The History of African Americans in Baseball Part 2
- Updated: December 24, 2008
Part 2 of 4
Although it was not well documented, black women even had their time in professional baseball as well when the male major leagues were in turmoil over labor agreements. While they were not accepted into the women’s baseball leagues which is now well known (thanks to the film A League of Their Own), they had to start their own. Despite the fact that they had two stereotypes running against them, “black women ballpayers in the 1940s and early 1950s had to look beyond the women’s league for a professional sports outlet, so a few brave women athletes defied [society]” (Everbach, 2005, p. 14). Black women’s leagues did not receive much media coverage or funding and did not last long, but the women from those teams continued to play at a high level for a few years after the league’s demise. Many of them illustrated that they were not afraid of being known as the weaker sex and tried out for some of the male Negro League teams (Everbach, 2005, p. 18). Some of these women did make the active rosters of the teams, but most did not get to stay long enough to make a name for themselves.
There was one event in sporting history in this country that everyone can relate to; it is the breaking of the color line in Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson in 1947 (Heaphy, 2003, p. 4). For some reason, this event has created more of a footprint in history than the first African Americans to play for the other major sports. At that time, it looked more like a baseball decision than anything else, but it turned out to be much more than that. “The breaking of baseball’s color barrier [would] then be seen as a milestone in race relations that foreshadowed, and indeed contributed to, the dismantling, within twenty years, of the long-established structures of legal and customary segregation” (Dorinson & Warmund, 1998, p. 183). Perhaps this was because baseball has forever been dubbed “America’s Pastime,” or perhaps it had something to do with the time period, but if there is one aspect of African Americans’ involvement in baseball that stands out today it is that the Jackie Robinsons of this world are dwindling. Barely anyone knows who the first African American to play professional football or basketball was, but most sports fans can name at least the first two African Americans to play MLB. The integration of baseball was seen across the country, by blacks and whites alike, as a breakthrough in society. Many experts claimed the quality of play during the period of integration was one of the best times in baseball history, and a lot of it had to do with the acceptance of race. There was an assumption that the white people who were already in the league started playing even harder than they had been because they did not want to be beat out for a job by a black person, and the black people were playing so well because they wanted to be sure not to embarrass themselves or their entire race (Carroll, 2006, p. 37).
When Robinson first entered MLB, there was much racism in response to his playing in the formerly all-white league; and despite consistently putting up Most-Valuable-Player-worthy numbers during his first few seasons, he constantly received death threats from fans of other teams as he traveled across the country. Many believed the scout who signed Robinson, Branch Rickey, was trying to make a statement about society when he helped promote Robinson to the big leagues. Although Rickey served on MLB’s committee to investigate what could be done about the color barrier, he was not willing to break it until he found “someone named Jackie Robinson, an all-around athlete who also starred in track and field, basketball, and baseball” (Lowenfish, 2007, p. 356). Further research suggested, however, that Rickey simply noticed there was a pool of baseball talent that no one was tapping and figured if he took the best player from that pool, he would get results (Carroll, “Early,” 2006, p. 40).
After Robinson made his statement in baseball, he was not going to stop there with the positive movement of integration in the United States as was evidence by what he said in this letter to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., “I would be honored and grateful if you were to become a member of the National Advisory Committee to aid me in reaching the 1957 goal of one million dollars” (Robinson qtd. in Long, 2007, p. 25). This illustrated that Robinson, like other African Americans who came into the league around the same time, were not simply players; they were civil rights activists and cared about making the country better for others of their color. The influence of Robinson on the entire community helped to illustrate why it was so important for the color barrier to be broken in America’s game (Carroll, “From,” 2006, p. 86). The persistence, influence, and beliefs of Robinson altered many people’s careers that did not have anything to do with baseball, perhaps even Dr. King’s by inviting him to one of the most prominent civil rights groups of the time (Spivey, 1983, p. 117).
With the color barrier now officially broken, other teams around the league started to realize that they needed to integrate their teams as well and did so over the next decade. The last team to sign a black player was the Boston Red Sox, which was not surprising due to the well-known level of racism in the city. But it eventually became known that they were actually the first team to consider signing Robinson, especially when, “he slashed long line drives off of Fenway’s looming left field wall, clanking the numbered tin plates on the score board” (Simon, 2002, p. 49). Eventually, the front office members convinced their notoriously racist owner that in order to continue competing at the highest level, they would have to start diving into the pool of black talent just like everyone else.
Bill Jordan is a contributing writer to BaseballReflections.com and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PS – The bibiliography will appear after the last (4th) part of this paper.