Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line 66 years ago this month when he played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His story gets a fresh look in 42, which opened om April 12. On Monday, every player in the major leagues wore the same 42, Robinson’s uniform number, as part of an annual day in his honor.
University of Illinois historian Adrian Burgos Jr. is a member of MLB’s Baseball Origins Committee and the author of “Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line” and “Cuban Star: How One Negro League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball.” He spoke with U of I News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
So what makes Robinson so important?
The major leagues and their affiliated minor leagues were racially segregated for more than half a century, from 1889 until Jackie Robinson broke the color line, first in the minor leagues in 1946 and then in the majors with his 1947 Dodgers debut. In pioneering the integration of baseball, Robinson became the target of its institutionalized racism and of white individuals who supported – and had benefited from – its segregated culture. Robinson was the first unambiguously black man to perform in organized baseball since black players had been exiled, though there were quite a few Latinos like Cuban Roberto Estalella who were racially ambiguous and yet were permitted to perform in the majors while the color line system operated.
In taking on this challenge, Robinson agreed to Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey’s requirement that he not fight back in response to racist taunting from opponents and fans, to literally being targeted by some opposing white pitchers – Robinson led the league in being hit-by-pitch in 1947 – or to the hostile treatment from members of the press, many of whom were discomforted by what they referred to as the Dodgers’ “forced” integration of the national pastime.
By season’s end Robinson had become a hero to millions of Americans from all racial and ethnic backgrounds due to how he responded to this intense public trial by fire – though another black player, Larry Doby, also debuted in the middle of that season with the Cleveland Indians in the American League. Robinson had led the Dodgers to the National League pennant and a World Series appearance in his rookie campaign. For so many Americans, Robinson’s success was the fulfillment of the American promise: that anyone given the opportunity in U.S. society could succeed. It is quite a simplistic view, however, as it does not fully consider how integration was accomplished.
So how was it accomplished? What was Rickey’s motivation and what was the story behind the scenes?
Baseball integration is often presented as a morality tale. The version that highlights the role of Rickey is very top-down and a redemption story about white leadership redressing the wrongs of racial segregation. He is presented as a righteous moral leader who finally tired of the harm that baseball’s color line inflicted upon black souls and who makes the courageous decision to break with the expressed will of the other 15 major league executives.
Rickey carved part of this narrative himself in sharing the story of Charles Thomas, the sole black player on an Ohio Wesleyan team Rickey had managed. Rickey said he was haunted by the lingering image of Thomas crying and rubbing at his black skin after he was denied a room at a South Bend, Ind., hotel.
Rickey was very much personally invested in securing black talent, but he also did not want to pay for the talent he was taking from the Negro Leagues. Thus he insisted that Jackie Robinson was a free agent and refused to compensate the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro League team Robinson had played for in 1945. Rickey went on the offensive in the press conference announcing Robinson’s signing with the Dodgers, implying that the Negro Leagues were a racket operated by criminals and not proper business executives.
Moreover, as other historians have uncovered, Rickey initially aspired to debut integration with three black players – Robinson, Roy Campanella and Sam Jethroe – but had to forego that plan partly because the Negro League owners for Campanella and Jethroe insisted on being compensated. Imagine how baseball’s integration story would have changed if it were three black men working together to overturn baseball’s racial segregation versus the narrative that Rickey could only find one black man with all of the requisite on-field talent and off-the-field character to bear the burden of baseball’s sins.
The story of the breaking of baseball’s color line is often told only in black and white – African-Americans breaking into an all-white league. But how did Robinson affect Latinos and the role they have come to play in today’s game?
Robinson’s triumphant breakthrough opened the door of opportunity for all Latinos. Notice, I said “for all Latinos.” The central purpose of organized baseball’s color line was to exclude blacks, which it did very effectively from 1889 to 1946. Yet throughout this span major league officials did increasingly permit talented non-white players into the circuit, such as American Indian Charles Albert “Chief” Bender, a future Hall of Famer, and lighter-skinned Latinos such as Adolfo “Dolf” Luque. In fact more than 50 Latinos performed in the majors while its color line stood in place, though more than 230 played in the Negro Leagues during that same period.
The Negro Leagues were where fabulous talents such as Martin Dihigo, Cristobal Torriente and José Méndez were consigned to exhibit their baseball skills in the U.S. It was in the Negro Leagues where Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso began his U.S. professional career in 1945 with the New York Cubans, before eventually integrating the Chicago White Sox in 1951. In fact, Miñoso was the Latino Jackie Robinson, facing racial and ethnic hostilities as a black Latino who was an integration pioneer. Robinson’s success made it possible for black Latinos like Miñoso to sign with major league organizations, but it did not eliminate the unique cultural obstacles that Latino stars such as Miñoso, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente and Juan Marichal would encounter.
You got an advance look at the film “42.” What does it get right about the times and what Robinson was up against? And what should audiences know that was not part of the movie?
For a Hollywood movie, “42” is as compelling an integration story as the movie industry will offer the American public. It is definitely not the epic that a filmmaker like Spike Lee would have made: Lee likely would have insisted on covering the arc of both Robinson’s life story and of the toll of major league baseball integration on the Negro Leagues. Instead, “42” focuses on 1945 to 1947, just the start of integration, and what Robinson encountered on and off the playing field as the pioneering black man.
“42” makes no nod to Doby’s integration of the American League in July of that season or to the fact that Cleveland Indians executive Bill Veeck actually paid the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles to acquire Doby. On one level this is understandable, since the movie is “42: The True Story of an American Legend” and not “47: the year that changed baseball.”
To go beyond 1947 is to really delve deep into the complex historical figure that was Jackie Robinson. He was the nation’s most favored black man in the early 1950s, who allowed himself to be used by the House Un-American Affairs Committee of the McCarthy era to besmirch the black singer and activist Paul Robeson – something Robinson later regretted. A committed civil rights advocate, Robinson nonetheless remained a Rockefeller Republican who supported Nixon over Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election and stayed with the party even after most African-Americans had fled to the Democratic Party. And despite his historic role, his aspirations to manage in the majors were dashed by league execs who thought it too early for a black manager.
Indeed, Robinson initially refused to participate in a 25th anniversary celebration of baseball’s integration, during the 1972 World Series, because he was so upset with the lack of progress toward integration beyond the playing field. It was only after he secured Commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s promise that baseball would work toward hiring a black manager that Robinson agreed to appear. At the celebration on Oct. 10, 1972, a feeble Robinson, his body ravaged by diabetes, spoke publicly for the last time, stating that he looked forward to the day that he would see a black manager in a major league dugout. Ten days later, Robinson died, still awaiting that day.
For the complete interview, visit www.stlamerican.com.