It wasn’t the racist insults hurled by the fan that stung Cito Gaston the most. The vitriol certainly hurt, but he’d heard it all before. What bothered him even more was the fact that the man showing up to every game to express his blind hatred always brought his son with him. The little boy stood beside the grown man, soaking in his father’s bigotry as he took in America’s pastime.
“Certainly a good role model,” Gaston says sarcastically. “It’s the reason why this stuff still goes on, I guess.”
We’re a long way from that season in 1964 when Gaston played outfield for the Greenville Braves in the Western Carolinas League. He was only a 20-year-old minor leaguer in the Milwaukee Braves system then. But more than 50 years later, he watched this week as Orioles centre fielder Adam Jones called out fans at Boston’s Fenway Park for targeting him with racial slurs. Jones has spoken out about racism in baseball before—including after the 2016 AL wild-card game between the Orioles and Jays, when he heard racist taunts from fans at the Rogers Centre. And he’ll likely have to speak out again.
For the former Blue Jays manager, the incident in Boston was reflective of his own experiences in the game he loves — and a sad reminder of how little has changed.
“This shouldn’t happen in this day and time. But racism is still out there,” says Gaston. “It’s not surprising to me.”
Gaston grew up in Texas, where as a kid he looked up to Jackie Robinson — and lived in a town where he was forced to sit at the back of the city bus and in the balcony in movie theatres. It hurt just as much when he was young as it did when he was a grown man playing professional baseball. But through it all, Gaston remembered the advice of his mother.
“Son, I’d rather see them say ‘There you go’ than ‘There you lie,” she told him. “Sometimes you just have to walk away, because you really don’t have a chance in trying to do anything yourself.”
At the time, the Greenville Braves had three black players on the roster. When the Braves went on the road, the team would stop at restaurants where only white players were allowed to eat. Gaston’s white teammates would go in and bring him back some food. The white players on the Braves stayed in different hotels than Gaston and the other two black players did.
Then, of course, there were the fans. The man who stood just beyond the gates in Greenville wasn’t an anomaly. Opposing fans also hollered insults at the black players.
Gaston heard the racist taunts even after he broke into the major leagues — but didn’t face the same kind of overt racism within the game that he had in the minors. Trailblazing stars like Robinson and, later, Hank Aaron had it much worse than he did, he says.
Aaron — like Gaston — grew up idolizing Robinson and started his career in the Negro American League, before becoming one of MLB’s all-time greatest players. He was Gaston’s roommate for a time and become an important mentor.
“He was like my dad,” Gaston says. “He taught me how to tie a tie. How to be independent. How to stand on my own two feet.”
Aaron also faced outsized vitriol from racist fans. Once, as he was closing in on Babe Ruth’s home run record, he got struck in the head by a beer can as he was getting on the team bus in Chicago.
“He didn’t talk about it much,” says Gaston. “But as I was going through all that stuff in the minor leagues, he was going through it in the big leagues, too.”
When Jones spoke out this week, much of the focus was on the fans in Boston in particular. As a manager, Gaston felt the wrath of Red Sox fans. He actually had to use an alias whenever he checked into Boston hotels because he received so many calls and threats. But, he says, the harassment he received was never racist in nature.
Still, he’s not surprised by what happened to Jones — and doesn’t expect that the taunts are unique to Fenway. That Jones spoke out was a huge step towards positive change, he says.
“Hopefully you can reach some of these people in the stands, and say, ‘Hey, I’m just a human being,’” Gaston says. “‘I don’t need to be treated that way; I’m a person, just like you are.’”
But that doesn’t mean it’s going away.
“How are you going to stop it?” Gaston asks.
The scene keeps replaying in his mind, just past those left field gates: that father spewing hate, the son soaking it in. The insidious lurch of racism, through America’s past, present and future.