“In 1987, on deck in Boston, and I was called an Alabama porch monkey… I’d like to be able to say yes [to the question of whether racism has declined], but my mail and my telephone calls suggest otherwise.”
— White Sox GM and former White Sox center fielder Kenny Williams, September 22, 2009
“I was a prisoner in my own home.”
— Milton Bradley, March 9, 2010
Milton Bradley was a complicated man. The usual word was “controversial”; it accompanied stories about him as often as the phrase “race card.” Bradley was rarely happy and always seemed to mention race, appearing time and again in stories in which he criticized people for making racially inappropriate remarks. I think that the frequency of these stories tended to dilute their impact. Many people found it hard to take Bradley seriously — he was frequently awful, and it was easy to believe that he was just blaming other people for his problems. That’s exactly what Chicago GM Jim Hendry believed: “He didn’t get the job done. It’s really unfortunate that you… try to use the other areas for excuses.”
Bradley admitted that much of the negative perceptions surrounding him were related to his lack of success on the field: “If I was hitting .300 every year, and on toward a Hall of Fame career, then maybe a lot of the minor BS along the way wouldn’t be such a big deal.” he told ESPN’s Karl Ravech in 2010. But that doesn’t mean he was wrong about race.
As a baseball player, he was a five-tool talent who saw a promising career derailed by injury. But with Bradley, it was never just about baseball. “Me being an African-American is the most important thing to me — more important than baseball,” he told USA Today in 2005, during an interview in which he said his teammate Jeff Kent “doesn’t know how to deal with African-American people.” Most people viewed this episode as yet another example of Bradley sounding off.
But that may have been unfair to Bradley. Kent was disliked by many of his teammates, and in 2001, Salon’s Joan Walsh asked why Jeff Kent received more favorable media coverage than teammate Barry Bonds, despite the fact that both were rather famous for being jerks. “The two crucial differences between Bonds and Kent: One is that while Kent may not chat up fans and kids or make nice with his teammates, he always talks to the media,” wrote Walsh. “The other key difference is that Kent is white and Bonds is black.”
Later in the interview about Kent, Bradley expressed the belief that many people refuse to see racial tension before their eyes: “White people never want to see race — with anything.” I believe that the public reaction to him has tended to support his argument. While he was in Chicago, Milton Bradley spoke of being taunted with racial epithets from the stands and on the street, and of receiving racist hate mail — and, because former Cubs Jacque Jones and Latroy Hawkins made similar claims, as has White Sox GM Kenny Williams, in the quote I gave at the beginning of this article. Bradley’s mother, Charlena Rector, said that Bradley’s three-year old son had also faced vicious abuse: “Parents, teachers and their kids called him the n-word.”
Yet Bradley’s claims of facing racism have often been taken with a grain of salt. When Bradley made his comments to the Chicago Sun-Times about the racism he had faced, team officials told ESPN’s Bruce Levine that they were “incensed” by the story, and columnist David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune belittled him for his claims: “Poor Milton Bradley whined again to ESPN about how hard Wrigley Field can be for black players,” and compared Bradley unfavorably to Derrek Lee, whom he called “one of the most popular modern Cubs of any race.” Perhaps Haugh didn’t intend it to sound this way, but that sentence implies that African-American players aren’t normally popular, and that it’s therefore out of the ordinary that a player like Derrek Lee could be beloved in the city. Another columnist, Joey Baskerville of the Freeport, Illinois Journal-Standard, suggested that few people took Bradley seriously, writing:
I may be in the minority, but I actually believe Bradley’s accusations that some Cubs fans crossed the line of heckling and shouted racial slurs at him while he played in Chicago.
Still, it’s also true that Bradley has not helped his own case. In 2004, with the Dodgers, he got fed up with answering questions by L.A. Times reporter Jason Reid, and called Reid an “Uncle Tom.” Columnist J.A. Adande, who like Reid is African-American, was shocked: “That’s as bad an insult as one black man can hear, coming from another black man.” Adande noted that Bradley hypocritically appeared to expect that African-American journalists would give him more favorable coverage despite the fact that he could be prickly to them. This was one of the great tragedies of Milton Bradley’s career: he viewed the world through the lens of racism, and correctly perceived that a lot of people viewed him negatively — and then he contributed to that self-fulfilling prophecy.
Milton Bradley has spent his whole life dealing with demons, anger that he struggles to control, the ghosts of a broken childhood and a disappointing career in which he was betrayed by his own body and attacked by fans. In Seattle, he was so lost that he became suicidal. Jonah Keri beautifully summed up his disappointments on the field. Bradley always perceived that he was being treated differently: whether it was his belief that he received more racial vitriol than other players because his numbers weren’t as good, or, when he was stopped for speeding in 2010, his argument with a police officer that the car next to him was traveling the same speed. He was called a “piece of shit” by umpire Mike Winters, and tore his ACL when he had to be restrained from running after him; two years later, he was called a “piece of shit” by his own manager, Lou Piniella. He saw himself as a victim, and often was one.
He was also often in the wrong. Bradley called a reporter an Uncle Tom, threw a bottle of water in the stands, threw dozens of balls on the field, tore his ACL when he lunged at an umpire, publicly accused a teammate of racism, confronted an announcer for comparing him unfavorably to Josh Hamilton, and complained to reporters about the negativity in Chicago by saying “you understand why they haven’t won in 100 years here,” an interview which resulted in his being suspended by the team for the rest of the year.
There is no question that Milton Bradley received racial abuse. There are too many other baseball players, and too many other Chicago Cubs, who have opened up about the abuse that they’ve received, to doubt it. He reacted badly to the abuse, but it is hard to react well to hate mail, and much of the disapprobation heaped on Bradley — chiding him for admitting that he has been the target of racism — amounts to blaming the victim. Milton Bradley is quite right when he says that many people simply don’t want to see racism. That desire not to see is exactly what has fueled the skepticism over Bradley’s claims over the years. W.E.B. Du Bois correctly predicted that the color line would be the problem of the twentieth century. Though Jim Crow is gone, our discomfort with race remains. Flawed as he was, Milton Bradley deserved better than he got.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.