The idea of erecting a statue of the late New York Yankees pitcher Herb Pennock, by far the most famous person ever born in this Quaker community of 5,200, carried the wallop of a grand-slam home run.
The town's Historical Commission readily agreed that the man known in baseball circles as the "Squire of Kennett Square" was the perfect symbol for the town. A fund-raising drive offered limited-edition baseball cards of the Hall of Famer, who had a 240-162 lifetime record and helped lead the 1927 Yankees--some say the greatest baseball team ever--to a World Series victory.
But the town's enthusiasm for the memorial flagged when a charge of racism surfaced. Word spread around town that Pennock, as general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1947, had uttered a racial slur in describing Jackie Robinson, who broke major league baseball's color line that year, and had tried to block Robinson's first appearance as a player in Philadelphia.
The revelations split the town, notably its white residents. Even among Kennett Square's 600 black citizens, opinions were poles apart. Toyge Davis, 33, who is black and heads the town's Parks and Recreation Department, opposes a monument to Pennock.
"A statue is supposed to be representative of the total community," he said. "This statue wouldn't be representative of African Americans because he tried to keep Jackie Robinson out of baseball."
But Mayor Charles S. Cramer, who is 73 and African American, sided with other city leaders, arguing that Pennock was still the biggest name in town and that it would be unfair to hold him to today's standards.
"Back in that time, a lot of people made racial remarks," Cramer said.
As town leaders ponder whether to proceed or drop the matter, the controversy is pushing Kennett Square--like many multiracial communities in America--to examine one aspect of the interplay of race and history: Can respected accomplishments in one field outweigh dubious personal values in determining what makes a hero? Is it fair or possible to hold an individual accountable by contemporary standards for behavior that was typical in another era?
Kennett Square is only the latest locality to find itself in racial torment over flawed heroes. Even Thomas Jefferson, the intellectual spirit of the Declaration of Independence, has been criticized for owning slaves and for allegedly having a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave.
Some communities have renamed local landmarks to account for new historical interpretations. African American leaders in New Orleans attracted attention last spring, for example, when they removed the names of slave owners from public schools, including transforming George Washington Elementary School to Dr. Charles Richard Drew Elementary in honor of the black doctor who developed blood plasma preservation methods.
Filmmaker Warns of Revisionism
Ken Burns, a filmmaker and amateur historian, worries that community efforts to clean up history tend instead to distort it.
"A hero is a strange and wonderful combination of strengths and weaknesses," said Burns, who has put together acclaimed television documentaries on professional baseball and the Civil War.
"That's what history is--the great and tragic pageant of all that's gone on before. "Instead of being fractionalized by our history, we need to see it as a part of our shared commitment to know and understand ourselves."
In Kennett Square, everyone agrees Pennock was an outstanding baseball player, but that's where the shared understanding ends.
Tall, thin and left-handed, Pennock played 22 seasons for the Philadelphia Athletics, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. In 10 World Series appearances from 1914 to 1932, Pennock had a 5-0 record and walked only eight batters. He retired as a player in 1934 to raise silver foxes on his country estate near here in the southeast corner of Pennsylvania, about 40 miles west of Philadelphia.
By returning to this picturesque community, Pennock brought pride, glory and celebrity to this small town. To this day, townsfolk recall Pennock, who died at 54 of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1948, as "the perfect gentleman." A few months after his death, he was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame.
However, a malevolent Pennock emerges from several biographies of Robinson. In most cases, the source of the negative depiction of Pennock can be traced to a detailed, first-person account in "The Lords of Baseball," written by Harold Parrott, who served as road secretary for the Brooklyn Dodgers and an aide to team owner Branch Rickey.
Parrott, who died in 1987, wrote in his 1976 memoir that as a Phillies official Pennock called Rickey to demand that Robinson not be brought with the team to Philadelphia's Shibe Park, where the Phillies played. "[J]ust can't bring the n----- here with the rest of your team," Parrott quoted Pennock as saying. "We're just not ready for that sort of thing yet. We won't be able to take the field against your Brooklyn team if that boy Robinson is in uniform." Parrott said that he was listening to the conversation on an extension phone at Rickey's instruction.
Rickey refused to leave Robinson behind, and he played the game in Philadelphia. Parrott recalled the black player being heckled by Phillies players and management "with racial venom and dugout filth" unlike any he had ever heard in baseball. Parrott also noted that Pennock overheard the taunts and did nothing to stop the "verbal lynching" of Robinson.
At Burton's Barber Shop here, talk of home runs and pennants is displaced by a stout defense of Pennock's reputation. The shop is ground zero for the town's love affair with him. The side and back walls are crammed with memorabilia, paying homage to Kennett Square's link with baseball immortality. One photo shows Pennock as a schoolboy in his Cedarcroft Academy uniform, another in his Yankee pinstripes. And, perhaps, the most revered picture of all shows a retired Pennock wearing foxhunt tweeds and standing beside Babe Ruth, a guest at his Kennock Square farm.
Stout Defense of Pennock
"I've heard people talk about Herb Pennock in here for 43 years and never heard that kind of talk," said Bob Burton, 61, a third-generation barber and owner of the shop. He pointed to a fuzzy black-and-white image on the wall. "That's my grandfather, Amos, who played with Herb Pennock. My grandfather opened Burton's Barber Shop on State Street in 1892. . . .
"You'd think down through all the years, of all the baseball talk that's gone on in this barber shop, just once someone would have mentioned Herb Pennock saying something like that about Jackie Robinson," Burton fumed. "Not once. No. Never."
Burton said that he is sickened by media accounts that paint Pennock as a racist. "Herb Pennock wasn't that kind of guy. He was a Quaker and he didn't use that kind of language."
Critics of the proposed statue tend to come from Kennett Square's black community. Most say that they have nothing against Pennock but want the full measure of his character revealed if the town is going to erect a statue in his honor. Far from picketing or raising their voices in anger, folks in town are treating the controversy more like neighborly gossip passed along a community grapevine.
By most accounts, Mabel Thompson, a longtime community leader and outspoken activist among African Americans, is the person who set the controversy in motion. Just as the Historical Commission began soliciting an estimated $100,000 to pay a sculptor, Thompson called media attention to a 1997 newspaper clipping that quoted Parrott's book on Pennock's comments about Robinson.
"Of course, I had feelings about that because I'm a black person, and any black person would feel strongly about Robinson being called a n-----," she said. "If it's true [that Pennock said it] . . . we should know about it if we're going to erect a statue."
Concerned About Future Generations
Thompson said that she does not really care if the statue is built. "I don't think it's going to make that much of a difference in the black community one way or another," she said. "But what I want to do is find out the truth. I'm interested in what it means [to honor Pennock] for generations to come."
Chris Barber, the Kennett Square reporter for the Daily Local News based in neighboring West Chester, said that Thompson brought the issue to her attention. "The town was already on fire when I wrote my story," she said. "People were angry and irritated that this was coming out at this time."
Driving a visitor around town, Barber pointed out indicators of change in Kennett Square. The town's central business district has seven upscale restaurants but the five-and-dime store is a memory. The new, red-brick Genesis Health Ventures building employs white-collar workers. An Italian-owned restaurant ran afoul of an Architectural Review Board because the owner's plan to put arches in his window was not in keeping with the town decor.
And, growing numbers of Mexican immigrants are squeezed into low-rent apartments on the edge of town. Mostly manual laborers in the area's mushroom farms and packing plants, they are beginning to add a bit of Latino culture to the town's character.
On top of all this, the statue controversy made it impossible for town leaders to maintain their fiction of small-town cohesion, Barber said. "This town is undergoing a revitalization with new people coming in and different businesses with new agendas," she said. "The controversy over the Herb Pennock statue may be a metaphor for other, hidden issues that we aren't dealing with in Kennett Square."
Leon Rowe, a retired high school history teacher and the person who proposed the statue to the Historical Commission, said that he does not know if a Pennock memorial ever will be erected. The commission has hired a conflict resolution expert, who will try to heal any remaining hard feelings at town meetings.
"Maybe we're more sensitive nowadays," Rowe said. "This is our town's struggle with the '90's political correctness being placed on our historic values and our heroes. This is a good thing and a bad thing because, through all of the hurt feelings, maybe this town will learn to resolve its unique issues."