Jackie Robinson 75: Baseball's Re-Integration

1945: Signing with the Dodgers

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey talk happily after a contract signing meeting in the offices of the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbets Field on January 25, 1950. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, seen here in 1950, made history together when Robinson signed a minor-league contract to play for the Montreal Royals of the International League on October 23, 1945. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

There were numerous reasons why October 1945 was an opportune time for Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to sign Jackie Robinson to a minor-league contract. Nationally, World War II was over. More particularly, there was a growing understanding about the horrors of the Holocaust as well as the evils of discrimination. Further, many Americans were aware that Black men had put their lives on the line and some had died in the service of their country.

In New York state, the legislature had just passed the Ives-Quinn Law in July, creating the Commission Against Discrimination, with the power to fine and imprison violators. In New York City, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had established the Committee for Unity, of which Rickey was a member. It helped to promote integration and provided a vehicle to support the new state law. Some mainstream sportswriters were now joining African-American and communist newspapers in calling for the integration of baseball.

As for the sport’s executives, the new commissioner, Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler, a southerner, had seen his power reduced, especially after he had overstepped his boundaries during the World Series, creating rumors the owners might buy out his contract. Besides, he had little, if any, authority to stop the signing. National League president, Ford Frick, was likely already aware of Rickey’s announcement but had no role at this point. Finally, both the Brooklyn Dodgers and Montreal Royals front offices were on board, thanks to Rickey’s efforts.

There did remain one potential obstacle. W.G. Bramham, president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, had the authority to sign off on all player contracts in the minors. While Rickey and he had interacted for many years, their relationship offered no guarantee of his support. Like commissioner Chandler, Bramham grew up in Kentucky. He attended college at the University of North Carolina and then practiced law in the state, based in Durham. He had spent his life in the South. Like Rickey, he was a Republican, but unlike the Dodger general manager, he was a strong believer in the “separate but equal” concept. He considered Rickey a “Moses for the Negro” and a “carpet-bagger.” When interviewed after Robinson was signed, he made his views clear: “Why should we raid their ranks, grab a player and put him, his baseball associates and his race in a position that will inevitably prove harmful?”

Still, Rickey may have known something else about Bramham, that the league head intended to treat Robinson’s contract like any other. He would sign it. When further asked if he anticipated any difficulty when his organization met in December, Bramham replied: “I do not think it will take any action.” He was obviously confident of his position. Before the start of the 1946 season, Bramham had been the only remaining structural obstacle to Robinson’s debut in Montreal. He publicly assured he would not be. Still, he typified the more moderate side of those who would make Robinson’s debuts in both the minors and later the majors challenging ones.

— Dave Bohmer

“Mr. Rickey, for you the signing of Jackie Robinson may be merely a routine transaction of a man interested in promoting his business, but for me and many millions like me, it means much more. Your action will mark a red-letter day in the hundred-year-old effort to drop the bars against thirteen million Negro citizens and thus make our country a real united nation.”

— Abraham Unger, New York City attorney, open letter to Pittsburgh Courier, November 10, 1945

The Double V Campaign

As America entered World War II in 1941, Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier stepped up a campaign to integrate baseball at the same time, a crusade that became known as the Double Victory campaign.

As Henry Louis Gates put it, one of the two most important legacies of the Double Victory campaign is that “through the columns of its sportswriter, Wendell Smith … it doggedly fought against segregation in professional sports, contributing without a doubt to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ decision to sign Jackie Robinson.” The other legacy was the ultimate desegregation of the US Army by President Harry Truman in 1948. A double victory — integrating baseball and one year later, the military — had now been accomplished. But the larger struggle for racial justice had just begun.

Jackie Robinson had his own indirect connection to Double V. According to essayist and cultural critic Gerald Early, Robinson likely would not have become an officer in the Army without the publicity created by the Double V.

1944 Negro Baseball Yearbook (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

1944 Negro Baseball Yearbook (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

On July 6, 1944 he defied a white bus driver’s orders to move to the back of the bus “where the coloreds belonged.” When the base provost marshal and military police supported the driver, Robinson objected vehemently and was subject to court-martial. Facing a dishonorable discharge, Jackie prevailed at the hearing. But the Army had had enough of the controversial young black lieutenant and quickly mustered him out with an honorable discharge. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

In July 1944, Jackie Robinson defied a white bus driver’s orders to move to the back of the bus “where the coloreds belonged.” Robinson objected vehemently and was subject to court-martial. He prevailed at the hearing, but the Army quickly mustered him out with an honorable discharge. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Standing Up For First-Class Treatment

Jackie Robinson’s World War II experience tells us a lot about the man Branch Rickey chose to wear the aspirations of an entire race on his broad shoulders. Robinson brought his unique leadership qualities to the service where he displayed an aversion to intolerance and willingness to confront it. Robinson’s experience in the military portends his ability to rouse change. He was at the center of a battle on two fronts, the fight to win a war and the fight for first-class citizenship. The racism he encountered in the service — leading to a court-martial hearing and an acquittal in the summer of 1944 — displayed, prepared, and ushered Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn for a larger calling.

Robinson’s career in the service underscored why America needed Jackie Robinson the baseball player. He was prepared for what lay ahead. He arrived at his famous meeting with Branch Rickey as a man who had stood up for first-class citizenship and paid the price.

From Boston ‘Tryout’ to a Negro Leagues Star

A brief and often forgotten chapter in the legendary life of Jackie Robinson was the five months he spent as a Negro American League batting star for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945.

In April, Robinson was joined by fellow Negro Leaguers Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams for a scheduled “tryout” at Fenway Park under the supervision of Red Sox scouts and manager Joe Cronin. Writing later in his autobiography, Robinson said, “Not for one minute did we believe the tryout was sincere.”

Instead he joined the Monarchs as a shortstop and gave Black baseball fans “thrill after thrill by his brilliant fielding, base running and hitting” all summer long.

Jackie Robinson’s 1945 statistics
Kansas City Monarchs

G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
34 120 25 45 13 1 4 27 3 .375 .449 .600 1.049 208
League leader in bold
Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Jackie Robinson hit .375 in 34 games with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in 1945 (COURTESY OF RACHEL ROBINSON AND THE ESTATE OF JACKIE ROBINSON)

Jackie Robinson hit .375 in 34 games with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in 1945. (COURTESY OF RACHEL ROBINSON AND THE ESTATE OF JACKIE ROBINSON)

This historical marker lives at 215 Montague Street in Brooklyn, where Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey met for the first time at the Dodgers offices on August 28, 1945. (COURTESY OF JAY JAFFE)

This historical marker lives at 215 Montague Street in Brooklyn, where Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey met for the first time at the Dodgers offices on August 28, 1945. (COURTESY OF JAY JAFFE)

The First Meeting

August 28, 1945: Branch Rickey created an elaborate smokescreen to obscure his scouting of Black players. In May 1945 he announced the formation of a new franchise, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, and a new Negro League, the United States League. Rickey then dispatched his best talent hunters, like scout Tom Greenwade, to observe Black ballplayers, ostensibly for the Brown Dodgers, but in reality for the Brooklyn National League club.

By late August, even as Rickey’s extensive scouting reports had led him to focus on Jackie Robinson as his standard bearer, few people in or out of the Dodger organization suspected that a breakthrough was imminent. On August 28 Rickey and Robinson held their historic meeting at the Dodgers’ Montague Street offices in downtown Brooklyn. Robinson signed an agreement to accept a contract with the Montreal Royals, the top Dodger affiliate, by November 1.

Another Tryout in San Diego

October 7, 1945: As the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs faced off in the World Series, photographer Maurice Terrell arrived at an almost deserted minor-league park in San Diego, California, to carry out a top-secret assignment: to surreptitiously photograph three Black baseball players.

Terrell shot hundreds of motion-picture frames of Jackie Robinson and the two other players, catcher Buster Haywood and infielder Herb Souell. A few photos appeared in print but the existence of the additional images remained unknown for four decades.

The discovery of the Terrell photos revealed that while Robinson was the linchpin in Branch Rickey’s strategy, in October 1945 Rickey intended to announce the signing of not just Jackie Robinson, but of several other Negro League stars. During Robinson’s tryout in San Diego, Rickey interviewed at least three Black pitching prospects in Brooklyn: Don Newcombe, Roy Partlow, and John Wright. The following week he met with catcher Roy Campanella. All would sign with the Dodgers organization in the coming months.

Political pressure, however, forced Rickey’s hand, thrusting Jackie Robinson alone into the spotlight.

Jackie Robinson in the uniform of the Negro League Kansas City Royals, photographed on October 7, 1945, by Maurice Terrell for LOOK Magazine. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Jackie Robinson in the uniform of the Negro League Kansas City Royals, photographed on October 7, 1945, by Maurice Terrell for LOOK Magazine. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Brooklyn Daily Eagle coverage of Jackie Robinson's signing on October 23, 1945

Baseball’s Backlash

Baseball’s first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, died in November 1944, and Kentucky governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler was elected as his successor on April 24, 1945. There was not a great deal of optimism that Chandler would go against baseball’s longstanding policy of segregation.

Following Jackie Robinson’s signing, team owners secretly voted 15 to 1 (Branch Rickey was the lone dissenter) not to allow Black players in the National or American leagues.

Rickey went to Chandler to ask for his support, and the commissioner reportedly responded, “I’ve made up my mind that I’m going to have to meet my maker someday. If he asks me why I didn’t let this boy play and I say it’s because he’s Black, that might not be a satisfactory answer. So you bring him in and I’ll approve the transfer.”

 

Baseball commissioner A.B.

“I never regretted my decision to let (Jackie) Robinson play, but it probably cost me my job,” former baseball commissioner Happy Chandler told The Sporting News in 1972. But integration was far from the only way that Chandler conflicted with many team owners. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Negro League baseball magnates meet at the Hotel Teresa on June 20, 1946, in New York City. The owners had all attended the Joe Louis boxing bout the night before. The meeting was to plan the second-half schedule for the 1946 season. Left to right: Syd Pollock (Indianapolis Clowns), Tom Wilson (Baltimore Elite Giants), Tom Baird (Kansas city Monarchs), W.S. Martin (Memphis Red Sox), J.B. Martin (NAL President and Chicago American Giants), Ernest Wright (Cleveland Buckeyes), Fay Young (Chicago Defender writer), Wilbur Hayes (Buckeyes), and Tom Hayes Jr. (Birmingham Black Barons). (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Negro League baseball owners meet at the Hotel Teresa on June 20, 1946, in New York City to plan the second-half schedule for the 1946 season. Left to right: Syd Pollock (Indianapolis Clowns), Tom Wilson (Baltimore Elite Giants), Tom Baird (Kansas city Monarchs), W.S. Martin (Memphis Red Sox), J.B. Martin (NAL President and Chicago American Giants), Ernest Wright (Cleveland Buckeyes), Fay Young (Chicago Defender writer), Wilbur Hayes (Buckeyes), and Tom Hayes Jr. (Birmingham Black Barons). (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

The Effect on Black Baseball

At the end of 1945, the Negro National League and Negro American League were in quite a pickle. Kansas City Monarchs co-owners J.L. Wilkinson and Tom Baird had mixed reactions to Robinson’s signing with the Dodgers, indicating they were “happy to see any Negro player make the major league grade” but noting that “something should be done to prevent white organized baseball from just stepping in and taking our players.”

By 1946, John Wright, Roy Partlow, Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella all were playing along with Robinson in the formerly all-White minor leagues. A year later, Larry Doby joined Cleveland and integrated the American League just three months after Robinson’s much-heralded debut with the Dodgers.

After meeting with commissioner Happy Chandler, some Negro League owners and officials had hopes that they would be incorporated into the system of white Organized Baseball and that they would become a well-paid conduit for Black talent to the major leagues. However, this would prove not to be the case. White teams continued to raid Negro League rosters for talent without compensating their owners.

The Negro National League folded after the 1948 season — when aging legend Buck Leonard led the Homestead Grays to a Negro World Series title over 17-year-old Willie Mays and the Birmingham Black Barons. The Negro American League limped along for another decade, finally ceasing operations in 1962.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved