It’s a sunny opening day at Comiskey Park, the turnstiles clicking merrily, fans getting their hot dogs and beers and settling into their seats, the 78th season of White Sox baseball at the south-side ballyard about to begin.
It’s also the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the big leagues. The 26 major-league clubs, as requested by the baseball commissioner, are dedicating the 1987 season to the memory of the Brooklyn second baseman, the first black American to play in the big leagues this century. Every club has planned a Jackie Robinson tribute as part of its opening day festivities. The White Sox salute begins at 1:15, 15 minutes before game time: Announcer Bob Finnegan sketches Robinson’s achievements for the crowd, from his Most Valuable Player award in 1949 through his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1962. Then Finnegan adds: “To confine Jackie Robinson’s contributions to baseball misses the mark by a wide margin. He was a man who stirred the soul and sensibilities of his generation and many more to come . . .”
Video clips of Robinson in action appear on the scoreboard behind center field: Robinson smashing the ball, tearing around the bases, stealing home. A song in his honor accompanies the two-minute film. Hardly any blacks see the film on the scoreboard; only a few are in the park, most of them tucked deep in the right-field- and left-field-corner grandstands, where the scoreboard is blocked from view.
After the Sox and the visiting Detroit Tigers are introduced and line up on the baselines, Finnegan directs the crowd’s attention to the second base area. Head grounds keeper Roger Bossard trots onto the infield dirt, carrying a base with Robinson’s number 42 painted on it in black letters–this too decreed by the commissioner’s office. Always uneasy in the spotlight, Bossard quickly anchors the base and hustles off the field. The fans clap respectfully as the Robinson tribute ends.
The White Sox run onto the field, and you see immediately what racial progress baseball has made in 40 years–the Sox outfield is as black as Woodlawn. But in the infield, on the pitcher’s mound and behind the plate, in the bullpen, at the umpires’ positions, in the manager’s spot in the dugouts, in the golden boxes, in the skyboxes for wealthier fans, VIPs, and front-office executives, and in the broadcast booths, it’s more like Winnetka. Many of the vendors and ushers are black, to be sure, as are most of the grounds crew, Sox clubhouse manager Willie Thompson (“a key part of the White Sox clubhouse chemistry,” according to the Sox media guide), and the shoe-shine man under the third base stands.
The scene was similar at Wrigley Field and other parks earlier this week: there were brief speeches about how Jackie Robinson changed not only baseball, but race relations and American society; speeches made to nearly all-white crowds, before games between teams owned and directed by whites. On the evening of the season’s first day, Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis had told a nationwide Nightline audience that blacks lacked certain “necessities” and the “desire” to be managers and general managers. Those comments focused attention on baseball’s lily-white front offices, tarnishing the Jackie Robinson remembrance plans. But the Dodgers fired Campanis, members of the media blamed his comments on Ted Koppel’s questioning, and by the end of the week the celebration proceeded apace: more opening day crowds were reminded how Robinson had stirred their souls and sensibilities.
From the day his signing was announced–October 23, 1945–through the present, blacks and whites alike have trumpeted the significance of Jackie Robinson’s acceptance by the major leagues.
Black newspapers couldn’t contain their enthusiasm on the eve of big-league integration. The Chicago Defender called Robinson’s signing “a step toward a broader spirit of democracy in baseball” that would “do much to promote a friendlier feeling between races.” Robinson carried “the hopes, aspirations and ambitions of 13 million black Americans heaped on his broad, sturdy shoulders,” said the Pittsburgh Courier-Journal, then the country’s largest-circulation black paper. “Triumph of Whole Race Seen in Jackie’s Debut in Major League Ball” screamed the headline in the Boston Chronicle after Robinson began his Dodgers career in April 1947.
This was a breakthrough for blacks that went far beyond baseball, said the Michigan Chronicle. “The millions who read box scores very likely have never heard of George Washington Carver. But Jackie Robinson, if he makes the grade, will be doing a missionary work with these people that Carver could never do. He will be saying to them that his people should have their rights, should have jobs, decent homes and education, freedom from insult, and equality of opportunity to achieve.”
To expect a sport to accomplish so much is not uncharacteristic of Americans; we’ve always romanticized the benefits of sports to justify the time we spend watching and playing them. And for no game have we laid it on thicker than for the national pastime, “America’s most democratic game,” “the great equalizer”–baseball.
Blacks flocked to ballparks in National League cities when Brooklyn was in town and cheered Robinson’s every move. In rural towns where baseball had never been noticed, they gathered in general stores for broadcasts of Dodgers games. They named new babies after the infielder. (The country now has an inordinate number of Jack and Jacquelyn Robinsons in their late 30s.)
Forty years later, blacks still celebrate the Robinson “breakthrough,” though less effusively. They know Robinson didn’t remedy their race’s social plight; there are plenty of daily reminders of that. The Defender that announced Robinson’s signing in 1945 also carried stories lamenting the high rates of crime, unemployment, and poverty in the south side’s black belt neighborhoods, and decrying the segregation it saw as the culprit. In 40 years those neighborhoods haven’t integrated, just expanded, and they remain dangerous, low on jobs, and poor.
But if Robinson didn’t bring social benefits to masses of blacks, he at least brought wealth to several of them. “Playing ball pays off handsomely on the diamond,” the May issue of Ebony magazine notes, in an article naming 19 black players earning more than $1 million a season, players who “all owe a great debt to Jackie Robinson.” What greater proof that Robinson’s entry into the big leagues was a leap forward for blacks?
Even Campanis’s remarks haven’t detracted from that belief; they only showed that baseball needs fine-tuning, civil rights leaders have said. It’s just time for the game to extend the equality on the field to the front office, according to Jesse Jackson.
Hardly anyone would say Robinson’s entry into the big leagues may actually have been a step backward for blacks. Few point out that the main beneficiaries of the acceptance of blacks as pro athletes have been the white owners who make money off them and the white fans who can afford to watch them play, while blacks, in sacrificing one of their principal institutions–the Negro baseball leagues–may have lost more than they gained. Even those high salaries paid to black athletes have been, at the very best, a mixed blessing, tempting millions of black youths into following a phantom road out of the ghetto.
Though blacks now focus on the monetary gains Robinson helped bring black athletes, whites have continued to extol the second baseman’s impact beyond sports.
Robinson changed “long-standing perceptions that blacks could not coexist with whites,” a recent NBC TV special proclaimed.
The integration of baseball has wrought changes in society simply by putting whites in the position of cheering for blacks, author Roger Kahn maintains. “By applauding Robinson, a man did not feel that he was taking a stand on school integration, or on open housing,” Kahn wrote in The Boys of Summer, his 1971 book about the Robinson-era Dodgers. “But for an instant he had accepted Robinson simply as a hometown ball player. To disregard color, even for an instant, is to step away from the old prejudices, the old hatred. That is not a path on which many double back.”
If Kahn had been at Comiskey Park on opening day four years ago, he would have seen Sox fans make that pivot with alacrity. That was also a mayoral election day, with Harold Washington opposing Bernard Epton. When Harold Baines stepped to the plate in the first inning, the usual “Harold! Harold!” chant rose in the stands; then, seeming to realize this might be misconstrued as support not for a black ball player but for a black mayoral candidate, the crowd quickly converted the chant: “Bernie! Bernie!”
Today, opening day, 1987, in the bottom of the first, Sox fans have something similar to excite them. Ed Vrdolyak, beaten by Washington only a few days before in this year’s mayoral election, has made his way into the stands. It’s a struggle for Vrdolyak and his contingent to get to their golden boxes, what with all the fans grasping for his hand. The fans who had politely applauded the Robinson tribute are now bellowing: “Eddie! Eddie!”
It turns out to be one of their few chances to cheer, as the Sox are trounced. After the game, the fans spill out of the park, the blacks heading south and east to their neighborhoods, the whites north and west to theirs.
Before Jackie Robinson became a big leaguer, the Negro leagues served as the outlet for the game blacks loved most. Black players got to play every position, of course, not just outfield, since the teams were all-black. Black managers plotted strategy, black owners made the profits and took the losses, and black fans sat in the box seats.
With its large black population and central location, Chicago was the hub for Negro baseball–the birthplace of the first Negro league, and the host of black baseball’s annual all-star game. Residents of the south side’s black belt traveled to Comiskey Park on Sundays when the Sox were out of town to watch pitchers like Lefty McKinnis of the Chicago American Giants duel Satchel Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs.
Blacks enjoyed the Negro leagues, but in the 40s they also longed for the mainstream, and for black baseball fans that meant trying to break down the door to the majors. The exuberance black fans showed when Robinson got in was a product of “their long period of starvation for recognition of their race,” wrote a columnist for the New York Amsterdam News, a black paper, in April 1947.
Blacks in the 40s had great faith in integration, believed in its power to shatter stereotypes and deliver them to dignity and equality. On the eve of his major-league debut and in the early years of his career, Robinson became the premier symbol of integration and its potential.
But whites dictated the terms upon which blacks were allowed into the majors, and those terms did not include equality: the first black player didn’t stride triumphantly into the big leagues, he entered on bended knee with a gag on his mouth–Robinson was instructed not to respond no matter how many beanballs and racial slurs were hurled at him. When baseball let Jackie Robinson in, it “opened not a door but a crawlspace beside the door,” says Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who for more than two decades has led the charge against racism in American sports.
Blacks were willing to crawl if they had to, to get into the big leagues; a few years of groveling didn’t seem too high a price to achieve the integration of the major leagues.
In their euphoria over getting into the majors, blacks also quickly abandoned the Negro leagues: as the stars of the Negro leagues left for the majors, so did the fans.
This abandonment was a key mistake for blacks, Edwards says. He thinks blacks should have pushed to get a Negro league club or two merged into the big leagues, instead of allowing the majors to pluck away the black stars. While other ethnic groups have advanced into the mainstream with their institutions intact, black Americans have historically “succumbed to a definition of integration that almost mandates the collapse of black institutions,” Edwards says. “There were black films being made in the 1920s and ’30s, and then came integration, and black leading men and leading ladies became butlers and maids, and the black film industry collapsed.”
The demise of the Negro leagues left blacks with no alternative but to continue marching to the tune of the white lords of baseball. And the early inequities proved to be more than just the characteristics of an adjustment period: they set a tone that would last for decades. Forty years ago there was one black player and no black managers, general managers, or owners; today 25 percent of the players are black and there are still no black managers, general managers, or owners. Baseball’s front offices are virtually devoid of blacks: a recent USA Today survey showed that of 879 administrative posts, only 17 were held by blacks. (The Cubs listed no blacks among their 30 management-level positions; the Sox listed 2 of 46–one was a sales representative, the other, clubhouse manager Thompson.)
Racism on the field is less blatant now than in Robinson’s day, but disparities still exist there too. For years, blacks had to outperform whites to stay in the big leagues, and while the gap has closed somewhat, the statistics indicate they still have to. The proportion of black players at the prominent positions–pitcher, catcher, infielder–is declining. Blacks still have to fight stereotypes nurtured by coaches, managers, and sportswriters.
When Robinson got into the big leagues “so many blacks got carried away–‘Hey, we got in,'” says Charles Whitehead, a science teacher at DuSable High School and author of a book about Rube Foster, the founder of the Negro leagues. “But by getting in they may have been left out. Because they were losing their identity, losing their pride, really. They sacrificed all of themselves to get a part of something else.”
The Unwritten Rule and the Rise of the Negro Leagues
One hundred twenty seasons ago, baseball’s first league, the National Association of Base Ball Players, issued an edict prohibiting “the admission of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” Subsequent pro baseball leagues adhered to the spirit of this rule (while leaving it unwritten), but the ban was not total before the turn of the century: a handful of blacks played minor-league ball, and in 1884, two blacks even played for the Toledo team of the American Association, then considered a major league.
The two were Moses “Fleet” Walker, who caught regularly for Toledo that year, and his brother, Weldy, a mid-season fill-in who played just six games. “Fleet” Walker was treated better than other blacks in pro baseball at the time, according to news accounts, but he still was the subject of racial insults and threats, particularly when Toledo played in southern cities. Walker’s manager received a letter promising “much bloodshed” if Walker appeared in a series Toledo was to play in Richmond that October. Walker broke a rib and was released by Toledo before that series. He played for various minor-league teams after that, retiring from baseball in 1889. Later, he published a booklet that said only by returning to Africa could black Americans solve their problems. “Nothing but failure and disappointment” awaited blacks in America, the first black in major-league baseball believed, because white Americans “were in no way prepared to accept the Negro with full equality.”
Cap Anson certainly was not. The manager and star player of the National League’s Chicago White Stockings (the team’s name was changed later to the Cubs) led the campaign to exclude blacks completely. In 1887, he threatened to keep his players off the field for an exhibition game with a minor-league team that planned to start George Stovey, a black pitcher; Anson prevailed, and Stovey had to sit the game out. The following year, the New York Giants tried to acquire Stovey, a 33-game winner in the minors in ’87, but Anson managed to block the deal.
The few blacks playing minor-league ball after 1888 were routinely cussed and threatened by spectators, shunned by teammates, thrown at by opposing pitchers, and spiked by runners–the feet-first slide became popular in part because of attempts to slash black infielders. By 1899, white baseball had cleansed itself of black players.
And baseball would remain free of blacks until Jackie Robinson entered the minors in ’46, at least as far as records show–there have been unsubstantiated claims that a few fair-skinned, straight-haired black Americans passed as Cubans or Indians and played in the majors and minors in the early 1900s. White Sox president Charles Comiskey foiled one such attempt in 1901 by Baltimore Oriole manager John McGraw. “If Muggsy really keeps this ‘Indian,'” Comiskey told the Sporting Life newspaper, “I will get a Chinaman of my acquaintance and put him on third.” McGraw backed off.
In those years, baseball was indeed America’s most popular sport among blacks as well as whites. Few had played it in the mid-1800s, but the game spread in army camps and military prisons during the Civil War. Blacks brought their fondness for baseball with them when they began migrating to northern cities.
Chicago had several black teams in the early 1900s that toured the midwest in the summer and played in California and Latin America in the winter. Most players worked as railroad porters or waiters during the week and played on weekends; the stars played full-time. Full-time players made about as much as black mail carriers and teachers–a quarter of what the white major leaguers were making.
To attract crowds, and to ameliorate the hostility of white fans, black teams sometimes resorted to clowning before games. The incidence of clowning diminished as time went on, though, because the better black players frowned on it. The quality of play among the top teams was indeed high, as evidenced by the games they played against white pros in the fall. White major and minor leaguers formed teams when their seasons were over and played the black clubs to earn a little extra money; the black teams won more often than they lost. (This embarrassed major-league officials, who denounced the games and eventually issued rules restricting the involvement of major leaguers in them.)
Chicago’s first black teams often played at a park at 69th and Halsted. Ticket prices in 1910 were 25 cents for the bleachers and 50 cents for the grandstands, about half the cost of big-league games at Comiskey Park. Ice water was served free. In 1910, a parade of carriages and automobiles escorted the Leland Giants, then Chicago’s premier black team, from 29th and State to the park on opening day.
Though the players and the vast majority of fans were black, nearly all the teams were owned by whites. But a Chicagoan changed that after World War I. Rube Foster, whom white baseball great Honus Wagner called “the smartest pitcher I have ever seen in all my years of baseball,” argued in columns in the Chicago Defender that profits earned by black teams should stay in black hands. In 1911 he organized the Chicago American Giants, which quickly became the most famous black team in the midwest and the idols of Chicago’s black community. One Sunday that first season, the Giants attracted 11,000 for a game at their ballpark at 39th and Shields–former home of the White Sox–outdrawing both the Cubs and Sox that day.
Foster became one of the best known and most respected persons in Chicago’s black belt in the 1910s and ’20s. He paid his players well, and when they set out on road trips, they traveled in style, in private Pullman cars–an unusual luxury for players accustomed to squeezing into cars and bumping along on rickety buses.
Under Foster’s leadership, black baseball finally became organized in 1920, when eight teams formed the Negro National League. There were two teams from Chicago, and one each from Saint Louis, Detroit, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Dayton, Ohio. Foster served as league president. Poverty among blacks made survival difficult for the league; only Foster’s business acumen kept it afloat. He suffered a mental breakdown in 1926, was institutionalized, and died in 1930, with the league folding soon after. His funeral was attended by 3,000.
The early 30s were lean years for pro leagues, but baseball’s popularity among blacks did not wane. In Chicago, the crack of the bat and infield chatter could be heard in south-side parks every summer weeknight and weekend afternoon. Maurice Wiggins, 77, a south-sider and former semipro shortstop, remembers how players and spectators descended on Washington Park’s 12 ball diamonds during the summer. Teams sponsored by meat-packing companies or other firms played on weeknights in the Industrial League. On Saturdays, teams sponsored by the black churches of the south and west sides filled the diamonds. Semipro teams played on Sundays, for bets ranging from $50 a team during the Depression to $300 a team in better times.
The church league drew the biggest crowds, Wiggins says. Games started at 3 PM–as did big-league games in those days–but the fans began to gather before noon, setting up their lawn chairs. Women came “in their dress shoes and nice clothes–dressed just like they were going to school,” Wiggins says. By game time, a semicircle of fans would stretch from first to third base behind the diamonds on which the top teams were playing. There were no grandstands or even backstops, “but the catchers were good and we had very few passed balls.
“It was great entertainment and it was free,” Wiggins says. “You didn’t have money for doing much else. You might scrape up a few pennies and go to the Regal [Theater], or the Metropolitan Theater down at 47th and South Park Way [now King Drive]. You might go to a dance on Sunday. And of course there were churches–always been churches. But during the week, and especially on Saturdays, people’d look forward to going to Washington Park to see a good baseball game. That was on the agenda.”
As the country recovered from the Depression in the early 30s, professional black baseball revived, too. A tavern owner and king of the black numbers racket in Pittsburgh, Gus Greenlee, helped organize and finance a new Negro National League in 1933; in 1937, a Negro American League also formed. The Chicago American Giants, and other midwest teams, played in the American League, with teams from eastern cities playing in the National. The black population in northern cities was growing, and attendance at the black games climbed likewise. By the mid-40s, black baseball was playing to an estimated 3 million fans a year and bringing in $2 million, making it one of the country’s biggest black-dominated enterprises. It was also an integral part of black social life; in Chicago, a parade and the crowning of “Miss Chicago American Giants” kicked off the season, and a local black politician usually threw out the first ball.
The teams played Sunday games (often doubleheaders) in big-league parks rented from the white teams when they were on the road. There was also a full slate of unofficial barnstorming games during the week–about 200 games in all each year.
“We’d play a doubleheader here one night, get on the bus, ride all night, 800 miles, get into Philadelphia the next night at six o’clock and play a game there,” says south-sider Ted “Double-Duty” Radcliffe, 84, who played for and managed the American Giants during a career in black baseball of more than 30 years. “I slept in my uniform–wet–many a night. ‘Cause didn’t have but one uniform. The greatest thing that ever happened to us was coin laundry machines.”
Besides the rigorous schedule, there was discrimination to contend with. Some parks allowed the black teams to play, but not to use the locker rooms; the players had to change back at the hotel–that is, if they had been lucky enough to find a hotel that would admit them. Says Radcliffe: “We’d go into a town and couldn’t get rooms to sleep in, and we’d go to the railroad station and lay on the benches and the floor and take our baseball uniform and make a pillow out of it.” A lot of restaurants were willing to serve them, as long as they got the food to go and ate it on the bus. “You felt bad, but what the heck, you couldn’t quit,” Radcliffe says. “How you gonna make a living sitting at home? In those days you knew what to expect.”
Radcliffe and his family didn’t get rich off his baseball pay. He and his wife have lived in Ida Wells Homes, a housing project not far from Sox park, for the last 20 years. At 84, he still works some, selling suits to friends to make a few extra dollars. His baseball earnings never left much to save, even though he made more than most black players. He played for 12 clubs in his career; he was “always quick to jump a team if more money was offered,” according to a book called The All-Time All-Stars of Black Baseball. Some players wouldn’t speak up when they thought they were being underpaid, Radcliffe says, “but I pitched a bitch.”
Radcliffe could get away with that because he was a star and a workhorse. He was christened “Double-Duty” by writer Damon Runyon after Runyon attended a doubleheader in Yankee Stadium in 1932, and witnessed Radcliffe catching the first game and pitching the second, something Radcliffe did regularly. He caught Satchel Paige on several teams. His beefy fingers point at unnatural angles, testaments for the most part to the speed of Paige’s fastball; late-swinging batters sent foul tips careening off Radcliffe’s fingers many times. The damaged fingers made it harder to grip the ball as a pitcher in the latter stages of his career, and then he had to rely more on the ol’ emery ball; he’d tape a tiny piece of emery paper to the palm of his glove hand, and scratch the ball when he rubbed it up. “Then I could make a pitch jump two feet,” he says. He never hurt his arm, despite the demands he put on it.
Radcliffe and other Negro league stars got to bask in glory once a year in the leagues’ main event: an all-star contest, the East-West Classic. Held at Comiskey Park each August beginning in 1933, the game easily eclipsed the Negro leagues’ world series in popularity. As many blacks as the White Sox now draw to Comiskey in half a season used to come to the park for just this one game.
A reporter for the Kansas City Call, a black paper, described the atmosphere at the end of the 1935 game, won by the West with a homer in the bottom of the 11th: “Not since the celebration following the news that the armistice had beeen signed [ending] . . . the World War has Chicago seen its citizenry go stark mad for a few minutes. Score cards were torn up and hurled into the air. Men tossed away their summer straw hats and women screamed.”
“It was the Mardi Gras of Negro baseball,” says Jack Marshall, 79, a south-sider who played for the American Giants during an 18-year career as a second baseman in the Negro leagues. “People came from miles around–they used to run special trains up here from the south. They had to turn ’em away at Comiskey Park.”
From its inception through the 40s, the game never drew fewer than 20,000, and in the 40s it attracted more than 45,000 almost every year–quite a feat, considering that blacks comprised only about 10 percent of Chicago’s population then. In 1944, the black all-star game outdrew the white one, 46,247 to 29,589. Fans chose the players through balloting in the Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier-Journal. Almost all of those who attended were black, but the game also attracted white sportswriters, who ignored Negro league baseball the rest of the year but regularly wrote glowing reports of the Classic. The black teams played a flashier, less conservative brand of baseball than was found in the white majors, the sportswriters often commented, with more daring on the base paths and less reliance on the home run.
Celebrities like heavyweight champion Joe Louis attended East-West Classics, as did black politicians and even some white ones–Mayor Martin Kennelly threw out the first ball at the 15th annual game in 1947. Box seats sold out at the park’s ticket booths for that game, and scalpers had a field day; the Defender noted that the $1.80 boxes were going for as much as $4.80 on 35th Street, while in the Hotel Grand, 51st and South Park Way, “the elevator boy was doing a rushing business in the gent’s washroom. Box seats, the very choicest and in tiers one and two, could be had at fancy prices.” The game drew a paid crowd of 48,112.
The black press noted in 1939 that while three-quarters of the money generated by the game wound up in black hands, the White Sox were making more on the East-West Classic than any one of the participating black clubs. The Sox charged $7,500 for the use of Comiskey for the game, and $700 in addition for workers who set up the park. In comparison, Negro league teams in New York had been able to rent Yankee Stadium for $3,500, help included, according to the Defender. The fee charged by the White Sox, the paper said, was “too much money to go out of the treasury of poverty-stricken black baseball into the hands of already wealthy white baseball.”
Radcliffe played in six Classics. He pitched the final three innings in 1939, allowing only one hit and no runs and picking up the victory for the West. In 1944 he caught, and slammed a two-run homer to help the West win.
By the time Brooklyn signed Jackie Robinson, Radcliffe was already in his forties, and he knew he’d never play in the majors. If not for the color line, he thinks he would have done well in the big leagues as a pitcher, a catcher, or maybe even both. During his playing days, he didn’t dwell on the fact that he was being denied the opportunity to play in the majors, at a better and more dependable salary, under more comfortable conditions. “They just didn’t let us play, so wasn’t no use worrying about it,” he says. Baseball left Negro league stars with scrapbooks and memories, not money or fame; but Radcliffe, like the other Negro leaguers I spoke with, remains more grateful than bitter. “I didn’t make no money, but we didn’t play for the money, we played for the love of the game. We enjoyed ourselves–it was like we were always on a vacation. I just thank God I had a good career.”
Jackie Robinson and the Fall of the Negro Leagues
The 1939 East-West Classic attracted 40,000, and the Defender ran a large photo of Comiskey’s packed grandstands. “These same fans would fill parks [for major-league games] if members of our group were given a chance to play,” read the caption. “A crowd of 40,000 at anybody’s baseball game isn’t to be sneezed at.”
In its coverage of East-West games, the Defender seldom failed to point out the profits major-league owners were depriving themselves of by excluding black players. The East-West Classic served a key role in the black press’s campaign for blacks in the big leagues, a campaign that began to gain momentum in the late 30s.
While black papers and the Communist party, through its newspaper, the Daily Worker, regularly hammered away at baseball’s color line, they had little help from the mainstream. Chicago Tribune sports editor Westbrook Pegler was one of the first in the white press to speak out against the color line, wondering in 1931 how baseball could be the national pastime when its major leagues didn’t allow blacks to participate. Pegler also wondered why such a ban didn’t even faze white fans; in all of his years as Tribune sports editor, he said, he didn’t receive a single letter protesting the situation. Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News and Shirley Povich of the Washington Post slammed baseball’s discriminatory practices on occasion, but for the most part, white newspapers in the 30s ignored the issue.
A Campanis-like incident that occurred in Chicago in 1938 energized the black papers’ crusade. WGN radio announcer Bob Elson was interviewing Yankee outfielder Jake Powell before a Yankee-White Sox game at Comiskey. When Elson asked Powell what he did in the off-season, Powell responded that he worked as a policeman in Dayton, Ohio, and kept in shape “by hitting niggers over the head with my blackjack.” Powell was cut off the air, and Elson apologized for the statement, but it was too late: blacks were incensed.
The reaction to the incident resembles strikingly the reaction after the Campanis affair. Baseball moved quickly to distance itself from Powell: Commissioner Kenesan Mountain Landis suspended him for ten days, though he said he felt Powell’s remark had been made “carelessly and not purposely.” Pegler attacked the hypocrisy of baseball–disciplining Powell for a racist remark while it excluded blacks from its clubs. Povich wrote that if Powell were as effective with his police club as he was with his bat, Negroes had little to fear. Most white sportswriters dismissed Powell’s statement, saying he probably was just joking. But black fans did not forgive and forget. In New York, 6,000 signed a petition asking the commissioner to ban Powell for life; in Washington, the hail of bottles hurled at him brought about the introduction of paper beer cups; and in Chicago, Powell required a police escort to and from the park and was kept out of the lineup. Powell eventually went to the Defender’s office to plead that he really had nothing against Negroes; two of them took care of his house while he was away, he said, and “I think they are two of the finest people in the world.” The Yankees tried to trade Powell, but nobody would take him. The team couldn’t have been too unhappy when Powell was injured and left the majors in 1940.
The incident galvanized support among blacks pushing for an end to baseball’s color line. Among the leaders of this drive was Wendell Smith, a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier-Journal. Smith attacked baseball’s discriminatory policy relentlessly, and chastised black fans who patronized major-league games. “We have been fighting for years to make owners of major league baseball teams admit Negro players,” he wrote in a 1938 column. “But they won’t do it. . . . We keep on crawling, begging, and pleading for recognition just the same. We know that they don’t want us but still we keep giving them our money. . . . Oh, we’re an optimistic, faithful, prideless lot–we pitiful black folk.”
Black owners of Negro league teams voiced concern early in the campaign about how integration of the majors would affect their teams. The black owners could foresee the death of their leagues if the majors started taking their stars. Smith brushed aside these concerns, arguing that the black owners would actually profit from the integration of organized baseball, since white owners would have to compensate them for the players they signed away from their teams.
Major-league baseball responded to criticism of its color line by asserting that no such line existed. “There is no rule, nor to my knowledge has there ever been, formal or informal, or any understanding, written or unwritten, subterranean or sub-anything, against the hiring of Negroes in the major leagues,” Commissioner Landis told a group of black newspaper publishers in 1943. There really were no Negro league players of major-league caliber, some baseball officials insisted; those complaining were “agitators,” the officials said, who were ignoring the potential of violence in the stands and on the field if the majors integrated. The white owners were, in truth, primarily concerned about the potential loss of money from integration. They didn’t want to hurt Negro league teams and thus jeopardize the healthy profit they made from renting their parks to those teams; and they feared that if the majors integrated and black fans started pouring out to big-league games, it might scare white fans away.
World War II stripped the majors of some of their best talent, and as teams bypassed the wealth of stars in the Negro leagues and instead signed white 4-F holdovers–including one-armed outfielder Pete Gray–the color line became ever more embarrassing for baseball. More important, the war was causing white Americans to distance themselves from anything resembling Nazism, and this put pressure on the country’s jim crow institutions. Smith and other black writers regularly pointed out the hypocrisy of fighting the master-race concept abroad while discriminating so blatantly against minorities at home.
But the color line showed remarkable tenacity. In April 1945, Joe Bostic, a sportswriter for the People’s Voice, a black New York paper, decided to try more direct action. He arrived one morning at the Brooklyn Dodgers’ spring training camp at Bear Mountain, New York, with two black players, several reporters, and a photographer. The players were there to try out, Bostic told Dodgers president Branch Rickey.
Rickey was between a rock and a hard place: if he refused to give the two a tryout, it would be evidence that there was indeed a color line; if he gave them a tryout and they did well, he’d have to find an excuse for not signing them, since he wasn’t ready to sign a black. “Rickey said, ‘Why didn’t you write to me to arrange this?'” Bostic, 72 and still living in New York, recalls. Bostic had previously visited the Dodgers offices several times to ask why the Dodgers wouldn’t sign a black, and he had always been turned away. He told Rickey he had come without warning because “‘I can think of 10 reasons why you wouldn’t be able to accommodate this venture, so you could have thought of 50.'”
Rickey had no choice but to give the players a brief tryout. Luckily for him, the two players–the only ones Bostic could persuade to join him in such a bold challenge–were both in their late 30s, past their prime; other black papers later agreed with Rickey’s assessment that they were not major-league material. Before Bostic departed, Rickey told him what he had done was wrong. “He put on a show,” says Bostic. “He cried, said he was without prejudice, he had had black roommates in college–went through all that horseshit.” No one supports your cause more than me, the Dodgers president told Bostic, but you’re making a mistake by trying to force the issue. “In the parlance of the street, I was a ‘fresh nigger,'” Bostic says, “and I had no business trying to break the ice with the tryout. He had already decided he was going to be the center-stage piece in the integration of baseball, and he never forgave me for jumping the gun. He didn’t speak to me for the rest of his life.”
Indeed, Rickey already had his scouts combing the Negro leagues for a black player, the perfect black player to break the color line, one who would be exemplary off the field as well as on. Twenty-five-year-old Jackie Robinson fit the bill. Many regarded him as the nation’s top all-around athlete: at UCLA, he had starred in football, basketball, track, golf, and swimming as well as baseball. In his first year in the Negro leagues, he was hitting .340 for the Kansas City Monarchs and had started at shortstop in the 1945 East-West Classic. His social background was what Rickey wanted, too: he didn’t smoke, didn’t drink (except a quart of milk a day), rarely swore, had a college education and a record of military service, and was dating an intelligent, attractive, middle-class black woman. He was even a Methodist, like Rickey. In October 1945, the Dodgers announced they had signed Robinson, and that he would play in Montreal on their top farm club in 1946.
No one will ever know for certain why Rickey, who died in 1965 at the age of 83, was willing to sign the first black. Bostic thinks Rickey could foresee profiting from the move, and that he also wanted to be viewed by blacks as “the great white savior, the guy who opened the door.” Robinson wrote in his autobiography that while he realized Rickey was a shrewd businessman who knew he was making a smart business decision, he believed Rickey also did it for altruistic reasons.
The motive was unimportant to black America when the signing was announced; all that mattered was that blacks were going to have a player in the white leagues. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and the Laundry Workers of Greater New York telegraphed Rickey, congratulating him on behalf of their 20,000 members for an action that would lead to “eliminating race discrimination in sports and eventually in every field of human endeavor.” A black paper called Rickey the “John Brown of baseball.” And a letter writer in another black paper urged that a campaign be started boosting Rickey for president.
A writer in the Michigan Chronicle challenged the euphoria. “Minority groups usually succumb to the controls of the majority,” he wrote. “One way of succumbing . . . is to bite for every sap that the majority group hands out.” A columnist for the New York Amsterdam News wondered bitterly why the signing of a Negro who was “intellectually, culturally, and physically superior to most white baseball players” should cause a national sensation.
But the voices of the very few nay-sayers were easily drowned out by the cheering black masses. Jackie Robinson booster clubs formed, and a Jackie Robinson comic book was published. The black press covered his one season in Montreal in minute detail.
Robinson led the league in hitting and lifted Montreal to a championship, and before the 1947 season, blacks felt certain that he would be promoted to the Dodgers. They were so close to having a representative in the majors they could almost taste it, and were willing to do nearly anything to see it happen. So when Rickey addressed a group of black civic leaders at a Brooklyn YMCA in February of 1947 and instructed them in how they ought to behave at ballparks so as not to hurt Robinson’s chances, they greeted his remarks with warm applause.
Rickey told the doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, and undertakers at the meeting that the biggest threats to Robinson’s success were not white racists but “the Negro people themselves” who would offend whites by cheering too loudly or misbehaving in the parks. “You’ll strut. You’ll wear badges. . . . You’ll get drunk,” he thundered. “You’ll fight. You’ll be arrested.” He asked the blacks assembled to police their people.
When Bostic learned of Rickey’s remarks, he was incensed. “These were educated people, and he’s telling them how to act. I gave these guys hell–‘How dare you sit there and let a guy insult you like this?'” The blacks assembled didn’t challenge Rickey because in the black community “Rickey at this point was just short of God–he could do anything,” Bostic says. Instead, the black leaders initiated a good-conduct campaign that spread to black communities in National League cities throughout the country. “Don’t Spoil Jackie’s Chances” read the cards that were placed in bars, restaurants, barbershops, and churches, and the black papers repeatedly reminded readers to comport themselves properly at the ballpark.
Most of the players in the Negro leagues were pleased about the impending integration of the majors. The younger ones “felt they would play hard, and they might make it, too,” says Lester Lockett, 74. Lockett, who lives at a north-side YMCA, played 15 years in the Negro leagues. Negro leaguers aspired to play in the majors primarily because of the better pay and conditions, he says. But integration also meant a chance for vindication. “We wanted to prove that we were just as good as the whites,” Lockett says. “It was, ‘All you have to do is give me a chance and I’ll show you I can play.'” Players like Lockett, too old to have a chance at the majors, were nonetheless happy that younger Negro leaguers would have the opportunity to prove the point for them.
Double-Duty Radcliffe had mixed feelings. “I done got too old to go, so it didn’t make much difference to me. I was glad the younger fellas was getting the chance. But I hated to see it in a way, ’cause I knew it was gonna break the league up.”
Other than the owners and players, hardly anyone was concerned about the fate of the Negro leagues now, what with the integration of the majors imminent. When Rickey took Robinson away from the Kansas City Monarchs, he didn’t bother compensating them; he said he didn’t have to because the Negro leagues were nothing more than a “racket.” Negro league owners who complained got no support from the black press; the black papers, so near the goal they had long pursued, called the Negro league owners “reactionaries” and “selfish” for trying to impede something that was, according to an Amsterdam News columnist, “an unquestionable step forward for all of us.”
After the Breakthrough: Easy Money for White Owners, Hard Times for Black Players
The way blacks poured out to support their new major leaguer “was something to see,” Lester Lockett says. “People who had never been to a ball game went to watch Jackie play. People on crutches came out. Buses just loaded with blacks would pull up at the parks.”
Robinson’s first visit to Wrigley Field, on May 18, 1947, drew the largest paid single-game crowd in Cubs history. In a column written after Robinson’s death in 1972, Mike Royko, who attended the game as a youth, remembered the strange sight of so many blacks coming to the north-side park. “They came by the thousands, pouring off the northbound Ls and out of their cars,” he wrote.
“They didn’t wear baseball-game clothes. They had on church clothes and funeral clothes–suits, white shirts, ties, gleaming shoes and straw hats.” Robinson went hitless, was called out on strikes twice, and committed an error; regardless, when he so much as fouled off a pitch, his black following responded with “long, rolling applause,” Royko wrote. “A tall, middle-aged black man stood next to me, a smile of almost painful joy on his face, beating his palms together so hard they must have hurt.” Unaccustomed to being near so many of the other race, the blacks and whites in the stands seemed uneasy, Royko wrote, but the crowd was orderly.
While pride was swelling the chests of blacks, Robinson’s drawing power was swelling the bank accounts of whites. “The white owners benefited more than anyone else” from Robinson’s entry, says Jim Crutchfield, a 77-year-old south-sider and former star Negro league outfielder. “Look at the money the Brooklyn Dodgers made. Look at all the other National League teams, how they drew when Jackie was in the lineup.”
Indeed, whites as well as blacks jammed parks throughout 1947 to see Robinson and his Dodgers. Brooklyn drew a club record 1.8 million at home, and on the road they set single-game attendance marks in every National League city except Cincinnati. “Jackie’s nimble / Jackie’s quick / Jackie’s making the turnstiles click,” wrote Wendell Smith.
Robinson pulled $150,000 in extra admissions for the Dodgers in 1947, Time magazine estimated. During most of that season, Robinson and his wife and infant son had to share a roach-infested Brooklyn tenement with another couple because the Dodgers were paying him the major-league minimum salary of $5,000.
It wasn’t just the novelty that drew fans to watch Robinson; he proved to be a superb and exciting player. He lifted the Dodgers to the pennant in his rookie season, leading the team in batting average, home runs, and runs scored, and leading the league in stolen bases. In 1949, he hit .342 and was named the league’s most valuable player. He was also a top-notch fielder–there probably was no better all-around player in the National League during his ten-year career. His teammates, who at first had been uneasy around him and occasionally openly hostile, warmed up when they saw how Robinson could play.
Robinson wasn’t the only early black player able to draw record crowds. In 1948, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck signed the legendary Satchel Paige, and the Indians broke attendance records wherever he pitched. Paige had pitched for more than two decades in Negro league and barnstorming games throughout the country, earning a reputation as one of baseball’s best pitchers of all time, black or white. His first appearance in Comiskey as a major leaguer, on August 13, 1948, drew the largest crowd ever into Comiskey–51,000 paid, plus many thousands more who stormed into the park when a turnstile broke. Veeck estimated the total in the house at 70,000. “There was not a place in the park that was not covered by human, sweating flesh,” he wrote in his memoir Veeck as in Wreck. “I am not talking about only the seats and the aisles and the standing room in back of the grandstand. There was not even loose standing room underneath the stands.” Paige hurled a five-hit shutout.
During his brief tenure in the majors, Paige made many batters lunge foolishly for one of his trick pitches, including his “hesitation pitch,” in which he paused momentarily in his windup before delivering the ball. Umpires often called balks on this pitch, though Paige’s defenders insisted it was legal. “There was nothing in the world wrong with the hesitation pitch,” says former Negro leaguer Jack Marshall. “But he made batters look bad, and they didn’t want no black sumbitches makin’ a white boy look bad.”
The blacks who played in the white leagues before 1900 had been regularly thrown at, spiked, and taunted with racial insults, until they were forced out of the white leagues. But baseball and American society had made great strides in a half century: the first blacks to play in the big leagues this century also were thrown at, spiked, and taunted, but this time they persevered.
As good as Robinson was on the field, he was even more skillful at keeping his mouth shut off of it, at least in his early years in the majors. Rickey had made him agree not to answer back or fight back during his first three years in white baseball. If you retaliate or complain, Rickey told him, you won’t stand a chance of being accepted.
So Robinson pretended not to notice when, two weeks into his rookie season, Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman and his players yelled from their dugout about the thick lips and extra-thick skull they said Robinson possessed and about the sores and diseases Robinson’s teammates would get if they touched his towels or combs. In his autobiography 25 years later, Robinson would admit how those taunts had pained him, how he had been tempted to “throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist.”
When hotels in Philadelphia and Saint Louis accepted the rest of the Dodgers but refused to lodge Robinson, he didn’t gripe; when the hotel the Dodgers used in Cincinnati allowed Robinson a room under the condition he eat his meals in it, so as not to offend other guests, he obliged. When he was hit by pitches seven times in the first half of the season–more than any player in the league had been struck the entire previous season–he just shrugged it off: “I guess I just haven’t learned to duck major-league pitching.” (In truth, only his superior reflexes kept him from being hit many times more.) And when Dodger relief pitcher Hugh Casey told him during a card game: “You know what I used to do down in Georgia when I ran into bad luck? I used to go out and find me the biggest, blackest nigger woman and rub her teats to change my luck”–and then reached over and rubbed Robinson’s head–Robinson choked back his anger and just looked away.
In 1949, having put in his promised three years of turning the other cheek, Robinson declared himself free: he began arguing with umpires, getting into occasional scrapes with other players, and complaining to reporters about how he and other black players were being treated. Sportswriters quickly decided they weren’t as fond of this new Robinson; the Sporting News repeatedly called him ungrateful to baseball and advised him to confine his energies to the field. He had an obligation to his race to “be beyond reproach,” the publication said. He was urged to speak only in positive terms, to be a goodwill ambassador for his race like boxing champion Joe Louis.
“As long as I appeared to ignore insult and injury, I was a martyred hero to a lot of people,” Robinson said in his autobiography. “But the minute I began to sound off, I became a swell-head, a wise guy, an ‘uppity’ nigger.”
Other blacks, too, remained tight-lipped in the face of constant abuse, knowing they had to stay quiet if they wanted to stay in the majors. “When I think of the way things were, I wonder how we did it,” Larry Doby, the American League’s first black, told Sports Illustrated in 1968. “I remember sliding into second base and the fielder spitting tobacco juice in my face, and I just walked away. I walked away. They’d shout at you, ‘You dirty black so-and-so!’ There’s no way to walk away from that, but I did.”
The other early black ball players, like Robinson, had to prove themselves exemplary off the field just to be considered for the big leagues. “Never before or since have scouts and general managers investigated the off-field habits, the social thinking, and the personalities of potential signees,” Ford Frick, baseball commissioner from 1951 through ’65, wrote in his autobiography. A Red Sox scouting report described Earl Wilson, one of the first blacks the club signed, as a “well-mannered colored boy, not too black.”
As Robinson, Paige, Doby, and Brooklyn’s Roy Campanella led their teams to pennants and profits, other owners began to seriously consider signing blacks. They still weren’t going to do anything rash, though; most of them signed stars out of the Negro leagues, then sent them to farm clubs, where they also set attendance records, but often languished despite their stellar play. Not until 1951, four years after Robinson’s debut, did the White Sox, facing black picketers outside their park, introduce their first black, Minnie Minoso; despite a barrage of press criticism, the Cubs held out until 1953, when they brought Ernie Banks to Wrigley Field.
Ten years after Robinson’s “breakthrough,” there were only 18 blacks in the majors, and there were still three all-white teams–the Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers, and Boston Red Sox. This pace of big-league integration was just fine, the Sporting News said in 1957, lauding the “gradual, voluntary, and peaceful advance” of blacks into the game.
Detroit added a black in 1958 and the Philadelphia Phillies debuted their first in 1959. When Elijah Green appeared as a pinch runner for the Boston Red Sox at Comiskey Park on July 21, 1959, the desegregation of the majors was complete. From Jackie Robinson’s debut, it only took a dozen years.
The demise of the Negro leagues after 1947 was swift. As the leagues lost their stars, attendance dropped precipitously, and many of the clubs were evicted from the major-league parks. The teams cut salaries and increased the amount of travel, trying to find fans in towns far away from big-league parks. By 1951, the Negro National League had folded, and most of the Negro American League teams, including the Chicago American Giants, were out of business as well.
Some veterans, like Double-Duty Radcliffe, hooked up with semipro teams for a while before looking around for other careers. The success of blacks in the majors didn’t improve the way black players outside of the big leagues were treated, it only created a new kind of racial slur, Radcliffe says; when he struck out a bunch of white opponents in a tournament in southwestern Minnesota in 1949, he recalls them saying “that I was a big-league nigger, I ain’t got no business playing up there.”
The East-West Classic continued to attract large crowds through 1949–fans wanted to see the Negro league stars who were bound for the big leagues. But attendance declined steadily after that, and from the mid-50s through 1962, when the last Classic was played at Comiskey, the crowds averaged less than 10,000.
The few black teams that struggled through the 50s were ignored by the press–black as well as white–and reduced to clowning again to try to draw fans. When the Negro American League disbanded in 1963, marking the end of black baseball, its death went virtually unnoticed and unlamented.
Modern Problems: Blacks Have to Be Better
Common wisdom has it that Robinson’s entry into the big leagues “brought about tremendous brotherhood and equality of opportunity” in society as well as in sports, Harry Edwards says. In reality, not only did this not occur in the larger society, he maintains, it hasn’t happened yet in the locker room. In baseball, and in the other sports that integrated soon after, the whites in control set up a “plantation system,” he says, with black athletes serving “essentially as their gladiators.”
Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Boston’s Northeastern University, agrees with Edwards’s assessment. “You look at the surface and it seems like there’s been tremendous progress for blacks,” he says. “The NBA is 75 to 80 percent black, the NFL is 55 percent black, major-league baseball is 25 percent black.” But get beneath the surface, Lapchick says, and you quickly see “what a short distance we’ve really come.”
In their early years in the majors, it was obvious that blacks had to star if they planned to stay in the big leagues. In the National League, which was quicker than the American to bring blacks onto their clubs, blacks won eight Rookie of the Year awards and eight MVP trophies from 1947 through 1960, despite the fact they were only a small proportion of the players.
Black players continued to be held to a higher standard after 1960. For at least the first three decades after Robinson, black major leaguers consistently outperformed whites in almost every measurable category, according to numerous studies. A high proportion of blacks were stars, while a low proportion were fringe players.
Through the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, black hitters regularly had composite batting averages 20 points higher than white hitters, and slugging percentages 30 to 50 points higher. Some of this disparity can be attributed to the fact that a higher proportion of blacks play outfield, and outfielders hit better; but the studies found that even among outfielders alone, blacks outhit whites. The average black player also stole twice as many bases as the average white one.
Black pitchers, too, outclassed white ones. A 1974 report by the Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball found that from the late 40s through 1973, blacks consistently had lower earned run averages (ERAs) and higher winning percentages, and averaged more strikeouts per innings pitched.
The gap between black and white batting performance finally began to narrow in the mid-70s, according to a study published in the spring/fall 1983 Journal of Sport and Social Issues. By 1980, the last year covered by the study, the composite slugging percentage of black American outfielders was only six points greater than that of white outfielders.
My own calculations indicate the gap has continued to close in the 80s. I compared white and black American hitters on the 1987 opening day rosters; in ’86, the black outfielders hit for a composite slugging percentage of .430, compared to .429 for the white outfielders; the composite batting average for black outfielders was .272, versus .267 for whites. A look at other positions, too, suggested the same thing: 40 years after Robinson, there is, finally, virtual parity between black and white hitters.
Blacks remain the better offensive players, though, because of their performance on the base paths. A black who bats 550 times will, on the average, steal almost twice as many bases as a white (21 to 11) and score more runs (79 to 75), according to my calculations.
It’s possible that whites are better fielders, and that their defensive skills compensate for their offensive deficits. But there’s little evidence of this. Though only about 50 percent of outfielders in 1986 were black Americans, they won 83 percent, or five of six, of those Gold Gloves (awarded to the best fielder at each position in each league, as chosen by Sporting News writers); fewer than 20 percent of infielders were black Americans, but they took 25 percent of those Gold Gloves. The greater speed of the average black major leaguer is a significant defensive advantage.
The disparities on the pitcher’s mound do not appear to be diminishing. There have never been many black pitchers in the majors; the former Negro leaguers I spoke with believe this is because the position, like quarterback in football, is too prominent for whites to allow blacks to play it in significant numbers. “If you ain’t white, you got to be twice as good to be a pitcher,” Lockett says. “You got to strike out a lot of men, just power the ball by everybody.”
Indeed, the statistics indicate blacks don’t lack the necessities to be major-league pitchers; they lack the necessities to be mediocre ones. Among pitchers who threw at least 50 innings in the big leagues in 1986, my calculations showed that 49 percent of the whites had ERAs of 3.90 or higher, compared with only 25 percent of blacks. There were just 13 black American pitchers on opening day rosters this year (counting those on disabled or inactive lists); three of them led their teams in saves in 1986 (the Cubs’ Lee Smith, the Dodgers’ Ken Howell, and California’s Donnie Moore); and three more were among their league’s top starters (the Mets’ Dwight Gooden, Montreal’s Floyd Youmans, and Boston’s Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd).
And last year was not atypical. Lapchick analyzed the career records of major-league pitchers active in 1983; he found a higher proportion of the black pitchers had career ERAs under 3.20 (30 percent compared with 20 percent of the whites); white pitchers were almost three times as likely as blacks to have ERAs over 4.01 (31 percent versus 11.7 percent); and while 16 percent of white pitchers had career ERAs over 4.41, none of the blacks in the majors did.
Lapchick also noted the remarkably even distribution of black players on teams throughout the league in 1983. A quota system seemed to be in effect, he charged: teams will take only so many blacks, and no more.
There’s been talk of racial quotas in baseball since 1950, when Brooklyn had four blacks on its team, and a fifth, outfielder Sam Jethroe, was due to be brought up from the minors. Reporters predicted Brooklyn wouldn’t dare raise the number of blacks to five, and they were right: Rickey sold Jethroe to the Boston Braves. “Ownership thought there was a surfeit of colored boys on the Brooklyn club,” Rickey later admitted. In 1954, the Sporting News said many in baseball felt having too many blacks on a team “would not be good business.”
This year, too, the distribution of blacks throughout the majors could make one wonder. On opening day, 23 of the majors’ 26 clubs had between four and seven black Americans on their rosters; no team had more than seven blacks.
The tendency for black major leaguers to be clustered in the outfield has been rising since at least 1969. That year, 47 percent of black American players were outfielders; this year, it’s 62 percent. Meantime, the percentage of black American major leaguers who pitch has declined from 21 percent in 1969 to 10 percent today. Only three of 64 big-league catchers this year are black Americans. The increase in black outfielders does not bode well for the future of blacks as managers; the vast majority of managers were either catchers or infielders in their playing careers.
It’s the speed of blacks that has increasingly consigned them to the outfield, major-league scouts maintain. Speed in the outfield has become a higher priority with the advent of artificial-turf fields.
The inferior fields young blacks typically play on also direct them to the outfield. You can practice chasing fly balls and throwing from the outfield no matter how weedy and rocky the field is. Pitching, on the other hand, is best practiced from a mound built to regulation height–the kind they have on most suburban diamonds but hardly anywhere in the city. “You don’t see but one real pitcher’s mound–that’s at Harlan [High School]–on the whole south side,” says Arthur Burns, who scouts for the New York Mets.
It takes more coaching to learn to play the infield–there are more situations to react to–and to learn the intricacies of pitching and catching. And kids in city public schools get much less coaching; their coaches are too busy organizing the candy drives, raffles, and dances necessary to fund their programs. A baseball coach at a Chicago public high school usually has about $300 of Board of Education money to work with; that might not even pay for baseballs, let alone other equipment, travel costs, and umpire fees. Coaches at suburban high schools frequently have budgets of $8,000 or more.
The financial aggravations quickly drive many Chicago public school coaches out of their jobs. Leroy Franklin, the baseball coach at south-side Simeon High School since 1975, is one of the city’s most experienced coaches, and also considered by many to be among the best. But Franklin says a year or two more is about all he can take. “I love the coaching part, but the fund-raising is a headache.”
At least in the city schools, many of which are nearly all-black, the black high schoolers get the chance to play the prominent positions. In more integrated schools, Franklin says, coaches often automatically direct black kids to the outfield. And it’s not so much because of the speed they assume the black kids have, but the brains they assume they lack. “They just don’t feel black kids can think well enough to play anywhere but outfield,” Franklin says.
Bob Falkner agrees with that assessment. Falkner, who scouts part-time for the Cincinnati Reds and who has coached numerous youth teams in the south suburbs, recalls the high school experience of his son, Belgee. Throughout little league, Belgee was a smooth-fielding second baseman and shortstop, but when he arrived for high school tryouts, the coach, who was white, immediately pointed him to the outfield. “He never played outfield in his life,” Falkner says. The coach told the elder Falkner that Belgee belonged in the outfield because of his speed, and so that’s where Belgee played all four years. But Falkner doesn’t buy this; speed is important at second base and short, too, he says. Moving blacks routinely to the outfield “makes them feel inferior–that they’re not smart enough to play the important positions,” he says.
When blacks had the opportunity to play more than just outfield–when the Negro leagues were still alive–they showed they could excel at other positions. Says Double-Duty Radcliffe: “We had a helluva good bunch of pitchers–Raymond Brown, Hilton Smith, Barnett Brown, Sam Streeter, William Bell. Some of ’em were as tough to beat as Satchel almost.” There were star catchers, too: Biz Mackey, Bruce Petway, Louis Santop, and Josh Gibson. Gibson was heralded by some as baseball’s greatest catcher ever. Two of the majors’ finest catchers of all time were black–Roy Campanella and Elston Howard; but they got their start in the Negro leagues, too.
If Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson were young today, perhaps he would be directed to the outfield by a coach or scout. Some coaches, like Lake Park High School’s Norb Wesolowski, believe blacks were just born to play outfield. “I personally think it’s in their genes,” he told me. “It has something to do with their bone marrow.”
Modern Stereotypes: Tough Guys and Slackers
In its May issue, Inside Sports magazine rated baseball’s “toughest players.” Only one black, and no Hispanics, were among the 14 major leaguers the magazine picked for its “All-Rambo” team. But the magazine wasn’t ignoring blacks; it also rated baseball’s biggest “hot dogs,” bestowing the honor on five players, four of them black.
Forty years’ exposure to black major leaguers hasn’t vanquished certain stereotypes: white players who excel do so because they work hard and they’re smart, black players because they’re natural athletes; whites star because of their character, blacks in spite of theirs.
Long before Jackie Robinson, when whites were impressed with the ability of black ball players, the credit went to the black players’ genes. “It is in baseball that the descendant of Ham is at his athletic best,” said a Saint Louis Post-Dispatch reporter in 1911 after watching some black-white contests. “Less removed from the anthropoid ape, he gets down on ground balls better, springs higher for liners, has a stronger and surer grip, and gets in and out of a base on all fours in a way that makes the higher product of evolution look like a bush leaguer.”
Four decades later, after seeing Robinson and the first batch of black major leaguers, many baseball experts reached the same conclusion. Blacks “have an inborn advantage in natural speed and strength,” Boston Braves scout Jack Zeller told the Sporting News in 1952, “and when they also possess high intelligence, they are better athletes, as a class, than whites.” And another 35 years after that, Al Campanis tells a Nightline audience that black players are “very God-gifted . . . with great musculature and various other things.” And Montreal Expos GM Murray Cook tells USA Today that blacks don’t become managers because they haven’t had to be “real students of the game. Things come so naturally to so many of those fine black athletes, they don’t learn all the rudiments of the game.”
The theory that black athletes are born with physical advantages has been refuted many times, but keeps cropping up anyway. It’s appealing to both blacks and whites, Harry Edwards says: blacks want to believe it because it at least credits them with some kind of superiority; for whites, the theory implies their own intellectual superiority, justifying their assigning of the “thinking” sports positions to themselves, and the brawn positions to blacks.
Blacks excel in sports not because they’re born to, Bob Falkner says, but because as youngsters “they play sports all the time–that’s all they have to do.” While white youngsters commonly involve themselves in a plethora of activities, black kids typically “have nothing to do but to shoot that ball at the hoop or get out on an open lot with a bat and a ball,” Falkner says. “If you do anything long enough you can’t help but get good at it.”
Indeed, the poor have always excelled in sports–at least in those sports they could afford to participate in. When the Irish were among the nation’s poorest around the turn of the century, they dominated major-league baseball, and many observers credited their inherent athletic ability.
Black players, another stereotype goes, are quick to complain of injury–not as willing as whites to play with pain. During Robinson’s year in the minors, runners took target practice on his legs, barreling into him at second base whenever they got the chance. The battering his legs sustained finally sidelined Robinson for most of three weeks. Reporters then speculated about the durability of Robinson’s legs and the stoutness of his heart.
The devotion to winning Robinson showed throughout the rest of his career satisfied the skeptics, but other black players have found themselves saddled with similar doubts. Injured black players are considered “malingerers,” Reggie Jackson told Sports Illustrated in May, to such an extent that white players sometimes kid, “Come on, man, you’re black, you know you can’t be hurt.”
Consider what happened to J.R. Richard, a black pitcher for Houston. He probably was baseball’s most consistent and dependable pitcher in the late 70s, winning 20 games in 1976 and 18 in each of the next three seasons, and never missing a start. But when he began complaining that his arm felt dead in June of 1980, sportswriters quickly branded him a loafer. Hospital tests later in the season discovered a clot in his arm, but doctors said Richard could keep pitching under supervision. During his first workout he had a stroke and nearly died.
1987: A New Opportunity for Progress?
Al Campanis’s racist remarks on Nightline, and the attention they focused on racism in baseball, “may be as important for minorities as the day Jackie Robinson broke into baseball,” former Dodger catcher John Roseboro said a few days after the remarks were made.
Civil rights leaders seized the opportunity to put the heat on baseball: NAACP affiliates and other black leaders began meeting with officials of local franchises; and Jesse Jackson has threatened that “definitive action”–massive picketing or a national fan boycott–will begin July 4 if major-league baseball owners have not agreed by then to an affirmative action plan for front-office hiring.
If blacks really boycotted baseball, though, no one would realize it without a press release; primarily for economic reasons, blacks have been staying away from big-league parks for years.
A boycott by blacks won’t break any major-league franchise, but owners probably would prefer to avoid the publicity a boycott or picketing would bring.
So expect the owners to offer some quick fixes–but don’t look for much more than that. Lapchick predicts “a spurt of hiring of blacks in the front offices of major league baseball, and probably an increase in [hiring of blacks in] other sports as well. You’ll see every club hiring one or two blacks, and then all this will die down.”
Some of baseball’s racial problems–the positional segregation, for instance, and the dearth of black fans–are linked inextricably to the economics of society at large. Baseball officials now moan that it’s unfair to ask them to solve problems they didn’t create. (Certain societal problems interest these officials more than others, judging from the frequent calls by general managers for drug testing of players.) If you want to fight racism you have to look to the whole society, the baseball bosses say, not just our sport. “In a sense, they’re right,” Lapchick says. “But then we should also stop claiming these victories we’ve always claimed for sports.
“Sport has never changed faster than society–we just always said it did,” Lapchick says. “Instead of viewing sport as a reflection of society, we’ve viewed it as a panacea for all of society’s ills.”
Edwards, who is among the blacks who have been meeting with baseball officials, also fears the post-Campanis commotion may produce hollow changes dressed up like significant progress. He has known baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth for a long time–Ueberroth was a track coach at San Jose State University when Edwards taught there–and he trusts Ueberroth’s avowed commitment to get to the heart of the problem. Edwards has less faith in the 26 owners the commissioner answers to.
A few of the civil rights leaders now pressuring baseball may also impede true progress, Edwards worries. Some of them are more concerned with how they benefit politically from the campaign, he says, and may accept a superficial gesture from baseball to show their power to force concessions. “We can’t just be concerned with getting one Negro in a general managership next week so we can say, ‘Look what we’ve done.’ We have to be concerned with what baseball, basketball, and football are going to look like five and ten years from now.”
Like the civil rights leaders, Edwards wants to see blacks hired to fill important front-office positions as they open in baseball and other sports. But he also wants baseball to commit itself to an apprenticeship program for blacks in front offices, like the one he has developed with the San Francisco 49ers football team. Beginning this year, the 49ers will put several black assistant collegiate coaches to work on the field during the preseason, and blacks with corporate backgrounds in the front office to show them the ropes. This will help create a pool of qualified blacks who could fill front-office vacancies. Edwards is setting up a similar program with the Golden State Warriors basketball team. Programs like these will make sure that blacks get the same kind of apprenticeship training for front-office jobs that sports have always informally offered to whites, Edwards says. As the skin color of the executives on clubs changes, he says, so will the racial inequities on the field.
In his meetings with owners and general managers, Edwards tries to persuade them that it’s in their interest to rectify racial inequities. Demographic shifts are going to make pro sports increasingly black in the next few decades, Edwards says: whites are moving from rural areas to suburbs, and while rural towns have been the chief producers of white athletes, the suburbs “produce relatively few athletes–they produce lawyers and doctors and chemists and engineers.” Thus Edwards expects that in ten years “basketball is going to be all-black, football will be where basketball is today, and baseball will be about 40 percent black.” If sports franchises try to maintain their lily-white front offices, he says, “their plantation system is doomed to go the same direction as the plantation system in the south.”
Twenty years ago this year, Edwards was busy organizing a boycott by black athletes of the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City. The boycott itself never came off, but it did lead to the famous black-glove protest salute of track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos on a victory stand, an act that focused attention on racism in sports. Edwards would not rule out an attempt to organize a boycott by black major leaguers if owners seem unwilling to make changes. He thinks it unlikely that anywhere near 100 percent of black players could be persuaded to walk out; athletes haven’t been “politicized” enough, and they have “no militant movement afoot to plug into.” Besides, owners have always shown a talent for retribution after players strike or do anything political. But an attempt at a boycott still could create “great dissension in the ranks of black players,” Edwards says, and the disruptive impact this could have on major-league teams might convince recalcitrant owners to deal.
Edwards hopes such actions prove unnecessary. The key for blacks now, though, he says, is to not be so eager for change that they accept the first morsel the owners toss their way. The Jackie Robinson experience, he says, should have taught blacks that “nominal, token integration is worse than none at all.” Now that a new opportunity for racial progress in baseball has presented itself to blacks, “We’ve got to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes we made when Jackie came through.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow, Cleodia H. Lyles, courtesy Chicago Daily Defender.