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"Breaking Baseball's Color Barrier"
Peter Golenbock

excerpt from
Bums: An Oral History of
the Brooklyn  Dodgers (1984)


Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers

is available at
Jackie Robinson & Branch Rickey
Baseball hadn't always been segregated. Right after the Civil War, during baseball's infancy, blacks played alongside whites. Two brothers, Moses Fleetwood "Fleet" Walker and Welday Wilberforce Walker, both played for Toledo in the American Association, and Fleet Walker and black pitching star George Stovey played for Newark in the 1880s when more than twenty blacks held positions in various leagues around the country.
The first recorded move to exclude "the colored" in professional baseball occurred in 1882 when Adrian "Cap" Anson -- an Iowan, not a southerner -- came to Toledo with his Chicago White Stockings and ordered Toledo's Fleet Walker off the field. "Get that nigger off the field," he said, "or I will not allow my team to take the field." To its credit the Toledo management told Anson to buzz off, and despite Walker's presence Anson's team played.
Five years later Anson brought his team to Newark, where he again demanded that a black, Stovey, not be allowed to play. This time the Newark management caved in, and Stovey, not wishing to cause embarrassment to his employees, voluntarily left the field. Later when Anson learned that John Montgomery Ward was going to buy Stovey for the New York Giants, Anson successfully moved to bar black-skinned players from "organized baseball."
....The one manager with the guts to try to buck the barrier was New York Giant[s] manager John McGraw. McGraw, who began managing the Giants in 1902, had scouted a black star of the Columbia Giants by the name of Charley Grant, and after he signed him to a Giant contract, McGraw tried to fool reporters and everyone else by contending that Grant was not a Negro but rather a full-blooded Indian. But when the Giants played an exhibition in Baltimore, Grant's black followers packed the ballpark, and McGraw's deception was uncovered. Sometime later McGraw tried to sign a shortstop named Haley and get him through by saying he was Cuban. Again it didn't work. Not even the powerful McGraw could break baseball's immovable color bar.
....The first rumblings against the status quo began in the '40s, when black activist Paul Robeson confronted [Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain] Landis, demanding to know why black men ... were not permitted to play professional baseball. Robeson, who had been an All-American football player at Rutgers, told Landis that blacks played in football, track, and even professional croquet. Why not baseball?
With great solemnity, Judge Landis told Robeson that there was no rule on the books prohibiting a black man from joining a major league team. It was up to the owners to hire whom they pleased. Landis could get away with such a cavalier statement because he knew that the owners weren't about to give a Negro the opportunity. Chicago White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes had held a tryout for shortstop Jackie Robinson and pitcher Nate Moreland, but owner Charley Comiskey refused to sign them. Later, the Red Sox tried out Jackie Robinson, Marvin Williams, and Sam Jethroe. Coach Hugh Duffy wanted to sign all three of them, but owner Tom Yawkey refused to approve. For years Yawkey avoided signing Negro players, saying that he was waiting for a "great one." Having passed up a dozen or so Hall of Fame players, he became the last owner in either league to sign a black.
Then in the mid-1940s William Benswanger, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, tried to sign Josh Gibson, the Negro League's equivalent to Babe Ruth. Faced with an actual challenge, Commissioner Landis turned down the request, intoning, "The colored ballplayers have their own league. Let them play in their own league."
In 1944 Landis also prevented Bill Veeck from purchasing the cellar-dwelling Philadelphia Phillies and reviving them by hiring the best players from Negro League baseball. As soon as Landis heard the plan, he arranged for the Philadelphia owner, Gerry Nugent, to turn the team back to the National League so that Veeck would have to deal with National League President Ford Frick. Frick then allowed lumber dealer William Cox to buy the team for about half of what Veeck had offered. According to Veeck, Frick was bragging all over the baseball world that he had stopped Veeck from "contaminating the league."
....[W]ith Landis's death, the prime barrier against integrating the major leagues was gone. Under Happy Cahndler, things would be different.
HAPPY CHANDLER: "For twenty-four years Judge Landis wouldn't let a black man play. I had his records, and I read them, and for twenty-four years Landis consistently blocked any attempts to put blacks and whites together on a big league field .... Now, see, I had known Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige, and, of course, Josh died without having his chance, and I lamented that, because he was one of the greatest players I ever saw ... and I thought that was an injustice.
"....I was named the commissioner in April 1945, and just as soon as I was elected commissioner, two black writers from the Pittsburgh Courier ... came down to Washington to see me. They asked me where I stood, and I shook their hands and said, 'I'm for the Four Freedoms, and if a black boy can make it in Okinawa and go to Guadalcanal, he can make it in baseball' ...."
From the time Chandler made his Four Freedoms statement in April 1945, Branch Rickey took just four months to select the man with the qualifications to break baseball's color barrier. Rickey, however, had been "making plans" long before then. Rickey had opposed discrimination since the turn of the century when he was the twenty-one-year-old baseball coach of Ohio Wesleyan University .... [R]acism in baseball embarrassed him, but he too knew that as long as Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis ... was commissioner, there was no way he would be able to do anything, and so he kept his thinking to himself as he waited for the day when Landis would step down.
...He knew there would be opposition when he acted, because no one -- not even his family -- was for it. When Rickey finally decided to go ahead with his bold plan to integrate major league baseball, the first person [he] confided in was Jane Rickey, his wife of many years....
Jane Rickey pleaded him; "Why should you be the one to do it? Haven't you done enough for baseball? Can't someone else do something for a change?"
His son, Branch, Jr., who was in charge of the [Brooklyn] Dodger farm system, told him, "It means we'll be out of scouting in the South."
"For a while," said Branch, Sr., "not forever."
Nothing would sway him. In August of 1945 Rickey sent scout Clyde Sukeforth to watch the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs and to learn something about the team's shortstop, Jackie Robinson.
....Jackie became a star athlete in football, basketball, and baseball, first at Pasadena Junior College and then at UCLA, where he and Kenny Washington led his football team to within one yard of a Rose Bowl appearance. In basketball he was All-American honorable mention, and in track he broke a national record for the long jump previously set by his brother Mack, who had finished second to Jesse Owens in the 200-meter run in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Jackie was also a dominant baseball player. Whatever sport he played, he was hard to beat .... Robinson gained recognition as the nation's most versatile athlete, and some say that had he been white and from the East, he would have been rated as a better all-around athlete than the legendary Jim Thorpe.
....Jackie had applied for officer candidate school, and in January of 1943 he became a second lieutenant in the army, where he was a constant thorn in the side of his superiors .... Jackie had been asked to play on the Fort Riley [Kansas] football team, and he came out for practice, but before the first scrimmage ... [he] was virtually ordered to accept a pass to visit his folks back home. The real reason, he knew, was that the brass didn't want a Negro playing on the team. When Robinson came out for the baseball team, again he was denied the right to play.
....In November of 1944 ... the army gave Robinson an honorable discharge. In April of 1945, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League for $400 a month ....
....When it was announced that the Brooklyn Dodgers had chosen Robinson as the first Negro to play in "organized baseball," his Kansas City teammates couldn't believe it. In forty-one games playing in the Negro American League, Robinson hit .345, hit ten doubles, four triples, and five home runs, and was the West's shortstop in the East-West all-star game, but most of them hadn't liked Robinson .... He was a California boy, a hothead who didn't know his place. He was college-educated, and they thought he felt superior to them. Also, he was a rookie, and his teammates felt that the first should have been a Negro League veteran such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, or Monte Irvin, who later proved his worth with the New York Giants.
....What these Negro League ballplayers ... didn't understand was that Robinson's signing would ultimately mean the demise of the Negro Leagues. Most of the Negro ballplayers though that Robinson would be an isolated case. But it took only a couple of years for the full impact of Robinson's signing on the Negro League's to sink in.
In 1947, because of Robinson, attendance was down alarmingly for Negro League games. Nearly all Negro League teams lost money. Nineteen forty-eight was a disaster. The fans no longer showed up for games at all, and by 1949 the Negro League teams began trying to sell their players wholesale to keep from going under. In 1950 the New York Giants paid $15,000 to the Birmingham Black Barons for nineteen-year-old Willie Mays. In 1952 Milwaukee bought eighteen-year-old Henry Aaron from the Indianapolis Clowns, and in 1953 the Cubs bought twenty-two-year-old Ernie Banks from the Kansas City Monarchs.
When the major league teams began buying youngsters, the Negro Leagues were doomed. The Negro Leagues could stand the loss of a Robinson, or maybe even a Satchel Paige. But when all of a sudden the kids were going to the majors, the Negro Leagues didn't have any talent coming up, and that's what killed them. Two-and-a-half years after Mays came up in 1951, the Negro Leagues folded.
On October 23, 1945, it was announced that Jackie Robinson had signed a contract to play for the [Dodger AA] Montreal Royals for the 1946 season. In the North there was only a ripple of reaction, but for the masses of disillusioned Negroes in the South, Jackie Robinson's entry into baseball meant so much more. Because not only was Robinson going to play baseball, but he was going to play it with whites. He was going to get the opportunity to prove to the white community that he could be just as good as they were ....