The new film 42 celebrates Jackie Robinson’s courageous crossing of major-league baseball’s color line. The integration of the national pastime was one of the most important events in the history of the civil-rights movement.
But Jackie Robinson was actually the third black player in the history of major-league baseball, which did not formally ban blacks until the late 19th century. And it did so largely at the behest of white players, not the owners or the fans.
Professional baseball was an unstable and competitive industry in the 1880s and 1890s. Since it was principally a northern game, it would not have attracted many black players in any case. The first players’ union, the National Association of Base Ball Players, formally excluded blacks in 1867. Its successor, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, was formed in 1871 without a formal color bar. As more formal business organization and player-owner divisions took hold, a few blacks made their way into the game. Several dozen played for minor-league teams, and two black men, catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Welday, an outfielder, played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association (a major league) in 1884. The Fleetwood brothers returned to the minors after the 1884 season.
White players often vented their unhappiness at playing with blacks through insults and violence. Their resentment culminated in the refusal of the Chicago White Stockings, led by Cap Anson, to play an exhibition game with a minor-league team that included a battery of Fleetwood Walker and George Stovey, a talented black pitcher, in 1887. The New York Giants were rumored to be considering signing Stovey at the time. John Montgomery Ward was attempting to establish a players’ union, and he supported Stovey’s aspirations, but many of his fellow players resisted and wanted to exclude black competition.
In the International League (a minor league), at the players’ behest, the six owners with no black players forced the four owners who did employ blacks to agree to sign no more. An outcry among the press led the league to permit a quota of one black player per team. In the IL and elsewhere, blacks continued to play in the minors until 1899, when they were banned throughout professional baseball (except for Negro League teams). After the American Association went out of business following the 1891 season, the National League was the sole remaining major league, and it established a fairly stable cartel. Its players’ demand for a whites-only policy was not an issue of contention, as the owners avoided provoking white players’ unrest.
As Gary Becker explained in The Economics of Discrimination, free markets should erode discrimination in labor markets: Businesses that turn away qualified black workers in favor of less-qualified white workers will lose ground to non-discriminating competitors. Henry Ford profited from the non-discrimination approach in the auto industry in the 1910s. But baseball shows that employers may also engage in “rational discrimination.” The price of alienating white customers or incumbent employees may be greater than the benefit of hiring more-efficient black workers.
In the mid 1940s, Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decided to gamble that the benefits of integration would outweigh the cost of consumers’ and white players’ opposition. A 1938 survey indicated that four out of five major league players did not oppose integration. Pressures for racial fairness increased during World War II, which profoundly altered American racial attitudes. The death of segregationist commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1944 removed an important obstacle to integration. His successor, Happy Chandler, a former Democratic senator and governor from Kentucky, observed, “If a black boy can make it on Okinawa and Guadalcanal, hell, he can make it in baseball.”
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.