IMAGINE IT, if you can. The date is November 1945, and you are about to be discharged from an institution whose blood-soaked campaign against global Aryan dominance and industrialized race murder has absorbed the last three years of your young life. However, you did not (as it is said in war’s loathsome and euphemistic lexicon) see action in the theatre of Europe. The battle you have fought has been against racial segregation and mastery, upheld by the very people who demand that you give your life in the service of “your” country.
Much is said, and justly so, of baseball’s colour line and its transgression by Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. But this courageous work of his had begun years before, and it would continue well beyond April 15, 1947 — the day on which Robinson gave the first and (as it happened) mediocre performance of a stellar decade-long Major League career. Robinson’s friendship with boxer and fellow soldier Joe Louis encouraged the future Brooklyn Dodger’s stand against institutional racism — and perhaps one should add sitting also. Jackie Robinson was court marshalled and discharged for refusing to move to the back of an officer’s bus, his battle at the front in this war causing him never to see the front in another.
As for the well beyond bit, one can hardly apprehend Louis’ vocal objections to institutional military racism without thinking of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to kill brown people a generation later. Only a couple of years before his untimely death — in 1972, at age 53 — Robinson openly lamented baseball’s glass ceiling and the absence of black managers and owners. The turbulence of the 1960s and the civil rights struggle would then have been fresh on the mind, and indeed only four years earlier a disgusted Robinson (who had supported Nixon and Rockefeller in the ’60 and ’64 campaigns) abandoned the Republican party in support of the failed Humphrey candidacy.
The preceding is intended to hint at the complexity both of the man and the causes on whose behalf he fought. There can be no doubt that he did much to change the game, but change is a difficult notion to quantify. It is not, however, impossible. Only one year ago, on Jackie Robinson Day, media reported that “the African-American population in baseball this season has plummeted to 8.05%, less than half the 17.25% in 1959 when the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate their roster.” As bad a sign as this may be, it leaves unexplored the larger and likely discouraging question of who controls the sport.
By the 1960s Robinson had, like Martin Luther King, grasped the limitations of integrationist politics. Civil rights leaders turned their attention to cultivating black economic power, calling upon the people to undertake targeted boycotts of corporations. Then came the rhetorical question which logically followed: why shouldn’t black people have their own banks and corporations? Why, indeed. In 1964, Robinson co-founded Harlem’s Freedom National Bank, which until its demise in 1990 supported the development of black communities and businesses.
This business of economic power provides a means of assessing change. Even the decision itself to desegregate baseball had its purely business and economic aspects. The timing of Branch Rickey’s press release, announcing the acquisition of Robinson, was a business decision intended to deflect attention from Dodger manager Leo Durocher’s suspension for gambling-related activities. (The collusion of baseball with organized crime was a matter of open secret.) Rickey was doubtless motivated by a sense of justice, but the plain speaking Durocher knew on which side of the bread was to be found the butter. Of Robinson, he is recorded as having said, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra … he can make us all rich.” Integration made economic sense.
Not often noted is that the decision to bring in black players was also a de facto decision to bring in black fans. William McNeil’s sprawling Dodgers Encyclopedia records that over one-half of the 26,623 spectators attending Robinson’s inaugural game — “more than 14,000” — was black. (That such a statistic could even be compiled tells us everything about the era.) Presumably most of this fourteen thousand was there specifically to see Robinson, and would otherwise have taken in a Negro league game elsewhere, or even no game at all.
History never fails to supply the irony, and so it is that the Brooklyn Dodgers’ triumphal 1955 season was Robinson’s personal worst. So much diminished by diabetes, he was moved from second to third base, and from there to the outfield, sitting out entirely the October 4, 1955 seventh and final game of the World Series. When it came time to consider his 1962 induction to Cooperstown’s baseball Hall of Fame, he asked that his case be judged on the merit alone of his on-field performance. Accordingly, the plaque unveiled at his induction made no mention of colour barriers, instead focusing on his baseball excellence.
Yet as superb as he was on the field, his greatness was in evidence in transforming what might be called the culture of sport. In 2008 his Hall of Fame plaque was replaced with a modified version observing that Robinson “displayed tremendous courage and poise in 1947 when he integrated the modern major leagues in the face of intense adversity.”