This sixtieth anniversary season of Jackie Robinson’s 1947 appearance as a Brooklyn Dodger will inspire many deserved accolades, but some praise may actually sell Jackie short.
Strictly speaking, Jackie Robinson did not change baseball—Branch Rickey did that by signing Robinson in the first place. Yet Jackie himself accomplished much more: Jackie Robinson changed America.
In Robinson’s day, baseball was the undisputed king of sports, and that platform could not have been lost on a 1954 Supreme Court looking to justify an assault on school segregation laws with its landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. On January 12, 1921, a federal judge in Chicago named Kenesaw Mountain Landis was named baseball’s first independent commissioner in the wake of the Black Sox gambling scandal. Landis, though, was a racist, so no black ballplayer ever saw a big league field under his regime—not even Jackie Robinson who had first tried out for the Chicago White Sox on March 18, 1942, but was rejected. Landis finally succumbed in a Chicago hospital on November 25, 1944, and the underpinnings of baseball racism died with him.
The Dodgers inked Jackie to a minor league deal in 1945. Then, on April 15, Jackie Robinson took the field in a Dodgers uniform. The racist diatribe that Robinson suffered is well documented, but he still slugged and ran his Dodgers into the World Series batting .297 with a league leading 29 stolen bases. Although the vaunted Yankees would take the Series in seven games, Jackie Robinson would be named the National League Rookie of the Year. It should have been Rookie of the Century.
Cleveland owner Bill Veeck then signed slugger Larry Doby, and on July 7, 1948, Veeck also hired aging Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige for a likely pennant run. Paige was at least 42 years old at the time, and may even have been 48 according to Negro Leaguer Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe. The Sporting News scoffed, “If Satchel were white he would not have drawn a second thought.” Veeck’s retort: “Had Satchel been white, he would have been in the majors 25 years ago.” In 1951, the Giants signed legend-in-waiting Willie Mays who won National League Rookie of the Year while Dodger catcher Campanella was nailing down the MVP award.
The very next year, the state of Kansas enacted General Statute 72-1724 validating “separate but equal” facilities for public school children, forcing a black 8-year-old girl in Topeka to travel several miles to school rather than attend a facility in her own neighborhood. Suit was filed on her behalf, and the Brown case—her case—clawed its way to a Supreme Court ruling in 1954. “Today … many Negroes have achieved outstanding success in the arts and sciences as well as in the business and professional world,” reasoned Chief Justice Earl Warren, who then struck down the Kansas segregation law.
Warren’s opinion did not specifically mention baseball, but it had to have meant baseball, at least in part, for the resounding success of blacks in our sacred national sport was inescapable front page news. On November 11, 1952, just 9 days before the Brown v. Board case was scheduled for argument before the Supreme Court, Jackie Robinson appeared on NBC television and ignited a firestorm by accusing the all-white New York Yankees of racism.
On October 8, 1953, Birmingham, Alabama blocked Robinson’s integrated all-star team from playing an exhibition game. This was two months before Brown v. Board would be argued for a second time on December 8, 1953, and by that time baseball was already on the Supreme Court front burner—on November 9, 1953, the Court had upheld the game’s bizarre antitrust exemption in Toolson v. New York Yankees and noting “…the high place [baseball] enjoys in the hearts of our people.”
The following spring, on May 17, 1954, the Brown ruling was finally issued. It followed Hank Aaron’s first big league home run by just 24 days. Could the Supreme Court have missed Robinson, Doby, Campanella, Mays, Aaron and the others? Certainly not. Jackie and those who followed may have played on a baseball field, but it was the American landscape they forever altered.
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