Sunday, October 18, 2009

Learning a lesson the hard way

by Don Klein

I was a rabid Yankee fan when I was a Bronx teenager. That was before George Steinbrenner took over the team in 1973 and bought pennants by corralling every available top free agent around. He became famous as baseball’s free spender who drove up player’s salaries to absurd levels.

That’s when I became an anti-Yankees fan.

Today I became a Yankees fan again. And I’ll tell you why. They took a prudent step to discourage ethnic aspersions by people associated with the team.

Irish tenor Ronan Tynan was scheduled to sing "God Bless America" during the opening game of the American League Championship series at Yankee Stadium last Friday. Amazingly he was told not to bother. That was extraordinary since Tynan had become a fixture around the team singing the patriotic song with great zeal on endless occasions for ten years.

But the day before the current series began he admitted making a stupid anti-Semitic remark. Tynan was introduced to a potential tenant in his Manhattan apartment house by an agent who said, "Don’t worry, they are not Red Sox fans." He responded with "I don’t care about that as long as they are not Jewish."

When word got back to the Yankees they withdrew the invitation for him to sing on this occasion. Howard Rubenstein, a spokesman for the Yankees, said Tynan apologized to the offended party, but the team said he would not sing the famous refrain for them the rest of the playoff series this year.

No one knows what was in Tynan’s mind when he made the insulting remark which could have been meant as a joke or it could have been his true feeling. I’ll give the tenor the benefit of the doubt and say he was trying to be cutesy and that he really doesn’t care if a Jew moves into his building or not.

Even if that was the case, the Yankees did the right thing by barring Tynan from singing under their auspices. Ethnic slurs may be funny to some people but it should never be tolerated. There are enough other innocent approaches to poking fun at people. It is especially unacceptable in Tynan’s case.

Here is a man -- once was an integral part of the famous Irish Tenors – who is loved and admired by all ethnic groups. He lost both his legs in a tragic automobile accident when he was 20 but went on to star in numerous paralympics and at 33 he took up singing. He was already a medical doctor at the time. He knew strife and conquered adversity at many levels.

For him to sink to a reviling ethnic joke is inexcusable. Yet others have been punished more for what I think was a lot less.

Remember of 1988 case of Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder’s remark on CBS Sports. He said African Americans dominate sports because they were bred for strength. Snyder claimed that slave owners bred black slaves to be strong, that black athletes have bigger thighs which allow them to fun faster and jump higher.

Whether his comments were accurate is not important (there is so much inaccuracy flung around in sports talk) but certainly the comment in itself was not derogatory. Yet Snyder was dumped by CBS as it reacted too swiftly to the resentment felt in some black quarters.

That was a lot less offensive than the words of Jesse Jackson, a man who claims to be a great spokesman for minorities, when he referred to New York City as "Hymietown" during a 1984 interview with a black Washington Post reporter. He assumed the remark would not get into print because of his racial bond with the newsman. Hymietown was his way of demeaning the strong Jewish political influence in New York.

To this day many Jews never forgave Jackson for that remark. Neither has many members of the press who felt Jackson maligned them with his false argument accusing the press of deliberately misquoting him.

There is no way that should be the result of Tynan’s relations with American Jews or the press. He was man enough to stand up immediately, apologize to the injured party and take his medicine from the Yankees without passing the blame on to others.

The lesson here, given that Tynan was just joking, is we all must be a lot more sensitive to the feelings of others. I never quite got the point of indelicate ethnic jibing. Years ago in the Army I heard fellow GIs of Italian extraction call each other Wops and Dagos and who hasn’t witnessed black comedians, especially on cable TV, refer to themselves and others of their race as Niggers.

We have to make it clear to all that such language is not welcome in modern civilized company. I am sure Tynan is embarrassed by the whole incident and wishes he never had opened his mouth. It is certainly hard to understand since many of his Yankees admirers and top executives are Jewish and the song that thrust him to favor among Americans was written by a Jew.

We must remember in our criticism of Tynan that this is a man of great fortitude and courage. He never gave up despite his horrible youthful injuries and not only did he become a practicing doctor, a tough enough achievement for able bodied men and women, but also an accomplished performer and singer with an enchanting powerful voice.

So even though the Yankees were correct in disciplining him to the extent they could, he should be given the benefit of the doubt and be welcomed at future events as a man of considerable good nature and stature who made a puddingheaded mistake.