Monday, April 22, 2013

More Reflections on "42": The Moral Failure of AL Patriarchs

The movie "42" did not address the opposition to Branch Rickey's "great experiment" from his fellow major league executives.  The core group of highly influential American League owners--many of whom identified themselves with the traditions of America's "national pastime"--who resisted the idea of integration well into the 1950s could also make for an interesting, socially informative movie.  This Baseball Historical Insight looks at their rationales and the possible underlying cultural context.

More Reflections on "42":  The Moral Failure of AL Patriarchs

After Jackie Robinson's successful Rookie-of-the-Year debut in 1947, it was no longer unthinkable for other major league teams to buck the conservative instinct of the game's ownership-powers-that-be that the time was not right for integration.  But if it was no longer unthinkable, there was also no rush to follow the Dodgers' lead.  Later in the 1947 season, the St. Louis Browns became the second team to integrate black players into their starting line-up with Hank Thompson and Willard Brown, more in hopes of boosting their woeful attendance than for any higher moral purpose, but returned them to the Negro Leagues from whence they came after five weeks.  The Browns would not introduce another black player until new owner Bill Veeck brought on Satchel Paige in 1951.  It had been Veeck, then owner of the Cleveland Indians, who brought the first black player--Larry Doby--into the American League, two weeks before Thompson and Brown.  Doby started only one game in 1947, but the next year he was instrumental to the Indians winning their first pennant (in three-way pennant race that was ultimately decided in a one-game playoff against Boston) and World Series in 27 years (as was Paige, who made his big league debut in July of 1948).  Still, as late as five years after Robinson broke the color barrier, the Indians, Chicago White Sox (who introduced Minnie Minoso in 1951), and Browns (now run by Veeck) were the only American League teams to embrace integration.

The problem was the aging patriarchs of the American League.  AL club owners Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics, Clark Griffith (and his nephew, who was like a son) of the Washington Senators, Walter Briggs (and his son) of the Detroit Tigers, and Tom Yawkey of the Boston Red Sox, and the Yankee ownership group of Dan Topping, Del Webb, and Larry MacPhail were adamantly opposed to Branch Rickey’s great experiment and held out against integration of their own teams for as long as they could, or until the shame of doing so forced their hand.  By 1950, they must have recognized that the Dodgers’ and the Indians’ competitive success with black stars meant there was no going back to segregated major league baseball, but probably hoped to limit the cross-over of blacks into (formerly white) Organized Baseball.  They hedged their bets by signing black players for their minor league affiliates, but blacks did not grace the rosters of the Athletics (1953) until after Mack was forced to retire by his sons, or the Senators (1954) until after Griffith ceded operational control of his club, or the Tigers (1958) until well after Briggs had died.  Although signing black players to minor league contracts as early as 1949 and 1950, respectively, the Yankees and Red Sox refused to integrate at the major league level until their rationalizations about finding the “right Negro player” and their soap box "principled" stand about not being intimidated into integrating became untenable.
Mack, Griffith, Briggs, Yawkey, and MacPhail in particular saw themselves as major league baseball’s “godfathers,” defenders of the integrity of the traditions of the game.  Even as the Dodgers, Indians, Giants, Braves, and White Sox were promoting this brave new world of baseball integration—and reaping competitive benefits from doing so—they held to the notion that the purity of the game demanded segregation.  Major league baseball had always been segregated, and should remain so.  Moreover, blacks had their own “major leagues”—the Negro Leagues—which, in any event, according to them, were not really “major league” caliber.  They argued that segregation in major league baseball was a good thing because it protected the viability of the Negro Leagues, giving blacks the opportunity to play baseball for a decent living.  This, of course, was an insincere paternalistic plantation mentality that should have been long discredited since the Civil War.

While they likely harbored racist attitudes towards blacks as inferior to whites their mindset was consistent with the large segregationist sentiment in broader American society.  They probably gave little critical thought to the basis of their attitudes, however, which may have been a product more of acculturation and habit than any slave-holder mentality.  Either way, they feared the consequences of integration, and may genuinely have believed Rickey’s and Veeck’s social engineering contained the seeds of the game’s destruction.  

They may have opposed integrating major league baseball because they genuinely believed in segregation—separate but equal—between races, with its foundation prejudice of white superiority.  Or they may have been opposed to such a revolutionary change for practical and economic reasons, genuinely concerned that integration would undermine the structure of America’s “national pastime” by alienating players and especially a fan base that believed in a segregated society.  Or they may have been boxed in by decades of their own rhetoric to justify Organized Baseball’s no-blacks-allowed-policy and did not want to acknowledge—even to themselves—that they may have been wrong in asserting blacks could not play to major league standards.  For any of these reasons, following the lead of Rickey and Veeck would have forced them to confront the reality—worse, to publicly do so—that they had perpetrated both an evil and a fraud on the game by having so long denied blacks the opportunity, and the right, to play major league baseball.

These "guardians of the game's integrity" were enabled, of course, by the tremendous continuing success of the New York Yankees without an integrated roster. The Yankees' ownership was first opposed, then resistant, and ultimately very slow to embrace racial diversity.  They could afford to be, because of the depth of their "white" talent at both the major league and minor league levels. Despite having some talented black players in their system since the early 1950s, the Yankees were not integrated until Elston Howard made the roster in 1955 as a back-up catcher to Yogi Berra.

Fortunately for the legacy of major league baseball being ahead of the curve on the issue of racial equality in postwar America,the wisdom and righteousness of Branch Rickey’s cause was validated by the fact that every pennant-winning team in the National League between 1949 and 1960 except for one—the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies, a franchise whose attitudes towards blacks was as reprehensible as any in the American League—included multiple black players in starting roles and, moreover as the decade progressed, black players who did not have the superstar stature of Robinson, Campanella, Mays, and Aaron. Full integration, by which is meant blacks who had average major league ability being able to compete against whites for positions in the major leagues where the better player wins out, almost certainly would have been slower had the most successful National League teams in the 1950s been more like the New York Yankees.
The hard-headedness (and hard-heartedness) of the Athletics, the Senators, the Tigers, the Red Sox (who were hard-headed and hard-hearted longer than any other franchise), and especially the New York Yankees—the league’s flagship team—condemned the American League to being slower to accept blacks as bona fide major leaguers, to its shame . . . and its detriment, because black players helped make the National League the more exciting and dominant league over the next two decades, especially as measured by the outcome of annual All-Star Games.

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