While every major-league owner except Rickey opposed integration in 1946, none of them could legally prevent him from breaking the color line the following year. Rickey claimed to have been acting on the impulse of Christian charity; most observers suspect he was really just trying to build a stronger team and attract black spectators. In addition, New York had enacted a fair-employment-practice law in 1945, and members of the state’s Commission Against Discrimination helped to push Rickey to act.
There remained a significant kernel of player resistance to Robinson’s signing, led by Fred “Dixie” Walker, a Dodger outfielder and Georgia native. Walker, also known as “The People’s Choice” (or “Cherce,” in Brooklynese), had been chosen as the National League’s player representative to baseball’s Executive Committee, a sort of company union formed in 1946 after an abortive effort to establish a Baseball Players Guild. Chandler, National League president Ford Frick, and several owners were able to quell attempted strikes by Walker’s confederates, who saw blacks as a threat to their jobs. Black players, white owners, and fans of all colors gained by the reintegration of major-league baseball; marginal white players and, most of all, Negro League owners lost by it.
As in many other industries, blacks in baseball after 1946 were fortunate that they were able to break into the industry before it was organized by whites-only unions. The Major League Baseball Players Association did not negotiate a collective-bargaining agreement with the owners until 1968. By then the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had illegalized unions’ racial discrimination.
After his baseball career, Jackie Robinson became involved in the issue of union discrimination as a vice-president at the Chock Full o’ Nuts company. Robinson claimed that a union attempting to organize one of the company’s plants was jealous of his position and would oust the black employees if it won. The National Labor Relations Board held that employers could call attention to unions’ history of racial discrimination so long as their statements did not interfere with, restrain, or coerce employee choice.
In a 1979 affirmative-action case, Chief Justice Warren Burger claimed that “The gross discrimination against minorities . . . particularly against Negroes in the building trades and craft unions — is one of the dark chapters in the otherwise great history of the American labor movement.” Baseball shows that in fact, racial discrimination was part and parcel of that history.
— Paul Moreno is the director of academic programs at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship.This article is adapted from his 2006 book Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History.