*I decided to tell a story and/or give a little baseball trivia at the end of each practice this season. Partly to give some background of the game we’re playing, the history of the game – I believe you can’t truly love and respect something until you know its history – but also partly for my own selfish interests to make it more interesting and enjoyable for me. These are not written down ahead of time, so this is my best recollection of what was said.
**This speech was given on April 14, 2021
Tomorrow** is Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball, commemorating the day Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier ending over fifty plus years of segregation in Major League Baseball. You’ll see a lot of tributes to Jackie Robinson, celebrating him, as he deserves to be celebrated. Jackie Robinson was the first, and nothing was guaranteed for him. He knew he had to succeed to pave the way for other Black ballplayers to get the opportunity to play. He knew that there were plenty of people hoping he would fail to prove that Black players weren’t capable of playing Major League Baseball.
So Jackie deserves to be celebrated. But when you watch the tributes today, tomorrow, the next few days, pay attention to what those tributes are saying. Because sometimes it feels to me like a way for MLB to pat itself on the back. It feels like MLB uses it as a way to say there was before Jackie and after Jackie. That there was before April 15, 1947 and after April 15, 1947. Baseball was segregated and then it was integrated. We see the Movie 42 and we think, “sure, Jackie caught some abuse but his teammates rallied around him. Sure, Ben Chapman of the Phillies hurls racist nonsense at Jackie (more on the Phillies later), but that was just one guy and Jackie showed him on the field. Sure Jackie felt pressure, but he hit the big home run and the Dodgers win the pennant and go to the World Series, so Jackie wins and then baseball is integrated, right?” But I’m not sure how many of you know the story of baseball’s path to integration, that it wasn’t so fast and immediate, that it took time, that in a lot of ways it’s not something that happened in the past, but something that’s ongoing.
Let’s start on April 16, 1945, almost exactly two years before Jackie made his debut. The Red Sox were pressured into holding a sham tryout for Black players. How do we know it was a sham? Because the Red Sox executive who eventually agreed to the tryout, Eddie Collins, who is a Hall of Famer, a heck of a hitter, lifetime .333 hitter and member of the 1919 Black Sox (but not one of the players who threw the World Series), didn’t even show up to watch. Or if he did nobody saw him. In fact, when asked what he thought of Black players playing in the big leagues, he said Black players didn’t even want to play Major League Baseball, that they preferred things just as they were.
So the Red Sox hold a tryout for three players. The three players were Jackie Robinson, Sam “The Jet” Jethroe, and a young player named Marvin Williams. And Jackie killed it. Even the Red Sox manager had to admit Jackie put in a hell of a tryout. But it was a sham and the Red Sox decided none of the players were good enough.
At the end of 1945, Branch Rickey signs Jackie, and in 1946 sends him to play in the Minor Leagues for a season up in Montreal. Now I’m not sure how much you guys know about geography, but the deep South is way down there, and Montreal is way up here, as far away North as you can get and still play minor league ball. And on April 15, 1947 Jackie Robinson makes his Major League Debut. And Jackie does well. He hits a little bump where he goes 0-18, but he bounces back, and on July 4 he’s hitting .316, has an on base percentage over .400, and the Dodgers are rolling.
On July 4, Larry Doby is in Newark, New Jersey playing the first game of a double header for the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues. On July 5th, Larry Doby is making his Major League debut for the Cleveland Indians at Comiskey against the White Sox. And because Jackie Robinson has proved Black players are good enough to play, because he’s shown the team can get along with a Black ballplayer, he’s paved the way for others, right? Everything will go smoothly. Larry shows up and holds out his hand to introduce himself to his new teammates and a handful of them refuse to shake his hand, several refuse to even acknowledge him.
Before and after, right?
We talked on Monday about how there were five players who broke the color line in baseball in 1947 for three teams. By the end of 1947 two of those players had been released and there were only three players on two teams. Two of the 16 teams. But, what did Jackie do in 1947? He scored 125 runs, walked more than twice as much as he struck out, won the Rookie of the Year Award, finished fifth in MVP voting, and helped the Dodgers win the pennant and go to the World Series. So of course more teams integrated in 1948, right?
Guess how many teams added Black players in 1948. Zero. But the other integrated team, Cleveland, they’re rolling. Larry Doby is playing well, and on July 9, the Indians add a 41 year old rookie by the name of Satchel Paige, and he pitches well right away, and with Satchel Paige, Larry Doby, Lou Boudreau, the Indians win the pennant and then win the World Series, the last time they’ll win the World Series to this day. So now integrated teams have gone to the World Series each of the last seasons and shown that teams can win with Black players. So obviously baseball is integrated now and everything is okay, right?
What happens in 1949? The Dodgers add a player named Don Newcombe, and what does he do? He wins the Rookie of the Year. And Jackie? Well Jackie goes nuts. Jackie leads the league in batting average, scores 122 runs, drives in 125, wins the MVP, and the Dodgers win the World Series. We now have two rookies of the year, an MVP, teams with Black players have gone to the World Series each of the last three years and have won two World Series. Everybody is on board now, right? Baseball is integrated, it’s over now, right? Only four of the 16 teams have integrated at the end of 1949.
And how many teams add a Black player in 1950? Just one. The Boston Braves add a player by the name of Sam “The Jet” Jethroe. Remember him? He and Jackie weren’t good enough for the Red Sox. What does Jethroe do? Promptly wins the Rookie of the Year. In fact, in the 13 season after Jackie makes his debut, players who would not have been allowed to play Major League Baseball before Jackie win 10 Rookie of the Year awards and 9 MVP’s. Why do I choose 13 years? I’ll get to that.
Let’s fast forward to 1956. Jackie Robinson retires after the 1956 season. He’s played ten full years. He’s played a complete career, long enough to be eligible for the Hall of Fame. And he’s earned it, he’s had an amazing career. Three teams STILL haven’t integrated. We think before and after, right, but teams are still segregated, teams are still refusing to sign a Black player. In 1957, the eleventh year after Jackie breaks the color barrier, after Jackie Robinson has retired, the Phillies finally add a Black player. We’ll come back to this.
Does anybody know who the last team to integrate was? In the summer of 1959, thirteen years after Jackie Robinson debuts, three years after Jackie has retired, the Red Sox finally become the last team to integrate. The Red Sox! Remember, they haven’t won a World Series since Babe Ruth. We’re talking forty years or so. And they wouldn’t win another one until 2004. You don’t think they could’ve used some help? Think about all the great players who were signed in those 13 years: Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey. You don’t think the Red Sox would’ve been better off with Willie Mays alongside Ted Williams? They missed out on the greatest influx of talent in the history of the game. So they were last, so they’re the worst, right?
Let’s go back to the Phillies. In 1957 the Phillies were under a lot of pressure from the newspapers to sign a Black player, and coming out of spring training they decide they’ve finally found their guy. The bring up a guy named John Kennedy, but they have no interest in playing him. He’s chained to the bench for the first five games of the season. In the sixth game of the season the put him in to pinch run. But before he can play defense they take him out. Two days later they do the same thing, they pinch run him with no interest in giving him a chance to hit. Only this time the Phillies offense hits around and his spot comes up and they have no choice, and this is how the Phillies integrate. In all, John Kennedy gets two at bats over five games and then gets released. The Phillies won’t have another Black player until 1960, a full 13 plus years since Jackie Robinson has retired. Before and after April 15, right?
So now we’re finally integrated, we finally have every team integrated. So that’s it, right? Well let me tell you a couple things that happened after. At the end of the 1961 season, the Southern Association, a minor league from the deep South that has been in existence for 60 years, a double-A league, so pretty high, gets told by MLB that they have to integrate. So what do they do? That’s right, they fold. They’d rather not exist than play a Black player.
One more story. On June 15, 1964 the Cubs make one of the worst trades in the history of baseball. The Cubs trade future Hall of Famer Lou Brock, the future career steals leader, for Ernie Broglio, who was actually from El Cerrito. And why did the Cubs trade a future Hall of Famer for a guy who would only win 7 games over the next three years? Quota. There was a quota for how many Black players the Cubs executives believed they could play before fans would be too upset to come out to watch. To be fair, Ernie Broglio was pretty good before the trade, but still, this is the Cubs. They haven’t won a World Series since 1908, and they won’t win again for another fifty plus years. Don’t you think they could use another Hall of Famer alongside two time MVP Ernie Banks? And what did Lou Brock do in 1964 with the Cardinals? He scored over 100 runs, had double digits in doubles, triples and home runs, stole a bunch of bases, and joined Bob Gibson, Curt Flood and Minnie Minoso to win the World Series.
So when you watch all the Jackie Robinson tributes over the next few days pay attention to what they’re saying and not saying. It’s good to know the rest of the story and to keep that story in mind when you hear what story they tell. But, also, I think it’s good to pay attention to who holds Jackie up as an example and why. Because sometimes people hold Jackie Robinson up as an example without knowing what Jackie Robinson stood for and who he might be today.
Now I don’t know for sure who Jackie Robinson would be today, he’s not here to tell us, but what we can do is look back at what he did and said and make an educated guess about how he would feel about things today. For example, one of the things people applaud Jackie for was being able to put up with massive amounts of abuse so that others could follow. We know Branch Rickey told him he had to have the courage not to fight back, that he wanted him to turn the other cheek. But is that what we want someone to do today? If one of our players was taunted with racist nonsense, would we ask him to turn the other cheek and take it? Today our expectation is that people DON’T hurl racist nonsense. I believe Jackie Robinson would not ask our player to turn the other cheek and take it. I believe he would say that he took the abuse so our player wouldn’t have to. He wouldn’t want our Asian players to take the Asian hate, he would say he took the abuse so they don’t have to.
At the end of his life Jackie Robinson spoke over and over about wanting to see Black managers. I don’t think he would be happy with only two Black managers in the game today. It’s important to remember that these issues aren’t over, they’re ongoing.
I’m not sure how much you guys know about Curt Flood challenging the reserve clause that tied a player to one team, something Curt Flood likened to being enslaved. Jackie Robinson was one of only five people to testify on Flood’s behalf. I believe he would be in support of free agency, of the economic freedom and choice players have fought hard for today.
Okay, last one. At the 1968 Olympics, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute, during the anthem, in front of the flag, they pissed off a lot of people. Jackie Robinson came out in support of them. In fact, in his biography, Jackie Robinson wrote that when he thought back on his first day in the Majors, when they played the National Anthem, when he thought of what the song meant and how his grandfather was a slave and his father was a share cropper, he felt that he couldn’t rise for or sing that song ever again. So if you see someone hold Jackie Robinson up as an example but also say they believe Colin Kaepernick disrespected the flag or the military, then they don’t know who Jackie Robinson was. Or they just want to use Jackie Robinson for their own beliefs.
You see, the Jackie Robinson story is not something that just happened in the past. It’s something that is still happening now.
Don’t take my word for any of this. I hope this inspires you to look this up, see for yourself. I hope this is a way in to baseball history and that you’ll look into it more. There are so many people and stories I didn’t share. I hope you’ll look up Dick Allen. I hope you’ll decide for yourself who Jackie Robinson would be today.