Baseball Takes the Lead
By Peter Morris
In 1945, many people were asking questions about major league baseballâ€™s color barrier. Most baseball executives responded defensively by pointing out that segregation permeated American society and asking â€śwhy should baseball be the one to take the lead?â€ť Branch Rickey looked at the situation and had a different question. â€śWhy shouldnâ€™t baseball right this wrong?â€ť wondered Rickey, and that different formulation of the question changed everything.
Few people today are aware that several African Americans played major league baseball in the nineteenth century. Indeed, in the heady days of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, it looked as though people of color would be allowed to take their places alongside whites in most facets of American life. Instead Jim Crow reared its invidious head and by the end of the 1880s opportunities for African Americans within professional baseball had dwindled to a select few.
By the dawn of the new century the door had closed entirely and the major and minor leagues became almost exclusively lily-white. The only exceptions were a few Cubans who were described to those who raised eyebrows as being as white as the â€śpurest bars of Castilian soap.â€ť The best African-American ballplayers performed instead on barnstorming teams that bore such names as the Page Fence Giants, the Cuban Giants, and the Columbia Giants. It was a time when there were giants in the land â€“ figuratively, at least.
After World War I, the best African-American barnstorming teams began to form the leagues that have become collectively known as the Negro Leagues. These circuits were short on organization but long on talent. Stars such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and Oscar Charleston were so brilliant, indeed, that touring African-American squads began to defeat teams of white major leaguers on a regular basis. A frustrated baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis finally banned entire major league teams from competing in such games, but the problem didnâ€™t go away. Exhibition games still pitted all-star squads drawn from the American and National leagues against African-American teams and the results continued to show the sides to be evenly matched. Each closely contested game raised the same nagging questions about the color barrier.
Major league executives responded to these inquiries with a variety of justifications. Some maintained that African Americans werenâ€™t good enough, but this was so palpably untrue that it fooled few. One popular approach was to contend that signing African Americans would kill the Negro Leagues, meaning that it was best for everyone to leave things as they were. Others expressed fear that violence was sure to ruin any attempt to integrate baseball. Still others argued that it wasnâ€™t fitting for baseball to get involved. As one sportswriter explained, baseball dugouts â€śseldom operated on the highest level of mental maturity,â€ť so they werenâ€™t â€śthe places to seek the answerâ€ť to a â€śgrave social question.â€ť
Whatever the excuse, the message to African-American ballplayers remained the same. As a result, the American and National leagues remained segregated through two world wars and the Great Depression. By 1945, there were few alive who could remember the days before major league diamonds became segregated. The unfairness of that situation became all the more evident when Jackie Robinson and the other African-American servicemen returned home after fighting to defend American freedom in World War II, only to find themselves denied the right to share in those liberties. As is demonstrated in Mr. Rickey Calls A Meeting, Branch Rickey was acutely aware of both this shameful history and the objections that his fellow executives had raised. A year before signing Jackie Robinson, Rickey had warned that a poorly planned effort to integrate baseball could â€śthrow back their cause of racial equality a quarter century or more.â€ť Knowing the cost if his â€śgreat experimentâ€ť were to fail, the Dodgers general manager took considerable pains to determine that Jackie Robinson possessed both the physical ability and the character to succeed under very demanding circumstances. Rickey took similar care in arranging the details of Robinsonâ€™s entry into the National League in order to maximize the likelihood of a favorable outcome.
Yet in the end the most important thing that Rickey did was simply to look at a familiar question from a different vantage point. As long as baseballâ€™s leaders were content to look at the status quo and find ways to justify it, there was no chance for progress. â€śWe just accepted things the way they wereâ€ť was the later explanation of one of the many baseball managers who chose not to get involved. But when one instead asked â€śWhy shouldnâ€™t baseball take the lead,â€ť as Branch Rickey chose to do, the answer became self-evident.
Indeed what became clear was not only that it was appropriate for baseball to go first, but that it was absolutely essential for the national pastime to do so. Businesses could always deny an opportunity to African Americans by saying that they didnâ€™t have the experience that theyâ€™d been denied the chance to obtain. Schools could use similar grounds to exclude people of color and so could almost any institution. But baseball was different.
Baseball has never been about credentials â€“ a large part of its appeal lies in the principle that everyone gets a turn at bat to see what they can do. If you used to be able to perform brilliantly but canâ€™t do so any more, tough luck! But if you are able to use your at bat productively, thatâ€™s all that matters. The precise word for that state of affairs is a meritocracy, but the underlying principle of fairness is also a cornerstone of democracy. As a result, when Jackie Robinson finally got his long-overdue turn at bat and (literally) knocked the ball out of the park, one sportswriter recorded, â€śBaseball took up the cudgel for Democracy, and an unassuming, but superlative Negro boy ascended the heights of excellence to prove the rightness of the experiment. And prove it in the only correct crucible for such an experiment â€“ the crucible of white hot competition.â€ť
Branch Rickey recognized all of this and chose to act. We are all the beneficiaries of that decision, as is vividly brought to life in Mr. Rickey Calls A Meeting.
About Peter Morris
Called â€śone of the most prolific living baseball researchersâ€ť by the New York Times, Peter Morris has written several books about the history of baseball, Baseball Fever, A Game of Inches, Level Playing Fields, But Didn't We Have Fun?, and Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero. A frequent presenter at the annual conventions of the Society for American Baseball Research, he is one of the initial recipients of their Henry Chadwick Award.