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Sports columnist
Ethan J. Skolnick Ethan J. Skolnick
Back to recent columns

SKOLNICK: Who's suited to take the heat?

Published July 8, 2003

"The black is the better athlete. And he practices to be the better athlete, and he's bred to be the better athlete because this goes way back, to the slave period. The slave owner would breed this big black with this big black woman so he could have a big black kid. That's where it all started." -- Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, 1988.

You remember that, don't you?

That was a sports figure speaking on the biological characteristics, and superiority, of modern black athletes as compared to whites, creating a firestorm and losing his job.

Saturday another sports figure spoke on the biological characteristics, and superiority, of modern black athletes as compared to whites. Yet his comments have hardly caused a spark. If he's feeling the slightest bit toasty, it's due to criticism of his All-Star selections, in particular finding a slot for his own starter, Kerry Wood, instead of the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis. He will manage the Cubs against the Marlins today, and the All-Star team next Tuesday, as scheduled. Life goes on.

He won't be Jimmy the Greek.

The comments by Snyder came to mind while considering the comparative absence of outrage regarding Dusty Baker's Saturday statements, a few newspaper columns aside. Similarly, a long-disparaged sibling came to mind for John Synodinos, as he surfed the Internet from his Ohio home and saw Baker's quotes.

"I'll defend my brother to the death," Synodinos said.

And long after it. Demetrios Georgios Synodinos, or Jimmy the Greek, died in 1996 at age 76. In its first sentence, The New York Times' obituary remembered the fixture on The NFL Today, football's signature pregame show, as "an oddsmaker and football personality who brought gambling to the forefront of televised sports but was fired by CBS Sports for saying that black Americans were better athletes than whites because of physical traits dating back to slavery.''

It is hard to imagine The Times including Baker's racial musings in his obit.

Yet is hard to find more than shades of difference between what the black Baker said Saturday, in explaining the Cubs' frequent summer struggles, and what the white Snyder said 15 years ago to WRC-TV in Washington, as he was finishing lunch at Duke Ziebert's.

"It's easier for me," Baker riffed on playing in the heat. "It's easier for most Latin guys and it's easier for most minority people. Most of us come from the heat. ... Weren't we brought over here because we can take the heat? [Blacks'] skin color is more conducive to heat than it is for light-skin people, right? You don't see brothers running around burnt. Yeah, that's fact."

It's also fact that Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, both black, were the Cubs' signature players for many years. But what is at issue here is not the validity of Baker's beliefs, but why they are more publicly acceptable than those Snyder expressed, especially when prominent blacks expressed views similarly rooted in biological determinism before The Greek did, and have since.

"It's happened so many times," said Angela Kayafas, Snyder's baby sister, when read Baker's comments. "It was unfair what they did to Jimmy. It was terrible. My brother was offered jobs all over the country after, but he was just cut to the core. Next to his family, CBS was his life, and the injustice of what they did to him, it was such a betrayal. Jimmy took it so hard, it affected his health."

Synodinos agreed "false condemnation" caused The Greek's illnesses: "He never was a racist, and they treated him like one."

It may not surprise you that Snyder's siblings strongly feel their brother was wronged, done in by confluence of events -- an expiring contract, the timing (Martin Luther King Jr. day), his plain-spoken nature, the lack of context. What might surprise you is neither believes Baker should be so censured. Quite the opposite.

"Nobody's making a big deal out of it," Synodinos said. "And they shouldn't. I don't care if the man is green. What he speaks is what he believes is the truth. You shouldn't crucify a man for saying what he thinks is the truth. Bigotry is something else."

"I don't think he should be punished for anything," Kayafas said. "By doing that, we are taking away the most valuable thing we have, freedom of speech. His views don't affect the way he does his job. He isn't denying anyone the right to play."

It should be noted, for instance, that Wood is white and Willis black.

Kayafas said too many people have "gone by the wayside" because of their speech, and a person's livelihood is too much to take. "The punishment should fit the crime," she said.

But shouldn't the first rule of punishment be sameness for all? That what is good for the goose be good for the gander, no matter what color the goose and gander might be?

Snyder's siblings may be too kind when each attributes the more muted reaction to the tenor of the times, and a mellowing public.

That doesn't seem so when you consider Bill Maher, the Dixie Chicks, Andy Rooney, Bob Ryan, Trent Lott and on. Calls for accountability are at an all-time high. But not for Baker. Not yet.

Is his race a factor?

"I wouldn't like to think that would make a difference," Synodinos said. "It would be insulting to the black race, if that was the case."

That might depend, however, on who was suggesting it.

Ethan J. Skolnick can be reached at eskolnick@sun-sentinel.com

Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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