Alan J. Steinberg
Special to News Talk Florida
America is again undergoing the nightmare of violence against people of color. White Supremacists are murdering with assault weapons people of color on the streets of America. And the access of White Supremacists to assault weapons, the Armaments of Death, is amply protected by the most nefarious lobby in America, the Gun Lobby, whose vanguard is the reprehensible National Rifle Association (NRA).
Yet in the midst of this time of national torment, there is an event occurring in the world of sports that is a reminder of the best in the American ideal of racial tolerance and understanding. The Boston Celtics basketball team, the greatest sports dynasty in American history and for nearly three quarters of a century also the most racially progressive American sports organization, is playing the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
Now immediately, fans of the New York Yankees will object to my characterization of the Celtics as America’s leading sports dynasty. True, the Yankees have won the World Series 27 times, while the Celtics have garnered 17 NBA Championships. Yet ten of the Yankees World Series victories were achieved against inferior competition, teams that excluded African-Americans.
These ten Yankee pseudo-championships were won in years before 1947, when Major League Baseball (MLB) teams first became racially integrated. All the Celtic championship victories were achieved against racially integrated teams.
And the Yankees history will always be marred by a shameful heritage of extreme racism. From 1949 until 1960, the Yankee general manager was George Weiss, a virulent racist.
While the Yankee crosstown rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first MLB team to integrate, were welcoming African- Americans to their roster at an accelerating pace following Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the Dodger starting lineup in 1947, the Yankees failed to integrate until 1955, becoming the third-to-last MLB team to do so. By that time, there had been more than 50 players of color in Major League Baseball, none of whom played for the Yankees.
In sharp contrast to the bigoted George Weiss, the Boston Celtics had a giant of principle, competence, and character from my beloved borough of Brooklyn, Arnold “Red” Auerbach, the greatest coach and general manager in NBA history. He guided the Celtics as coach to nine NBA championships and seven as general manager.
Yet as great as were Red’s achievements on the basketball court, even more remarkable was his impact on the racial sociology of America. He ranks with Branch Rickey, the former president of the late, lamented Brooklyn Dodgers, who integrated Organized Baseball with his signing of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson in October,1945, as one of the two sports off-the-field personalities with the greatest societal impact.
As the Celtics coach, Auerbach made history by drafting the first African-American NBA player, Chuck Cooper in 1950 and introduced the first African-American starting five in 1964. Yet as great as these accomplishments were, they paled in comparison to Red’s action that gave him a legacy that will endure forever in the annals of American sports.
Upon stepping down as Celtics coach in 1966 and becoming the team’s general manager, Red named Bill Russell as his successor as coach, to continue as the Celtic center as well. Bill Russell thus became the first African-American head coach ever in the four major North American professional team sports.
The hiring of Russell as coach thus constituted the breaking of a major barrier not only in sportsworld, but also in the arena of business management. Bill Russell as a coach would lead the Celtics to NBA championships in 1968 and 1969. He is an individual of unsurpassed character and strength.
What makes all these Celtic advances for the cause of racial harmony all the more remarkable is that they happened in Boston, a city of a deserved deplorable reputation of racism.
The memory of the white violence that broke out in Boston in September, 1974 in opposition to court-ordered busing for the purpose of desegregating the city’s schools is indelible with me. Discrimination in housing against people of color continues to be endemic in Boston.
And in the world of sports, there are two manifestations of racism in Boston that are undeniable and particularly noxious: 1) The verbal and even at times physical racist behavior of white Boston sports fans; and 2) the shameful racist heritage of Boston’s MLB team, the Boston Red Sox.
During the years of ownership by Tom Yawkey (1933-1976), the Boston Red Sox were the most racist organization in Major League Baseball. They had an institutionalized “no Black players” policy. The Red Sox were the last team to promote a black player to the major league level, doing so in 1959, twelve years after Jackie Robinson broke the Jim Crow color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In their long-storied history, the Boston Celtics have won many a remarkable victory. But none have been as remarkable as the continuing triumph of the Boston Celtics over racism in a racist city, Boston.
When the Boston Celtics win, American ideals win.
That is why I will be cheering for them during the next two weeks to once again win an NBA Championship.
Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.
This column was originally published by NJ.com and is being republished here with their express permission.