Jackie Robinson: Nothing Inevitable About Him

One of the few infuriating aspects of Jackie Robinson Day is the blowback from the uninformed. I have read today of how integration in this country was inevitable, and Robinson’s success in 1947 was just a happy coincidence. I have read that the talent of the Negro Leagues was just too great and had Robinson failed, had he hit .197 instead of .297, it was still inevitable that those great athletes would have forced their way into the mainstream of American sports.

Utter nonsense.

Was it inevitable when Frank Grant led the International League in homers in 1887? Was it inevitable when John McGraw put the great second baseman Charlie Grant on his 1901 Baltimore Orioles squad under the pretense that he was a Native American named Tokohama? Was it inevitable when the Oakland Oaks of the PCL signed pitcher Jimmy Claxton in 1916 only to drop him days later? Was it inevitable when Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson both played in Pittsburgh in the early ’30s and the Pirates desperately needed a starting pitcher and a catcher? Was it inevitable when John Henry Lloyd and Cool Papa Bell and Judy Johnson and Jose Mendez and nearly three dozen more future Hall of Famers spent their entire lives playing for peanuts in separate and unequal conditions?

Baseball had fought integration ever since the 1884 major league team in Toledo signed Fleet and Welday Walker. It had slowly closed the door on African-American players in the minors, through boycotts and threats, and by 1900 they were all gone. And the spasmodic attempts to sneak in a Grant or a Claxton as a Native American had been met with crushing responses and threats of retribution. Even when Robinson seemed safely over the threshold, other teams integrated haltingly and – as in St. Louis with the Browns – sometimes disastrously. Many of the others hung back. The New York Yankees saw nothing “inevitable” about integration: they did not add a black player until Elston Howard in 1955.

While the Boston Braves were signing Hank Aaron and Billy Bruton and Wes Covington and then moving to Milwaukee to win pennants with them, the Boston Red Sox chose not to sign Robinson in 1945, and not to add any African-American player until 1959. The Sox, intentionally or otherwise, kept to a limit of no more than five African-American players on their roster well into the ’70s. It was maintained with extraordinary efficiency. On June 14, 1966, the Sox made a trade that added the former Negro Leagues pitcher John Wyatt to their bullpen. On June 15, 1966, they gave away pitcher Earl Wilson to the Detroit Tigers and their quota was back down to five.

And there was nothing inevitable about black athletes getting another chance in the major leagues had Jackie Robinson failed. He didn’t win the civil rights war by himself (indeed, it has hardly been won), but his role was pivotal and unique. Leaders from each decade and every perspective have said that Robinson provided the cultural groundwork that made integration not necessarily possible, but practical. Unlike Jack Johnson or the less threatening Joe Louis, he had succeeded in a previously all-white team sport. He had white teammates and white friends.

It is little credited today, but Jackie Robinson’s real contribution was not to convert the haters and the proactive racists towards an enlightened view of this country. In fact, what he did would’ve been impossible before the vastly increased interaction between whites and blacks in the military during World War II, and it might’ve been impossible if he had then failed on the ballfield or in his relationship with his white teammates: He erased benign prejudice.

My late father, nearly as liberal a man as I’ve ever known, used to look back at attending games of the New York Black Yankees as a teenager, with a sense of astonishment and shame. “It never occurred to us, never occurred to us, that the black players didn’t want to play only with other black players. We had no idea this was segregation. We thought it was choice.”

And for every open-minded individual like him whose consciousness was raised by Jackie Robinson, there was another who had no animus towards blacks but was convinced that there was either no way they had the athletic chops to succeed at the major league level, or no way they had the psychological stability to withstand the pressure of the game or of the process of integration.

Some large, but ultimately never-to-be-measured, group of Americans went from believing in 1946 that blacks had chosen their own world, or couldn’t physically or psychologically function next to whites, to realizing that these convictions were the most insidious forms of racism. These were the white men and women who supported Brown v. Board of Education, and the marches in the South, and the integration in Little Rock, and Martin Luther King, and the repeal of the laws forbidding blacks to marry whites that stayed on the books of some states as late as the mid-’60s. These were the men and women who began to attend pro football and basketball games in the large numbers they needed to succeed as stable national enterprises only after these leagues began to fully integrate – and, yes, the NBA didn’t integrate until Robinson had completed his fourth season with the Dodgers.

It is imperative to remember that none of the progress – in baseball or in America – that followed in Jackie Robinson’s wake was inevitable. There were millions of hateful Americans who would have exploited a Robinson failure to roll back the limited gains of the war years. There were millions more who would’ve thought that Robinson’s season, or half-season, or six weeks in the spotlight, had been a noble experiment, but that he and his race just weren’t up to it. And when their support was needed to beat back the Orval Faubuses and Bull Connors and Strom Thurmonds, they would not have been there. Even today there are those who would push us back towards our awful past. Who would have stood against their predecessors – who sought a virtual apartheid in this country – had Robinson failed in 1947?

Inevitable! In 1948, when Thurmond ran on an openly segregationist, racist platform as a third-party candidate for president, he received 1,175,930 votes. In 1968 – after Jackie Robinson and after Malcolm X and after the rise and death of Martin Luther King – George Wallace ran on virtually the same platform and still got 9,901,118 votes.

There was nothing inevitable about the healing of this nation at the center of which was Jack Roosevelt Robinson.


  1. Pingback: Keith is enjoying baseball « Countdown with Keith Olbermann – Unofficial Fanblog
  2. LB (@ReasonVsFear)

    My opinion is that nothing is inevitable. Change requires a push, and even then, a good hard push is usually not enough. We are creatures of habit, and far too many of us fear change, because change brings with it the unknown, the new and different, and the “other”. Fear is a powerful motivator, and it is also a powerful bulwark against change. It requires courageous souls who are willing to stand up to powerful forces to effect any kind of real and substantive forward progress. Jackie Robinson was one of those courageous souls. He remained strong against pressures that would make most of us crumble. Thank you for honoring him, and for being one of the courageous few.

  3. LB (@ReasonVsFear)

    Finished reading. Absolutely brilliant. Something you said reminded me of high school, in the seventies. I was in Foreign Exchange, and although I never traveled abroad, I met many students from other countries. One year, there were two White students from South Africa who joined us at a regional meeting. They had just arrived, and when we discussed apartheid, they were absolutely stunned at the thought that it should end. One of them went so far as to say “But the Blacks don’t want to be equal. They don’t want the same things we do – they’re happy just as they are.” It shocked them that anyone might believe otherwise. It is amazing what kind of cognitive dissonance can exist in a person’s mind, if they are not willing to openly and honestly examine what they believe. And like you said “indeed, it has hardly been won” – we still have a long way to go. I miss your “voice” on Countdown, but I’m grateful that it’s still here, and on Twitter. Thank you.

  4. ShoeBeDoBeDo

    Powerful piece, Keith. I’ve never believed for a moment that the first black President was inevitable, either. For the past four years, our President has been treated deplorably and with a level of disrespect that no one in the Executive Office should have to tolerate. He has carried out his duties with dignity and grace in the face of it. No, I believe there were plenty of voters out there in 2008 who simply couldn’t stomach the thought of a woman in the White House sitting in the big chair in the Oval Office.

  5. sojourner28

    As always, you pound nails into the coffin of hatred and hubris of those who will choose, in their willful ignorance, to deny the truth. While your words will no doubt fall upon deaf ears to the many who continue to hide in their prejudice, I am graced to have your words that enliven the truth in sports and other topics. Thank you for not being silent.

  6. Michael Green

    Cody, Robinson’s reaction was, “Why is someone so old pitching against me?”

    Keith, great piece. Worth noting: Judge Landis, the longtime commissioner, was definitely a racist. Happy Chandler, who did some incredibly silly things as commissioner (the Durocher suspension in particular), backed Branch Rickey after other owners had voted 15-1 against integration.

  7. Clarke Barry

    Your father was much like my Grandfather of whom we have spoken, Keith. Grampy put a curse on the Braves for leaving Boston (maybe not as good a curse as he might have intended) primarily because as a huge baseball fan he was disgusted he would have only the Red Sox left and the “YawkeySox” were in his opinion hopelessly racist.

    But this day, Jackie Robinson Day, makes me think not only of him, but also of when I lived for awhile while teaching at a Major University near the small Southwest Georgia town of Cairo; Mr. Robinsons’ birthplace. The town has little to crow about except for a guitarist in Jefferson Airplane/Starship and the Roddenberry family {Pickles and Gene Roddenberry as a member} but they are very proud of Jackie Robinson. This even though you are more likely to find Judge Crater there than a Liberal.

    Cheers! 🙂

  8. Renee Arnett (@ReneeArnett)

    Words matter ,truth matters .You Sir ,have a gift with both.
    Only those who deny that racism still breathes it’s foetid breath upon America will argue that anything about thi was inevitable.
    Once a thinking person considers the context of the times ,and congruence of events that were necessary for Jackie Robinson to enter the “bigs” , and for other to
    blacks to follow and remain, a viable, thriving ,accepted aspect of sport and the social fabric of America , they will wonder that it ever happened at all .
    One can argue that timing was everything, but, it took you looking backward and articulating as much ,for me to see it .
    In truth, I had barely considered what had to occur for Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier.Like so many others, I just accepted the result as part of a world I was lucky to be born into .
    For the new perspective you have given me I am grateful .

  9. Sam

    The rich always exploit the poor and middle class in this country and grow richer off the talent of others. This is even more the case with wealthy whites exploiting blacks and making money off their work. So the “feelbad” side to Jackie Robinson’s story is that it might not have happened if Branch Rickey and the Dodgers hadn’t seen the opportunity to boost attendance and make more money. Whites have also liked to pat themselves on the back for doing the right thing at last when they should have been doing it all along, so it wasn’t just about the money with Rickey, it was about right and wrong– but as usual a white man was setting the rules. And it really wasn’t until free agency that baseball players– of all races– were paid what they were worth. So it’s the usual story– America is all about money and winning. If the Dodgers hadn’t started winning with Robinson on the team things would have turned out differently. But even as they were going to the World Series year after year (or almost going in 1951) and finally beating the Yankees in 1955, attendance and demographics in Brooklyn were changing. In post-War America, wealthier white Brooklynites were moving out. And finally the Dodgers moved too. It would be inaccurate to call it “white flight” but the success of Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers in Brooklyn 1947-1957 should have solidified their presence with their adoring fans. And I tie this in with free agency– after the most talented players (often black and/or Latino) were getting paid what they were really worth, white American sports fans started complaining about high salaries and turning to sports (or “sports”) like NASCAR, a case of “white flight” from black/Latino-dominated sports. And today Jackie Robinson has made it possible for young black kids across the country to ignore baseball (the schools may have cut the baseball programs anyway because the rich won’t pay their taxes) and play football or basketball. So it’s sad that after all those gains there aren’t as many blacks in the majors now as there were a few decades ago. Now the rich white owners (Magic not included) are turning to poor Latin American countries to exploit them for their talent.

  10. Rich Procter

    Typically brilliant post by KO. The historical context is invaluable. The “inevitable” crowd is the same group (like Haley Barbour) who are eager to build Civil Rights Museums in their Southern states so that that “history” can be relegated to the past now that we’ve achieved full equality, everything is swingin’ and the Trayvon Martin murder case has nothing to do with race. (Oh, and the Tea Partiers are racists, they just oppose Obama because of his progressive policies).

    KO, you are a treasure. Here’s hoping you are back on the air in primetime SOON. There’s simply no other broadcaster who combines your historical scholarship, your razor-sharp writing skills, your don’t-flinch, go-straight-at-the-bastards commentaries…and your love for Thurber and Bob & Ray, of course. KO off the air and feckless poltroons like Sean Hannity putter on? Jesus weeps

  11. SL Cabbie

    I have seen exactly one “major league” game in my life (no worries; television suits me fine, and I can even name the starting line-up of the ’61 Yankees from memory. CBS carried Dizzy Dean and PeeWee Reese doing the Yankee games when they owned the franchise).
    This one was around ’65, and the San Francisco Giants and the Cleveland Indians, the parent club of our AAA “Bees,” played an exhibition game here. I’ve shared about being at that game on a couple of sites, and it’s been nice hearing others were there as well. Willy Mays and Orlando Cepeda hit home runs for the Giants, and Marichal pitched. Rocky Colavito was back with the Indians and hit one as well. That’s what 12-year olds wanted, of course.
    One of the older “cyber-reporters” told me one I didn’t know, which was that the Afro-Americans on the Giants team were not permitted to stay at the old Hotel Utah, then the nicest one in the valley (Ronald Reagan was the last president to stay there; it’s now an LDS “memorial” building to church founder Joseph Smith).
    There was a scandal, and the whole team opted for the Newhouse Hotel instead. This was 1965 for crying out loud!

      • SL Cabbie

        Thank you CB. As can be seen, however, I’m in need of a good editor; I hit the “send” button on this one just as I looked at Mays’ first name, and I shuddered. I shall apply some cattle prods to some Internet trolls somewhere as penance. BTW, I figured out the secret decoder function over on FOK…

  12. RobertaK (@justme2)

    I found myself flashing back to Al Campanis and his “black players lack the necessities” for management — he later explained that he meant they didn’t have the experience, but how were they going to get experience unless someone gave them a shot? Great piece, as always. (Just a request, when you do your NL West preview, can you ignore Tim Lincecum’s woes?)

  13. Patricia Ellyn Powell

    I just learned while watching Yankees and Twins that Robinson Cano was named after Jackie Robinson and his number is Mr. Robinson’s inverted. Cool. He is right up there with Dr. MLK Jr. Thanks.

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