Celebrating a bigot

It’s mid-January. The winds are howling down from Canada across the Midwest. Fall is a vague memory. Spring not even a forlorn hope. Darkness covers the land. 

So let’s talk baseball. 

When I was a kid, I was attracted to the names of the ballplayers of yore. Being named “Bobby Lockwood,” I just knew there was no chance to make it to the pros. It just didn’t sound right compared to the Old Timers. Cy Young. Lou Gehrig. Lefty Gomez. Those were baseball names. My name sounded like the guy guessing your weight at a carnival. 

One of my favorite old-timers was Tris Speaker, a ballplayer from the first quarter of the 20th century. You had to be a ballplayer if you were called Tris Speaker. And he was — a star outfielder with the Red Sox and the Indians (where he was also player-manager). Tris Speaker was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937, a couple of decades before his death in 1958. 

It was only when I read “The Big Bam, the Life and Times of Babe Ruth,” by Leigh Montville (Doubleday, $15.95) that I discovered that Tris Speaker carried a big, old bag of anti-Catholicism with him. 

He couldn’t stand Babe Ruth when they played together on the Red Sox. According to Montville, Ruth represented the Catholics on the team. Speaker led the more aggressive clique of old-school Protestants whose anti-Catholicism was as sharp as their spikes. 

I thought of Tris Speaker the other day when there was a dust-up in New Jersey concerning the nomination of Thomas Nast to the state’s Hall of Fame

Nast (1840-1902) is considered the father of editorial cartoonists, plying his trade in the old Harper’s Weekly. His cartoons are credited with undermining New York City’s corrupt Tammany Hall Democrats under William “Boss” Tweed. It’s said that when Tweed tried to avoid jail by fleeing the country in 1876, he was arrested when a custom’s official recognized him from a Nast cartoon. 

The problem with Nast — and the reason for the dust-up — was that he drew hateful caricatures of Irish Americans. He routinely portrayed them literally as drunken baboons undermining his own brand of White Anglo Saxon Protestant Americanism. 

He was virulently anti-Catholic. Among his more famous cartoons, he portrayed bishops as mitered-crocodiles consuming American school children through Catholic schools. Another famous cartoon showed “Rome and Jesuitry” snuffing out the Statue of Liberty with a papal crown. 

So people complained that a hidebound anti-Irish, anti-Catholic bigot would not make a welcome addition to New Jersey’s Hall of Fame. 

Nast has his defenders. New Jersey editorialists argued that his bigotry was just a product of his times, like the Founding Fathers who owned slaves. 

It really doesn’t matter to me who they put in the Jersey Hall of Fame. And there is little doubt that Nast did create a unique journalistic field. 

But let’s not compare him to the Founding Fathers. Nast ain’t no George Washington. He’s not even a Tris Speaker. 

Some of the Founding Fathers were slaveholders. But that is not the reason they are celebrated. Tris Speaker was an anti-Catholic bigot. But he is in the Hall of Fame for his baseball skills, not his bigotry. 

Thomas Nast was an anti-Catholic racist who wallowed in his bigotry. It was not incidental to his public life or irrelevant to his journalism. To the contrary, it was at his very core and he helped to maintain and celebrate a persistent anti-Catholicism in American culture that is still alive and well. 

New Jersey could do better than celebrating an old-school bigot who reveled in his prejudice. And passed it on. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.