Play Ball!

Published April 1, 2017

In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major league baseball. But, who and when did the color line come into being?

During the late 19th Century, professional sports was emerging in the country. Sports, like other aspects of entertainment – the theater, the traveling circus, the freak show – became democratized. While horse racing might be the sport of kings, along with polo, fox hunting, falconry, dog shows and such, the masses preferred manly sports combining strength as well as athleticism, with teamwork usually part of the mix. In 1871, the first professional baseball league was formed. Later, professional football and basketball leagues.

The first several decades of professional baseball were shall we say, fluid. Teams came and went. Rival leagues were formed. During this time, the National League emerged as dominant, having anchor teams in the most prominent cities and almost all of the better players. Even so, it would be forced into a merger with a rival league which became the American League. It was during these years that the part of baseball associated with the major leagues adopted an unwritten rule banning African Americans.

The instigator of this rule was Cap Anson, possibly the best player of his day. In 1883, Anson said his major league team from Chicago would not play an exhibition game against a minor league team from Toledo, if that minor league team fielded its black ballplayer, Moses Fleetwood Walker. Walker is quite an interesting fellow. A college graduate, holder of several patents, and author of a book, he would later become a black nationalist. Anson backed down from refusing to play when he learned that his team would forfeit its share of the gate, but vowed this would be the last time.

The next year, Anson re-stated his condition for playing another exhibition against the minor league team. Walker sat out of the game, his team said because of injury. Again in 1887, Anson made a similar demand for an exhibition game against another minor league team, in Newark, featuring two black players (one of them the aforementioned Fleetwood Walker). This prompted the league of which the Newark team was a member to take a vote on banning black players. Every team that was all-white voted in favor of the ban. Every team with at least one black player voted against. The vote passed six to four.

Sixty years later, after Joe Louis – the Brown Bomber – fought his two bouts against Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium, after Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, after we called upon all of our citizens to rally to the cause of freedom and democracy during World War II, the color line could not hold.

A truly remarkable baseball executive, Branch Rickey, seized the opportunity for his team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. He put his faith in Jackie Robinson, a four-letter man from UCLA (baseball, football, basketball and track, he was also quite good in tennis). During the war, Robinson had been commissioned a second lietutenant and served in a segregated unit, although he was not deployed overseas. Soon after his discharge, he was playing baseball with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.

There were other, arguably better players in the Negro Leagues. But Rickey had his reasons to tab Robinson. Among them, it is said, was the young man’s demeanor. In addition to helping the Dodgers become competitive, Robinson helped to fill the stands. Both at home, in the ethnic mixing bowl that Brooklyn has always been, and away, the Brooklyn Dodgers with Jackie Robinson drew enormous crowds. Among those in the crowd at Ebbets Field in those days were my parents.

Soon, other teams were breaking the color line, starting with the Cleveland Indians with Larry Doby. In 1953, the New York Giants brought up Monte Irvin and, in 1955, the New York Yankees brought up Elston Howard.

Through the 1970s, almost every black ballplayer in the Major Leagues was an outstanding player, many of them All-Stars. Few were bench players. It was as though baseball teams were balancing the positive impact of its black ballplayers on winning against a possible negative impact on the majority of its fans. But, by the ’70s, the percentage of blacks among bench players approximated the percentage among starters. While it is difficult to summarize research in the area, I think it is fare to say that econometric analysis indicates that where there was once discrimination in pay in baseball, this has substantially, if not totally gone away.

Nowadays, Jackie Robinson’s number, 42, is retired in all of baseball, except on Jackie Robinson Day. On April 15th, every ballplayer wears the number, the Asians and the Latin Americans as well as the Americans.