Robinson Breaks the Color Line in Major-League Baseball Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Branch Rickey recruited Jackie Robinson to be the first African American major-league baseball player. Together, they began the racial integration of mainstream professional baseball and forwarded the cause of civil rights and integration generally.

Summary of Event

In 1945, the United States was both triumphant and troubled. The most powerful nation in the world in the aftermath of World War II, the United States measured its strength not only in military and economic terms but also in the supposed moral superiority of American democracy. In 1945, however, segregation and racial exclusion remained the norms in American society. Even the U.S. armed forces were largely segregated. In the years following the war, Americans would have to come to terms with the gap between what their democracy was supposed to be and what it was. It was in this context that major-league baseball extended an opportunity to African Americans and, in so doing, lost its status as a racist institution. The change did not come easily and might have been significantly delayed if not for Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Baseball;segregation Athletes;Jackie Robinson[Robinson] African Americans;athletes Brooklyn Dodgers Segregation;professional sports Baseball;Jackie Robinson[Robinson] [kw]Robinson Breaks the Color Line in Major-League Baseball (Apr. 15, 1947) [kw]Color Line in Major-League Baseball, Robinson Breaks the (Apr. 15, 1947) [kw]Major-League Baseball, Robinson Breaks the Color Line in (Apr. 15, 1947)[Major League Baseball, Robinson Breaks the Color Line in] [kw]Baseball, Robinson Breaks the Color Line in Major-League (Apr. 15, 1947) Baseball;segregation Athletes;Jackie Robinson[Robinson] African Americans;athletes Brooklyn Dodgers Segregation;professional sports Baseball;Jackie Robinson[Robinson] [g]North America;Apr. 15, 1947: Robinson Breaks the Color Line in Major-League Baseball[02030] [g]United States;Apr. 15, 1947: Robinson Breaks the Color Line in Major-League Baseball[02030] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 15, 1947: Robinson Breaks the Color Line in Major-League Baseball[02030] [c]Sports;Apr. 15, 1947: Robinson Breaks the Color Line in Major-League Baseball[02030] Robinson, Jackie Rickey, Branch Chandler, Happy

Jackie Robinson.

(National Baseball Library, Cooperstown, New York)

The color line that excluded African Americans from major-league baseball had its origins in the previous century and was solidly established. In 1923, it had been reinforced by an informal agreement among the major-league owners. This agreement was still very much in force in 1945, when Rickey decided to proceed with his plan to bring down baseball’s color barrier. Finding skillful African American players was not a problem. Although they were excluded from major-league baseball, African Americans had not stopped playing the game. Barnstorming professional and semiprofessional teams and eventually entire “Negro” leagues arose, with a level of play comparable to that of the major and top minor leagues. Indeed, Negro League teams often beat white all-star teams in games played during the off-season.

Despite their comparable skills, African American baseball players were paid much less and had to spend far more time traveling than white players. Nor did the Negro Leagues Baseball;Negro Leagues enjoy the stability of the major and minor leagues. As a result, a pool of talented and more-than-willing African American players was available to Rickey.

The integration of baseball had previously been advocated by African American sportswriters such as Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-America and Wendell Smith Smith, Wendell of the Pittsburgh Courier. What Rickey brought to the issue was clout. He had the position and personality to begin integrating baseball and to deal with any opposition that might arise. As with other civil rights advances of the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s, there was stern opposition—from other major-league owners as well as fans. The owners argued that white fans and players were not ready for integration. Rickey believed that the time was right, however, and he pushed ahead.

Rickey’s motivation has been the subject of considerable debate. He claimed to be acting on religious and moral grounds, but he undoubtedly was aware of the growing economic success of the Negro Leagues, as well as the wealth of talent they might offer to the Dodgers. On the other hand, Rickey did not monopolize the best African American prospects, even recommending star outfielder Monte Irvin to the rival New York Giants. While motives are complex and difficult to discern, one thing is clear: Rickey had an unshakeable belief in what he was doing.

The question of who would shoulder the burden of breaking the color line was a difficult one. Rickey and other advocates of integration knew that the honor of being that person would be at least equaled by the ordeal and that even a very strong individual might be broken by the twofold pressure of competing on the major-league level and being a crusader for racial justice. Because of the demanding job description, Rickey saw his choice to be one of awesome importance. It was Wendell Smith who recommended Jackie Robinson. Rickey had Robinson scouted and interviewed him. All the qualifications were there. Robinson was college educated and had played three different college sports on integrated teams. At twenty-six years of age, Robinson was mature but still in his prime. He also had demonstrated his dedication to the cause of racial equality, struggling against segregation while serving in the armed forces.

Rickey saw in Robinson a man with fire in his belly, great self-control, and superb baseball skills. Robinson saw both an athletic and a social challenge. With the support of his wife, Rachel, he decided to accept the challenge, signing a contract to play in the Dodger organization. One obstacle had to be overcome before the Jackie Robinson experiment could begin, however. Rickey wanted Robinson to acclimate himself by playing in the minor leagues for one year. In order for Robinson to be optioned to the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal, the other major-league owners would have to approve. None of them did.

Into this impasse stepped the new commissioner of baseball, Happy Chandler, a former Kentucky politician and veteran of public life. The previous commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis Landis, Kenesaw Mountain , had been an uncompromising opponent of integration. Indeed, it was Landis more than anyone who had engineered and maintained the 1923 agreement outlawing interracial play. Chandler had inherited Landis’s autocratic power but not his attitude on the color line. Despite considerable pressure from the owners, Chandler overruled their fifteen-to-one vote against Rickey, allowing Robinson to begin his career in mainstream professional baseball in the spring of 1946.

Later, Chandler would claim he had made his decision because he did not wish to explain to his Creator that he had denied a fellow human being a chance to play baseball because of the color of his skin. Chandler’s political sense was also astute. He correctly surveyed the political winds and realized that the criticism he took for allowing Robinson to play would have been dwarfed by the damage to his image that would have resulted if he had championed the cause of segregation. Americans’ opinions on race were changing, not entirely or all at once, but enough to shift the tide.

With permission to play secured, it was up to Robinson to succeed. He came through in every respect. He led Montreal to a league championship, winning the respect of International League players and fans alike. He proved that he could keep his mind on the game of baseball while putting up with verbal abuse and physical intimidation in the form of brushback pitches and high spikes. Playing half of his games in Montreal, a multicultural Canadian city, probably helped, but Robinson had clearly proved his mettle.

The following spring, Robinson joined the Dodgers’ roster, playing his first regular-season major-league game on April 15, 1947. Although Robinson got off to a slow start, he believed that his teammates were behind him. (This might not have been the case had Rickey not traded several Dodger players who refused to play with an African American.) Opposing teams were another matter. They rode Robinson unmercifully, as was the custom of the time with all rookies, often making race the focus of their comments. In living up to his agreement with Rickey, Robinson turned the other cheek to such comments to avoid jeopardizing his cause by touching off a feud or a brawl. Sympathetic reporters such as Walter Winchell tried to ease Robinson’s burden by criticizing the worst offenders in their publications, a gesture for which Robinson later expressed gratitude.

Soon Robinson began to play well, proving himself to be an excellent hitter and baserunner, as well as a versatile fielder. By the end of the year, Robinson had batted .297, won Rookie of the Year honors, and, quite literally, revolutionized baseball. The Dodgers won the National League pennant. With Robinson and many other African American players, they would win five more pennants in the next nine years, becoming a convincing testament to the possibilities of interracial cooperation. The other owners had been proved wrong. White players and fans overwhelmingly accepted integration, rejecting a past that most Americans were more than willing to forget. The cost to Robinson was significant. His hair turned prematurely gray, and he spent many years recovering from the trauma of his groundbreaking achievement. He had made himself a target in order to rub out baseball’s color line. For this Robinson suffered, but he never expressed regret.

Significance

The initial and most obvious impact of Jackie Robinson’s triumph over the color line in baseball was to create career opportunities for other African American baseball players. Moved primarily by the need to stay competitive (the Dodgers dominated the National League for a decade with the help of African American players such as Robinson, Roy Campanella, Joe Black, Don Newcombe, and Jim Gilliam), and in the absence of the dire consequences they had predicted, other owners began to scout and sign talented African American players. There was still hesitancy on the part of some franchises, most notably the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, but by 1959 every major-league team had been integrated. Baseball had been successfully transformed into a symbol of racial equality and harmony rather than one of hypocrisy and frustrated dreams.

The indirect benefits of baseball’s integration were also substantial. Understood not as a first cause, but as an important link in the chain of events, it facilitated later gains such as the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which desegregated schools, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1964, and 1965, which addressed other forms of segregation, job discrimination, and voting rights. The integration of baseball had rendered absurd the contention that the races were incapable of interacting fruitfully for common ends. Clearly, if athletes of different races could play together, people of different races could work and live together. Equal opportunity in baseball was analogous to that throughout American society. Finally, baseball’s integration fostered bonds between white fans and African American players. This made it less likely that white Northerners would accept segregation and other forms of racial injustice passively, as they had in the past.

It is a mistake, however, to see Robinson’s triumph over baseball’s color line as a signal that racial justice and equality are no longer problematic issues in American society. While the player rosters of organized baseball teams became thoroughly integrated, African Americans remain clearly underrepresented in managerial, coaching, and front-office positions, although some progress has been made in these areas. There have, in addition, been charges of remaining discrimination on the field. Specifically, it has been alleged that players of marginal ability have better chances to make big-league rosters if they are white. Similarly, pockets of racial prejudice continue to exist among fans. Moreover, the existence of a pool of well-paid African American athletes is a misleading indicator of economic distribution according to race. African Americans continue to make up a disproportionate number of America’s poor, and the existence of a few wildly successful African American role models—for generations that will by and large never achieve such success—is a powerful instance of the ambiguous value of the ideology of the American Dream.

None of these considerations should diminish the appreciation due Jackie Robinson. He did not manage to strike down racism with a single blow, but he was not an “Uncle Tom” either. He was a fine athlete with highly developed social values and the character and courage to back them up. Perhaps most impressive was Robinson’s refusal to become rigid in his thinking. As the terrain of race relations in the United States changed toward the end of his life, Robinson changed his political affiliation, citing the Republican Party’s lack of committment to the cause of racial equality. Recognizing the need for new initiatives rather than worship of the past, Robinson never presented his own experience as a reason for complacency. He saw clearly that the quest for racial justice was an ongoing struggle. Baseball;segregation Athletes;Jackie Robinson[Robinson] African Americans;athletes Brooklyn Dodgers Segregation;professional sports Baseball;Jackie Robinson[Robinson]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aaron, Hank. I Had a Hammer. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Describes Aaron’s early experience as one of relatively few African American players, his hall-of-fame career, and his subsequent frustration with the failure of baseball owners to integrate management and coaching staffs fully.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frommer, Harvey. Rickey and Robinson: The Men Who Broke Baseball’s Color Barrier. New York: Macmillan, 1982. Provides a rich portrait of the two figures central to the Jackie Robinson story.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kahn, Roger. The Boys of Summer. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. A sport journalist’s “then and now” portraits of Jackie Robinson and selected teammates on the Dodgers. Remarkable for its frankness and depth of feeling.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lamb, Chris. Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. Detailed account, providing a background on baseball’s color line and Robinson’s early life and recounting his recruitment by Rickey and his early training, through his first minor-league game in Montreal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. Originally published in 1945, Myrdal’s book went into great detail and pulled no punches in its portrayal of American racism. A Swedish sociologist, Myrdal served the United States well in the role of social conscience, propelling Americans toward experiments in racial equality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peterson, Robert W. Only the Ball Was White. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Describes life in the Negro Leagues. Also quotes from a 1923 agreement by white team owners that continued and formalized the exclusion of African American players.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Jackie. Baseball Has Done It. Reprint. Introduction by Spike Lee. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Ig, 2005. An oral history of the racial integration of baseball, consisting of Robinson’s interviews with Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, and many other major-league players, as well as Negro League players, managers, and coaches. Available in print for the first time since 1964.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Jackie, with Wendell Smith. Jackie Robinson: My Own Story. New York: Greenberg Press, 1948. A straightforward account of Robinson’s athletic career and experience breaking organized baseball’s color line. Contains many photographs. Also notable is the participation of Smith, who wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American paper. It was Smith who recommended Robinson to Branch Rickey.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tygiel, Jules. Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Thoroughly researched social history that casts light not only on the personalities involved in the Jackie Robinson story but also on the broader social and historical context in which these individuals operated. Examines racial integration of all the major-league teams and the subsequent issue of organized baseball’s integration on the management level.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Voight, David Q. America Through Baseball. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1976. Chapter 8, “American Baseball and the American Dilemma,” presents a thought-provoking critique of the so-called Jackie Robinson myth: the belief that Robinson’s entry into baseball somehow fostered or signaled a golden age of racial equality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford University Press, 1957. A classic, highly readable account of segregation in the American South.

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