Milton Bradley and the “Race Card”

“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.

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Forrest Gumption
11 years ago

I remember being at the A’s/Indians game where he blew up and threw a ton of baseballs onto the field, he’s been pulling stunts and getting thrown out of games his entire career. Its not that he’s had to deal with racism, pretty much all African American players have, its that he’s a hot headed jerk. He’s like a caricature of Dick Allen minus the talent (I’m all for putting Allen in the HOF by the way, his numbers are obscene).

Bottom line: If he never had any on-field discretions he wouldn’t have the reputation he has, and he’d absolutely still have a job.

Jilly
11 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

Not necessarily, but he’s had a huge target on his back from the media for a long time. During 2009 spring training, the very first televised Cubs game that spring, they had Paul Sullivan(Cubs beat writer) in the booth and he was ALREADY starting the Bradley is a bad guy narrative. The media loves him because they know he’s dumb enough and sensitive enough that they can bait him into doing things to make their job easier and more interesting.

Forrest Gumption
11 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

Agreed with that too, but if he had never been thrown out of a game, the abuse would have never been as intense. Eddie Murray was by many accounts, a total jerk too, but he was all class on the field, so he had respect. If drunk/jerk fan knows he gets riled so easily from words, they are going to go there to get a guy who can burn their team.

To quote the great prophet Dave Chappelle, Milton Bradley’s entire career can be summed up: “When keeping it real goes wrong”.

Mat
11 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

Maybe Alex, but the guy sure doesn’t do himself many favors. He consistently puts himself in a position where even if every word he said were a simple statement of fact, many folks can not summon any sympathy for him. The Royals announcer basically said Hamilton has confronted his demons.

Why did you not mention that Bradley decided in the middle of the season last year that he needed the assistance of mental health professionals? He could have sought that help at any time on one of his many DL stints, or during the offseason, but he decided it was the thing to do in the midst of a season. Others are counting on him and he’s one of the team’s highest paid players.

Johng
11 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

Hey Mat, let me get this straight. Josh Hamilton’s demons include doing herion, and other partying. Milton Bradley’s are about being black, and not being able to abide racism.

Mat says: Herion addiction = black pride.

I never liked Milton Bradley. As a White Sox fan, I dreaded when the Indians acquired him way back when. Reading this article, I suddenly feel ashamed. Bradley doesn’t have to put up numbers for you to ignore his color.

In the heat of Bradley’s problems, Billy Williams was asked about racism at Wrigley Field. Williams declined to comment.

BILLY WILLIAMS DECLINED TO COMMENT ABOUT RACISM AT WRIGLEY.

The Green Lantern
11 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

Wu-TANG!

TK
11 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

Johng,

Your logical reasoning needs some work, and in any event I think Bradley’s demon is his anger problem, which while not as socially stigmatic, can be just as debilitating as a drug addiction. I honestly feel very sorry for Bradley. Sure, racism exists in America, but somehow there are hundreds of MLB players that managed to not let it ruin their careers, even those who brought it up (Gary Sheffield comes to mind).

In the end, when you’re trying to pinpoint what went wrong with Bradley, his tempor is at the top of the list. Racism, alleging racism, and tension with the media do not ruin careers.

Alan
11 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

To TK:

There is absolutely no excuse for racism. It doesn’t matter if other players have successfully overcome it. Somehow blaming Milton Bradley for not dealing with RACISM as well as others is sickening.

JRod
11 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

I know I’m beating a dead dog here, but Hamilton loved crack, not heroin.

TK
11 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

To Alan,

This is a bit late, but I want to clarify what I meant. I wasn’t blaming Bradley for not dealing with racism, I was saying that racism and his inability to deal with it were not a part of his career being derailed, in my opinion. Gary Sheffield wasn’t very good at dealing with racism, but it never hurt his career.

It is unfortunate that players, like many other minorities, have to deal with racism and in most situations how they deal with it shouldn’t be held against them (racist remarks are not an adequate excuse for violence)

AA
11 years ago

I don’t think you can compare Dick Allen and Milton Bradley. While some of Bradley’s comments are well taken (especially about Jeff Kent), there is no question that Allen was heavily criticized for his outspoken nature specifically because he is black.