Baseball, Black History, and Bottom-Up Integration
By Carl Oberg
In early 1964, in the immediate aftermath of Jackie Robinson’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame and John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Robinson put together a rather triumphalist book with dozens of friends and colleagues from across the world of baseball entitled Baseball Has Done It. In a series of interviews, Robinson occasionally interjects his thoughts on the years before, during and immediately after his entry into Major League Baseball in 1947. The interviews are with management, coaches, and players, including those who were for breaking the “color barrier,” those willing to let it happen, and even a few who were against it at the time. For those interested in history as it happened, discussed by the people who made it, it is a singular and valuable document.
That makes the publication history of this book surprising. The 1964 edition published by J. B. Lippincott appears to be the only version of this book available until Ig Publishing put together a paperback edition in 2005 with a short introduction by Spike Lee. Copies of the original appear to be rare online, which is a shame as the 2005 edition (the version I have) is filled with printer errors and formatting problems. Why would this book, which represents the first draft of an important moment in baseball and social history, get such shoddy treatment and so few copies?
The answer to that question, I believe, has something to do with both the content and the timing of the book itself. The very title of the book has a finality to it. As it was published shortly before the final passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, this makes sense. But of course, the assassination of JFK hangs over the general optimism of the book, and is not mentioned anywhere in the text. By the time of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the book may have seemed antiquated, or at least naïve.
Language is also an issue of note throughout the book that could possibly turn off readers in later years. Robinson and all his interviewees use the word Negro, and occasionally colored people, to refer to themselves and African-Americans generally. Almost all of the people in this book played in the Negro Leagues and grew up in the Jim Crow South, so this makes complete historical sense. But the book, again, had the unfortunate timing to be published at the very end of the acceptability of that language. By the end of the 1960s, Black was the more common term, and Negro had been labeled as insulting and demeaning.
Besides word choice, the language of how Robinson and others express the defeat of racial prejudice in baseball changes significantly during the 1960s. For example, in Robinson’s introductory chapter he writes about his experience being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame:
I was welcomed to beautiful Cooperstown, New York, where high officials of baseball did everything in their power to make that day the happiest of my life. No one mentioned that I was the first Negro in the Hall of Fame, or that another bastion of prejudice had fallen. (24-25)
That language of color-blindness and a world that had purged prejudice so completely that it did not even need to be recognized is not something that survived the 1960s. Robinson expresses here as a positive experience something that many today would see as a serious omission.
Despite these issues, this book is valuable in showing the thoughts and strategy behind breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Branch Rickey, Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ team that brought Jackie Robinson in during the 1947 season, spoke about the lesser known second black player in baseball:
I was alone in the majors in 1947 as the sponsor of a Negro player until Bill Veeck [owner of the Indians] signed [Larry] Doby that July. I do not know Veeck’s opinion about Negroes at that time, as I never had any conversation with him on the subject. But I can give you my opinion on Veeck’s position: he would be the first one in baseball to embrace any innovation, and therefore I would accept him as the one to hire a Negro quicker than anyone I can think of, not because of race, not because he was grappling with a social problem. That would be completely foreign to him. He would not let any tradition interfere with his policy of winning a pennant for his Indians.
After he signed Doby I did advise him to follow the same procedure that I had devised [with Robinson]. “Don’t allow incidents to happen,” I told him. “Control the boy!” (68-69)
While Branch Rickey and few others were forthright about their desire to integrate baseball, Rickey claims he had no desire throughout the process to convince anyone of the moral correctness of it. Instead, he was convinced that Negro League talent would speak for itself and force every team to integrate in order to compete. Time and competition would do the work of integration.
Ford Frick was National League President from 1934 to 1951 and then MLB Commissioner from 1951 to 1965. He provided a chapter in Robinson’s book:
It’s not baseball’s function to crusade or to point the finger at state laws. Our theory is that Negroes want to play in baseball and we want the very best players available anywhere. Baseball will go anywhere where we’re wanted. If we can’t take our Negro players into certain cities, our policy is to stay away … If this policy has been effective in desegregating these towns … it’s because they want baseball. (113)
Baseball Has Done It provides a powerful record of a particular moment in time. It is a moment when a largely private institution, such as baseball, could integrate not through top-down fiat or law but through wise and forward-looking business decisions. The success of those decisions created a short-lived optimism about the prospects for long-term racial harmony in America. Unfortunately, history, politics, assassination, and resistance interfered with this model and Jackie Robinson’s optimistic title looks naïve in retrospect.