who was general manager of the Yankees for 29 years and is enshrined in the Hall of Fame. This is the man who in the 1950s answered charges that his team had no black players on the major league roster with a line that has gone down in infamy: “The Yankees will bring up a Negro as soon as one that fits the high Yankee standards is found.”
The team did find a player who seemed to meet its standards — a talented minor leaguer named Vic Power — but once Weiss learned that Power had dated white women, the prospect was hastily traded away. According to Harvey Frommer’s “The Ultimate Yankee Book,” Weiss also had the opportunity to sign a young black player named Willie Mays. The team passed.
You might object that Weiss’s racist approach to selecting players must be set against his remarkable success in building pennant winners; or that Martin’s penchant for racist language must be set against his ability to get to the World Series year after year. But that’s a little like saying that Kate Smith’s daring to sing the popular music of her era must be set against the rest of her singing career. And that we are not allowed to do. (Too insensitive.)
Finally, let’s consider how openly proud the Yankees are of their many players who have won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. But surely they should return all those trophies. After all, the trophy is named for Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the longtime commissioner best known for banning the players involved in the Black Sox Scandal. Many commentators insist that Landis was a racist who supported or at least refused to do anything about baseball’s unwritten rule against hiring black players. Although the story certainly has another side, my impression from the handling of the Kate Smith saga is that mere allegation is sufficient to turn a historical figure into an unperson; the last thing we want to do is add nuance and context.
OK, OK, I’m not serious: I don’t really think we ought to rename the MVP trophy or purge from history the Yankee greats I’ve mentioned. But I also don’t think the Yankees (or the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team) should be banning Kate Smith. All were equally creatures of their time, and should stand or fall according to the same standard.
What’s happened to the singer represents an overreaction to an overreaction. Thinking things through before we act isn’t terribly popular these days. But in an era when an eddy of complaint on social media can generate a tidal wave of indignation in mere minutes, taking our time has never been more important.
And if Kate Smith nevertheless has to go, then only naked hypocrisy can justify giving the great heroes of the Yankee past a different treatment.
(1) The Philadelphia Flyers, for whom Smith sang the famous rendition, have both banned her music and removed her statue.
(2) You might find the line rendered otherwise. As Marty Appel points out in his 2017 Stengel biography, “Usually the n-word was cleaned up in the telling, and it became simply ‘I finally got one.’” I should add that I have found no contemporaneous newspaper accounts, although one story from the early 1950s (before Howard was a major leaguer) has Stengel making a comment about the lack of running speed of Roy Campanella, the black catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Campanella, too, would later accuse Stengel of racism.
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Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”
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