Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving reacts in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

In the wake of the suspension of Kyrie Irving for his anti-Semitic outbursts, it is worth remembering that the Brooklyn Nets star is hardly the first professional athlete to be punished by a major sport for racist behavior. Most people don’t remember Jake Powell, another New York City athlete. He received a longer suspension than the eight games Irving had to sit out after he tweeted his endorsement of a widely condemned film that traffics in anti-Semitic tropes.

In the 1930s, Powell was a pretty solid baseball player, born in Maryland and raised there, as well as in Washington, D.C. Both places were segregated, and Blacks were treated as second-class citizens (at best). Powell initially played for the hometown Washington Senators, where he was a strong fielder, a decent base stealer, and at times a pretty good hitter. By the 1936 World Series, Powell played for the Yankees and had the highest batting average of the series at .455. He also scored the most runs and tied for the most hits, helping the Bronx Bombers beat the New York Giants for the championship in six games. The series star Powell hit even better than future Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, and Tony Lazzari.

But no one remembers Powell for his hitting, fielding, or even base stealing. (He was the only Yankee to steal a base in the ’36 series.) He is remembered for a 1938 radio interview on Chicago’s WGN with Bob Elson (a future Hall of Famer as a baseball broadcaster). Elson asked Powell, the native white southerner, how he kept in shape during the winter. The slugger replied that it was “easy” to stay fit because “I’m a policeman,” who gets his exercise when “I beat niggers over the head with my blackjack” before “throwing them in jail.” Immediately after he said this, WGN cut off the interview.

The station, one of the giants of the Midwest, was bombarded with outraged callers. “The Great Migration” of Blacks from the South to the industrial North, especially Chicago, was well under way, and the new residents were changing the city’s politics. The Windy City boasted the only Black member of Congress, Arthur Mitchell, and two African Americans were on the city’s board of aldermen. The Chicago Defender was probably the most important Black newspaper in the nation, with a circulation of more than a quarter of a million. Blacks faced extraordinary discrimination in Chicago but such naked racism—using the N-word on the city’s most important radio station—even in the 1930s was verboten, more or less like giving anti-Semitic rants and tweets while playing for Brooklyn in 2022. Powell, like Irving, could not have picked a bigger, more ironic forum to broadcast his bigotry, especially if he had wanted bad publicity.

Former New York Yankees outfielder Jake Powell.

One remarkable thing about Powell’s racist rant is that it was a flat-out lie. Powell was not a policeman at the time. However, he had apparently applied for such a position in Dayton, Ohio, where he had been living since playing minor-league baseball there. Powell didn’t need to embellish his racist credentials. He was already well known as an all-purpose bigot who hated Jews as much as Blacks. In 1936, Powell had purposefully run over the Detroit Tiger Hank Greenberg, injuring the Jewish first baseman so badly that he was out for the season after playing just 12 games. While playing for the Senators (before going to the Yankees), Powell ran his mouth about Italian American players. Still, he was smart enough to keep his trap shut on this aspect of his bigotry when he joined a team with DiMaggio, Lazzari, and Frankie Crosseti.

Major League Baseball knew it had to respond to Powell’s ostentatious bigotry, even if it didn’t allow Black players in its ranks. Black and leftist newspapers ripped into the league and the Yankees, demanding that Powell face sanctions. The NAACP and the National Urban League complained to the White Sox, who the Yankees were playing when Powell gave his interview. Interestingly, so too did the conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler, a proto Rush Limbaugh or Pat Buchanan, who asserted that the major leagues “treated the Negroes as Adolf Hitler treats the Jews” and blamed baseball’s segregationist policies for essentially giving the green light to Powell’s bigotry.

Some reporters dismissed Powell’s comments, claiming that the star hitter was misunderstood or misquoted or that the reporter had goaded him into make these comments. All these excuses were absurd, since the live interview was broadcast. The public wasn’t buying this fake news from Powell’s defenders.

At the time, the major leagues were completely segregated. No Blacks played on any teams. The owners and baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis stonewalled suggestions that it was time to integrate. But by this time, there were breaks in the color line. Black athletes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which Adolf Hitler and the Nazis thought would showcase Aryan superiority, had run away with one medal after another. They were led by Jesse Owens with four gold medals and Chicago’s Ralph Metcalfe (a future congressman) winning a gold and a silver. Joe Louis was the heavyweight champion of the world. But baseball was still segregated.

Nevertheless, despite Landis’s hostility to integration and nonsense reporters willing to dismiss the racist rant, both Major League Baseball and Powell were under popular pressure (and perhaps feeling political pressure, especially in Chicago). Thus, Landis acted, although without much vigor. He suspended Powell for 10 games, undercutting the suspension’s import by adding that he believed “the remark was due more to carelessness than intent.” Powell’s racism was expensive. Records in the Baseball Hall of Fame show that he was making $8,000 a year at the time. That would be about $160,000 in today’s dollars. The suspension cost him 6.5 percent of his salary. It is money he would surely miss. On the other hand, Kyrie Irving earns some $37 million annually. The loss from his eight-day suspension would be a fortune to most Americans but will hardly even be a rounding error to him. By the standards of Jake Powell, Irving barely had a slap on his pinky finger, much less his wrist. On the other hand, he may lose millions in endorsements from companies like Nike, which dropped him.

During his suspension, Powell sat in the stands at a Detroit Tigers game when a fan yelled: “Say again what you said over the radio.” Powell turned to face the heckler and saw Louis, the world’s heavyweight champion, glaring at him. In a rare moment of self-control, Powell kept his mouth shut.

While Powell was suspended, the Yankees ordered him to tour Harlem for a few days to apologize to residents. He walked the streets of the cultural capital of Black America, stopping at stores, clubs, shops, and bars. On the apology tour, in a written statement, Powell denied that he made the racist boast. This lie didn’t fool the WGN audience that had heard the boast, and it didn’t sway anyone at the Harlem bars where he bought drinks for the house as a way of apology.

After his suspension, Powell rejoined the Yankees, who were playing the Senators in D.C. In Powell’s hometown, Black fans bombarded the disgraced player with soda bottles when he went into the outfield, leading to a 10-minute delay so the grounds crew could clean up the glass.

This was the beginning of the end for the Maryland-born bigot. He was in only one game, with no at-bats, in the 1938 World Series against the Chicago Cubs. He hit only .256 in 1938; the following year, he played just 31 games with a .244 average. After 12 games in 1940, the Yankees sent him down to the minor leagues. He would play for the Washington Senators in 1944 and 1945 and for the Phillies in 1945, where his manager was the notorious racist Ben Chapman, famous for screaming the N-word at Jackie Robinson when the Brooklyn Dodger broke the color line in 1947. In 1948, Powell was arrested for passing bad checks. At the police station, the 40-year-old pulled a pistol from his pocket and committed suicide in front of those who had just arrested him.

The story of Powell reminds us, the Brooklyn Nets, and Kyrie Irving, that bigotry has its costs if it leads to real social or economic sanctions. In many ways, Irving’s behavior is far worse than that of Powell, a high school dropout who did not have, unlike Irving, the advantage of attending elite private high schools and studying at Duke, one of the great universities in the world. Powell lived in a segregated world, within a segregated profession, and had the silent (or not-so-silent support) of those who ran baseball. Professional baseball should have reined in Powell before 1938. But it did not, so he doubtlessly felt no one cared about his racism and that he could embellish it. Powell had a long history of mouthing off, spiking opponents, and being a boorish racist. Irving might read about Powell and perhaps learn about the history of racism and discrimination. But so too should the NBA, the NFL, and other professional sports leagues.

Paul Finkelman

Paul Finkelman is the Robert E. and Susan T. Rydell Visiting Professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. His most recent book is Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation's Highest Court published by Harvard University Press.

Wayne Dawkins

Wayne Dawkins is acting chair of the Department of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University, the largest HBCU in Maryland. He is writing a joint biography of the two leading Black sports journalists of the 20th century, Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith, to be published by Routledge.