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The Road to Baseball Integration

For nearly 60 years baseball was a segregated sport as the American and National Leagues that formed Major League Baseball unofficially banned African-Americans from their ranks. That all changed when Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. But the factors that led to this historic moment can be traced to a multitude of factors - the incredible talent in Negro League baseball, the exciting style of play, the large draw of both African-American and white fans all contributed. But World War II also contributed to the integration of the game.

When the war began over 2.5 million African-American men registered for the draft and over 1 million served in all branches of the military. During World War II the United States military was segregated and therefore the majority of African-Americans serving were initially relegated to maintenance or transportation duties. A demand to allow African-Americans to take a greater role and, in particular, to see combat was granted in part because of the push of the NAACP and in part because of a need for additional numbers on the battlefield. Both African-American men and women served their country honorably and bravely in the fight to end the tyranny of the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan). What is ironic is that while African-Americans were fighting for the freedoms of others, they were being oppressed in their own country.

Segregation was still deeply entrenched and accepted in the United States and, after the war, the cry to end segregation gained a larger voice in American life. This sentiment was not only expressed on the political stage, it spilled over onto the baseball diamond. African-American players thought it unjust that they could fight and die for their country but they couldn't hit and field a ball in the Major Leagues.

Jackie Robinson

The feeling that the integration of baseball was coming grew as World War II concluded. The question soon went from when, if ever, baseball would integrate to what team and which player would break the modern era color barrier.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were that team, Jackie Robinson was that player and Branch Rickey was the man who made it possible.

But the story of the Dodgers, Robinson and Rickey started two years prior to the historic 1947 Major League debut of Robinson.

In 1945, Robinson was contacted by the Negro American League's Kansas City Monarchs to play for them. He was offered and accepted a contract of $400 a month. His play for the Monarchs was strong as he hit .387 and earned a spot in that year's Negro League All-Star game. But the Negro League experience was much different than what Robinson was used to during his college days at UCLA. The Monarchs were on the road for days at a time playing large volumes of games. Robinson had an interest in going to what he, and many others, perceived as the top level of competition - the Major Leagues. Of course that option was not available but times were beginning to change.

In 1945, Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers believed that integrating baseball would be financially good for the game, and especially his team. Rickey wasn't just looking for a great player; he was looking for the right player. Rickey knew that the player selected needed to not just be a standout on the field, he needed to be able to ignore the verbal attacks of fans and players and coaches across the league who didn't believe the game should be integrated.

Rickey zeroed in on Robinson because he was college educated, had served in World War II and had talent having lettered in four sports (baseball, basketball, football and track) while at UCLA (1939 to 1941).

On August 28, 1945 Rickey and Robinson and Rickey had a three-hour meeting. During the meeting Robinson asked Rickey if he was looking for a man who was afraid to fight back. Rickey's response was that he was looking for a player "with the guts not to fight back." Rickey knew that if Robinson responded to those who opposed his presence that justification would be given to keep the game segregated. Robinson accepted the terms and on October 23,1945 Robinson signed a minor league contract with the Montreal Royals, the minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. When he signed his contract he officially ended the segregation in the International League that had stood since the 1880s. The contract was worth $600 a month and included a $3,500 signing bonus.

In 1946, while on the Montreal Royals, he hit .349 and was crowned the International League batting champion. His team won the International League and the Little World Series against the Louisville Colonels.

Robinson would spend just one season with the Montreal Royals before being brought up by the Brooklyn Dodgers. On April 15, 1947 he stepped onto Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers, as their first baseman thus officially ending the color barrier in baseball. It was a moment of great pride for the African-American community. Of the over 26,000 attending the game that day, 14,000 were African-American. Robinson did not disappoint. In his first season, he was named the first ever Rookie of the Year and hit .297, scored 125 runs and stole 29 bases. His play was a large factor in the Dodgers winning that year's National League title.

As Branch Rickey predicted, despite Robinson's stellar play, he endured a great amount of verbal abuse from fans. And the abuse was not restricted to fans. Opposing players hurled verbal insults at Robinson but they also played rough and employed tactics that many saw as outside the bounds of acceptable play. But there were Major Leaguers who accepted and encouraged Robinson. In 1948, Robinson's teammate Pee Wee Reese came to his aid during a game in Cincinnati where the fans were especially ruthless. Reese simply walked over, put his arm around Robinson and looked out at the crowd. This show of solidarity proved that Robinson was accepted by his teammates and should be by those who came and watched the game.

Robinson played ten seasons for the Dodgers, retiring after the 1956 season. In his career he compiled a career .311 batting average, collected 1,518 hits of which 137 were home runs and stole 197 bases and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

Robinson was truly an impressive force on the baseball diamond and had the strong character to turn the other cheek when those who didn't believe he should be in the Major Leagues verbally attacked him.

Initially, Robinson's selection was a surprise to many of those in the Negro Leagues. They felt that Robinson, who had only played 47 Negro League games, was not the most talented player and therefore not the most deserving of the honor of being the first. However, Robinson was able to quickly change their perceptions with his actions. Mahlon Duckett of the Stars shared that "When Jackie signed I was a little shocked. Jackie wasn't necessarily the best Negro League player, but we all soon learned that he was the right choice, and went on to become one of baseball's greatest."

Stars player Wilmer Harris loved that "Jackie took Negro League Baseball to the Major Leagues. There was no such thing as hitting a single and going to second. He made the Major Leagues better and everyone was trying to play like the Dodgers."

And Stars pitcher Harold Gould shared, "I never played against anybody with as much backbone as Jackie Robinson. He would refuse to lose."

Activity
  1. Create a timeline of Jackie Robinson's progression to the Major Leagues and the milestones that followed.
  2. Do you think Branch Rickey was brave for planning the integration of baseball? Why or why not?
  3. Knowing the social climate of the 1940s how do you think Jackie Robinson was able to endure the abuse to not only break the color barrier in baseball but to excel in the game?
  4. Were you surprised that Negro League players did not initially believe that Jackie Robinson was the correct choice to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball? Why or why not?

The beginning of the end of the Negro Leagues

When Jackie Robinson stepped onto the Ebbets Fields as a Brooklyn Dodger on April 15, 1947 it signaled the end of segregation in Major League Baseball. It also signaled the beginning of the end of Negro League Baseball.

Negro League players knew that they had not only the talent to play on the MLB stage but the ability to excel. They just needed the chance. If Jackie Robinson had not been successful, the chance for African-Americans to play in the Major Leagues may have been shot-lived. Due to his success the opportunities for Negro League players expanded.

Major League clubs, recognizing that the Negro Leagues were filled with players that could enhance their rosters and bring a whole new population of fans through their gates began to sign Negro League talent to both Minor and Major League contracts. While some MLB teams purchased Negro League player contracts, this was not a common practice. MLB teams found it easier to negotiate and sign Negro League talent on their own.

After MLB's integration, the Negro National League managed to play only one more season. This was the result of both players leaving to play in Minor and Major League Baseball and the growing interest of the African-American community in MLB as the result of integration. NNL teams that survived the League's shuttering at the end of the 1948 season, were either absorbed into the Negro American League or operated as independent teams. Though the NAL would operate until 1962, Negro League baseball was never the same. The high level of play began to diminish as the top talent either left the Negro Leagues or, as time went on, bypassed the Negro Leagues to play in the Major League Baseball system.

While a large reason for the demise of Negro League baseball was that African-American players were playing in the Major League Baseball system, there were other factors that contributed.

African-American fans, while still supportive of Negro League teams in their cities, began directing their attention to the Major League teams at first to see and support the African-American players in the league but then due to the competition itself. Additionally, fans could listen to MLB games on the radio and, as games were increasingly broadcast on television, were exposed to new ways to enjoy the game that were not available for the Negro Leagues. As this happened, the manner in which baseball was reported in the African-American community began to change. African-American newspapers used to report on the Negro League games and players because the mainstream newspapers were focused on Major League Baseball. When the color barrier was broken, African-American newspapers began to cover both leagues but with more of an emphasis on Major League games. By the time the Negro American League folded after the 1962 season, the vast number of Americans were not aware that the Negro American League was still in existence.

Activity
  1. Why do you believe it was necessary for Jackie Robinson to be successful on the Major League Baseball stage?
  2. Share why you are/are not surprised that Negro League Baseball did not survive beyond 1962.
  3. Large numbers of Negro League fans were drawn to MLB games because they easily could watch, listen and read about MLB teams. Taking into account how you can take in a baseball game today, do you think the Negro Leagues could have survived? Why or why not?