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Former Cincinnati Reds’ star catcher and Baseball Hall-of-Famer Johnny Bench was part of the team’s latest Hall of Fame class induction Saturday, and his comments at a pregame press conference honoring the inductees created a lot of controversy. Bench made a remark about former Reds’ general manager Gabe Paul that fed into antisemitic stereotypes, and took significant criticism for it.

The team’s inductees this year were former pitchers Danny Graves and Bronson Arroyo and former GM Paul. Paul, who passed away in 1998, was represented by his daughter Jennie. During her remarks, Paul spoke about her father’s role in founding the Reds’ Hall of Fame, and about his willingness to sign discriminated-against Black and Latin-American players once he took over as Reds’ GM in 1951. That included the signings of Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon, who broke the team’s color line on April 17, 1954. Jennie Paul attributed some of that to her father’s own Jewish background:

“He was a minority himself, I don’t know if many of you know that he was Jewish. He was a very big proponent for the underdog because he was an underdog himself. He went into the Latin leagues and the Negro leagues and he signed as many minority players as he could. Which strengthened the Reds. You have a team in Cincinnati today because of Gabe Paul, I’m so proud to be representing him, so thank you so much.”

Later, 15 minutes into the news conference, fellow Reds’ legend Pete Rose was telling a story about how Paul initially signed him for $400 a month. Jennie Paul chimed in “That’s cheap,” and then Bench said “He was Jewish.”

In later comments to the assembled media, Paul said she didn’t initially hear what Bench said, but he did come up to her later and ask if she was offended. She said she might have said something if she had heard it at the time. She also mentioned that her father did sometimes feel discriminated against for being Jewish, and that he opted not to run for MLB commissioner in 1965 partly because of that, but that the discrimination he faced drove his stance on MLB integration.

“I didn’t even hear him say that,” Jennie Paul said. “Johnny came up and said ‘Were you offended?’ and I said for what? I didn’t even hear him say that. I suppose if I would’ve heard him say that, I would’ve said something, but I didn’t even hear him say that.”

…”It did follow him his whole baseball career because a lot of people didn’t know he was Jewish,” Jennie Paul said. “They turned down the commissionership because he was Jewish. A lot of people don’t know that either. They wanted him to run for the commissioner when (General William D.) Eckert was elected. And he didn’t want to because he didn’t think he’d get the vote because he was Jewish. And then he thought if he did get the vote, he’d be discriminated against because he was Jewish.”

…”He felt that there was no discrimination allowed in his world,” Jennie Paul said. “He pulled a whole team out of Little Rock, Arkansas, because they wouldn’t let the Blacks room with the whites.”

Antisemitic remarks have shown up in many corners of the sports world recently. And they have been an issue for the Reds in the past, specifically around the 1990s controversy around former owner Marge Schott’s pro-Hitler and anti-Jewish comments and Nazi swastika armband (some of the many controversies on race Schott was involved with). And these comments from Bench have now brought more attention to the team’s Hall of Fame induction, but not the kind they’d like.

[The Cincinnati Enquirer]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.