The Gentlemen’s Agreement and the Ferocious Gentleman Who Broke It

This article was written by Lee Lowenfish

This article was published in Summer 2009 Baseball Research Journal

I doubt that any thoughtful person would disagree with Norman Macht’s contention that “what we know about the past is laced with uncertainty.” Another way of making the point comes in the opening epigraph to L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, later a film, The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Though it is true that it is almost impossible to ever fully light the dim, dark abyss that is the past, those of us who want to wear the mantle of historian successfully must engage in acts of historical imagination and make at least educated guesses. So it seems to me particularly unsatisfying that Norman Macht defends Commissioner Landis’s racial policies because “most of us weren’t there as witnesses 65 or 70 years ago when America was a very different place.” By that line of argument, we might conclude that only someone who was a contemporary of Landis could appraise his administration, and I cannot believe Macht supports that conclusion. Though I also question Macht’s contention that the United States of the Landis years was “a very different place” from the country of today (despite the election of the first African American president and a greater acceptance of the diversity of our population), the main contention of his I want to address is that Landis and baseball have gotten an undeserved black eye for not pushing earlier for racial integration.

Because of its unique historic place in American society, baseball has always had to live up to a higher standard than have the other sports, and therefore its failure to act on the American creed of equality has made it vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. Macht argues that because “America was a racist society in the first half of the twentieth century” you cannot blame Commissioner Landis for not taking the lead on integrating the sport. As an individual Kenesaw Mountain Landis may not have been more conservative on the race issue than the owners he ruled over, but he had the power to lead on it, and he did not choose to employ that power. As the “czar” appointed to clean up the mess left by the Black Sox scandal, Landis had enormous powers, which he used to ban the alleged fixers of the World Series, even though a Chicago jury had ruled them innocent. Though Macht is correct that Landis could not destroy the farm system that Branch Rickey had ingeniously invented to enable his small-market St. Louis Cardinals to compete with the big-pocketed big-city owners, the commissioner did free dozens of minor leaguers from Rickey’s and other clubs’ systems. Though I agree that it is poor historical judgment to expect Landis to have had the racially pro- gressive vision of, let us say, today’s pro football, which mandates minority interviewing for front-office positions through the Rooney Rule (named after the owner of one of their most racially progressive franchises, the Pittsburgh Steelers), it is nonetheless true that Landis could have taken more positive steps to push for racial integration. The evidence is clear that Landis did not want to take a leadership role on this issue.

Macht cites Landis’s public statement in the summer of 1942 that baseball has no rule that bars players of color from being signed. He does not mention that the commissioner was reacting to the pressure of what New York Daily News sportswriter Hy Turkin described as being “assailed by more than a million letters, telegrams and phone calls” that landed on his desk calling for integration, a grassroots movement organized by American communist activists but obviously not limited to their backers. According to Larry Lester in an important if rhetorically overheated article in the fall 2008 issue of the new journal Black Ball (McFarland Press), both the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cleveland Indians promised in 1942 to give tryouts to several Negro League players, but both franchises got cold feet and certainly were not encouraged by the commissioner to proceed.

One of the problems in producing evidence about a conspiracy of silence is that there is rarely a smoking gun to prove complicity. (In Soul of the Game, the HBO fictionalized 1995 movie about Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Jackie Robinson, an unintended hilarious misreading of the baseball color line came when there appeared on the screen the headline “Landis Bars Negroes.”) It is interesting, though, that Macht himself quotes Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail admitting, at the very same time that Landis was deny- ing, that there was indeed a gentlemen’s agreement against signing players of color. Responding to the pressure of the especially active sports-minded communists in Brooklyn, MacPhail in 1942 told their paper the Daily Worker that if the Dodgers won the World Series they might play the winners of the Negro League pennant in a postseason tournament. The offer became moot when the Dodgers fell two games short of the National League pennant and MacPhail resigned from his position to reenter the military. One wonders, though, how sincere MacPhail’s offer was, given his adamant opposition to integration three years later, once Branch Rickey had beaten every team to the punch by signing Jackie Robinson. When MacPhail returned as president of the Yankees in 1946, he spearheaded the secret report that warned of dangers to the “physical properties of franchises” if Robinson integrated the Dodgers—that is, too many black fans might chase away more-prosperous white fans. It also seems highly unlikely that Landis would have approved MacPhail’s suggestion of a postseason series against the Negro League champs, given that Landis had long discouraged white players from competing in such off-season exhibitions.

It required a practical visionary like Branch Rickey to make integration work, and, despite all the criticisms of his bombastic style leveled by his con- temporaries and by later historians, the substance of his program and its example for other efforts at deseg- regation remains a stirringly successful saga. I have never been a big fan of “What Would Have Happened If” history and Norman Macht’s foray into the genre is not convincing when he suggests that if Sam Breadon had rehired Rickey in St. Louis there never would have been a Jackie Robinson signing in Brooklyn. With the Negro League player market ripe for mining, Rickey, I think, would have found a way to tap it, if not in St. Louis then in another city.

Speculative “If” history might be useful regarding what might have happened if Landis had lived through the end of World War II and was faced with the fait accompli of the Robinson signing. My educated guess (and it can be only a guess, of course) is that Landis would not have made any major objection. Once New York State passed the antidiscriminatory Ives-Quinn Law during spring training 1945 and Rickey exclaimed to his wife at the breakfast table, “They can’t stop me now!” there was little Landis could have done, especially with a federal Fair Employment Practices Commission statute already on the books.

Macht is correct that Branch Rickey shared the fears of all the baseball owners about what might happen “if a black player got into a fight on the field or argued with an umpire—who knew what might spark a riot in the bleachers?” But it did not stop him from going on with his grand plan to add talented African American prospects to the products of his lat- est burgeoning farm system in Brooklyn. Rickey’s fear of black overreaction, though, explains why he took such pains to stress to Jackie Robinson that he must be a symbol of probity and modesty in his role as a racial pioneer. Later historians and black activists have been critical of Rickey’s cautious handling of the issue and Robinson’s buying into the program, yet there should be no trimming of the historical record to dilute praise for Rickey’s leadership on the issue.

What is incontrovertibly true is that Rickey shrewdly planned for the racial revolution, trying to defuse the opposition from both whites and blacks by “attacking prejudice on its blind side,” as he would put it in a remarkable series of interviews on Pittsburgh public television in 1959, during which he also pithily defined prejudice as “strong opinion without cause.” He understood that the legacy of racism was deep among owners and players alike, and therefore he sought a pioneer whose ability on the field was so outstanding and his demeanor off of it so impeccable that he could not be resisted by both those who wanted a winning team and those who wanted to do the right thing after a million African Americans had served their country in World War II.

To me, then, the issue is not the black eye that Landis allegedly has received but rather the garland that baseball deserves for setting the standard, however reluctantly, for the integration of American society that was to begin, however haltingly, in the years ahead. In this area, I wholly endorse Norman Macht’s conclusion that baseball “deserves recognition for leading—dragging—the rest of America a little closer to the ultimate goal of equality of opportunity.”