With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Baseball and the Unspeakable

Bob Elson is not the sort of person you’d expect to touch off one of the most notorious racist incidents in the history of Chicago sports.

A former choir boy who sang with the famous Paulist Choir, his golden voice made him a natural for radio.

But that’s the thing about racism. It’s a snake; you never know when it’s going to spring out of some hidden recess and bite you.

In the 1930s, Elson broadcast both Cubs and Sox games. The Bears, too. On days when there were no home games, he would sit in a windowless studio and recreate out-of-town contests from telegraphed reports.

Finding something to put on the air was a constant challenge. The “Man in the Dugout” interview was Elson’s idea: Fill time before the first pitch talking to players.

On a lovely late July day in 1938. Elson was at Comiskey Park with his live microphone, chatting up players. He buttonholed Yankee slugger Jake Powell, who batted .455 in the 1936 World Series.

“How do you keep in trim during the winter months in order to keep up your batting average?” Elson asked. A lazy pop up of a question. But Powell muffed it, big time.

“Oh that’s easy,” he replied. “I’m a policeman. I beat ...”

And here he used the plural of a word that I’m not even going to hint at. Not my choice — I would just lay it on you, full bore, and trust you would not shatter like glass.

“... over the head with my blackjack.”

Mary DeVoto, a veteran history teacher at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School, more recently used the word, trying to contextualize offensive sports team names. Now she’s out of a job.

Maybe she should have said “the n-word” — the Sun-Times put it in the subhead, so it’s probably OK. Unless it’s not. A UIC School of Law professor Jason Kilborn dashed the word out in the hypothetical of a civil procedure test and was still suspended.

So discretion is in order.

The irony of these situations is they never snag actual racists. Mother McAuley is in Mount Greenwood, and while I don’t want to stick my arm in that hornet’s nest, let’s just say that were you to decide to start punishing racists there, DeVoto is not the obvious place to begin.

Back at Comiskey in 1938, after Powell unleashed the word, Elson immediately apologized to his listeners. The Chicago Defender called for Powell to be fired.


This unsayable word seems to have morphed into a sui generis landmine that blows up, not toxic bigots, who seem to exist safe in a parallel universe where naked racism only increases their star power — Joe Rogan sure isn’t losing his job — but humble history teachers and third-tier law professors and late-career newspaper columnists.

Read entire article at Chicago Sun-Times