The Gentlemen’s Agreement: The Eventual Integration of Baseball

January 20, 2012
“We’re tackling something big here...if we fail, no one will try it again for 20 years.” - Branch Rickey

The integration of baseball was wanted dearly for many years by black Americans, but obstacles such as racism prevented this from occurring. Despite black Americans’ attempts to integrate, their acceptance into this fold was delayed. They formed separate leagues in order to play organized baseball.
Blacks were banned from baseball until 1947, yet even after their integration they endured racism.
The first black man to play baseball in the major leagues was William Edward White, who did so in 1879 as a substitute. This was his only major league game. White Americans at the time would consider him lucky; slaves attempting to play baseball were forced to play with a “ball [made] out a cotton en rags.”#

Blacks were barred from the game from its inception; “black Americans need not have applied for membership” of the New York Knickerbockers.# Indeed, eleven years before White’s game of baseball, the National Association of Baseball Players unanimously voted to bar “any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.”#

People generally considered blacks inferior; in 1883 the Sporting Life regarded Moses “Fleet” Walker, playing for the Toledo Blue Stockings at the time, in the same caste as a “deaf mute”, a “one-armed pitcher”, and a “deaf centre-fielder”.# William Brewer, batboy for Toledo in 1883, said at Walker’s funeral, “He had more nerve and grit than anybody I have ever seen.”# Walker could not have played without this extra effort.

Some players such as Cap Anson of Chicago refused to play blacks; his secretary wrote a letter to Toledo suggesting that “no colored man shall play in your nine and if your officers insist on playing him after we are there you forfeit the Guarantee and we refuse to play.”# “Fleet” Walker was eventually told to play right field, telling Anson that if Chicago refused to play, Toledo would not pay the guarantee; Anson backed down and the game was played. Later, when Walker played for Syracuse, things became intense; according to one account, he brought a loaded revolver into the stadium and threatened to shoot someone in the crowd. Cap Anson was not swayed; in his autobiography, he called the Chicago White Stockings’ mascot of the 1880s, who was black, a “little coon”, a “little darky”, and a “no account n*****.”# When Walker played Anson again, this time for Newark, Chicago sent a letter to Newark. The letter warned Newark not to play Walker, “as we could mention the names of seventy-five determined men who have sworn to mob Walker, if he comes on the grounds in a suit.”# While the letter was only written to “prevent much bloodshed, as you alone can prevent.”#, much verbal bloodshed would ensue during the decades to come.

The Louisville Commercial ridiculed the National Colored Convention in May 1884. However, when Walker was due to play, he was praised for his skill. “It was a setup. When Walker committed five errors and went hitless the next day, one of the headlines read, “The Negro Catcher’s Disastrous Errors.””# Walker’s mind was apparently “so much taken up with the State Republican Convention that he forgot he was playing baseball...[he] fired the balls to second base at such a disastrous angle that the Democrats of the home team easily stuffed the ballot box and ran off with the nomination.”# Walker was substituted in the fourth inning.

Fortunately, blacks were still somewhat successful playing baseball; in 1885, the New York Cuban Giants “were heralded everywhere as marvels of the baseball world.”# Despite a 100-4 record in 1891, they were forced to fold.

In 1887 the International League, one of the most integrated leagues at the time, officially barred contract approval with blacks. Also in 1887, Chris Von der Ahe, president of the St. Louis Browns of the American Association, was given a letter from his players the night before a game against the Cuban Giants. By not agreeing “to play against negroes tomorrow...[the players] think by refusing to play we are only doing what is right.”# The game was canceled.

Only one man seemed to notice the connection between baseball and American character: Weldy Walker. Walker, the brother of “Fleet”, wrote a letter to Sporting News in 1888 protesting the banning of blacks from baseball, saying “There should be some broader cause - such as want of ability, behavior, and intelligence - for barring a player than his color.” He sarcastically suggested that “...in case that black law is not repealed, pass one making it criminal for a colored man or woman to be found in a ball ground.”# Despite the masses’ racist opinions about restricting blacks’ rights to play baseball, at least two newspapers agreed with Walker. The Syracuse Standard wrote that “The...directors should...take steps toward rescinding...the rule forbidding...colored players.”; and the Newark Call added that “If anywhere in the world the social barriers are broken down it is on the ball field...the objection to colored men is ridiculous.”#

The last black professional team to play with whites at any level would disband in 1898, and until 1946, no black would play alongside whites in organized baseball.

The beginning of the twentieth century showed the same attitudes as the previous twenty years had. Cap Anson published his autobiography in 1900. A year after, John McGraw, manager of the Baltimore Orioles, attempted to pass off black player Charley Grant as “Chief Tokohama”, the great Cherokee sports star. McGraw’s plan collapsed when Grant’s friends ran onto the field to congratulate him.

Black baseball was moving along well; in 1903, Dan McClellan of the X-Giants threw the first perfect game in black baseball history; teammate Rube Foster had a record of 54-1.

Branch Rickey was inspired in 1904. While coaching a college baseball team, a black player, Charles Thomas, was denied lodging in South Bend, Indiana. Rickey convinced the manager to let Thomas stay in his room. On finding his room, Rickey noticed Thomas tugging at his hands, saying “Black skin...if I could only make ‘em white.”# Harold Parrot, Rickey’s traveling secretary with Brooklyn, said the incident “left an indelible impression on him all his life but he still had to be practical all the same.”#

Even star athletes were openly prejudiced. In 1907 Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers fought a black groundskeeper, in 1908 he was brought to court for knocking down a black laborer who yelled at him after stepping on some fresh cement, and in 1910 he climbed into the stands after a black spectator heckled him. This does not mean he was punished, far from it; when brought to court in 1908, the judge fined Cobb seventy-five dollars and suspended the fine because he liked Cobb so much.

At the start of the “Roaring Twenties”, however, organized baseball most certainly was not “roaring”. It chose to cringe under the shadow of its new commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who wanted a lily-white major league.

On the other side of the coin, the Negro National League was founded in 1920 by Rube Foster. Foster was overworked, he suffered a nervous breakdown, and died in an institution in 1930. Despite his death, the Negro National League continued to be the largest and most geographically diverse black-owned business in America. Along with black baseball players, it also employed “accountants, bookkeepers, trainers, and all sorts of skilled and unskilled labor that otherwise would have struggled to find work.”#

Interwoven with this league were many problems. Umpiring was poor, vehicles broke down constantly, players traveled in cramped conditions, and restaurants seldom served them. Also, they had trouble finding a place to sleep, were responsible for their own uniforms, and despite playing “two and three games a day”,# medical insurance for injuries was nonexistent. As Judy Johnson admitted, “We would get tired from the riding, we would fuss like a bunch of chickens, but when you put the suit on it was different....there were some sad days too, but there was always sun shining someplace.”# Negro League players averaged fifteen dollars a week, yet white major leaguers made twice that.

While the Negro Leagues were made for black players, the major leagues weren’t exclusively white. American Indians had played successfully, players of African descent had played because of “confusion over race, color, and nationality”#, and at least three Cubans played in the major leagues and the Negro National League.

In opposition to the majority view, Lester “Red” Rodney, sportswriter for the Daily Worker, used his columns to raise awareness about baseball’s color line, covering teams from major and Negro leagues equally and keeping a close relationship with the black press. Despite his efforts, pleas to end the color line’s prevalence in baseball went largely unnoticed. No editorials questioned the color line, no challenges were sent to the league, and no acknowledgement was made by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, despite a petition with 1.5 million signatures on it being sent to him.

Still, baseball refused to integrate, and Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier took a more pessimistic view, writing “Major league baseball does not want us. It never has....We keep on crawling, begging, and pleading for recognition just the same.”# In an interview with Sam Lacy, Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, hinted at the possibility of integrated baseball, yet was doubtful as well, saying “A lone Negro in the game will face rotten, caustic comments. He will be made the target of cruel, filthy epithets...I would not want to have to be the one to have to take it.”#

A Citizens Committee to Get Negroes Into the Big Leagues was formed in 1942, motivated by American League president Larry McPhail’s comment that the Negro leagues would fold if blacks were integrated. In 1942 Kenesaw Mountain Landis issued a statement saying there was no written agreement to keep blacks out of the major leagues. The only thing that had barred blacks from playing was a “gentlemen’s agreement”, which operated on a matter of principle.

In 1945 Branch Rickey announced his attempts to form a United States League, beginning recruiting for his team, the Brown Dodgers. As a result of seeing Terris McDuffie and David Thomas, both black, perform, Rickey “decided then that the Negro Leagues were worth watching”.# The timing was right, as some war-ravaged teams used one-armed and one-legged players instead of those of the Negro Leagues. Rickey decided the man to integrate the major leagues was Jackie Robinson.

In their first meeting together, Rickey asked Robinson if he would like to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, saying, “I know you’re a good ballplayer. What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.” After Rickey explained to Robinson the difficulty of integrating baseball, Robinson asked, “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” “Rickey shot back, “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back!””#

This would be tough for Robinson, who was always combative when race was questioned. In the army, on hearing a white officer calling a black private a “stupid n***** son of a b****”, Jackie tried to remain calm, saying, “You shouldn’t speak to a soldier in those terms.” When told, “Oh f*** you too n*****!”, Robinson fought back, and the intervention of boxing champion Joe Louis prevented a court-martial.

Backlash to Robinson’s joining the Dodgers appeared quickly; the black press criticized Rickey for allowing a rookie to integrate the majors. However, this dissipated once Robinson began playing for a Dodger minor-league affiliate, the Montreal Royals. One account of a game against the Louisville Colonels noticed thousands of blacks climbing to rooftops near the stadium or trees so they could watch the game. However, black reporters became nervous on hearing the news that Robinson would play in the major leagues in 1947. Branch Rickey warned blacks about their potential overexuberance, saying “The one enemy most likely to ruin success - is the Negro people themselves.”# Fortunately, Robinson was a success, but all was not well yet.

Blacks adjusted to the major leagues with varying levels of success. Dan Bankhead left the game because of stress; Dan Brown was banned from playing in his hometown; Roy Campanella threatened to “beat you to a pulp”# after Sal Yvars threw dirt in his face; Campanella’s manager, Buzzy Bavasi, assaulted a rival team’s general manager after hearing him say that without the “niggers, you wouldn’t have beat us.”# Ernie Banks even received a death threat in 1970.

When Jackie Robinson heard the Philadelphia Phillies chant “n*****” to unnerve him, he wished he could “stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of b****es, and smash his teeth in”#. Curt Flood sympathised with him, saying, “I am pleased that God made my skin black, but I wish He had made it thicker.”# Brooks Lawrence said it best, however, when he told a white reporter, “Every morning I wake up with a challenge staring me in the face. You’ll never understand that.”#

Some sympathised with blacks integrating baseball, as in Montreal, where Jackie Robinson began his major league career. Joe Aveline wrote, “We all felt rather proud that the great Jackie Robinson had started the integration of organised baseball in our city.”# However, Robinson’s success resulted in failure for the Negro Leagues. The final Negro League game was played in 1960.

There was still racial discrimination in baseball, it just became more subtle; “no black player before 1959 received a signing bonus of $20,000 or more, while twenty-six white players received such sums in the same time period.”# Black players were easier to sign, however, as Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron freely admitted their being underpaid. Muhammad Ali believed without his skill, he would “probably be down in my hometown, washing windows or running an elevator and saying ‘yassuh’ and ‘nawsuh’ and knowing my place.”#

Towards the twentieth century’s beginning, people still were prejudiced. Al Campanis was fired after saying blacks “lack the necessities”# to work in baseball’s front offices. In 1991, nine percent of front office positions were held by blacks. The year after, Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, said “I’d rather have a trained monkey working for me than a n*****.”# Arthur Ashe and Bill Clinton believed that while “we have achieved equality on the playing field...we need to establish equality in the boardrooms of baseball and throughout corporate America.”#

Despite the seeming importance the world places on equality today, racism and bigotry will never be eliminated. While the world is more progressive than ever, it still does not tolerate many things. Blacks waited patiently for the integration of baseball; when they finally were allowed to play, they impacted baseball and life for the better.





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