Click photo to enlarge
Boston Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury approaches the plate during Boston's game against the Oakland Athletics on Sept. 26 at Fenway Park in Boston.
BOSTON — Many Americans coast to coast have heard that 24-year-old Jacoby Ellsbury made baseball history June 30 by becoming the first Navajo to play in Major League Baseball.

Perhaps what makes the speedster's accomplishment more significant is that the ball club he's playing for has a questionable history when it comes to diversity. Ellsbury broke a barrier with the Boston Red Sox, an organization littered with a history of racial prejudice.

Thomas Austin Yawkey became president of the Sox in 1933, a stint that lasted 44 seasons — the longest in MLB history. Although Yawkey led the Red Sox to three World Series appearances, the owner may best — or worst — be remembered for his unwillingness to integrate his team during a time of social unrest.

In 1945, Boston had the opportunity to sign Jackie Robinson and become the first club to hire an African-American player. Yawkey passed on Robinson, who the Brooklyn Dodgers later scooped up. Instead of becoming baseball's first to integrate, the BoSox eventually were the last.

A dozen years after Robinson's debut in Brooklyn and several years after his retirement from the sport, the Sox acquired Pumpsie Green, a black infielder. Boston was the last team to integrate, a fact that would tarnish the team's reputation for decades to come.

Although the racial tensions in Beantown primarily hovered around a "black-and-white" issue, the team's reluctance to break the mold left an imprint.


Advertisement

Journalist Howard Bryant, an African-American writer for the Boston Herald and ESPN, wrote a book documenting the Old Town Team's turbulent history, titled "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston."

Bryant wrote that modern-day stars such as David Justice, Albert Belle and Gary Sheffield all "expressed hesitation about playing in Boston or inserted language into their contracts that expressly prevented them from ever being traded to the Red Sox."

Bryant further elaborated: "Boston was perhaps as morally conflicted as any city in the country about race, a characteristic that would curiously grow worse as the rest of the country seemed to improve."

During the off season leading into the 2002 season, the Yawkey reign officially ended when the JRY Trust — named after Jean Remington Yawkey, Tom's wife — sold the team to John W. Henry. In "Shut Out," Henry commented on his company's black-eye:

"It doesn't have to be this way," Henry said of the lingering animosities between the community and the team. "You just have to decide you want to make the effort. If you make the effort, I believe people will respond."

Today, the Sox are a virtual melting pot. Included on its 25-man playoff roster are a Canadian relief pitcher, a Puerto Rican catcher, two Japanese pitchers, two Puerto Rican infielders, three Dominicans and an African-American outfielder.

And, of course, an American Indian outfielder named Ellsbury.

Sox fans, young and old, couldn't be more thrilled about Ellsbury's ground-breaking accomplishment.

"I was watching TV one time and I saw (that he was the first Navajo)," said 15-year-old India Bell, of Bridgton, Maine. "That's very cool."

Award-winning baseball writer Peter Gammons said Ellsbury's emergence, along with that of New York Yankee and Winnebago Indian Jaba Chamberlain, are great for the sport.

"Especially because (Jacoby) is such a good person, I would hope he and Jaba really push a lot of kids to try to make the big leagues," Gammons said.

According to members of Ellsbury's family, unfair treatment toward American Indian players hasn't posed a problem to Jacoby.

"I really don't think (Jacoby) is aware of Boston's history, but he's well aware of prejudice," said uncle Art Allison, who lives in San Juan County. "But he grew up with a family that didn't condone it."

Emily McCabe Allison, Art's wife, said the family has encountered a considerable amount of ignorance from the media, however. According to Allison, past features on Jacoby have linked his family to the wrong tribe, also printing inaccurate stereotypes. 

For example, one story incorrectly reported Ellsbury's mother as a rug weaver, prompting a flurry of rug orders from strangers.

"She doesn't know the first thing about weaving," Emily said. "These reporters think we're all still herders. ... There are writers who are going to go about it wrong, and it just doesn't come out right."

The inconsistencies haven't been limited to the printed word. While Ellsbury was competing in the NCAA College World Series in Omaha, Neb., the public-address announcer identified him with the wrong ancestral ties.

"When he was in Omaha, they said he was from Zuni and from Hopi," Allison said. "That's what they said on national air. They're really ignorant about that."

As for Ellsbury's take on the mishaps, the rookie outfielder tries not to concern himself.

"They can get the facts wrong at times," Ellsbury said. "It doesn't necessarily bother me too much, but I'd obviously like (them) to get it right. I try not to pay attention to all the outside stuff that's going on."

Always the consummate pro, Ellsbury prefers not to examine racial boundaries, whether they exist or not.

And why would he? Ellsbury ignored them from the beginning and now he's helped make "firsts" a thing of the past.

Patrick Ronan: pronan@daily-times.com.