This article was written by Norman Macht
This article was published in the Summer 2009 Baseball Research Journal
Editor’s note: This article is in response to “The Gentlemen’s Agreement and the Ferocious Gentleman Who Broke It,” by Lee Lowenfish.
The primary purpose of my paper was to try to root out the baseless myth embedded in the minds of many SABR members that Judge Landis blocked major-league club owners from signing black players. It may be axiomatic that the past cannot be judged by the standards and mores of the present, but there are people in SABR who still do it.
I appreciate the support for my position expressed by Richard Crepeau and Lee Lowenfish. Nothing they have written disproves my thesis. Much they have written, such as the quotes from Tygiel and Pietrusza cited by Crepeau, backs it. Lowenfish points out the fiction of the “Landis Bars Negroes” headline in an HBO movie. Crepeau blames Landis for failing to exercise lead- ership in the cause of integration. But not leading a cause is not the same as blocking it. He characterizes Landis as “a man who saw himself in tune with the will of the populace,” playing to the public. This implies that for “Landis to have moved to integrate baseball” would have been out of tune with the will of the populace, which is what I was trying to say. It follows that, if the public was truly demanding integration, and Landis played to the public, he would have been promoting it.
Crepeau calls it “ludicrous” to think that the customers’ attitudes might affect club owners’ decisions in putting their product—their teams—before the public. But everything from rowdyism to gambling and the Black Sox affair was viewed by baseball moguls as to how it would affect attendance.
Crepeau accuses Landis of ducking the issue (which, again, is not the same as “barring Negroes”). But black sportswriters didn’t see it that way when he made his 1942 statement. The Baltimore Afro-American of July 25, 1942, ran the headline “Landis Clears Way for Owners to Hire Colored.” Sports editor Art Carter said Landis made it clear that it was up to any owner “willing to blaze the trail in breaking down the bar against colored players.”
My two respondents disagree on my second contention: that baseball deserves recognition for leading the way in integration, not castigation for taking so long. Lowenfish agrees; Crepeau cries foul.
Both cite the Fair Employment Practices Order of 1941, which is irrelevant, since it covered only the defense industry and did nothing for blacks trying to drive streetcars in Philadelphia and Washington, or work with white firemen, or clerk in downtown department stores.
Lowenfish believes that baseball has always had to live up to a higher standard than do other sports. But I don’t think this was ever true. (For a long time there were no other professional team sports.) Standards weren’t all that high in the nineteenth century. Gambling and game-fixing went on long before 1919. Club owners’ subterfuges, syndicate ownerships, and rules violations were common practices. A higher standard? Though baseball fans wish it were true, the current steroids mess is further proof that it still ain’t so.
Crepeau condemns “baseball” for how he says it saw itself—as an engine for democracy and justice and civilization, while remaining all-white. I think that’s a stretch. Baseball owners saw it as a bottom-line business first and last, notwithstanding the hypocritical use of pompous flag-waving and self-serving oratory by some tycoons and politicians.
The record is clear that baseball was far ahead of the rest of the country in the area of integration, and Lee Lowenfish is right to credit Branch Rickey with leading the way.