"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Back in Black

I’ve been thinking a whole bunch about Ellis Burks returning to the Red Sox today. When I got home this evening, I broke out Howard Bryant’s book, “Shut Out,” and revisited Burks’ formative years in Boston:

[Jim] Rice never spoke out, but he gave Ellis Burks a telling peice of advice that provided important insight into Rice’s feelings about Boston and his years with the Red Sox. They were words Burks would never forget. “Get your six years in, “Rice told Burks, “and then get the hell out of Boston.”

Sure enough, Burks had a difficult time with the Sox. For a black player, that was nothing new. When Rice was let go, Burks felt isolated, and frustrated. Like many a young black center fielder who possessed both speed and power, Burks was expected to be the next Willie Mays. (Bryant explores this phenomenon in further detail.) But he was just Ellis Burks. To make matters worse, his manager Joe Morgan questioned his conditioning and effort. Bryant continues:

Burks could never find comfort with the city’s polarized structure. Some teammates had warned Burks about the city’s social climate. It was Boyd who first told Burks about avoiding South Boston, the busing hot zone. “Oil Can told me to stay out of there, if I valued my life. I didn’t believe it, that you would drive through there and have various names hurled at you and rocks thrown at your car. It never happened to me, because I didn’t go there.” He knew the team had suffered from a poor rapport with black fans and resolved to make inroads with the city’s black community…

He went to Foggie’s Barber Shop on Tremont Street, the epicenter of the Boston black community. Burks recalls frequently appearing on WILD, the city’s lone black radio station, appealing for fan support. He was shrewd in his requests. Instead of creating a possible racial firestorm by asking balck fans directly over the air to come support the team, he knew WILD’s consituency was predominately black. “I used to say, ‘let’s have some WILD listeners come on out to the ballpark.’ I was too mart to say it the other way. But hell, there was no response. I learned that early in my time in Boston. Black people don’t go to Red Sox games. No matter what we did. We tried giving those tickets away. Couldn’t do it.”

The pace and the character of the city at time unnerved Burks. Peter Gammons would drive to Fenway with Burks. One day when the two stopped at a red light, people yelled at each other during the forty-five seconds between light changes. Bostonians gunned their engines as fast as they could in between stop lights.

“You know how in New York people hit the horn the second the light turns green?” Gammons told Burks. “Well, in Boston, they hit the horn while it’s still red.”

I wonder if the current Red Sox ownership is trying to kill two birds with one stone in bringing Burks back to Boston. First, they get a viable right-handed bat off the bench. Next, they prove that the new Red Sox are different from Boston regimes of the past. And they get to prove it by bringing back a clubhouse guy who had it rough as a young player in Boston. The circle is complete. It should be interesting to see what Burks’ impressions of the city and the team will be all these years later.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver