Jake Powell: The John Rocker of the 1930s

On January 31, Commissioner Bud Selig suspended John Rocker of the Atlanta Braves until May 1 and fined him $20,000 for a series of tasteless remarks about, among others, immigrants, homosexuals, and Japanese women drivers. (There is apparently no truth to the rumor that Rocker has been hired to write speeches for Pat Buchanan.) Announcing that the MLBPA will appeal Rocker’s suspension to baseball’s impartial arbitrator, union spokesman Gene Orza claimed, “It is literally unprecedented to impose a penalty on a player for pure speech, offensive though the speech may be.”

Actually, it’s not.

The pregame interview show has a long history. Ever since the 1930s, broadcasters have filled time before the first pitch by lobbing softball questions to visiting players and the hometown heroes. White Sox broadcaster Bob Elson hosted one such program. On July 29, 1938, his guest on WGN’s pregame show was Jake Powell, a reserve outfielder for the New York Yankees. Elson asked Powell how he spent the offseason. Powell responded that he was a policeman in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Elson asked Powell what he did as a policeman. Powell replied, “I crack niggers on the head.” WGN’s switchboard lit up.

Powell was promptly suspended for ten days by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who described Powell as acting not “intentionally, but carelessly.” When he returned to the lineup, fans threw bottles at him as he stood in the outfield.

The black press hailed Powell’s suspension. One white columnist, Westbrook Pegler of the Chicago Daily News, accused Landis, a strong supporter of the color line which kept blacks out of Organized Baseball for the rest of his life, of attempting to “placate the colored clientele of a business which trades under the name of the national game, but has always treated the Negroes as Adolf Hitler treats the Jews.”

Meanwhile, The Sporting News, which excused or explained away anything which might embarrass Organized Baseball, argued that the real villain was the pregame interview itself. TSN took the curious position that baseball players were so stupid, or so bigoted, that they couldn’t help embarrassing themselves if allowed to voice their unedited thoughts over the radio.

“The player’s mind, naturally, is on the game in which he is about to participate, and his ‘ad lib’ comments in these interviews frequently lead him to indiscreet remarks, which he would not make, if given an opportunity to think, or if furnished a script.

“Powell was on the spot and was the victim of circumstances, which should not be held against him by the fans. Other players, in other instances, might offend other groups. The remedy, as we see it, is to relieve the players of such assignments. Put them on the radio, assuredly, but under more propitious conditions, where they can do themselves and the game justice, without being forced to run the gauntlet of questions to which they cannot give some thought, and commit further indiscretions, unconsciously.”

Powell later proved that even when not under the pressure of an on-field interview, he couldn’t help patronizing African-Americans. During an August 20 visit to the New York office of the Chicago Defender, Powell issued an apology which read in part: “Honest, you can believe me when I say I regret the slur as I had no intention to hurt anyone, or their feelings. Members of the Negro race have helped to earn my bread and butter and no one knows that better than I do. . . . I have two members of your race taking care of my home while myself and wife are away and I think they are two of the finest people in the world. I do hundreds of favors for them daily.”

Powell remained in the majors until 1945. Three years later, he was arrested in Washington, DC for passing bad checks. While in the police station, the former Dayton policeman shot himself to death. He was forty years old. [Recent research has discovered that Powell was lying about his offseason job -- he was not a policeman. Good thing, too.]

Copyright © 2000 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published on the Boston Baseball Website in March 2000.

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