By Ira Glasser
1943-more than a decade before the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation and Rosa Parks began the Montgomery bus boycott-Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, embarked on an effort to recruit black ballplayers for his team, and in 1947, Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field in a Dodgers uniform. Integration in sports led the way to a wider acceptance of the need for racial equality.
Jackie Robinson (1919-1972), first black player in major league baseball.
e were told as children that World War II was a war fought against racism, against the idea that a whole class of people could be separated, subjugated, and even murdered because of their race and religion. But back home in the United States, while the war was being fought and in the years immediately following, racial separation and subjugation were entrenched by law in the Deep South and by custom nearly everywhere else. Even within America's armed forces, ostensibly fighting for the principles of democracy, fairness, and equal opportunity, black Americans were segregated into separate units that weren't allowed to fight alongside whites but instead were often relegated to building roads and digging latrines. Though military nurses were badly needed, the number of black nurses was kept small, and they were permitted to treat only black patients.
This moral contradiction between what America said it stood for and the way it was actually organized was most clearly articulated at the time by the eminent sociologist Gunnar Myrdal in An American Dilemma, published in 1944. The thesis of his book was that a terrible tension existed in American society between our professed ideals of equality and fairness based on individual merit and the reality of harsh, suffocating exclusion and oppression based on skin color.
The evidence of that oppression was manifest, most clearly in the South. In those days, blacks and whites were kept apart by law and custom, in schools, buses, and theaters; at restaurants, hotels, and public toilets; at drinking fountains, swimming pools, parks, and baseball games; at the ballot box (where blacks were in various ways discouraged from voting and intimidated if they tried); in the jury box (where blacks were effectively excluded altogether); in the workplace (where blacks were pervasively denied fair opportunities); and in housing. Whereas such separation was enforced by law in the South, much the same separation was found in the North, effectively maintained by custom and tradition.
Moreover, such separation was not benign; "separate but equal" was a lie. Indeed, the purpose of separation was to maintain subjugation and inequality. Inferiority and exclusion was enforced by the police power of the state and by traditions so strong they nearly had the force of law. If you were black, individual merit was irrelevant, even dangerous. As the writer James Baldwin told us, black parents, even in the North, often feared for children who showed ambition or revealed hope. Joe Black, a star pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the early fifties, once said that when, as a boy, he expressed the hope of one day playing in the major leagues, he was admonished and told to give up his dream because it was not allowed. Oppression thus became internalized, the near-final solution of a racist society.
The dissonance between the American ideal of equal opportunity based on individual merit and the reality of oppressive inequality based on skin color threatened, after World War II, to split America asunder. But there were those, including
Myrdal, who saw hope in that dissonance, who believed that if we could somehow come to grips with it and make genuine efforts to conform reality to our ideals, it could be the source of our moral redemption.
The story of that redemptive struggle is by now well known: how in 1954 a unanimous Supreme Court declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional; how nineteen months later, Rosa Parks sat down in a seat reserved for whites on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and how a then little-known 27-year-old black Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr. stood up and aroused the conscience of a nation by organizing a bus boycott in her behalf. The modern civil rights movement was born and galvanized into action. Within a decade, it had succeeded in dismantling the legal infrastructure of Jim Crow segregation and secured the passage of federal laws prohibiting racial discrimination in employment, public accommodations, voting, and housing.
But before all that happened--more than two decades before the civil rights legislation of the sixties and more than ten years before the Supreme Court's 1954 decision--a quiet drama was beginning in a small office in Brooklyn, New York, a drama that one observer later would call "perhaps the most visible single desegregation action ever taken." According to one veteran of the civil rights movement, it "helped lay the predicate for the Supreme Court's decision."
he drama began in 1943--a year before Myrdal's book was to appear and five years before President Truman desegregated the armed forces--with a visit Branch Rickey paid to George V.
MacLaughlin. A flamboyant, cigar-smoking, Bible-quoting, 63-year-old midwesterner whose ordinary speech often resembled a sermon, Rickey was the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, one of the longest established major-league baseball teams. MacLaughlin was his banker, the president of the Brooklyn Trust Company, which essentially held a mortgage on the team. Rickey made an astonishing proposal to
MacLaughlin: he wanted to embark upon an effort to recruit black ballplayers for the Dodgers. This was astonishing, because there had been until that point an unwritten but absolutely unbreakable ban on black players, who had been relegated to segregated leagues called the Negro Leagues.
MacLaughlin supported the idea, although not without some anxiety. He told Rickey that for this bold plan to work, he would have to find a black player who was better than the other players. Rickey next raised it with the team's board of directors, who unanimously approved the plan and swore each other to secrecy, promising not even to tell
their families. That's how dangerous the idea of equal opportunity was in 1943! By 1945, Rickey had launched a widespread talent search for black players. He covered his true intentions by creating a new and bogus Negro League, called the United States League. Even the scouts he hired to look for the players thought they were recruiting for the new Negro League, as did the players recruited.
Jackie Robinson as quarterback at UCLA; he was the college's first student-athlete to earn vasity letters in four different sports.
Rickey's motivations have been the subject of much debate. There were those who said he was merely trying to corner the market on the last unmined source of baseball talent. Even if true, such an explanation is insufficient: every baseball executive would have had the same self-interest, but none did what Rickey did. Moreover, most of the other team owners were unhappy with his actions when they found out what he was up to, and nearly all of them resisted him. One said that the fans would burn down the park if the Dodgers came in with a black player, and there was widespread fear that black players would attract black crowds that would drive whites away and reduce the value of their teams.
Rickey himself followed a strategy of denying that he was trying to integrate baseball, much less make an impact on the broader society. He believed that making integration the issue would reduce the chances of success, so he continually claimed that "my selfish objective is to win baseball games." But Rickey was a cunning strategist as well as a preachy moralist--part
P.T. Barnum and part Billy Sunday, as one contemporary described him--and a full review of his life and actions reveals that there almost certainly was a strong moral component to what he did. Given how much opposition he engendered and how against the grain his decision was, it is difficult to conclude otherwise. In any event, regardless of his motives, what Rickey did had an enormous moral impact and not only on baseball.
An Educated Innovator
ickey was born in 1880, grew up on a farm in Ohio, and was raised in a pious Methodist home. As a young man, he played baseball for two undistinguished seasons in the major leagues, but he also went to law school, paying his way by coaching a college baseball team. For a baseball man at that time, he was unusually educated. He finished college in three years and graduated near the top of his law school class at the University of Michigan. Then he gravitated back to baseball in a managerial capacity, ending up as the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, where he remained for twenty-five years, until taking over the Dodgers in 1942.
Throughout his baseball life, Rickey had a reputation for intelligent design. He devised new and effective ways to instruct players and sharpen their skills; invented training devices, like base-sliding pits and batting tees, that are commonplace today but were unheard of then; and pioneered the use of complex statistical measures to evaluate performance. He created what came to be known as the farm system, a network of minor-league teams under the control of the major-league team, where young players could be placed, taught, developed, and evaluated, eventually providing a "harvest" of fresh talent for the parent club. This system led to the dominance of the Cardinals, and later the Dodgers, and by the 1950s every team had a farm system. Whatever else he was, Rickey was baseball's first scientist.
He was also an extraordinary character. Rickey ostentatiously refused to attend games on the Sabbath, although he would listen to them on the radio and eagerly reap the receipts from Sunday games. He was an ardent supporter of Prohibition, who nonetheless was surrounded by and close friends with hard-drinking men throughout his baseball life. His pecuniary instincts were legendary: in Brooklyn, he would charge twice for the Memorial Day doubleheader and, in the days before players could market their services freely to other teams, he was notoriously tightfisted with players' salaries. Once, while at Pittsburgh toward the end of his career, he refused to give a raise to the league's leading home-run hitter, saying, "We finished last with you, and we can finish last without you." One New York sportswriter dubbed him "El Cheapo." Yet as the historian Jules Tygiel has pointed out in Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, Rickey "inspired a fierce loyalty and a respect bordering on worship from his associates and players."
Tygiel also repeats a famous, and perhaps formative, experience Rickey had in 1904, while coaching baseball at Ohio Wesleyan:
"Among his athletes was Charlie Thomas, a black first baseman, whose
hitting, according to school archives, "was feared all over the state."
"From that first day at Ohio Wesleyan," Thomas later recalled, "Branch
Rickey took a special interest in my welfare." In the spring of 1904 the
Wesleyan squad traveled to South Bend, Indiana, to play Notre Dame. The
hotel at which the team had reservations refused to allow Thomas to
lodge there. Rickey convinced the management to place a cot in his room
for Thomas to sleep on, as they would do for a black servant. That
night Thomas wept and rubbed his hands as if trying to rub off the color.
"Black skin! Black skin!" he said to Rickey. "If I could only make them
Rickey often told that story and said that it had haunted him for many years. He claimed to have "vowed that I would always do whatever I could to see that other Americans did not have to face the bitter humiliation that was heaped upon Charles Thomas."
he other star in the drama was Jackie Robinson, the player Rickey finally chose to break the color barrier. For those of us, young and old, who watched the drama unfold, Robinson was the major star, although he described himself as "only a principal actor" in Rickey's play. Rachel Robinson, his widow, probably got it right when she described them as "collaborators."
He was born in Georgia in 1919, the youngest of five children. His father, a poor sharecropper in a deeply racist state where lynchings were not uncommon, abandoned the family when Jackie was an infant. His mother,
Mallie, moved the family to Pasadena, California, where she thought they might have a better chance, when Jackie was barely more than a year old. She worked as a domestic, and there were days when meals were missed. Although it wasn't the Deep South, Pasadena reflected the general racism of the time, compounding the pressures of poverty. When Mallie was able to buy a house in an otherwise white neighborhood, efforts were made to drive the family out.
Jackie's older brother Mack was an outstanding athlete, winning a silver medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by finishing second to the legendary Jesse Owens in the 200-meter sprint. Despite his fame and his college education, Mack could find nothing other than janitorial work, as blacks were excluded from competing for other, more attractive jobs. So, as he was growing up, Jackie Robinson was no stranger to racial subjugation.
He, too, was a world-class college athlete, the first student at UCLA to win varsity letters in four sports: football, basketball, track, and baseball. One rival coach called Robinson "the best basketball player in the
United States," while another observer said he was the greatest ballcarrier in college football. He set records in track and field, won golf and swimming championships, reached the semifinals of the national Negro tennis tournament (another example of segregated life in America at the time), and, as a player with the Brooklyn Dodgers, often astonished the others with his skills at Ping-Pong. By the time he was drafted into the Army in 1942, few if any athletes had ever been so successful at so many sports. As one of his Dodgers teammates was later to observe, his combination of athletic skills and fiery competitiveness was astounding.
Jackie Robinson at a college track meet in the Los Angeles Coliseum, 1940.
In the Army, Robinson repeatedly confronted the pervasive racism of the military at the time. Despite his college education, he was initially denied admission to the Officers Candidate School at Fort Riley (Kansas), where he was based, gaining a spot only after Joe Louis intervened. Then he was banned from the Fort Riley baseball team, despite his obviously superior skills, and told he had to play "with the colored team." But there was no colored team. This was what "separate but equal" meant back then. When, as an officer, he tried to obtain more equality, even within segregation, by requesting more seats for black soldiers at the base
PX, he was asked, over the phone, by a superior officer who obviously did not know Robinson was black, "How would you like to have your wife sitting next to a nigger?"
Soon after, Robinson was transferred to Fort Hood in Texas, where he was ordered by a military bus driver to "get to the back of the bus where the colored people belong." Robinson, who knew that the military had recently desegregated its buses, refused. Nonetheless, his refusal led to his being court-martialed for insubordination. He was acquitted and in November 1944 received an honorable discharge.
In 1945, Robinson played professional baseball with the Kansas City Monarchs, a stalwart team in the Negro Leagues. As a college-educated man at a time when few ballplayers were, and as a nonsmoker and nondrinker, Robinson did not fit in well with the rough-and-tumble barnstorming life. Nor was he as tolerant as others of the insults of segregation they regularly experienced as they traveled. Teammates remembered him as talented but certainly not the best player in the Negro Leagues. They also remembered Robinson's fiery temper.
Rickey Settles On Robinson
y mid-1945, Rickey had narrowed his search and begun to focus on Robinson. He thought the young man was talented enough as an athlete and liked the fact that Robinson was educated and abstained from alcohol. Robinson's temperament both attracted and worried Rickey. His refusal to buckle under to discrimination and strength of character were exactly what Rickey wanted. But Robinson's explosive aggressiveness concerned Rickey: while it fueled his athletic performance, it also made him vulnerable to being provoked by the intense racism he was sure to experience as the first black to play in the major leagues. Rickey strongly believed that it would be necessary for Robinson to contain himself if the experiment was to succeed. More than a decade before Martin Luther King Jr. developed techniques of nonviolent protest as a weapon against the violence of southern racism, Rickey urged the same approach on Robinson, testing him in a now-famous exchange on August 28, 1945, at Dodgers headquarters at 215 Montague Place in Brooklyn. It was the first time they had met.
Rickey talked for a while about his extensive search and his investigation of Robinson both as an athlete and a person. He then revealed the true purpose of his search: not to hire Robinson for a new Negro League team sponsored by the Dodgers but to hire him to play for the Dodgers. Robinson reportedly was both stunned and skeptical, and later said it had taken him a long time to convince himself that Rickey meant it. Tygiel describes what happened next:
"For three hours, Rickey harangued Robinson ... graphically illustrating
the difficulties Robinson might face. He portrayed the hostile teammate,
the abusive opponent, the insulting fan, the obstinate hotel clerk.
Rickey challenged the black man with racial epithets and verbally
transplanted him into ugly confrontations. "His acting was so convincing that I
found myself chain-gripping my fingers behind my back," wrote Robinson."
"In the face of this onslaught Robinson finally responded, "Mr. Rickey,
do you want a ballplayer who's afraid to fight back?" [Rickey] had
awaited this moment. "I want a player with guts enough not to fight back,"
"The purpose of Rickey's theatrics grew apparent to Robinson. When the Dodgers president posed as a player who had just punched Robinson in the cheek, the man who had fought Jim Crow in the army replied, "I get it. What you want me to say is that I've got another cheek."
Rickey then gave Robinson a copy of Papini's Life of Christ and asked him to read the sections on nonviolence (this was more than ten years before the Montgomery bus boycott). Until Robinson was established, Rickey told him, he would have to retreat from confrontations.
According to the one witness to that meeting, Robinson did not answer for a long time. Then he said: "Mr. Rickey, I think I can play ball ... in Brooklyn. ... If you want to take this gamble, I will promise you there will be no incident." And there wasn't. Although once Robinson was established, his fiery temperament was very much in evidence on the field, during those first crucial years, and despite extraordinary provocation, Robinson remained contained and focused, at what cost to himself one can only guess.
Before the meeting ended, Robinson signed a contract to play for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' top farm club. After a successful 1946 season with Montreal, Robinson was promoted to the Dodgers. On April 15, 1947, the opening day of the 1947 season, he stepped out onto the Ebbets Field diamond. Everyone knew it was a landmark event for baseball. Not many understood that it was also a landmark event for America."
s Rickey anticipated, the experiment did not go smoothly. In his first 37 games, Robinson was hit by pitches six times. (In the prior season, no player was hit more than six times in the entire 154-game schedule.) There were death threats in some cities where the Dodgers played, including threats to shoot Robinson from the stands if he took the field. On several occasions, the team as a team decided to take the field anyway, as a unit, and at one game, Pee Wee Reese, the team captain and a southerner from Louisville, Kentucky, walked up to Robinson on the field and put an arm around him while they talked. This gesture did not go unnoticed, and Reese and Robinson and their families became lifelong friends.
Most of the other white players--a veritable melting pot of American ethnicity, with names like Snider,
Shuba, Erskine, Hodges, Abrams, Reiser, and Furillo--came to admire Robinson; if they had racial demons, they exorcised them, and some would later describe the experience as transforming. There were attempts by a number of southern players to refuse to play with Robinson, and a petition was circulated, but both Rickey and the then field manager, Leo
Durocher, responded swiftly and firmly. Their decision to do so, and the unwillingness of most of the players, including southerners like Reese, to support the petition, doomed it. In the end, a few of the most recalcitrant players were traded by Rickey to other teams, and additional black players were signed. Everyone in this drama was forced to confront what Myrdal had called the American dilemma. Most resolved the conflict in the direction of the ideals of fairness and individual merit.
Other problems were external to the team. There was organized hostility from the other team owners. Although no record exists of this effort, and most of the owners at the time subsequently denied it, Happy Chandler, the commissioner of baseball at the time and a former governor of Kentucky, would later confirm that the owners had condemned Rickey by a 15--1 vote. There was skepticism from star players. Bob Feller, probably the leading pitcher of his time, said loudly that he thought
Robinson would never be able to hit an inside pitch. "If he were a white man, I doubt that they would consider him big-league material," said Feller. (Robinson hit plenty of inside pitches; he won the batting championship in 1949, and between 1949 and 1954 hit for an average of .327, batting over .300, the general standard of excellence, all six years. This feat was equaled by only two other players at the time, Ted Williams and Stan
Musial, two of the greatest hitters of all time.) Finally, there was a lot of ugly and vicious race-baiting harassment from opposing players during the game, which only gained Robinson sympathy from his teammates, especially in light of his refusal to be provoked, as he had promised Rickey at the start.
Before the meeting ended, Robinson signed a contract to play for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' top farm club. After a successful 1946 season with Montreal, Robinson was promoted to the Dodgers.
Throughout all this, Robinson quickly became one of the league's star players, and in the end Rickey's experiment proved to be a spectacular success. Robinson's performance under unimaginable pressure was truly one of the greatest athletic triumphs, if not the greatest, in American history. But it was more than that, much more. Robinson's struggle against the entrenched racism of the time, taking place as it did within the national pastime, in front of crowds numbering in the tens of thousands every day, and reported on a daily basis in the mass media, was a drama that involved millions in a way they could never otherwise have been involved. As one prominent black civil rights leader said some years ago, describing his childhood in South Carolina: "much of my whole sense of social justice can be traced to when Jackie Robinson came through Greenville and couldn't get off the airplane to use the restroom at the airport." What was true for black children in the South was also true for white children in the North.
A Boy's Primer On Race
was nine years old at the time. I lived in Brooklyn and, although many black families also lived in Brooklyn, I never saw any as a child. Separation of the races was not legally imposed in New York, as it was in the South, but in some ways racial separation in the North was even more perfectly maintained. I went to a public school that was not required by law to exclude blacks; nonetheless, from kindergarten through the eighth grade, in three separate schools, I never saw a black child.
When I went to the movies, there were no black people--not in the audience and only rarely on the screen. If a black person did appear on the screen, it was virtually always in a
cartoonish, stereotyped role.
When I accompanied my mother to the market, I saw no blacks. When I accompanied my parents to the voting booth, no blacks were in line to vote. I never saw a black elected official. When I went with my father, a construction worker, to the union hiring hall, there were no blacks there, either. And before 1947, when he took me to Ebbets Field to see my beloved Dodgers, the crowd in the stands as well as the players on the field were as white as the ball.
None of this seemed startling, not to me and not to my friends on the street. Children growing up, even in a liberal New York family and neighborhood, became used to the racial exclusions, as if somehow that was the natural order of things. Among whites, it was the rare parent who said anything to small children about the massive immorality of racial discrimination, and it was quite impossible for white children on their own to break free from the pervasive images that surrounded them. Thus were the cultural habits of racial separation--and its close cousin, racial subjugation--maintained.
It would be years before such separation and invidious discrimination became the subject of debate in Congress and still more years before such discrimination would be remedied by law. How the nation became ready for that
debate, and why groundbreaking civil rights laws and court decisions happened when they did--essentially between 1954 and 1968--is a complicated question, admitting to no singular answer. But surely part of the reason can be traced to the breaking of the color line in baseball in 1947.
We knew about the death threats; about the resistance of some teammates and how Rickey and Reese and others responded; and about the race baiting from opposition dugouts.
Before 1947, most Americans, unless they were personally affected by racial separation and exclusion, were not engaged by what Myrdal called the American dilemma. Of necessity, that meant virtually all whites, most of whom benefited unjustly from racial exclusion, whether they knew it or not. For example, before 1947 there were only 400 major-league jobs in baseball, and all were held by whites. Some of those whites were not as good as some of the blacks playing in the Negro Leagues. Had competition been open, and decisions made on individual merit alone, some blacks would have replaced some whites. Those whites who were not good enough held their jobs only because blacks were prohibited from competing. They benefited unjustly from racial exclusion.
The same thing was true in more ordinary employment. My father, who struggled to find employment as a construction worker toward the end of the Depression, was helped by the fact that blacks were excluded from labor unions; in a situation where jobs were scarce and limited, excluding a whole class of people arbitrarily benefits those not excluded. My father benefited from racial exclusion--whether he realized it or not, and whether he was responsible for it or not--and, as his son, so did I. Before 1947, few whites thought about such things or related them to the patterns of separation and exclusion that prevailed at the time.
For young people, that was especially true. How many nine-year-olds, particularly white ones, followed the drama of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955? How many nine-year-olds outside the Deep South, where even small children could not escape the conflict, were moved by the Supreme Court's decision in 1954? And how many closely followed the debates in Congress during the sixties or identified with the struggles that led to those debates? How many nine-year-olds, especially white children, were reached by those events in a personal way, or came to understand viscerally what they meant? How many were transformed? Not many.
But fully seven years before the Supreme Court's decision and nearly nine before Rosa Parks sat down on that Alabama bus, ordinary people all over this country, including small children black and white, participated in and learned from Jackie Robinson's struggle in a way that was direct, powerful, and enduring. In that sense, Robinson's feat and Rickey's leadership constituted the first great public civil rights event of the post--World War II era.
It has been said that baseball is America's secular religion, and it was certainly true back then when other major league sports such as football and basketball were in their infancy. Baseball was America's public drama, its source of heroes, its passion play. It was broadcast daily on radio (television hardly existed in 1947), and in those days you could walk along the street and literally hear the game from radios played in stores. Baseball was so central to America in those years that when the idea of canceling the 1942 season arose after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said no, because baseball was too important to morale. Baseball was an icon, perhaps the leading icon, in popular American culture.
Growing up on the streets in Brooklyn, my friends and I were passionately involved, in a way that seemed to us familial, with our teams. In Brooklyn, we felt a personal relationship with the Dodgers players. Into that relationship in 1947 came Jackie Robinson, who as a player was so exciting that he captured our hearts and shaped our aspirations. On a team filled with heroes and stars, he was the one we most adulated. We tried to incorporate everything about him into our own styles--his intense competitiveness and assertive play, his exquisite sense of timing and surprise, his slashing disruption of the opposing team's poise, even his batting stance.
None of this would be worth noting today, but it was 1947. Robinson was black, and we were white and living segregated lives. While we were rooting for him to steal home, beat out a bunt, or make a saving catch in the field, we were also participants, to a degree little understood at the time, in a major racial drama, engaged in a way none of us had expected. Before we had ever heard the phrase "Jim Crow" or knew what it meant, we knew that when the Dodgers went to St. Louis to play the Cardinals, Robinson (and, later, the other black players on the team) wasn't allowed to stay in the hotels where the other Dodgers stayed, nor eat where they ate. That--not from a book, not in school, not from a congressional debate, and not from a court case--was how I learned about racial discrimination in public accommodations. And that is how I came to hate it. That was also what led to discussions at dinner that had never taken place before, and it is how many children first heard their parents address the issue and say, even if unenthusiastically, "That isn't right."
We also knew about the death threats; about the resistance of some teammates and how Rickey and Reese and others responded; and about the race baiting from opposition dugouts. We learned most of this from Red Barber, the Dodgers broadcaster, himself from Mississippi, who after hearing that Robinson had been hired first decided to resign his coveted position and then found a way to rise above his own prejudices and report the drama fairly and accurately every day--and in a southern drawl!
Most of all, we learned from Robinson himself, from his extraordinary performance under what certainly was, and remains, the most sustained pressure any athlete has ever endured. And we learned about family, about the incredible support of his wife, Rachel, and how crucial family can be. It is quite possible that for many of us, these were the first images of black humanity we as white children had ever been allowed to see.
By watching Jackie Robinson and the players who followed him, we learned when we were very young and in a way deeply meaningful to us, that skin color had nothing to do with talent, ability, hard work, strength of character, or any other trait that mattered. Skin color, it seemed to us then, was like eye color or hair color. It told you nothing about a man's character or his ability to hit a baseball. For many of us, from there it was not a hard jump to understanding that skin color also told you nothing about a person's ability to play the violin, do mathematics, or help build a tall building in New York.
In the years after 1947, we watched while some teams, still claiming they were not prejudiced, continued to refuse to hire black players. (The New York Yankees were all white until 1955, and the Red Sox were the last team to hire a black player, in 1959--twelve years after Robinson broke the line.) We knew that for many years afterward, black and white players were not allowed to room together on road trips, and that mediocre white players were still being hired while blacks had to be superstars to crack the lineup. We watched the long resistance to hiring black coaches, managers, and general managers, even though these jobs had largely been filled by former players. From all this we learned about the difference between token symbolic progress and real progress, the layers of resistance to ending racial discrimination, and how even the most dramatic single act of desegregation cannot without more remedy undo decades of institutionalized racial exclusion.
Finally, there was the breaking of racial separation itself among the fans. Before 1947, the crowd at Ebbets Field was virtually all white, but after 1947, things began to change. By 1949, I sat in integrated bleachers, and it felt natural. We would scream, together, when Carl Furillo fired a strike to third to nail an opposing runner. We were ecstatic, together, when Robinson, with his feints from third, forced the opposing pitcher to balk home a run. We cheered, together, when Duke Snider hit one over the scoreboard, giving Big Don Newcombe a lead he would not relinquish.
I remember Robinson winning one game with a dramatic, late-inning drive to left-center. I found myself, an eleven-year-old white boy, embracing a middle-aged black man in the next seat. There was a sense of community between black and white that day at Ebbets Field, a meeting ground in a society that had banished most other meeting grounds, a place where black and white made common cause, both on the field and in the bleachers. It is quite possible that in those early years, Ebbets Field was the only fully integrated public accommodation in America.
It was also a unique experience at that time to see, in such a visible and public arena, black and white teammates, working together, partners in a joint venture, and doing so successfully (the Dodgers were by far the most successful team in the National League during the decade after Robinson broke in). In a land where such interracial ventures were discouraged, if not prohibited, and thought by almost all to be a practical impossibility, the performance of the Brooklyn Dodgers as a team between 1947 and 1956 was an extraordinary and unprecedented image.
I do not mean to suggest that everyone loved each other at the ballpark, or on the field, and went home newly free of racial prejudices and determined to fight for racial justice. It is hard today to imagine what it meant then--in the late 1940s--for a young white boy to identify with the struggle of a proud, talented, and assertive black man in his fight against racism; to watch white men like Rickey and Reese stand alongside Robinson and exercise leadership; and to somehow ingest that struggle and consider it his own. How unusual and reformative it was at the time to experience, even sometimes, a sense of commonality between white and black.
Many of us, perhaps most, were not even aware that we were learning these lessons. They were learned nonetheless, and they prepared us for the struggles that would come in the larger society a decade and more later. By the time of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the demonstration at which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech, those nine-year-olds were twenty-five. Standing there in that huge crowd, we felt we had bore witness to this before. In fact, the March on Washington took place on August 28, 1963, eighteen years to the day of that first meeting between Rickey and Robinson.
"Luck is the residue of design," Branch Rickey liked to say, and his design for baseball turned out to be a design for America. As for Robinson, if he were alive today, he would be reminding us--and not gently--that racial inequalities still limit the opportunities and stifle the dreams of too many black children, who have not been able to escape from the layers of racial exclusion laid down over so many decades. The laws we passed, as transforming as they were, have not proved to be enough. He would be talking to us, as he did in his last public appearance shortly before he died, about the unfinished struggle, both in and out of baseball. For many who remain in that struggle, Robinson remains among us, pushing us to go further, stutter-stepping off third base, eyes flashing, heading home.
Ira Glasser was the national executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union for nearly a quarter century until his retirement in 2001.