Years and years ago, I wrote a newspaper column that — technically, I guess — could have gotten me fired. It was a column about silence. I won’t go into too many of the details but I’ll tell you that the column involved a barber shop, a series of racist jokes and the disgraceful silence of the young man getting his hair cut, the young man being me. I just sat there, in that lost world between embarrassment and rage, while these racist jokes flew around the room. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t express my disgust. I didn’t walk out. I didn’t stand up and break out into a “To Kill A Mockingbird” speech. I just stayed quiet. The column was about my own shame, about the shame of being silent in the face of small injustices, about that “Hey, you can’t change the world,” feeling that I used as a crutch to make myself feel better.
The column did run, and I was told later that it created enough of a stir that the words, “Does someone need to be fired over this,” were spoken behind closed doors. But nobody really said anything to me about it except, “Stick with sports,” which I certainly understand. I think back 20 or so years, and I still don’t know how I feel about that column. Part of me is proud I wrote it. Part of me is embarrassed. Part of my feels like it took some courage to write it. Part of me thinks it was really a cowardly way out. It’s all true. I was very young.
I bring this up now because former New York Times sportswriter Murray Chass has written a post so vile and untrue and devoid of basic decency that I have found myself once again in that strange place where I’m not sure what to do. On the one hand, Murray Chass is a nobody now. He’s a bitter man with a past and a blog he refuses to call a blog. He seems to bring dishonor to himself and his work with such regularity now that I cannot help but wonder if he was in fact a vile hack throughout his newspaper career but few noticed because he happened to be on the right side of the baseball labor issue and the indomitable Marvin Miller.*
*I should say here that Chass has managed to disgrace Miller on several occasions with his recent work as well. It is quite possible that Miller, while closing on his 94th birthday, has lost his compass; either way he should probably stop talking to Murray Chass.
So part of me says that writing to stomp out the disgusting Murray Chass post about Stan Musial and Curt Flood will only draw more attention to it, will only spread his lies and malice to bigger lands. That part of me says that the way to deal with a man like this and a blog post like this is to ignore it and let it curl up and die unseen. Stay silent.
But another part of me says that some people DID see it, and if we let it go then a handful of people will wonder if maybe there’s some truth to it, if maybe this is not just bitterness and bile and revenge and a desperate attempt to be noticed but maybe there is a germ of truth in it.
I’ve obviously gone with the second part of myself or you would not be reading this (though I must say that as I write this sentence I am still not sure if I will ever post this).
Murray Chass wrote a post called Musial No Man Of Honor, Mr. President. The bulk of it is so unethical and vomitous — with almost comically irresponsible phrases like “said a lawyer with no first-hand knowledge of the incident” — that you could only imagine it being written by a man in prison about the judge who put him away. I won’t bother with the bulk of it, because the bulk of it is convoluted and absurd and sick or simply has nothing whatsoever to do with honor. Apparently, Chass and Miller feel like Musial, to their mind, was vaguely on the wrong side of the labor discussion. Whatever. Miller is diminished by allowing his name to be used in such stupidity but that’s his business.
But there is one very specific charge here that people will notice, one of racism against Musial, that is so grotesque that to allow it to stand is to do a great injustice to the man. The charge builds around a famous story Curt Flood told a couple of times. The story involves Flood and a woman walking into Musial’s restaurant in the late 1950s and being refused a seat because of the color of his skin and by order of the owner. Chass in the faux charitable way of frauds concedes that “the incident appears in some books about Flood.” What he does not say is that the story was told in the book WRITTEN BY CURT FLOOD, which seems pretty official.
In Curt Flood’s own version of the story, Flood was indeed turned away from the restaurant by someone (not Musial, of course) and went to Musial the next day to tell him about the incident and Musial was “livid,” and promised to take care of it. It is well known that Musial did not run the restaurant; he lent his name to it. Whatever, Flood said he did not go back to the restaurant for a long time but when he did go back he was treated like royalty, treatment he found ironic.
A couple of things. One, it has to be said that Musial has specifically said that the story did not happen that way — he says that Flood was turned away because the kitchen was closed and that he took it wrong. You can make your own judgment on that but it is true that Flood did not start telling the story for many years, until he began going through his own difficult fight.
Two, even if the story did happen exactly the way Flood describes it, Flood himself did not blame Musial. He made the clear point that Musial was livid. He made clear the point that Musial was always kind to him (though often inscrutable) with hitting advice. He thought Musial was naive but certainly not racist. Years after, he wanted Musial to be the Cardinals manager (admittedly because he thought that Musial would stay out of the way — Flood’s No. 1 goal for a manager).
Bob Gibson, who certainly has never backed down to racism, calls Musial the nicest man he has ever met in baseball. Joe Black, who as one of the first African American pitchers dealt with about as much racism as any baseball player ever, often told the story of the time Musial visited him in the clubhouse to boost his spirits. Lou Brock has personally told me story after story about the kindnesses of Musial.
Nobody would say that Musial was a civil rights pioneer — he’s not the sort to make speeches or waves; the man was a baseball player first and last — but he was unquestionably and unanimously a man of decency. In 1962, for spring training, he moved from his usual spot at the beach to a new location so that he could stay with the black players. No, he was not a freedom rider. He was not on the front lines of the fight. But, as Buck O’Neil used to say, he is a good, good man.
To smear a good, good man with a half-cocked version of a well-known and easily verifiable story is the work of an embittered mind. I would not tell you that Stan Musial is a saint or that he never felt any of the biases of his time, because that is impossible. But I know this because countless people have told me … Stan Musial has spent a life trying to make people happy. And it’s a shame that tragically unhappy people don’t know when they’ve run out of useful words.