Major League Baseball was desegregated 75 years ago, but it’s still plagued by racism
April 15, 2022 marked the 75th anniversary of the desegregation of Major League Baseball with the entry of Jackie Robinson, wearing the uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Since April 1947, Robinson has achieved legendary status for his courage, discipline, and performance on the field, not to mention his post-career efforts to promote civil rights in baseball and American society as a whole.
The problem is that, as frequently happens in American society, turning a person into a legend often obscures the larger story. It happens so regularly that it must be concluded that it is intentional. Because the goal, in making an individual a legend, is to dissociate his experience and his work from the notion of social movements and collective action. It may also be a means of obscuring the institutional barriers to justice that these great figures have challenged. In the case of Jackie Robinson, the narrative became all about two people, and sometimes three: Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey (founder of the minor league system and owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers), and sometimes an acknowledgment of the role of Jackie’s wife, Rachel Robinson. The story revolves around the outburst of Rickey making the decision to break the color line.
What is missing is the long struggle for justice that has taken place in Major League Baseball. There was both a fight for workers’ rights and a fight for racial justice. These struggles centered on the person named Jackie Robinson, but their scope and scale were far greater.
Major League Baseball chose racial segregation in the late 19th century. This was against the backdrop of the growth of Jim Crow segregation. At various times when there was a possibility of desegregation, these efforts were stopped at the top. Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was a leading proponent of racial segregation in baseball and did everything he could to thwart justice efforts during his tenure as Baseball Commissioner, from 1921 until his death in 1944. He and the owners were also adamant opponents. workers’ rights for players.
The creation of the Negro National League in 1920 in response to racial segregation almost immediately raised the question of the relationship between white Major League Baseball and the Negro Leagues. During the off-season, players from both sets of leagues faced off in “unofficial” games. The black leagues continued to demonstrate their excellence in every encounter with the white major leagues. Yet Major League Baseball remained isolated.
Within the black leagues, discussions have taken place, aimed at developing a strategy for the ultimate merger of the black leagues and the white major leagues. Various proposals were considered, including the integration of black leagues into the minor league baseball operation. But the thought was in the direction of a merger, a point that has great importance in what really happened in 1947 and thereafter.
The push for the desegregation of Major League Baseball also took shape as part of the growing anti-racist element of the movements of the 1930s and early 1940s. The Communist Party, for example, as part of its broader campaigns against racism and discrimination, highlighted the unacceptable reality of Jim Crow in Major League Baseball and joined a broad front demanding change. The pressure was on, and with Commissioner Landis dead, there were myriad possibilities as to how events might unfold.
It turned out that Branch Rickey had his own ideas about the future of racing and Major League Baseball. Rather than consider the possibility of a merger of the black leagues and the major leagues, he instead decided to identify an exceptional player from the black leagues and take a chance. To be clear, this takes nothing away from Jackie Robinson. But what was set in motion was the slow but steady draining of the black leagues of their best players until the black leagues were no longer viable as a business operation.
Desegregation was accomplished, but in a form that ignored the institutional reality of the black leagues. As a result, power dynamics remained entirely in the hands of wealthy white owners, while former Negro League players demonstrated their exceptional abilities and performance for all to see.
So when we celebrated April 15, we didn’t just celebrate the victory of a great player. We recognize April 15, 1947 as a important day in a larger and ongoing fight for justice in baseball.
This celebration has more than symbolic importance. Not just racial justice do not reigned supreme in Major League Baseball, but we’ve seen racial injustice mutate over time. The fight for justice in Major League Baseball was a decades-long effort that broke down the Jim Crow wall in 1947. African-American and Latino players began the process of transforming the baseball industry. Over time, the “barons” of Major League Baseball, having emptied the Negro Leagues of their best players and secured post-Negro League African-American players, lost interest in African-Americans (as well as Chicano and Puerto Rican players), refocusing on the goal of acquiring a cheaper and more vulnerable pool of players.
Searching globally, Major League Baseball has developed a particular interest in Latin American players – many of whom are of African descent – as a workforce to cultivate. So while Major League Baseball has disintegrated, it is far from inclusive. The problem isn’t just what Jackie Robinson insisted on at the end of his life — the lack of black managers — but it’s that entire demographics are being written off, as players and fans.
A few points here: African-American interest and involvement in Major League Baseball has slowly waned in the post-desegregation period and appears to have been driven by several factors, including the elimination of open fields in cities for the baseball (linked to gentrification) and the rising cost of entry to baseball in pre-professional leagues. Added to this is increased interest and opportunities to advance in basketball and football.
But it’s the disinterest Major League Baseball has shown in black America that strikes upon entering almost every baseball stadium in the United States Rather than thinking that African Americans were at the heart of the growth of baseball, what stands out most is that they are treated as irrelevant.
The answer to that will not be found in the actions and display of one or two exceptional colored players. Although Major League Baseball has since canonized some Negro League players, that doesn’t erase their historical treatment. But that also doesn’t erase today’s consideration, namely, can Major League Baseball, as an institution and a sport, once again become relevant to Black America? Indeed, can it become “America’s pastime” in the real sense of being relevant and inclusive to communities of color, such as African Americans, Puerto Ricans and Chicanos, in whose cultures the baseball flourished?
Instead, the time has come to undertake a transformation of Major League Baseball, a transformation that must be supported by various efforts, such as agreements with the Players Alliance (an organization of black baseball players) to commit to developing baseball in black communities, but we must also go much further. This includes rethinking team ownership structures; a deep and sincere commitment to the re-culture of African American, Chicano and Puerto Rican players and fans; and raising the living conditions and standards of minor league players, especially immigrant minor leaguers who are particularly vulnerable. None of this will happen out of the good graces of the baseball barons, but will be the result of a struggle – a struggle that must be undertaken by players and fans alike.
It’s the way to celebrate the life and legacy of Jackie Robinson.
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