In 1945, when Jackie Robinson batted .387 for the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs,
he established himself as an excellent athlete. Two years later, when he stepped onto the
Brooklyn Dodgers’ Ebbets Field, he’d become a civil rights icon.
Jackie Robinson was the first African American major league ballplayer of his century.
Before Robinson accepted this courageous position, America’s “national pastime” had
been officially segregated for sixty years. Robinson’s baseball experience exemplifies a
history of racial separation and integration in the United States.
Americans had been playing baseball informally since at least the early 1800s. The sport
gained popularity over several decades, and by 1845 amateurs nationwide adopted a
standard set of rules. Unfortunately, mixed in with rules about batting and running were
the understood rules of Jim Crow culture. Even after the Civil War, people tended to
enforce segregation by skin color; and as sports participation reflected US society, black
men were often not welcomed onto white men’s amateur teams. (It’s interesting to note
that several were allowed to participate by identifying as “white Latin Americans”.)
When Cincinnati formed the first professional team in 1869 — the Red Stockings – black
men were tacitly excluded. Some briefly played on less discriminatory professional teams
that formed in the 1870s. Moses “Fleet” Walker is known for playing in Toledo until a
prominent white player from Chicago protested his presence. Following the dispute, in
1887 the International League banned future contracts with black players. Over the next
decade, most professional black players were limited to playing the exhibition circuit –
and eventually, baseball leadership actually prohibited white players from wearing major
league uniforms during these exhibition games.
African American players still had a few professional options. Many played in Cuba and
other parts of Latin America during the winter. Some formed their own US teams, such
as the St. Louis Black Stockings, and a viable alternative league, the Negro National
League, emerged by 1920. Jackie Robinson joined the Negro American League in 1945
when he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs.
Racial attitudes were starting to change across America. The experiences of black and
white soldiers in World War II contributed to some people realizing that general
segregation ought to end. Regarding sports in particular, the Navy’s champion baseball
team, which was integrated, may have swayed some fans.
However, Robinson would still face intense discrimination. When the brave Branch
Rickey of the Dodgers assigned him to the Montreal Royals in 1946, some baseball fans
and even some teammates expressed bigotry. People hurled insults at Robinson, and
some players even insinuated that they’d change teams. Meanwhile, Robinson had
privately agreed to Rickey’s stipulation that he “not take the bait” when harassed.
Fortunately, the Dodgers’ management supported Robinson and refused to retreat on the
decision to integrate. Motivated by both his conscience and financial calculations, Leo
Durocher reportedly declared:
“I don’t care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has
stripes like a… zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I
say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich.
And if any of you can’t use the money, I’ll see that you are
Robinson, baseball, and America overall are fortunate that Dodgers management
maintained its position. Even as Robinson experienced bigotry and harassment, he also
won many friends within baseball and became a beloved national hero. A Hollywood
gossip columnist even pronounced Jackie Robinson the second-most popular man of
1947 (right after Bing Crosby). Some believe that Robinson indirectly influenced
President Truman’s 1948 decision to integrate the US Armed Forces.
With US society slowly changing and repealing Jim Crow laws, and with Robinson’s
legacy of fantastic baseball statistics, more major league teams began integrating. The
Negro League teams eventually lost many star players, and by 1960 this vestige of
segregation had entirely folded. In 1987, about forty years after Robinson’s major league
debut, major league baseball paid tribute by renaming the Rookie of the Year Award the
Jackie Robinson Award.