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.
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.