Tommy Harper still haunted by time with Red Sox
For decades, Tommy Harper encountered strangers eager to share their Red Sox memories: their first games with their fathers, their first awed glimpses of Fenway in green, their farewells to Ted and Yaz.
Harper listened patiently, even when the stories turned so predictable he could finish them himself. But he never shared his memories. Some were too unsettling for casual conversation.
As a central figure in the troubled racial history of the Red Sox, Harper endured years of discrimination as a player, coach, and front-office staffer under the team’s Yawkey-affiliated regime. He once fought back and received a measure of vindication with an out-of-court settlement. But he later carried scars from the experience into the autumn of his life.
Now, at 73, Harper has decided against taking his untold stories to his grave. He said future generations should know what it was like for him as a black man to make his way in an organization that long operated on the wrong side of racial justice before the franchise changed hands in 2002.
As a second-class citizen in a climate of prejudice, Harper said, he endured inequities in pay, accommodations, and opportunities. He said he heard racial slurs uttered not only by the team’s fans but its uniformed personnel. At times, he said, his Boston baseball life was an exercise in indignity.
“They called it Red Sox Nation,’’ Harper said, “but it was never my nation.’’
Harper, who bears no ill will toward the current owners, filed state and federal discrimination complaints against the club in 1986 and received a financial settlement. He alleged the Sox retaliated against him for helping to expose the club for fostering a whites-only policy for team employees at a private social club near the former spring training facility in Winter Haven, Fla.
Harper, in a series of recent interviews at his suburban Boston home, said the episode marked the second time the Sox stripped him of a job for blowing a whistle on racial intolerance. The ’86 case was widely publicized, though not fully reported until now, and Harper has never spoken publicly about an earlier incident, in which he was dismissed from a front-office position in 1979 after he informed the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) that the Sox had violated their pledge to improve the franchise’s racial diversity.
The Sox never acknowledged unjustly firing Harper in either episode and accused him in ’86 of poor job performance. He said he is speaking out partly to counter the disparaging image they cast of him.
“I am not an angry man seeking revenge,’’ Harper said. “I just want to give my side of the story about a team that did me wrong and would not admit it, publicly or privately. I cannot let it stand.’’
Harper said he is not speaking for anyone else who wore a Sox uniform. Nor does he believe the Sox were the only sports institution through the years with a shoddy commitment to racial equality.
But historians have chronicled the singular role of the Yawkey-era Sox in defying racial progress, and Harper’s personal experience with the franchise is as telling as anyone’s.
Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, in a recent interview, credited Harper with fighting for racial justice during the club’s decades of intolerance.
“Aside from being a ballplayer, coach, instructor, and administrator, Tommy most importantly has been an agent of change for the organization in very positive ways,’’ Lucchino said.
A son of the racially segregated South, Harper said he never considered himself a social activist. Born in Louisiana, he moved as a boy with his family to the housing projects of Alameda, Calif., where his father worked in an industrial mill, his mother at a naval air station.
Harper was 4 years old in 1945 when the Sox held a sham tryout at Fenway Park for three black players, including Jackie Robinson and Sam Jethroe. An unidentified Sox employee insulted the men with a racial slur before they were sent off, never again to hear from team officials.
Two years later, Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, en route to the Hall of Fame. Jethroe was the 1950 National League Rookie of the Year, with the Boston Braves.
Harper was 8 years old in 1949 when the Sox again staked a position on the wrong side of history by spurning an opportunity to sign one of the game’s greatest players, former Negro League prospect Willie Mays.
The team’s intransigence was traced to owner Thomas A. Yawkey and his surrogates, who controlled the franchise from 1933 to 2002. Their early unwillingness to sign African-Americans helped explain both the club’s chronic mediocrity and Robinson’s statement that Yawkey was “one of the most bigoted guys in baseball.’’
Not until Harper turned 19 in 1959 did the Sox become the last team in the majors to racially integrate, with the debut of a marginal infielder named Pumpsie Green.
Yet Harper soon learned that change was coming slowly not only in Boston but across America. By the time he began his minor league career in 1960 with the Cincinnati Reds, much of the nation remained in the grip of de facto segregation.
When Harper arrived at the Tampa airport in 1961 for his first spring training, he joined a line waiting for taxis, only for a dispatcher to say, “Boy, this line is for white people only.’’
White and black major leaguers ate and slept in racially segregated accommodations. When camp broke, Harper was assigned to ride to the team’s minor league affiliate in Topeka, Kan., with two white players. En route, they stopped at a diner in Jacksonville, Fla., where a waitress informed Harper, “We don’t serve [N-word] people.’’
Harper said he left, “shaken and embarrassed.’’ In a memoir he wrote for his family, he remembered striking a philosophical bargain to cope with life’s cruelties.
“After some soul-searching, I resolved to enjoy what I could and endure what I must,’’ he stated.
In late 1971, Harper was 10 years into his major league career when the Sox acquired him from the Brewers in a deal that sent two of Boston’s Impossible Dream stars, Jim Lonborg and George Scott, to Milwaukee.
Harper brought a rare quality to the Sox roster: speed. In 1969, he led the major leagues with 73 stolen bases for the Seattle Pilots. He was an All-Star outfielder in 1970 for the Brewers, finishing sixth in the American League MVP voting and joining Mays, Hank Aaron, Bobby Bonds, and Ken Williams at the time as the only members of baseball’s all-time 30-30 club (he hit 31 home runs and stole 38 bases). He also led the NL in runs in 1965 with 126, eight more than Mays.
Harper, unlike Reggie Smith, his outspoken African-American teammate, kept a low profile as a Sox player. He made no public comment even when he witnessed free guest passes to the Elks Club being distributed in the Sox clubhouse during his first spring training in Winter Haven in 1972.
“What happened to ours?’’ Harper recalled asking Smith.
“We don’t get any,’’ Smith replied, pointing to the color of his skin.
So it was for 13 more years, as black players came and went to Chain O’ Lakes Park but never to the Elks Club.
“The most disappointing thing was that [the discriminatory practice] was never a secret to Red Sox management or the Boston media,’’ Harper said. Several Boston baseball reporters later expressed regret for not reporting the story.
John Harrington, a trusted confidant of Yawkey and his wife, Jean, served in Sox leadership for nearly 30 years. He was chief executive from 1988 until he handled the Yawkey Trust’s sale of the team in 2002.
Harrington declined to comment. But while he has defended the Yawkeys and Sox against charges of racial bias, he has acknowledged shortcomings.
“We’ve had some problems in the past, and I don’t have to mention names, but we had some difficulties with some great young men of African-American heritage,’’ Harrington told the Globe in 1997. “We’ve patched those up.’’
Targets of hate
Harper said he and Smith regularly received racist hate mail as Sox players in the early ’70s. They also were targets of racial slurs from Fenway patrons. But when Smith publicly described Boston as a racist city, his teammates and management remained silent.
Not only was there little tolerance in baseball at the time for social activism, but Boston itself was rife with racial tension. Because the Sox did not support Smith when he spoke out, Harper said, “It was easier for the media to make it seem like Reggie was making a big deal out of nothing.’’
On the field, Harper ranked among the league leaders in several categories during his first two years with the Sox. He was the club’s MVP in ’73, when he led the AL with 54 stolen bases and broke Tris Speaker’s Sox record of 52, dating to 1912. Harper’s mark stood until Jacoby Ellsbury stole 70 bases in 2009.
In 1974, Harper slumped and was shipped to the California Angels, his best playing days behind him. The Angels sent him to Oakland midway through the ’75 season, and by ’76 he was retired and pursuing a second career in baseball.
Spurned by the Sox in his bid for a coaching job, Harper turned to the Yankees, who gave him a three-year contract as a minor league instructor, at $25,000 a year. Then the Sox came calling, not because they needed Harper for his baseball acumen, it turned out, but for his skin color, he said.
The club had a racial hiring problem. In 1977, the MCAD had settled discrimination complaints against the Sox, with the team agreeing to enact numerous policies aimed at improving racial diversity in its workforce.
The Yankees would not free Harper from his contract except for a higher-level job. So, the Sox told Harper and the Yankees that they wanted him to serve as both a minor league instructor and public relations official, at $40,000 a year.
Only after Harper arrived at Fenway did he discover the Sox had another task for him. He learned it from a national reporter who was researching the team’s racial history. The reporter asked about Harper’s role as the team’s affirmative action officer.
“I didn’t know what she was talking about,’’ he said.
He approached Harrington, then the team’s treasurer.
“Nobody told you?‘’ Harper remembered Harrington responding.
Indeed, he was the franchise’s new equal employment opportunity officer.
“Had I known my job would include that title, I would have stayed in New York,’’ he recalled.
Harper said Harrington handed him the team’s affirmative action policy and put him to work. Harrington then temporarily left the Sox and Harper began answering to Buddy LeRoux, who struck him as dismissive of the MCAD mandate.
When Harper informed LeRoux he wanted to attend an MCAD seminar to learn about his new job, he recalled, LeRoux nixed the plan, saying, “We are going to humor those people.’’ LeRoux died in 2008.
Weeks after Harper’s encounter with LeRoux, an MCAD investigator paid the Sox an unannounced compliance visit.
“I told them the Red Sox were ignoring everything in the settlement,’’ Harper said. “I told them it was business as usual and the Red Sox didn’t intend on hiring anyone [of color]. It was all a charade.’’
He informed the MCAD that team officials hired whites for two front-office jobs without following the affirmative action rules. When he complained to team executives, Harper alleged, Sox officials responded by instructing one new employee to take a temporary leave while they pretended to satisfy fair hiring practices by placing a job ad in the Bay State Banner, a newspaper that primarily serves the minority community.
Harper reported other allegations, including sham interviews for minority job candidates who had been sent to Fenway by Action for Boston Community Development.
“They never got to my office,’’ he said of the job seekers. “Some of them were interviewed by the switchboard operator and sent off.’’
Harper also reported that when he warned team officials they had ignored a pledge to meet annually with Boston’s minority leaders, he was told it was “not a priority,’’ according to an MCAD letter to Haywood Sullivan, then the Sox president.
The MCAD took action in 1979, citing the team for numerous alleged violations of its compliance agreement. The Sox responded, Harper said, by firing him from the affirmative action position, without informing the MCAD or the public.
For nearly three more years, while Harper performed other jobs, the Sox continued to identify him to the MCAD as the team’s affirmative action officer, according to documents he provided to the Globe.
He also provided a 1982 letter from a Sox executive to state representative Mel King, then a leader of Boston’s minority community. The document described Harper as the team’s affirmative action officer. In fact, Harper was serving as the club’s first base coach.
In stripping him of the affirmative action job, Harper said, the Sox reduced his salary to $26,000 from $40,000. They did so despite his serving throughout the season in the roles for which he was hired. He said the team never made good on his lost wages.
“I placed my trust in the wrong people and got screwed,’’ he said.
The next spring, Harper began a four-year stint as Boston’s first base coach — a mixed blessing.
“I was happy to be back on the field,’’ he said, “but I soon discovered that the racist culture in the clubhouse was similar to that of the front office.’’
Nothing had changed
Harper had grown accustomed in the 1960s to hearing the N-word in baseball. But he was dismayed a generation later to hear it spoken by players and uniformed staffers, including members of the Sox. He declined to identify the individuals because 30 years have passed and some may have changed their attitudes. Others are deceased.
Harper coached under three managers: Don Zimmer, Johnny Pesky, and Ralph Houk. When Houk departed after the 1984 season, so did his coaches. Harper then accepted a job as one of Sox general manager Lou Gorman’s special assistants, serving in part as a field instructor, a role that would take him back to Winter Haven in 1985.
There, trouble ensued. Two years earlier, Harper had become irate when he reported to spring training and discovered a stack of free guest passes to the whites-only Elks Club in his locker, an apparent prank. He said he complained to Sullivan and was assured the segregationist practice would end. Sullivan died in 2003.
But when Harper returned in ’85, he learned nothing had changed. He kept quiet at first. Then his teammate, Jim Rice, who had recently agreed to a contract extension, inadvertently thrust the issue into the public domain by joking to Sullivan in front of reporters, “Now that I’m signed, do I get an Elks Club card?’’
The secret was out, although it initially commanded little attention. The Globe tucked Rice’s comments into the bottom of the next day’s Red Sox notebook.
“The local Elks Club gives privilege cards to the Red Sox delegation — except those who are black,’’ Peter Gammons wrote. “Believe it or not, there is still a segregated institution in this country, so Rice, Mike Easler, Tommy Harper, and others can’t eat there.’’
Then the Globe’s Michael Madden began digging. He asked Harper about the policy and was told the practice had been ongoing since at least 1972.
“I don’t care that much what happens to me — if they want to fire me or whatever — but this has gone on too long with this ball club,” Madden quoted Harper as saying. “They are still condoning racism, and it is wrong.’’
Madden reported that he was threatened at the Elks Club by a customer who accused him of trying to revive the Civil War.
“Boy, you know what they fought the Civil War with? With guns,’’ Madden quoted the man as saying. “If there are any bad words about Winter Haven you write, I’ll be taking mine out.’’
Free passes to the Elks Club were not seen again in the Sox clubhouse. But Harper paid a price for his stand. His car tires were slashed, and he began receiving mysterious phone calls throughout the night at his Winter Haven hotel, the callers saying nothing before hanging up. And, though he had not reported the vandalism or disturbing calls to law enforcement, an FBI agent later asked if he had received any direct threats. He had not.
But Harper’s stance ruined his relationship with Sox management. He said team executives immediately shunned him — barred him from spring training staff meetings, gave him no assignments during the regular season, and otherwise ostracized him until he was fired the week before Christmas 1985.
As it turned out, Harper did care what happened to him. He filed racial discrimination complaints with the MCAD and US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Sox denied the allegations, portraying Harper as a disgruntled, subpar employee.
Team officials accused Harper of failing to fulfill many of his regular duties. They alleged he carelessly cut short his stay with a minor league affiliate competing for a league championship, failed to report to the instructional league, and neglected to submit player evaluation reports.
Worse, in Harper’s view, the team accused him of improperly using a company credit card for personal expenses.
“There was no racism involved in the firing,’’ Gorman told reporters at the time. “We simply felt he was doing a lousy job.’’
Harper presented evidence to the EEOC rebutting each allegation, and the commission ruled in his favor. The panel found probable cause that the Sox had unlawfully fired Harper, that his firing was retaliatory for the Elks Club episode. The commission also ruled that “sufficient evidence’’ supported Harper’s allegation that team executives had “created and perpetuated a working environment hostile to minorities.’’
In reaching a financial settlement with Harper, the Sox admitted no wrongdoing but once again agreed to adhere to nondiscriminatory employment practices.
For Harper, the settlement provided cold comfort. The firing cost him two years of his baseball career, he said, as several teams rejected his job requests and another withdrew an offer so as not to anger Sox management.
Then came a milestone in baseball’s racial history. In 1987, Dodgers general manager Al Campanis created a firestorm by asserting on national television that blacks “may not have some of the necessities’’ to serve as major league managers and general managers.
Campanis was fired, but the damage was done, his remarks suggesting a measure of lingering racial intolerance throughout baseball. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth directed teams to improve minority hiring, and the Montreal Expos soon signed Harper as a minor league instructor.
Harper climbed the ranks and by 1990 — a year before Dan Duquette became Montreal’s general manager — he was promoted to the major league coaching staff. Harper coached with the Expos until 1999, when Duquette, then the Sox GM, hired him as Boston’s first base coach.
“I was told that everything about the Red Sox organization had gotten better,’’ Harper recalled. “I discovered it had not.’’
That same year, the Sox paid a financial settlement to a former manager of Fenway’s 600 Club who alleged he had been racially harassed by his coworkers and the team had failed to properly investigate his complaints.
For his part, Harper was particularly offended by the Sox hiring a former player, Mike Stanley, in 2002 at a coaching salary more than $50,000 greater than his, even though Harper had 15 years of major league coaching experience and Stanley none.
Harper said he informed the current Sox owners about the alleged inequity and they made up the difference between his salary and Stanley’s — an account the team confirmed.
Harper remained first base coach until the fall of 2002, when he was reassigned as a player development consultant, a position he has held since.
The new Sox owners wasted no time acknowledging the club’s “undeniable legacy of racial intolerance,’’ as Lucchino put it in ’02. Changes were made, the team’s racial diversity improved, and in 2010 the Sox inducted Harper into their Hall of Fame.
Team executives attributed Harper’s induction both to his baseball achievements and his struggle for racial justice. Lucchino issued a statement praising Harper for his “instrumental’’ role in exposing the Elks Club scandal and ensuring “the organization would no longer tolerate this practice.’’
Harper recently met with Lucchino in the executive offices on Yawkey Way, where he had long felt like an outcast. Lucchino acknowledged the Sox must continue striving to repair damage from the past, but he said he was heartened by Harper’s improved relationship with the club.
Harper, meanwhile, will continue to represent the Sox in speaking annually to school children about the legacy of Jackie Robinson.
He said he may even begin discussing his own experience with the Sox.
“People bring up Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Pumpsie Green when they talk about the Red Sox and their racial history,’’ Harper said. “One day, I think people might want to know my story.’’