In 1987, the Minnesota Twins won the World Series. During that pennant fever, I jumped on baseball’s bandwagon and never jumped off. I have deep seated memories of the sport from my youth: listening to the St. Louis Cardinals radio broadcasts on Sunday afternoons while in the kitchen baking with my mother, standing at the “plate” as a target for my dad when he practiced pitching for the church league, getting beaned in the face by an errant baseball during recess in sixth grade.
But my love of baseball blossomed in the fall of 1987, and now some of my most cherished memories come from the game, from high fiving Don Baylor in that 1987 Victory parade (I still consider his massive home run in the 5th inning of the 6th game of that Series to be a personal birthday gift to me) to witnessing Kirby Puckett’s famous smile and wink (once even directed at me!), to taking a screaming Shannon Stewart line drive off my left shin, to celebrating in the stands when Carlos Gomez crossed home plate to win 2009’s one game tie-breaker against the Detroit Tigers that sent my Twins into the playoffs again.
I was so into baseball, that when my son was born in 1990, my husband and I briefly considered naming him “Branch Rickey Browning”, after the Brooklyn Dodgers owner who signed Jackie Robinson as the first black player in Major League Baseball in 1945. We loved the story of Jackie Robinson, but not knowing if our son would be athletically inclined, we felt than naming him after one of baseball’s most beloved icons would put too much pressure on him (besides the concern that naming a little white boy after a towering black figure would potentially be construed as presumptuous). But coming to baseball 40 years after Jackie’s debut into MLB, I didn’t really know that much about the Jackie Robinson story beyond the “breaking the color barrier” headline and the retiring of Number 42 across the majors.
So it felt like a great opportunity to learn more about Jackie Robinson to honor of Black History Month here at LitStack. There certainly are hundreds of books available about Jackie from which to learn. Unfortunately, for my purposes, many of them are geared to school-aged children, recounting the admirable but incomplete story of his first year in the majors only. I wanted to know more about the history of not only Jackie Robinson, but the country and the state of the civil rights movement at the time, as well, and the impact following that 1947 landmark. I wanted the whole story, not just bits and pieces of it.
Luckily I found just the book I was looking for: Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment – The Jackie Robinson Legacy. Although this book may be overlooked because it is an older work, it is a veritable treasure trove of information, meticulously stitched together from newspaper articles, interviews, documentaries, correspondences, commentaries, letters, museum archives, personal archives, face to face meetings, and many other sources. In this book, you not only have the words of the major players, the Jackie and Rachel Robinsons, the Branch Rickeys and the Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s and the Happy Chandlers, but also the Satchel Paiges and the Ray Campanellas, the Bill Veecks and the Clark Griffiths. The behind the scenes people, as well. People like Effa Manley who, with her husband Abe, owned the Newark Eagles and who did so much to demand respect for the negro leagues. There are media folks like Red Barber, announcer for the Dodgers, who had to work through his own feelings as a white Southerner and finally decided after some deep soul searching that in order to continue with the job that he loved in the city that he loved, he would have to put his personal feelings aside:
I did not care what anybody else said or thought or did about the player who was coming and whose name I did not know,” explains Barber. “All I had to do was treat him like a man, a fellow man, treat him like a ballplayer, broadcast the ball.”
In Tygiel’s book, eye-witness accounts from black newspapers such as the Baltimore Afro-American and the Pittsburgh Courier run parallel to more scathing remarks in Southern periodicals, and even from the venerable but skeptical Sporting News. Lengthy space is given to those involved with the negro leagues, from the Cuban Giants of the late 1800s to the golden age of the National Negro League and then the American Negro League, and Cumberland Posey and his Homestead Grays. The effects of integration on the negro leagues is especially poignant.
We all know about the racial taunts, the brush backs and spikings by resentful opponents, the threats that came hurtling down from the stands and the death threats that came in the daily mail, but in this book you learn of the terrible isolation that Jackie and the other black ballplayers that came after him had to endure. Cut off from the natural camaraderie of the game by accepting yet remote teammates, made to stay in separate hotels and arrange for their own transit to games in some locales, unable to socialize with others or called out when they did, they were at times called “the loneliest men in baseball.” Many of the black players from the North were caught off guard when they traveled to less tolerant parks; no amount of warning could prepare them for having to sit on the team bus and wait for others to bring food out because they were not allowed in restaurants, or to pee as unobtrusively as possible alongside the bus when restrooms were forbidden to them; such limitations had never been a part of their lives before joining the team.
Tygiel handles all these complex and wrenching aspects of “the great experiment” with an even yet compassionate hand. He does not judge in what he writes, but allows for the words and actions of a segregationist mindset and the prejudices of long held beliefs to damn themselves. Slowly he pulls our hands from our eyes, and points out such forgotten notions such as how the antipathy of the Northern fans, not realizing the depth of segregationist feelings in the South, was almost as much a detriment to black ballplayers as the hostility they encountered elsewhere. He reminds us that while the integration of the major leagues was a triumph, there still were negative effects felt by those who championed “negro baseball,” whether they be management, fans, the press and facilities, or even many of the players themselves who lost their livelihoods when the negro leagues disbanded.
But what struck me the most was how author Tygiel gives so much tender care to so many black players who came up with and after Jackie Robinson, or who labored for years in the minors, never getting their chance in the big leagues even if their talents and drive were substantial. Those men also championed the cause of equality, even if their own opportunities fell short. Jackie Robinson was the first black man in organized baseball when he signed with the Dodgers in 1945 and then got called up to the majors in 1947, and he had to indeed endure much with grace and an even temper while still outperforming others with his amazing ability and his appealing manner, but there were others who were part of the struggle whose names for the most part been forgotten. Black pitcher John Wright signed with the Dodgers in 1946, most notably to be a companion for Jackie Robinson although he was an athlete in his own right. Roy Partlow replaced Wright halfway through that minor league season. Ron Campanella and Don Newcombe also appeared in organized baseball in 1946. In 1947, Larry Doby signed with the Cleveland Indians and became the first black man to break the color barrier in the American League.
But there were so many others who are footnotes in history. Hank Thompson, Willard Brown, Piper Davis, Chuck Harmon, Nate Moreland, Buddy Young, Dan Bankhead, Monte Irvin, Ford Smith, George Crowe, Frank Austin, Luke Easter, Ray Dandridge, Bob Thurman, Sam Jethroe, Quincy Trouppe – all these names and more belong to true pioneers of the game. To each, Jules Tygiel gives homage, just as he does to the indefatigable efforts of Branch Rickey, to the loving support of Rachel Robinson, and to the amazing legacy of Jackie Robinson. It is a homage that I urge all who love baseball to witness, for all who wish to know our American history better to understand, and for any who can appreciate and applaud the effort to overcome more than personal trial in order to make life better for many who come after to experience.
To most Americans the saga of Jackie Robinson not only dramatized the injustices of discrimination, but reaffirmed the openness of American society. Amidst the reality of inequality Robinson stood as confirmation that the American Dream encompasses all, regardless of race.
So here’s to Black History Month and all the pioneers who worked and still work to bring equality to our world and our lives. And now: play ball!