Racism on the air: Nothing jake about Jake Powell

The story of Jake Powell has haunted me for years. What would compel a man who was playing baseball at the highest level for the best team on the planet to say what he said during a live radio interview the summer of 1938? This isn’t a rhetorical question, and the answers lie at the root of what ails our nation even today, 82 years later.

Powell was an outfielder for the New York Yankees at the time. He was the star of the 1936 World Series, after coming to the Yanks from the Washington Senators, midseason. He batted .455 in that Series, scored a bunch of runs and paced the Yankees of Gehrig and DiMaggio to the title over Carl Hubbell and the New York Giants. That was 1936.

By the summer of 1938 he was apparently unraveling. Before a game with the White Sox in Chicago, Jake was interviewed on the radio. And he shared the following (this is paraphrasing): “I’m a police officer down in Ohio, and I like to stay in shape during the offseason by cracking [plural of the disgusting ‘N-word’] over the head.”

This was nine years before Jackie Robinson would break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Black people were still being lynched and the U.S. Congress was arguing over an anti-lynching bill (which did not get passed). Powell’s remarks caused an immediate uproar, particularly in the black community. The lily-white, overtly racist and now embarrassed baseball establishment took note and Powell was suspended for a short time.

Powell had plenty of apologists, white reporters in the media who defended him as a whacky sort who was just trying to be funny. But they couldn’t whitewash the man’s dark and apparently tortured soul. The 1938 season was essentially the beginning of an extended decline for Powell the human being. Ten years after his remarks on a Chicago superstation he ended his life in a Washington, D.C., police station. After being arrested for passing bad checks, Powell pulled a gun from its hiding place and shot himself twice. No more Jake.

For me, Powell’s story is more interesting than his one ill-conceived and idiotic and nasty (if telling) radio interview. It’s not what I think of as a happy life. This guy was responsible – perhaps even more than the legendary Babe Ruth sale – for the heated rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees (for the brutal brawl he started with Joe Cronin, also in 1938). He once broke Hank Greenberg’s wrist with a bit of dirty base-running, ruining an entire season for the Detroit slugger. He stole a bunch of shit from a hotel room and tried to get away with that while in the minor leagues. He left his family in Ohio to run around with another dame while passing bad checks, then killed himself in the middle of police headquarters in the nation’s capitol.

Oh, and he never really was a police officer, like he claimed. The police department in his Ohio town wouldn’t have him. Powell clawed his way out of the Washington, D.C., area sandlots and ascended to the highest peaks in the game. Then came a sharp descent, hastened by his wrongheaded comments and generally off behavior. The thing is, he’d played many times against teams of black ballplayers, exhibition games to make extra money during the offseason. There’s no record of him ever committing an act of violence against a black person. So why did he light-heartedly brag about doing such a thing?

Who knows. It’s likely that Jake Powell was struggling with mental illness. He obviously “wasn’t right.” But we can all learn lessons from his example as a ballplayer and a human being, lessons of what not to do, and how not to be.

The story of Jake Powell always takes me back to something my dear friend and mentor and playwright Jo Carson wrote for a character that I actually played on stage – a mixed-up soul sitting at the bar in Purgatory. The character, Jimbo, based on a real man, faced a question from his old horse (yes, a horse). “Were you bad or stupid?” Jimbo’s answer answer would determine how he would spend eternity. In our play, the character doesn’t answer but exits, pondering his choice, stage right. As the lights go down, the audience is left wondering if he went upstairs or downstairs.

In the case of Jake Powell, well, he said and did stupid things (his remarks on the radio, the other stupid stuff), and ultimately did a really bad thing (shot himself to death). So based on what we know, if Jake were facing this question, his honest answer would have to be, “both.”

Note: This is just an opinion piece, but I’m working on a proper, short biography of Jake Powell for the Society of American Baseball Research, because even the lives of miserable human beings deserve examination. Lest we forget.

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