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Friday, April 20, 2012

An anniversary

This week was the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers--an anniversary I am always alive to, since Robinson's career, like the Truman doctrine and the Marshall Plan, began in the year of my birth. Jackie Robinson, we hear, broke the color line in baseball--and his number 42 has been retired by every team in the country. Interest in him and in early black players in general as increased during the last twenty years or so, particularly in the Society for American Baseball Research, and he is one of the names from American history that every schoolchild can be counted upon to know. Robinson was a very great baseball player who did not reach the major leagues until he was 28 and who performed at a superstar level for the next eight years. He was also an extraordinarily intelligent and courageous man who felt the enormous responsibility of his unique role very keenly. The strain of what he had to go through almost surely contributed to the diabetes and heart disease that killed him when he was only 53 years old. But the almost single-minded emphasis on his personal role in the events of 65 years ago is misplaced, because Jackie Robinson was not the most important person in breaking the color line in baseball, if only because he lacked the power to do so. The man who broke baseball's color line was Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who decided to sign a black player, scouted the Negro Leagues carefully, chose Robinson with superb judgment and great care, and did everything he could to make the experiment a success. And our failure to give Rickey equal credit tells us a lot about how skewed our perspective on these issues has become in the decades since integration took place.

We easily forget this now, but even when I was a child, the U.S. still thought of itself, as it had for at least 150 years, as the country in which every man had a fair chance to make the most of his abilities. The frontier and the lack of social distinctions among men had helped create this vision, and rags-to-riches stories were, of course, the stuff of legend. Of course there had been huge exceptions to this vision in practice. Black Americans had never enjoyed equal opportunity in slavery or in freedom, and women's career opportunities were also very limited. But Americans believed in this principle nonetheless, and that allowed immigrants, and eventually black Americans as well, to appeal to it in the first half of the twentieth century. Franklin Roosevelt's rhetoric also encouraged this. Above all, from 1940 to 1945, about ten million young Americans of every conceivable background enlisted in the military to fight a war against discrimination and for equality. From the time the war effort began, Negro Americans, as they then called themselves, viewed this as an opportunity to secure full citizenship. Jackie Robinson not only went into the Army, but as a graduate of UCLA, he was commissioned as an officer. Discrimination persisted in the military, but returning black veterans expected to receive the rights for which they had fought, and many sympathetic white Americans agreed that they could not be denied.

Branch Rickey, evidently, was one such. He came from rural Ohio--hardly a hotbed of egalitarianism--but he had had a black teammate on his baseball team in college. He was the shrewdest baseball executive of his generation, building dynasties in St. Louis and Brooklyn, and he understood that the Negro Leagues were an important untapped talent pool. He came from the Missionary generation, and like Henry Stimson, John L. Lewis, and Franklin Roosevelt himself, he had the courage of his convictions. Signing Robinson was bound to be a very unpopular move among his fellow owners, who had consistently resisted integration, and among many white players, who in those days came disproportionately from the South. But he did not care. He believed in the ideals of America and he knew he had a unique opportunity to start making them come true. He was fortunate to find Robinson, who understood the need for him to behave more or less like a New Testament saint for the first two years of his career, and whose still at every phase of the game won nearly all of hsi teammates over very quickly. Within a year he had found two other great players, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, as well. And he did not remain a lonely pioneer for long. In Cleveland, Bill Veeck, a young veteran who had lost a leg in the South Pacific himself, signed Larry Doby just a few months after Robinson reached the majors, and across New York Horace Stoneham was sonn fielding Monte Irvin, Henry Thompson, and, in 1951, Willie Mays. Legal equality was still about a decade and a half away, but the civil rights movement--a far more organized and powerful lobby then than now--was on the rise.

A google search for Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey turned up about 5000 hits during the last week. The same search for Robinson without Rickey turned up half a million hits. And at the top of the first search is an article from a blog called Deadspin entitled, "Did Branch Rickey sell Jackie Robinson out?," making a complicated argument that Rickey, for political reasons which are not really explained, decided to rush the signing of Robinson before he had made arrangements to sign several other players simultaneously as well. The headline is purposely and needlessly inflammatory.

Why is all this important? In part, because it is so representative of left-wing attitudes over the last 40 years, which more or less consistently insist that only oppressed minorities of one kind or another--be they racial, sexual, or gendered--have any sense of justice, while white males are, by definition, oppressors. Thus, Robinson has to be the man who broke the color line, more or less single-handedly. But in fact, justice for our society depends upon a sense of justice that cuts across class lines, racial lines, and gender lines. Fortunately we have a Constitution that reflects that, but the left-wing intellectual elite has been fighting that idea for many years. The late Derrick Bell, to cite one example--the first black law professor at Harvard, who left his position in protest in the early 1990s because he had no black female colleagues--insisted that American racism was permanent and could never be overcome. The attempt to lock minorities, gays and women into a permament, self-defined oppressed status has done enormous harm to all concerned.

Jackie Robinson was a product of his time. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962, he said he wanted to be remembered as a ballplayer, and his plaque originally made no mention of breaking the color line. When fashions changed years after his death, the wording of the plaque was altered--a symbol of my contemporaries' commitment to remembering, not moving beyond, eras of racial oppression. Let us face the facts squarely: minorities, in the nature of things, cannot achieve justice on their own. They depend upon a shared sense of justice, something well within the capacity of human beings, especially if we encourage and allow it to develop.

The left wing Boomer assumption that authority is inherently evil has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the good write off authority as a lost cause, who is to govern society? Eventually public service will become inspiriing again--but that may be some time off.


Anonymous said...

We're all in this together black/white/hispanic/indians/asians/gays and lesbians and all others. If the current president is not just the first african American to become president but also just a lackey of the banks and industry just like his contender and the other politicians then what choice do we have? There is no sense of real justice in the current set of power brokers except for filling their own pockets. We have to change the system to the point where this is not possible that power be abused in this sense. Peoplhood of corporations is a misreading of human rights for example. freedom of speech does not apply to corporations. Political campaigns should be pblicly financed and lobbying and job switching between govt. and industry forbidden and p years house and ermanent limits on govt. service years senate for example). Reform is impossible however as long as everyone is bought and population propaggandized and indifferent.

Great article and sentiments by the way.

DAngler said...

Thank you, Professor! I consider myself deeply progressive, and I find many of the Democratic Party's attitudes reprehensible. The whole idea that all government cannot be trusted only makes it so.

If the Democratic Party could ever clarify and solidify what it stands for it would sure help to get us out of our current morass.

Bozon said...


Great post and a great theme.

Many thanks.

Unfortunately, few readers may appreciate this valid criticism of the left as anti authoritarian, along with, I would of course add, the right, whose anarchist,
no-government position certainly also is anti authoritarian.

Well ordered nationalism is not something we have ever had really.

All the best

Larry Koenigsberg said...

Dr. Kaiser has omitted a significant piece of this history: the unremitting pressure to integrate the major leagues from the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker; as well as many black newspapers. See, for example, Press Box Red: The Story of Lester Rodney, the Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports by Irwin Silber; Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball by Chris Lamp;
Chris Lamb; and and ESPN-published piece on Lester Rodney, at http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/otl/news/story?id=4943434.

This last also gives some credit to New York City's Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. It quotes Rickey's biographer Lee Lowenfish as saying: "I think the direct evidence is that Rickey announced the signing of Robinson in October 1945 [two months after Rickey and Robinson met secretly in Brooklyn] because Mayor La Guardia was ready to make integration of baseball a campaign issue and he didn't want political pressure from a liberal like La Guardia, let alone communists."

David Kaiser said...

Dr. Koenigsberg's comment is a good example of the kind of flawed historical thinking I attacked. Pressure from the Communist Party would have hurt, not helped, any cause in 1946. Certainly the black press and other journalists had agitated for years. Certainly some white politicians like La Guardia pushed for integration--as did some politicians in Boston. But Horace Stoneham and larry McPhail didn't seem to care, and no one made them care. The same goes for Tom Yawkey in Boston who was under constant pressure from Dave Egan. The pressure was a constant. The thing that made the difference was Rickey.

HD Fetter said...

David Kaiser is spot on (i almost said 'right on') For a critical analysis of claims about the supposed role of the the Communist Party and the Daily Worker in integrating baseball see my Journal of Sport History article "The Party Line and the Color Line" accessible at http://www.aafla.org/SportsLibrary/JSH/JSH2001/JSH2803/JSH2803e.pdf

HD Fetter

Larry Koenigsberg said...

Thanks for the education.

Incidentally, I am not a doctor, just an amateur in a number of areas, and certainly not a professional historian.