Mookie Betts, the Red Sox and Race

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Back in my baseball blogging days, I undertook a project to rank the top 50 player-seasons in Red Sox history. That’s relevant again because Mookie Betts just finished up what by any measure is an historic individual season for a Red Sox team that completed easily the best season any Boston baseball team has ever had.

Betts easily won the American League MVP award as his reward for being the best player in baseball this season, and that’s always nice because Red Sox fans of a certain age have a somewhat tortured history with the MVP.

This started with Ted Williams, who by my count was robbed of at least two MVPs despite having all-world seasons we’ll never see in our lifetimes (not to mention the three seasons lost to World War II at his peak). In 1941, Joe DiMaggio won the MVP because he hit in 56 straight games, a record that still stands, but Williams reached base that year in 69 straight games to end the season, a record that also still stands. And when you compare the stats each player compiled in their respective streaks, it’s no contest. Williams was better for longer, and when you look at DiMaggio’s stats during his historic run, they’re not far off from Williams’ numbers for the entire season.

  • DiMaggio: (May 15-July 16): 247 PA, 91 H, 21 BB, 5 K, .408/.463/.717, 15 HR, 35 XBH
  • Williams (July 19-Sept. 28): 302 PA, 89 H, 89 BB, 16 K, .420/.593/.816, 21 HR, 39 XBH

Yet DiMaggio won the MVP with 15 first-place votes to Williams’ eight. After rightfully winning in 1946, Williams was shafted again in 1947, when his 9.9-WAR* season (no one else had more than 7.5) finished second to DiMaggio’s 4.8 in the voting.

*WAR is a stat that assigns run values to every event that occurs on the field; adjusts them for league, era and ballpark; and states them as Wins Above Replacement for each player – replacement level being a hypothetical freely available player called up from the minors to fill in. The idea is that it can compare players across positions, although it does have its detractors, especially in how it measures defense and some pitchers. 5 WAR is considered a really good season; 7 WAR is typical MVP caliber, and 10+ WAR gets you into the upper echelons of all-time great seasons.

The Williams-DiMaggio battles were a microcosm of the long, brutal history of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry for those of us old enough to remember the chants of “1918” at Yankee Stadium while New York was rolling up world championships in the late 1990s while the Sox were nursing a title drought that eventually lasted 86 years.

The other MVP sore spot occurred in 1999, when Boston’s Pedro Martinez hurled one of the best seasons we’ll ever see in our lifetimes – not just seasons by a pitcher but seasons by a baseball player, period. It’s only been matched by … Pedro Martinez’s season in 2000. Both times Martinez did not win the MVP, but in 1999, Martinez had the gaudy win-loss record (23-4), an incredible WHIP (walks+hits/innings pitched, 0.923), a stunning strikeout total (313) and a microscopic ERA (2.07) at a time when offenses were supercharged.

Martinez unanimously won the Cy Young Award for the league’s best pitcher, but a longstanding argument has existed about whether pitchers should win the MVP. They’re officially eligible according to the rules and have won the award from time to time. 1999 seemed like a good time, as no hitter had anything approaching the otherworldly totals Pedro had compiled. But Martinez finished second despite receiving more first-place votes than winner Ivan Rodriguez – because two writers left him off their ballots entirely, and one of them, New York Post writer George King, claimed it was because pitchers shouldn’t be eligible for the MVP despite having given votes to two pitchers the year before!

Anyway, despite the fact that the Red Sox went on to exorcise their demons in 2004, and then win it all again in 2007 and 2013 – and now 2018 – and that Red Sox players have won MVPs in 1995, 2008 and now 2018, the losses still rankle a little. Obviously.

Betts himself was a runner-up in 2016, more justly deserved that time given the otherworldliness of Mike Trout, but he was the easy choice this year. Wins Above Replacement, the sometimes-controversial superstat that attempts to provide a single metric of value across all players, teams, ballparks and eras, wasn’t all that popular when I did my Top 50 Seasons series (and just running a list of the Top 50 Red Sox seasons by WAR wouldn’t have been as much fun anyway), but looking back now, Betts’ 10.9 WAR (Baseball-Reference edition)* is, get this, as good as any season put up by Williams himself, even beating that immortal 1941 year.

In fact, Betts is the only active player ever to compile 10.9 bWAR, and the first hitter to do it since Barry Bonds in 2002.

*The two most common forms of WAR are calculated by baseball-reference.com (bWAR) and fangraphs.com (fWAR). They mainly differ in how they treat defense and a pitcher’s performance.

How is this possible? Because Betts is very good at the plate, and is also very good on the bases and in the field. Williams was arguably the greatest of all time at the plate but “only” average at the other facets of his game.

Simply ranking the top 10 Red Sox player-seasons by WAR, we get this (with my totally unscientific ranking at the end). MVP seasons in bold, pre-MVP seasons in italics:

  1. Cy Young, 1901, 12.8 (#5)
  2. Carl Yastrzemski, 1967, 12.5 (#4)
  3. Pedro Martinez, 2000, 11.7 (#1)
  4. Smokey Joe Wood, 1912, 11.5 (#11)
  5. Mookie Betts, 2018, 10.9
  6. Ted Williams, 1946, 10.9 (#10)
  7. Lefty Grove, 1936, 10.9 (#25)
  8. Will Ferrell, 1935, 10.9 (UNR)
  9. Ted Williams, 1942, 10.6 (#16)
  10. Ted Williams, 1941, 10.6 (#2)

What this list tells me is that WAR can’t account for historical seasons (like 1941), struggles a bit with dead-ball seasons and because it’s a compilation stat, gives a bit too much weight to players, like Ferrell, who pitched pretty well for 322 innings with 31 complete games in a much different era. (Ferrell’s 25 wins did propel him to second in the MVP voting despite finishing seventh in ERA, and his gaudy WAR total was aided by his being a good hitter, to boot. I still should have included him somewhere in the Top 50, so obviously my ranking isn’t the end-all, be-all either.)

One other thing about that list we should note: Betts is the only African American on it.

In Boston, that’s no small thing.

Boston has a notoriously spotty racial history, typified by the 1970s busing “crisis” (presumably a crisis, as opposed to a riot, because white people were protesting) over forced desegregation of the city’s schools, and the 1989 murder of Carol Stuart, whose husband, Charles, said she had been killed by a black man – when in fact Charles had killed her himself.

That history includes the Red Sox, whose famous title drought was tagged as “the Curse of the Bambino” by a Boston Globe columnist but in reality can be described as “the Curse of Yawkey,” the wealthy businessman who threw enough money at the club to drag it from the depths of the American League cellar, but not with enough wisdom or strategy to overcome the dominant Yankees and win it all.

On top of that, Yawkey was an inveterate racist who hired a succession of racist managers and general managers. Thus, not only were the Red Sox the last team to integrate, waiting a full 12 years after Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut, they explicitly rejected opportunities to sign some of the best players in baseball history because of their skin color. In 1945, Boston, facing political pressure, staged a farcical workout for Robinson before he signed with Los Angeles, and the outfielder was called the n-word from the stands, where the only spectators were members of the Red Sox front office. In the end, Boston integrated only after facing lawsuits and investigations.

After that, the Red Sox seemed unable to avoid the trap of racism, whether it was inviting only white players to a segregated Elks Lodge party in Florida in the 1980s, then firing a black coach who complained, or not signing a black free agent until 1993. Little surprise, then, that Boston had trouble winning the World Series, as the team either rejected a significant part of the talent pool – or acted in such a way that a significant part of the talent pool wanted nothing to do with the team.

It’s not that the Red Sox didn’t have African American stars. But there’s always been a “but.” George Scott and Cecil Cooper starred in the 1960s. But they were traded and had their best years with other teams. Jim Rice had a Hall of Fame career in the 1970s and ’80s. But his relationship with the press and fans was bad. Ellis Burks was a dynamic star in the 1980s. But he was the only black player on the team as late as 1990.

Mo Vaughn started to change all that. His relationship with Boston wasn’t perfect, and he eventually left for a bigger free-agent payday that the Red Sox (rightly) weren’t willing to match, but he was homegrown, won an MVP, had a distinctive swing, clobbered big home runs and ushered in the new age of Boston success in the wild-card era. After him came big acquisitions like Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez, who aren’t African American but were certainly dark-skinned enough to have been shut out of the game 50 years earlier. Dan Duquette, the young GM responsible for acquiring those stars, deserves a lot of credit for dragging the Red Sox into the late 20th century.

Then ownership finally changed, and with it came a new approach to team-building, the arrival of another dark-skinned Latino, David Ortiz, and the steady, unremarkable stream of African American players in key roles for pennant- and eventually World Series-winning teams – Troy O’Leary, Tom Gordon, Dave Roberts, Coco Crisp, Jackie Bradley Jr.

Things still aren’t perfect, as Adam Jones could tell you, but the arrival of Mookie Betts feels like, at long last, a righting of a ship left to founder far too long.

For the first time, the Red Sox have an African American player putting up all-time great numbers, winning all of the awards and receiving unalloyed adoration from the city of Boston. That’s a refreshing sight, and well worth taking a moment to appreciate.

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