Baseball, racism and Jackie Robinson


How a black baseball player from Georgia changed the face of American baseball and helped advance civil rights in America.

by Gregory Wakeman in History

Baseball legend Jackie Robinson
Baseball legend Jackie Robinson

Baseball has never established itself within the United Kingdom. Sure a few amateur teams will pop up occasionally around the country, but unlike American Football, which has over the last few decades sold-out matches at Wembley Stadium, baseball has never had a solid enough fan base to generate interest on our small little island.

Maybe it is because it closely resembles rounders and we Brits feel too loyal to our sports to deviate from them. However, there is something inherently romantic about America's original favourite pastime that is almost poetic, even if its past is steeped in the kind of racism that has scarred the rest of American history.

Today, it is almost impossible to comprehend the level of energy that has gone into maintaining segregation in baseball in the past. A gentleman's agreement existed between every club and their general manager in the late 1800s, for example, which kept black baseball players out of the sport. Many of baseball's best players, such as Ty Cobb, were famous for their racist behaviour, while many chose to ignore the racist actions of others in case they became ostracised for objecting to them.

The Negro Leagues

This didn't stop talented black players from forming their own championship, called The Negro Leagues. The teams that competed in these leagues were often distinguished with more talented players than the official baseball teams such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. However, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was the first Commissioner of Baseball, refused to budge on the issue of player integration and did his best to keep black athletes out of the official game.

Many General Managers did actually attempt to employ some black players but their attempts were thwarted by Landis, who would stop at nothing to block such attempts at changing the game. Yet to blame Landis alone for this situation would be wrong. There was, for example, no forthright action from any of the Managing Directors associated with baseball to break down the colour barrier within the sport and it was only during World War Two that the pressure to allow black players to take part increased significantly.

From this point, both spectators and officials became alert to the hypocrisy of black players being absent from the sport, and banners began to appear at stadia throughout the US which read "We can stop bullets, but not balls." Black leaders also started to pressurise Landis on the issue, but he would not compromise and it was not until after his death in November 1944 that real progress began to be made on lifting the baseball colour bar.

Landis' successor, Happy Chandler, was a much more relaxed individual, who was even quoted as stating "that if a black man can fight at Iwo Jima he can certainly play ball." Yet the Managing Directors of the teams in baseball still refused to give ground and when a poll was conducted asking how many of them agreed to black players participating in the sport, 15 out of 16 MDs rejected the proposal.

One man who was in favour of such a change was Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Dodgers were the only team that could employ a black player in the mid-1940s, probably partly because Brooklyn was the home to many of the immigrants who came to America expecting a better life. As a result, the Dodgers closely resembled those who flocked to Ebbets Field to watch the affectionately named "Bums" play their game.

Rickey increasingly demanded an end to segregation and persisted in his attempts to bring a black man into baseball. He even began to search the untapped reservoir of potential that existed in the Negro Leagues for a player that not only had the skill to compete against other professional players but also possessed the temperament to overcome the comments of racist spectators.

Enter Jackie Robinson

Born into a poor family from Georgia in 1919, Robinson was an outstanding athlete in almost every field. Robinson excelled at football, basketball, track and field, as well as baseball, with the latter being the least favoured of his sports. Rickey decided that Robinson was the man to break down the colour barrier in baseball and set about purchasing him from the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs team.

Before completing his signature, however, Rickey subjected Robinson to a torrent of abuse as a flavour of what he could expect from the opposing players and fans. The Brooklyn Dodgers Managing Director also informed Robinson that he would need to resist the urge to retaliate to such provocation so that other black players could play professionally in the future.

After spending a season perfecting his craft at the Dodgers minor league team, The Montreal Royals, in 1946, Robinson made his professional debut on 15 April 1947, helping the Bums to a 5-3 victory in his opening game. Inevitably the abuse started to rain down on Jackie from all corners of opposing teams' ballparks during that game, yet Robinson was able to deflect it.

Some of Robinson's teammates were originally against the black signing and refused to play on a side that the black player was a part of. This all changed when in one particularly volatile match against the Phillies the vitriolic abuse against Robinson was pushed to new extremes. Rickey would later recall how that match "did more than anything to unite the Dodgers. When they poured out that string of unconscionable abuse, they solidified and united thirty men."

The united Dodgers soon advanced to become one of the best ball clubs in the country and Robinson was able to integrate some of the skills and talent from the Negro Leagues into the national game. When playing, Robinson would steal bases and be more aggressive in his play than other players in the league and the Dodgers soon became the most popular team in the US. Not long after, every baseball team in the country started to take players from the Negro Leagues, with the actions of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson helping the Civil Rights Movement more generally to move forward.

Robinson would go on to help lead the Dodgers to six World Series finals and Brooklyn's only World Championship in 1955. Following his retirement, after the World Series in 1956, Robinson was inducted in 1962 into the Baseball Hall of Fame, with his 42 shirt eventually being retired across all major league teams in 1997.

As a further sign of Robinson's success in moving the sport forward, Commissioner Bud Selig announced in 2004 that Major League Baseball would mark 15 April as Jackie Robinson Day, in recognition of the player's contribution to both the sport and the lifting of the colour bar in baseball.

That date would later be moved to 28 August, but what cannot be changed is the impact that Robinson had on the game and the players that followed him out onto the pitch, whatever their colour.

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