On Thursday, all Major League Baseball players will don a No.42 jersey in honor of Jackie Robinson Day. The annual event, officially celebrated since 2004, marks the anniversary of Robinson’s major league debut in 1947, which broke baseball’s color line dating back to the 19th century.
Robinson’s signing, a defining moment in the sport, was much more complicated than it has been described in the years since. Robinson’s move, and all other stars, to the National and American leagues contributed to the rapid decline of the long-established Negro leagues. And in the wake of the MLB officially recognizing the Negro Leagues as having been the equivalent of the Major Leagues, it’s important to see how it could have played out differently.
In the weeks and months after the announcement of Robinson’s signing by Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 23, 1945, with no compensation to the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro league leaders were in shock. Outside the doors of their offices, in black communities in Kansas City, Newark, Pittsburgh and elsewhere, there was a jubilation, a collective celebration of the apparent evidence of racial progress. Inside, however, there was anger and concern over the removal of a young star from their leagues and what it might mean for their future.
Talking about integration was nothing new. The public drumbeat of baseball color line resistance began in the 1930s and had been steadily maintained by black (Wendell Smith, Sam Lacy, et al.) And white (Lester Rodney) journalists. But it was World War II that made the noise deafening, as so many black men served their country but were still excluded from the white major leagues.
The Black League teams have also heard it. They were aware of the unfortunate Major League tries for a handful of their players and the plea of many for these players to have a fair chance. Overall, however, they may have underestimated the power of the gears that turned behind the scenes, the integration machine that would tip an industry upside down.
In fact, Black League owners, including Thomas Baird and JL Wilkinson of the Monarchs, learned of their player’s signing like the rest of the world: through breathless radio shows and newspaper headlines. There had been no negotiation with Rickey; years later, Baird noticed that the Dodgers boss had never responded to letters he wrote to discuss the matter.
Yet there could be no recourse. In the name of advancement, there would be no prosecution or outright condemnation of Rickey’s tactics. Together, the owners of the Black League agreed to take one for the proverbial black team in the hopes that future deals would be more favorable.
They didn’t know it then, but Rickey had no intention of letting go.
Weeks before news of Robinson’s signing, a Dodgers executive asked Effa Manley, owner and business leader of the Newark Eagles – and ultimately the first woman to ever enter the Baseball Hall of Fame – if she would be interested in the organization of a demonstration match between his team. and the Brooklyn club. Sensing the opportunity to prove that black baseball was on a par with the National and American leagues, Manley pushed for more. One game turned into a five-game series – a showdown between the Dodgers and the Eagles turned into a head-to-head between two All-Star rosters, filled with players from multiple teams.
Manley’s roster didn’t win a game, but Rickey was happy with the performance. In the early months of 1946, four members of Manley’s Black All-Star team were signed by the Dodgers organization, including Don Newcombe of the Manley Eagles. Only the Philadelphia Stars, home of pitcher Roy Partlow, received compensation – and it was only $ 1,000.
In a letter to Seward Posey, commercial manager of the Homestead Grays, on April 8, 1946, Manley wrote that she and the other owners looked “very stupid to sit down tight and not open your mouth with the stuff he shoots ”.
But the problem was not that no one had spoken on behalf of the owners. Someone had – it was just the wrong person.
“If the Brooklyn Dodgers want Robinson, the star shortstop of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, they should pay for him,” Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, told The Associated Press just one day after the announcement of Robinson’s signing. . “While it is true that we don’t have an agreement with the black leagues – national and American – we still cannot act like outlaws by taking their stars. We do not have the right to destroy them. “
Rickey claimed the Negro Leagues were illegitimate and “in the racket zone”. He also spoke directly to his fellow owner: “Clark Griffith on the contrary, I have not signed a player from what I consider to be an organized league.”
If someone else from Major League Baseball had taken Rickey to the task, the story might have played out differently. Perhaps Newcombe and Partlow would not have been signed without a fair reward to their teams; perhaps there would have been room in the majors for black managers and executives alongside players deemed worthy of the “call”. But it was Griffith who spoke, and his words were inextricably linked to his own past.
Competition seasons aside in 1943 and 1945, the Griffith Senators were eternal inhabitants of the basement of the American League from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, and as the team record, attendance the same was true. Despite the lack of outside investment, Griffith stayed financially afloat by renting Griffith Stadium to the Washington club of the NFL and, more specifically, to the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League.
For Black League owners, stadium rentals were a common item; for the owners of white teams, the income was reason enough to commit to “supporting” black baseball. In a September 1945 memo to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York, written in response to an investigation into Major League Baseball launched by the La Guardia Unity Committee, Larry MacPhail, President and CEO of the Yankees, made his position clear: “Organized baseball derives substantial revenue from the operation of the Negro leagues and wants these leagues to continue and prosper.” He added, “The Yankee organization alone brings in nearly $ 100,000 a year in rentals and concessions related to Negro League games.”
It wasn’t just Griffith’s financial interest in the pursuit of black baseball that has made some question the sincerity of his appeal to Rickey. Because unlike MacPhail, who had only gone as far as the West Coast to find new talent, Griffith had become a regular recruiter of Latino athletes (his 1944 roster consisted of nine Cuban players and one, Alex Carrasquel, from Venezuela), even though he refused to hire a single black American.
“Griffith is one of the big league owners who would rather go outside the borders of this United States and bring in players, rather than hire American citizens of color,” Smith wrote in a Pittsburgh Courier column on May 26. 1945. “He travels thousands and thousands of miles in search of players, when he could register a black player in 10 minutes.
For Smith and others, Griffith’s conflict of interest was seen as far more egregious than Rickey’s. It had been a decade since Griffith told Lacy that integration would kill the Negro leagues and leave hundreds of black men out of work, but even then Griffith’s comment was seen as poor justification for his own anti- Blackness. Later, during a period of hope and real progress, his words were again rejected.
“As far as I’m concerned, anything Griffith says – good or bad – about black or black baseball players goes in one ear and comes out in the other,” Smith wrote. “No individual who denies the citizens of the country in which he lives and thrives an opportunity is worth listening to.”
But the owners of the Black League teams, short of belief that an entire industry would not be unfairly sacrificed for a handful of token signings and generations of inequities to come, were listening. They had no reason not to.
“Your two leagues have established an excellent reputation and now have the support and respect of people of color across the country as well as honest white people,” Griffith wrote to Homestead Grays owner Cum Posey on November 5, 1945. ” They didn’t hack organized baseball and they didn’t steal anything from them, and organized baseball has no moral right to take anything away from them without their consent.
“Mr. Posey, anything worth fighting for is worth fighting for, so you shouldn’t neglect a stone to protect the existence of your two established Negro leagues. Don’t let anyone tear it down.
Andrea Williams is the author of “The Principal Lady of Baseball: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues”.