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Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Major League Baseball

Part of the series Sport & Society
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William Rubinstein looks at a turning point in America’s national sport.

Baseball has been repeatedly cited as crucial to understanding much of American society. ‘Whoever would understand the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game’, Jacques Barzun once wrote. For Mark Twain, more than a century ago, baseball, whose rules were codified in the 1840s, ‘is the very symbol, the outward and visible experience of the drive and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century’, and this remained true for most of the twentieth century as well. What is less familiar is the role of baseball in the achievement of black equality in America; how the integration of Major League baseball in 1945-47 set the stage for the legal and political landmarks of the Civil Rights movement which was to follow.

‘Major League’ baseball began in 1871 with the formation of the first ‘major league’, the National Association. The two Major Leagues that exist today, the National League and the American League, were founded, respectively, in 1876 and 1901. There were always very few Major League teams: between 1901 and 1960 there were only sixteen, all in the north-east of the United States. New York for most of this period had three teams and Chicago had two, but many large cities had none. Most had Minor League teams, which were initially independent but gradually came to be taken over by the Majors as ‘farm teams’. There is, however, no promotion or relegation as in British football. Together, the Major and Minor Leagues are known as ‘Organised Baseball’. Each team was owned by one man or family and the owner could do whatever he wished with the team, including move it to another city. Players were bound to work for one team by the ‘reserve clause’ in all contracts until the 1970s, and could be paid as much or as little as the owner wished: a player’s only recourse was not to sign his contract.

By the early twentieth century, baseball had become America’s national sport. Until the rise of professional gridiron football in the 1950s it had no rival. Every boy and most girls learned to play as a matter of course. Baseball’s Major League star players were as well known as the president of the United States; team loyalties, even for fans who lived hundreds of miles away, were profound. Baseball is the most statistical of sports, even more so than cricket. Hitting, pitching and fielding responsibility can be assigned rigorously to every player, producing an unrivalled statistical data bank throughout the game’s entire history. What has been termed a ‘sacred numerology’ of record numbers, such as Babe Ruth’s sixty home runs in 1927, are engraved in the consciousness of every fan from early youth. Compared to football, the baseball season is long: 162 games (formerly 154) are played by each team every season, as the game can be played every day.

One of baseball’s most important roles has been to integrate the disparate elements of American society into the mainstream culture. Baseball is seen by many social historians as having a powerful effect on moulding the newer and marginal groups of the population into a unified nation, and assimilating American values and a common identity. The game was an significant element in reuniting the United States after the Civil War. By the 1890s newspapers in the southern states were reporting on Major League baseball with the same enthusiasm as those in the northern cities, despite the fact that all the major leagues were located in the North or in border states. Many star players of the 1880s and 1890s, such as ‘King’ Kelly, Ed Delahanty, and John McGraw, were second-generation Irish-Americans, products of the first wave of non-Protestant immigrants to the United States from the mid-nineteenth century.

As further waves of immigrants came to America, their sons adapted to the new society in part through the national sport. Baseball and its  variants became ubiquitous pastimes for youths across America, whether in big city slums or in small towns and farmsteads. Major League players rapidly became role models and icons. During the interwar years,  baseball stars from white ‘ethnic’ backgrounds played a key role in the acculturation of their group into American society. Two of the best-known players of this period were the greatest Italian- and Jewish-American stars, Joe DiMaggio (1914-99) and Hank Greenberg (1911-86).

The son of a poor Sicilian fisherman who had emigrated to San Francisco, the Italian-speaking DiMaggio is, next to Babe Ruth (1895-1948), probably the most famous baseball player, in part because of his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe in the mid-1950s. DiMaggio, who played from 1936 until 1951 (missing three years during the Second World War) was voted the ‘greatest living player’ by a team of experts in 1969. During his thirteen seasons as the center fielder of the New York Yankees, it won ten pennants (league championships) and nine World Series (the annual competition between the pennant-winning teams of the two Major Leagues). Thin, graceful and aristocratic, renowned for his shyness and diffidence, DiMaggio represented a marked contrast to the prevalent negative stereotype of the Italian-American as a sinister, potential Mafioso epitomised by the screen depictions of Al Capone. Instead, he was described as ‘a prince among men’ and a man who ‘exuded class from every pore’. In the summer of 1941, while Hitler was invading the Soviet Union, most Americans keenly followed DiMaggio’s pursuit of his most famous record, hitting safely in fifty-six consecutive games. The contrast between this image of pre-Pearl Harbor America and the maelstrom of hatred in Europe was not lost on newspaper editors, who regularly contrasted the European conflict with the United States, where ‘immigrants from a hundred lands’ were contributing to America’s greatness.

Equally important for Jewish Americans was Hank Greenberg, who played from 1930 until 1947, missing nearly five seasons during the Second World War when he was in the Air Force. The son of Romanian Jewish immigrants in New York, Greenberg also challenged Jewish stereotypes: Jews were famous for producing achievers in a range of fields from science to Hollywood, but seldom great athletes. In contrast to the image of the stocky, unathletic Jew, at six feet four inches, Greenberg was probably the tallest and strongest baseball star of his day. He made no secret of his Jewish background, famously refusing to play on Yom Kippur, which occurs near the end of the baseball season in September. Greenberg was famous for hitting home runs in great numbers and in 1938 hit fifty-eight, only two less than the record set by Babe Ruth. Like DiMaggio, Greenberg did much to Americanise the image of his group. For hundreds of thousands of American Jews, too, Greenberg became a major icon. Decades later, when oral historians came to interview American Jews who had grown up in the dark times of the 1930s, they heard the same line repeated over and over: ‘when Greenberg hit a home run, for me he was hitting one against Hitler’.

Many other minority groups  experienced the same process of acceptance through Major League baseball. Prominent players of German descent (including Babe Ruth), as well as French Canadians, Poles, Hungarians and Scandinavians, all made an impact on the game. Even American Indians, who frequently met prejudice and hostility, were not debarred from recruitment to the Major Leagues. One early twentieth-century pitcher of Indian descent, Albert ‘Chief’ Bender, was eventually elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, where the greatest players are commemorated with plaques. The Cleveland Indians baseball team received their nickname in honour of another turn-of-the-century Indian player, Louis ‘Chief’ Sockalexis. Jim Thorpe, an American Indian who is often regarded as the greatest-ever American athlete, played six years in the baseball Major Leagues.

Men of all ethnic backgrounds, then, were welcomed into Major League baseball – with one exception. Until the end of the Second World War black Americans were comprehensively debarred. In 1884, the Toledo Blue Stockings, a Major League team in the American Association, the second Major League of the time, had used two black brothers, Fleet and Wellday Walker, in some of their games. Hostility from other players, teams, and fans forced the Toledo team to drop the brothers after the season, and the experiment was not repeated. Some black players continued to play in the Minor Leagues until 1898, but by the end of the nineteenth century, as  racial segregation and the Jim Crow laws of the 1890s took hold, the game became entirely white, remaining so for over forty years.

There was no statute officially banning of blacks from baseball, only a universally-recognised ‘unwritten rule’ which no club owner was prepared to break. Today this informal but complete ban seems both irrational and counterproductive: many black players would have helped a team win a pennant, especially one of the persistently weaker teams such as the Philadelphia Phillies or the St Louis Browns. Apart from reasons of pure prejudice it is hard to see why the ban was enforced for so long. In the early days, many players and club-owners were keen to raise the game’s status and respectability beyond its associations with low-life, drunks and gamblers, and at this time, any links with blacks would mark the game as beyond the pale. Moreover, from the Jim Crow era down to the 1930s it would probably have been impossible to have integrated a Major League team without inspiring a violent backlash, even in many northern cities, and no one was willing to take the risk. Some historians have pinpointed this position to baseball’s powerful Commissioner, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis (1866-1944), but his role in preventing integration has been exaggerated. American baseball was a conservatively-run game that did not welcome innovation. Invariably, the owners of Major League clubs reflected traditional values and were opposed to radical experiments of any kind. Their hostility to blacks may seem surprising, bearing in mind the celebrated role in American sports of pre-Second World War black athletes such as Joe Louis in boxing and Jesse Owens on the track. The difference in attitude probably lay chiefly in the fact that baseball players were playing for teams, rather than as individual competitors. Black membership of a largely white sports team, with all the close social interaction this implied, was still regarded as impermissible.

Banned from Organised Baseball, black Americans responded by developing their own teams and leagues outside the white league structure. These began with independent teams such as the Cuban X Giants and the Chicago American Giants, which would travel around the country playing other black teams, white semi-professionals, and also Major League teams after the regular season ended. In 1920 the dominant figure in black baseball, Andrew ‘Rube’ Foster (1879-1930), organised the Negro National League. A number of other black leagues, notably the Negro American League, were also formed in the period between 1920 and 1948. Together the Negro Leagues provided an alternative, segregated venue for black ballplayers. They were different from the white Major Leagues in some respects. They had a shorter schedule, and their smaller financial base meant that their players had to play numerous exhibition games, as well as winter ball in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, in order to make ends meet. Their record-keeping was fragmentary, and most Negro League games were ignored by the white mainstream press. Yet they were recognisably similar to the white Major Leagues in the small number of teams (generally about ten), their private ownership, uniforms, and so on. From about 1930, Negro League teams often played in Major League ballparks when the local team was on the road. This provided a much-needed source of revenue for many white teams, and is another reason why segregation may have lasted as long as it did.

Not everyone in the black community was pleased when integration came in the late 1940s and the Negro Leagues collapsed. Most of the teams were owned by local black businessmen. The Leagues (including their minor affiliates), termed the largest black-owned business in the United States, offered employment to hundreds of blacks throughout the country. Games were a focal-point for the black community, especially for its emergent middle-class. In the last decade or so of their existence, and especially during the Second World War, Negro League games became enormously popular, often outdrawing Major League games. Many whites were among their spectators. The Negro Leagues produced some innovations later adopted by white baseball: for instance, they played night games under artificial lights many years before the Major Leagues did.

Most Negro League stars remained virtually unknown to white fans, although two, pitcher Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige (1906-92) and catcher Josh Gibson (1911-47), became well known. Paige, in particular, became nationally famous through barnstorming around the country. In 1948 he finally entered the Major Leagues, at the age of forty-two, the oldest rookie in history. His famous reflection, ‘Don’t look back – something might be gaining on you’, appears in most dictionaries of quotations. The best Negro League stars probably earned about half as much as the best white players such as DiMaggio, but of course vastly more than most black Americans, especially during the Depression. Conditions in the Negro Leagues were, however, often terrible, with constant travel, stays in segregated flea-pit hotels, and access to decent restaurants denied. Nevertheless, Negro League games were not fixed. Black teams scouted and developed black talent around the country and developed a sophisticated infrastructure, although one which was constantly subject to financial failure and team-hopping by players. ‘By the time integration arrived, baseball was more ready for it than almost any other segment of American society’, baseball historian Bill James noted.

During the Second World War, some Major League teams started to investigate hiring black players, as political pressure towards ending segregation began to mount in some northern cities. The end of Jim Crow in baseball came, however, with remarkable suddenness, and centrally involved two men, Branch Rickey (1881-1965) and Jack Roosevelt Robinson, universally known as Jackie Robinson (1919-72). Rickey, one of the most powerful men in baseball, had been General Manager (i.e. Managing Director) of the St Louis Cardinals team and, since 1942, was General Manager and President of the Brooklyn Dodgers, one of the three teams in New York at that time. Known as the ‘Mahatma’, Rickey was a fundamentalist Methodist who combined high-mindedness, innovation and self-interest in equal measure. As General Manager of the Cardinals, Rickey initiated the ‘farm system’, purchasing minor league clubs and using them to develop young talent for his team. This innovation led to the transformation of the Cardinals from one of the worst teams in baseball to one of the best. In the late 1950s, Rickey also forced Major League baseball to expand by heading a proposed third major league, the Continental League, which would bring baseball to cities where there was no team. In response, the two Major Leagues expanded from sixteen to twenty teams. (There are now thirty.)

Rickey’s great innovation, however, was the integration of Organised Baseball. He later said that he had always wanted to do this since, as an undergraduate playing for his college team many decades earlier, he had seen the anguish of a black teammate who was refused admission to a hotel with the rest of the team. At St Louis, a deeply segregated city, in a border state, Rickey could do nothing towards integrating baseball; this would have to await his arrival in New York during the war. Rickey was also a notorious miser even by the normal standards of baseball executives, who cheated his players out of their salaries whenever he could.

Rickey secretly scouted many Negro League players to be trail-blazers, and formed a rival Negro League, the United States League, to disguise his real intentions. The man he selected to be the pioneer was a somewhat unusual choice. Jackie Robinson was twenty-six in 1945 and had played only one season in the Negro Leagues. Born to a sharecropper in Georgia, he grew up in an integrated neighbourhood in Los Angeles, attended UCLA, and served during the war as a lieutenant in a segregated army unit. In June 1944, at Fort Hood, Texas, he refused a bus driver’s (illegal) order to ‘get to the back of the bus’, was court-martialled for insubordination, acquitted, and received an honourable discharge. Rickey apparently decided that Robinson possessed the right combination of talent, intelligence, and experience with whites. There also seems little doubt that Rickey’s motives included a large measure of self-interest. He saw in the pool of black baseball talent an easy way to produce a winning team. He was also well aware that the war had produced a demographic transformation in many cities, including New York, attracting hundreds of thousands of poor blacks from the South. He knew that the Negro Leagues had done well financially during the war; as one former black player put it: ‘When did integration happen? When the Major Leagues saw those 50,000 Negroes in the ballpark at the black All-Star game. Branch Rickey had something else on his mind other than a little black boy. He had those crowds.’ A Negro League owner, whose players were later signed by the Major Leagues without compensation, was more scathing: ‘I have heard that Mr Rickey is very religious. If such is true, it appears that his religion runs towards the almighty dollar.’

Without apprising him in advance, Rickey summoned Robinson to his office and there, on August 28th, 1945, just at the end of the war, had a three-hour meeting with the black player, telling him that he wanted to sign him for the Major Leagues and that he must be prepared to face the greatest harassment and vituperation that any player had ever faced. Robinson was sworn to secrecy. His hiring was announced two months later in Montreal, where the Brooklyn Dodgers had their main farm team. The announcement indeed caused a sensation throughout America, but was widely applauded in the press. Robinson played the 1946 season in Montreal outstandingly, and in April 1947 was promoted to the Dodgers. On April 18th, 1947, he played his inaugural game in the Major Leagues, their first black player in the twentieth century. The Dodgers attracted vast crowds, especially from black fans. Robinsons’s first few games were played in the Polo Grounds, the home stadium of the New York Giants, which was in upper Manhattan adjacent to Harlem, America’s most famous black ghetto. The first weekend game there produced the largest attendance at a Saturday game in the club’s history. As predicted, Robinson’s presence produced a barrage of racial insults and name callings, especially from the Philadelphia Phillies, a club notorious for taunting opposing players. Despite his fiery temperament, he could not answer back but went through the season proving himself in fine style. At the end of the season he won the Rookie of the Year award and the Dodgers won the pennant for the first time in six years.

Robinson gave an outstanding ten-year performance in the majors. In 1949 he was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player. The Dodgers won six pennants during his career and have become legendary, nicknamed (much later) the ‘Boys of Summer’. Rickey was ousted from the team’s presidency in 1950 following a power struggle. He was replaced by Walter O’Malley, who moved the club to Los Angeles in 1958. Ebbets Field, where the Dodgers played, was torn down and turned into a housing project. To replace the Dodgers (and the Giants, who moved to San Francisco at the same time), the Major Leagues created a new team in New York in 1962, the Mets. Founded in 1962, they have no institutional memory of Robinson or the Dodgers. Robinson himself retired at the end of the 1956 season. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. He died in 1972. Rickey was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1967, just over a year after he died.

Following Rickey’s lead, some Major League clubs were quick to integrate, with the Dodgers having four or five blacks on their roster by the mid-1950s. Other teams held off as long as possible, with the last team to hire a black player, the Boston Red Sox, doing so only in 1959. Overall, in the first decade, only a small number of black players were hired by the Major League teams. By the 1960s, however, younger blacks and Latins came to excel at baseball, although they have never dominated the game to the extent of some other American professional sports, especially basketball. Professional football and basketball, which had also been racially segregated, integrated at the same time as baseball.

Paradoxically, the major victims of baseball integration were the Negro Leagues. While their club owners expected that Robinson’s appearance in the Major Leagues would have no great effect on them, their black fan base simply evaporated, with black spectators travelling hundreds of miles to see the few black players in the real Major Leagues. The Negro Leagues in effect had collapsed by the early 1950s. While a handful of Negro League stars were able to enjoy distinguished careers in the Major Leagues, most found themselves without a livelihood. Little or nothing was paid by the Major Leagues for signing their players, and the Leagues received nothing in compensation.

For two decades, the former Negro Leaguers remained forgotten men; the great majority of younger fans literally had never heard of them. Sparked by the Civil Rights agitation from about 1970, however, interest revived dramatically and numerous books have subsequently been published. In 1971 Major League baseball began to select the best Negro League players for the Baseball Hall of Fame, beginning with Satchel Paige. In the 1990s the Major Leagues also began to pay a small pension and medical benefits to the ever-diminishing number of former Negro Leaguers. They can afford to: at present, the salary of the average Major Leaguer is $2 million, and several earn $15 million or more each year. Robinson’s importance for baseball is also universally acknowledged, and he is regarded as one of the most important players in baseball history, along with Babe Ruth. ‘Ruth changed baseball; Robinson changed America’, is how one historian has contrasted the pair.

Robinson’s importance for the Civil Rights movement was acknowledged by many black leaders, including Martin Luther King. His presence and that of other blacks in baseball made it easier for whites around the country to come to accept integration, and provided American blacks with a successful example of peaceful integration in a previously segregated field. By the mid-1950s black stars such as Willie Mays were among the most visible in the game. The Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954, the Birmingham bus campaign and other landmarks of the Civil Rights campaign might have occurred without Rickey and Robinson, but the integration of baseball made them far more likely to succeed and to receive support from whites. The integration of baseball, accomplished for motives of, on the one hand, genuine moral high-mindedness and, on the other hand, evident economic self-interest, may also be seen as an epitome of the spirit of America since that country’s foundation.

William D. Rubinstein is Professor of Modern History at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Further reading: 
  • Charles Alexander, Our Game: An American Baseball History (1991)
  • Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and his Legacy (1983)
  • William Marshall, Baseball’s Pivotal Era, 1945-1951 (1999)
  • Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White (1970)
  • Phil Dixon with J. Hannigan, The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History (1992)
  • James Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (1994)


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