Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Major League Baseball

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.

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