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The Worst Yankee of All Time (Moral Sense Only)

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"Hmm. Maybe I can turn things around if I just say something clever." (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
"Hmm. Maybe I can turn things around if I just say something clever." (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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I woke up in a bad mood this morning after a bad night--I blame Justin Verlander--and as any normal person does, I began casting about for ways to frame that mood in baseball terms. Arriving here at my desk, I encountered my SBN colleague Jeff Freier's new column, "A-Rod: Bust, Forever Cheater or True Yankee?" Freier asks:

Alex Rodriguez is multidimensional. He's insincere. He's a glamour boy. He's a workaholic. He's a possible Hall of Famer. He's an MVP. He's a cheater and a law-breaker. He's a record-breaker. He's a World Series winner. He's clutch. He's unclutch. He's a good teammate. He's a bad teammate. He's all of that and more, rolled into one enigmatic package.

We know how most baseball fans feel about A-Rod, but how will Yankee fans view him when it's all said and done, though? A bust? Just another steroid-era cheater? A true Yankee and pinstripe legend? Or -- in true Alex Rodriguez fashion -- all of the above?

Fans have certainly had an ambivalent relationship with Rodriguez, who comes across as insincere no matter what he says. This is in ironic counterpoint to Derek Jeter, who comes across as since but never actually says anything of substance. Yet, if A-Rod is not a true Yankee, whatever that means, and not a bad Yankee, since he's clearly been highly productive, who is a bad Yankee, and by that I mean not just a non-productive Yankee, but a Yankee who is truly evil?

I've long had a nominee for that position.

I've written about Jake Powell a few times during my career, most extensively at Baseball Prospectus back in 2004 (free to all). Powell, an outfielder for the Yankees in the late 1930s, was acquired by the Yankees from the Washington Senators for Ben Chapman in a swap of clubhouse cancers. One of Powell's many faults was blatant racism, a quality he shared with Chapman, who would go down in history as the Phillies manager who hounded Jackie Robinson. This wasn't a problem in the segregated majors of the '30s, but it became one for Powell once his bigotries were broadcast off the field. In 1938, Powell was invited to do what would now be a standard pre-game interview:

Radio was a relatively new development in baseball, and the players had not learned to be guarded with a medium capable of instantaneous transmission of their words, or they had been lulled into a false sense of security by years of off-the-cuff bull sessions with the baseball writers, who did not report what they heard. Elston asked an innocuous question: What did Powell do during the off-season? Powell responded that he worked on the police force of Dayton, Ohio. Asked how he kept in shape during the winter, Powell replied: "Oh, I crack n-----s on the head."

The moment the words were spoken, WGN cut off the interview, but it was already too late. Seemingly within moments protests were organized and petitions demanding Powell's permanent suspension were circulated. The next day Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis suspended Powell 10 days for making an, "uncomplimentary remark about a portion of the population." Such was organized baseball's discomfort with matters of race in the days of the color line that the group affronted by Powell would remain officially nameless.

Powell would never play regularly for the Yankees again, and only the manpower shortages created by World War II got him a brief ticket back to the majors in the 1940s. His story had a denouement to match my mood. In 1948, he was arrested in Washington for passing bad checks:

He was accompanied by Josephine Amber of Deland, Florida, "a tall, good-looking blond clad in a bright red dress." Amber claimed to be Powell's fiancee, apparently unaware that he had a wife and daughter living in Silver Spring. Upon his arrest, Powell had been given a quick frisking and was taken to police headquarters for questioning... Amber told Powell she was dumping him and going home to Florida. "You've lied to me and everyone else," she told him. "You've reached the end of your rope and you might as well face the music."

"I'm going to end it all," Powell said quietly.As Amber rose to inform the police of Powell's intentions, he pulled a .25 caliber automatic from his shirt pocket and shot himself once in the heart and once in the right temple. He died instantly.

Some might argue that A-Rod is not a true Yankee--still don't know what that means--or the gambler Hal Chase. Leo Durocher was not a great citizen during his days in pinstripes. Some might choose Chapman himself. Me, I'm going with Powell... and a stiff drink.