On Thursday, every Major League Baseball player will don a No. 42 jersey in honor of Jackie Robinson Day. The annual event, celebrated officially since 2004, marks the anniversary of Robinson’s major league debut in 1947, which broke baseball’s color line that stretched back to the 19th century.
Robinson’s signing, a watershed moment in the sport, was far more complicated than it has been portrayed in the years since. The move of Robinson, and every other star, to the National and American leagues contributed to the swift decline of the long-established Negro leagues. And on the heels of M.L.B. officially recognizing the Negro leagues as having been the equivalent of major leagues, it is important to look at how it could have played out differently.
In the weeks and months after the announcement of Robinson’s signing by Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers on Oct. 23, 1945, which came without compensation to the Kansas City Monarchs, Negro leagues executives were reeling. Outside their office doors, in the Black communities in Kansas City, Newark, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere, there was jubilation, a collective celebration of the apparent proof of racial progress. Inside, however, there was anger and worry about a young star being taken from their leagues and what that could mean for their future.
Talk of integration wasn’t new. The public drumbeat of resistance to baseball’s color line began in the 1930s, and had been steadily maintained by Black reporters (Wendell Smith, Sam Lacy, et al.) and white (Lester Rodney). But it was World War II that made the noise deafening, as so many Black men served their country but were still barred from the white major leagues.
Negro league teams heard it, too. They were aware of ill-fated major league tryouts for a handful of their players and the pleading by many for those players to be given a fair chance. On the whole, however, they may have underestimated the power of the gears churning behind the scenes, the machine of integration that would topple an industry.
As it was, Negro league owners, including Thomas Baird and J.L. Wilkinson of the Monarchs, learned about their player’s signing like the rest of the world: from breathless radio broadcasts and blaring newspaper headlines. There had been no negotiations with Rickey; years later, Baird would remark that the Dodgers’ boss never responded to the letters he wrote to discuss the matter.
Still, there could be no recourse. In the name of advancement, there would be no lawsuits or outright condemnation of Rickey’s tactics. Together, the Negro league owners agreed to take one for the proverbial Black team in hopes that future transactions would be more favorable.
They didn’t know it then, but Rickey had no plans of letting up.
Weeks before the news of Robinson’s signing, a Dodgers executive asked Effa Manley, owner and business manager of the Newark Eagles — and eventually the first woman enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame — if she would be interested in staging an exhibition game between her team and the Brooklyn club. Sensing an opportunity to prove that Black baseball was on equal footing with the National and American Leagues, Manley pushed for more. A single match became a five-game series — a showdown between the Dodgers and Eagles morphed into a head-to-head between two All-Star lineups, filled with players from multiple teams.
Manley’s roster did not win a game, but Rickey was pleased with the showing. In the early months of 1946, four members of Manley’s Black All-Star team were signed by the Dodgers organization, including Don Newcombe of Manley’s Eagles. Only the Philadelphia Stars, home of pitcher Roy Partlow, received any compensation — and that was only $1,000.
In a letter to Seward Posey, business manager of the Homestead Grays, on April 8, 1946, Manley wrote that she and the other owners looked “very stupid to sit tight and not open our mouth with the stuff he is pulling.”
But the problem wasn’t that no one had spoken up on the owners’ behalf. Someone had — it was just the wrong someone.
“If the Brooklyn Dodgers want Robinson, star shortstop of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, they should pay for him,” Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators, told The Associated Press just a day after Robinson’s signing was announced. “While it is true that we have no agreement with Negro leagues — National and American — we still can’t act like outlaws in taking their stars. We have no right to destroy them.”
Rickey claimed that the Negro leagues were illegitimate and “in the zone of a racket.” He also addressed his fellow owner directly: “Clark Griffith to the contrary, I have not signed a player from what I regard as an organized league.”
Had anyone else from Major League Baseball taken Rickey to task, history may have unfolded differently. Perhaps Newcombe and Partlow wouldn’t have been signed without fair recompense to their teams; perhaps there would have been room made in the majors for Black managers and executives alongside the players deemed worthy of “the call.” But it was Griffith who made the stand, and his words were irreparably tethered to his own past.
Aside from competitive seasons in 1943 and 1945, Griffith’s Senators were perennial basement dwellers in the American League from the mid-’30s through the mid-’40s, and as went the team’s record, so did the attendance. Despite having no outside investments, Griffith stayed financially afloat by renting Griffith Stadium to the N.F.L.’s Washington club and, more notably, the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League.
For Negro league owners, renting stadiums was a common line item; for white team owners the revenue was reason enough to pledge “support” for Black baseball. In a September 1945 memo to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York City, written in response to an investigation into Major League Baseball launched by La Guardia’s Committee on Unity, Larry MacPhail, the president and general manager of the Yankees, made his position clear: “Organized baseball derives substantial revenues from operation of the Negro leagues and wants these leagues to continue and to prosper.” He added: “The Yankee organization, alone, nets nearly $100,000 per year from rentals and concessions in connection with Negro leagues games.”
It wasn’t just Griffith’s financial stake in the continuation of Black baseball that caused some to question the sincerity of his appeal to Rickey. For unlike MacPhail, who had gone only as far as the West Coast to find new talent, Griffith had become a regular recruiter of Latino athletes (his 1944 roster had nine Cuban players and one, Alex Carrasquel, who hailed from Venezuela), even as he refused to hire a single Black American.
“Griffith is one of the big league owners who prefers to go outside the borders of these United States and bring in players, rather than hire American citizens of color,” Smith wrote in a column for The Pittsburgh Courier on May 26, 1945. “He goes thousands upon thousands of miles in quest of players, when he could sign up a Negro player in 10 minutes.”
For Smith and others, Griffith’s conflict of interest was considered far more egregious than Rickey’s. It had been a decade since Griffith told Lacy that integration would kill the Negro leagues and leave hundreds of Black men jobless, but even then Griffith’s comment was seen as paltry justification for his own anti-Blackness. Later, during a time of hope and actual headway, his words were again dismissed.
“As far as I am concerned, whatever Griffith says — good or bad — about Negro baseball or Negro baseball players, goes in one ear and out the other,” Smith wrote. “No individual who denies the citizens of the country in which he lives and thrives an opportunity is worth listening to.”
But the owners of the Negro league teams, running low on faith that an entire industry wouldn’t be unjustly sacrificed for a handful of token signings and generations of inequity to come, were listening. They had no reason not to.
“Your two leagues have established a splendid reputation and now have the support and respect of the colored people all over the country as well as the decent white people,” Griffith wrote to the Homestead Grays owner Cum Posey on Nov. 5, 1945. “They have not pirated against organized baseball nor have they stolen anything from them, and Organized Baseball has no moral right to take anything away from them without their consent.
“Mr. Posey, anything that is worthwhile is worth fighting for, so you folks should leave not a stone unturned to protect the existence of your two established Negro leagues. Don’t let anybody tear it down.”
Andrea Williams is the author of “Baseball’s Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues.”