April 15, 2022, marked the 75th anniversary of the desegregation of Major League Baseball through the entrance of Jackie Robinson, wearing the uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Since that April of 1947, Robinson achieved legendary status for his courage, discipline and on-field performance, not to mention his efforts after the end of his career to promote civil rights in baseball and U.S. society as a whole.
The problem is that, as frequently occurs in U.S. society, turning a person into a legend often obscures the larger story. This happens so consistently that one must conclude that this is intentional. Because the aim, in turning an individual into a legend, is to divorce their experience and work from the notion of social movements and collective action. It can also be a means to obscure the institutional obstacles to justice that such great people challenged. In the case of Jackie Robinson, the story became all about two people, and sometimes three: Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey (founder of the Minor League system and an owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers), and sometimes an acknowledgement of the role of Jackie’s wife, Rachel Robinson. The story becomes all about the brilliance of Rickey making the decision to break the color line.
What is missed is the lengthy struggle for justice that took place in Major League Baseball. There was both a struggle for workers’ rights and there was a struggle for racial justice. These struggles became focused on the person named Jackie Robinson, but they were much larger in scope and scale.
Major League Baseball chose to racially segregate in the late 19th century. This was in the context of the growth of Jim Crow segregation. At various moments when there was a possibility of desegregation, such efforts were shut down at the top. Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was one of the major proponents of racial segregation of baseball and did everything that he could to frustrate efforts at justice during his tenure as baseball commissioner, from 1921 until his death in 1944. He and the owners were also adamant opponents of 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 off-season, players from both sets of leagues would play against one another in “unofficial” games. The Negro Leagues continued to demonstrate their excellence in every encounter with the white Major Leagues. Yet Major League Baseball remained segregated.
Within the Negro Leagues, discussions unfolded, aimed at developing a strategy for the ultimate merger of the Negro Leagues and the white Major Leagues. There were various proposals considered, including the Negro Leagues becoming part of the Minor League operation of baseball. But the thinking was along the lines of a merger, a point that has great significance in what actually unfolded in 1947 and thereafter.
Pressure for desegregation of Major League Baseball also took form as part of the growing anti-racist element of the movements of the 1930s and early 1940s. The Communist Party, for instance, as part of its larger 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 the death of Commissioner Landis, there were myriad possibilities as to how events could unfold.
As it turned out, Branch Rickey had his own ideas regarding the future of race and Major League Baseball. Rather than entertain the possibility of a merger of the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues, he instead decided to identify an outstanding player from the Negro Leagues and make a “go” of it. To be clear, this takes nothing away from Jackie Robinson. But what was put in place was the slow but steady draining of the Negro Leagues of their best players until the Negro Leagues were unsustainable as a business operation.
Desegregation was accomplished, but in a form that ignored the institutional reality of the Negro Leagues. As a result, the power dynamic remained entirely in the hands of the rich, white owners, while the former Negro League players demonstrated, for all to see, their exceptional capabilities and performances.
Thus, when we have celebrated April 15, we have been celebrating not just the victory of one great player. We are acknowledging April 15, 1947, as one important day in a larger and ongoing struggle for justice in baseball.
This celebration is of more than symbolic importance. Not only has racial justice not reigned supreme in Major League Baseball, but we have seen racial injustice mutate over time. The struggle for justice within Major League Baseball has been a multi-decade effort that broke the Jim Crow wall in 1947. African American and Latino players began the process of the transformation of the baseball industry. Over time, the “barons” of Major League Baseball, having drained the Negro Leagues of their best players and having 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 player pool.
Searching globally, Major League Baseball has developed a particular interest in Latin American players — many of whom are of African descent — as the workforce to cultivate. Thus, while Major League Baseball has desegregated, it is far from inclusive. The problem is not just what Jackie Robinson insisted upon at the end of his life — the lack of Black managers — but it is that entire demographic groups are being written off, as both players and fans.
A couple of points here: African American interest and involvement in Major League Baseball declined slowly in the post-desegregation period and seems to have been driven by several factors, including the elimination of open land in cities for baseball (linked to gentrification) and the rising cost of entering baseball in pre-professional leagues. Added to this has been increased interest in and opportunity to advance in basketball and football.
But it is the lack of interest that Major League Baseball has shown in Black America that strikes one in entering nearly any baseball stadium around the U.S. Rather than any sense that African Americans were central to the growth of baseball, what comes across more strongly is that they are treated as irrelevant.
The response to this will not be found in the actions and display of one or two exceptional players of color. Even though Major League Baseball has since canonized some Negro League players, it does not erase their historical treatment. But it also does not erase consideration of today, i.e., can Major League Baseball, as an institution and sport become relevant to Black America once more? 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 baseball flourished?
Instead, the time has come to undertake a transformation of Major League Baseball, a transformation that must build upon various efforts, such as agreements with the Players Alliance (an organization of Black baseball players) to commit to expanding baseball in Black communities, but it also must go much further. This includes rethinking team ownership structures; a deep and sincere commitment to the re-cultivation of African American, Chicano and Puerto Rican players and fans; and the elevation of the conditions and living standards of Minor League players, particularly immigrant Minor Leaguers who are especially vulnerable. None of this will happen because of the good graces of the barons of baseball, but will be the result of struggle — a struggle that must be undertaken by both the players and fans.
This is the way to celebrate the life and legacy of Jackie Robinson.
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