In Alabama, August of 1942, a black soldier got into an argument with a white bus driver. The situation escalated and the soldier eventually told the driver to “drive your bus and leave me alone.” Shortly thereafter the bus driver pistol-whipped the soldier. Then, for good measure, he shot the private three times as he left the bus. The soldier died instantly.
Two years later, a white bus driver ordered a black soldier to move to the back of the bus bound for Fort Hood in Texas. Again, a soldier refused. Again, a soldier told the driver, in so many words, to stick to driving his bus. Once he reached his destination, the driver relayed his account of the conflict to white civilian and military police. Arguing intensified when the soldier angrily reacted to racial slurs directed toward him from someone in the group. This soldier was quickly court-martialed.
Two days later, in North Carolina, a white bus driver ordered another black soldier to move to the back of the bus. That soldier conformed. But, he did not move quickly enough for the driver’s taste. His reluctance did not lead to a court-martial. Instead, his unhurried compliance prompted the driver to shoot the private dead.
Today, Major League Baseball celebrates the soldier who stood up to a bus driver in the 1940s and was fortunate only to be court-martialed for doing so, considering the era in which he lived.
As nearly every baseball fan knows, in the spring of 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play for a major league baseball team in the 20th Century. Robinson, a multi-sport athlete in high school and college, as well as a former Army lieutenant, has earned a place in baseball’s Hall of Fame for his on-field accomplishments and his role in helping break baseball’s color barrier.
On the field, his bold style of play was as radical to the league as the color of his skin. Robinson combined speed and power in ways we often see today, but were not as prevalent in the 1940s. He withstood intense pressure from white players (including many of those on his own team), managers and fans who hoped he would fail and prove their prejudiced assumption that black players could not cut it in the big leagues.
This is what I, and I assume some other baseball fans, have always focused on in the story of Robinson’s integration—the incredible strain he was under to succeed on the field. The burden of hope from his fans could hardly match the desire for his failure held by most everyone else. Of course, these pressures were in addition to his own lofty expectations as an athlete who had excelled in any previous undertaking. These demands always stood out to me as extraordinary circumstances to overcome. Baseball is hard. Harder still, I’d imagine, with the added burdens Robinson carried with him.
Despite those pressures, Robinson was successful right away at the big league level. He stole 100 bases in his first four seasons without getting thrown out. He would walk two or three times for every strikeout and go on to post a career .409 on-base percentage. Despite his unprecedented daring on the base paths, he was an extremely difficult out. Most baseball fans know about his Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards, as well as his World Series appearances.
Impressive as it was to play so well under so much scrutiny, playing the game at a high level was actually not the toughest part of his breaking into the big leagues. While much attention has been paid (and rightfully so) to Robinson’s first major league season and resulting Hall of Fame career, he faced a far greater threat just trying to make the team in the Deep South. And, it had nothing to do with the sore throwing arm he brought to camp.
When Dodger general manager Branch Rickey signed Robinson the previous fall, he began what historian Jules Tygiel and others later called “the noble experiment.” The idea was that since baseball represents so much of America’s culture, a black player who competed alongside whites might open the door for desegregation across the country.
There has been some debate over Rickey’s levels of social consciousness in contrast to his love of showmanship in connection with the Robinson signing. We may never know how far the Brooklyn GM’s interests went beyond the success of his own team. However, even Rickey’s detractors should admit that he took great risk in signing a black player in 1945. It made future signings far more likely.
But, before Robinson could even try out for the team and potentially inspire future social change, he’d have to confront overt racism in the South. For instance, Robinson and his wife saw a preview of things to come even before meeting up with the team when they were relegated to the “colored” motel at a layover during their flight to Florida for spring training in the spring of 1946.
Clashes with Jim Crow laws would be a recurring theme on Robinson’s travels with the team throughout Florida. Towns sometimes threatened to cancel games if Robinson took the field during exhibition games. Jacksonville once barred Robinson from competing. This led Rickey to cancel the Dodger game there. Who had signed another black player. Johnny Wright, in January, said that his team would no longer travel to towns promising to ban his controversial players from play. Only the threats to cancel games (and the resulting revenue they provided) in Florida cities kept local officials from forcing Robinson off the field.
While Rickey had an instrument to fight discrimination in Florida due to the marketability of his Dodgers, he and Robinson had some unusual and unexpected help dealing with Jim Crow laws that spring.
Communist newspapers, like the Daily Worker, had called for the integration of baseball for years before the “Experiment.” They had even contacted Rickey in the 1930s demanding tryouts for black players. These non-traditional sources, along with African-American dailies, relayed much of the true difficulties Robinson encountered in the spring of 1946. In contrast, mainstream newspapers had purposely left out the potential for physical violence Robinson faced. They hid ugly episodes of racism. That way, white readers would continue to follow the story.
Alternative newspapers’ highlighting of the difficulties Robinson actually faced probably helped force the issue in the South and raise awareness in the North about the level of discrimination still found in the country at that time.
With help from his general manager and some rogue newspapers, Robinson made the team easily. After a year in the minors, he debuted in the majors in 1947. His stoic response to racial insults—prompted by an agreement he and Rickey made beforehand—and his dynamic play on the field essentially opened major league baseball to African-American players.
MLB will honor Robinson’s number 42 today. It serves as a reminder of a time, not long enough ago considering its embarrassing conditions, when Jim Crow “laws” bled into baseball and owners had an unwritten rule that relegated black players to segregated semi-pro leagues.
Robinson’s success on the field and the social awareness it inspired not only made it possible for black baseball players to compete at the highest level, it later opened the door for other dark-skinned players as well. Considering the number of exceptionally talented minority players who have played in the majors since 1947, Robinson’s integration not only stands as an extremely important point in the social history of our country, but also made the game we love more enjoyable sooner, rather than later.
(A version of this article first appeared online at Baseball Daily Digest. Books used- Tuck- Beyond Atlanta, Davis- Civil Rights Movement, Shapiro- White Violence and Black Response, Tygiel- Baseball’s Great Experiment and Extra Bases, Dorinson and Warmund- Jackie Robinson, Rampersad- Jackie Robinson, Robinson- I Never Had It Made, Lamb- Blackout)