The United States had just come through a war, prompted largely by man’s inhumanity to man. The fullness of time was right for change. But societal changes happen slowly. What was needed was a catalyst.
Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey provided that catalyst, signing Jackie Robinson as the first modern black major league baseball player.
The story is being told in theaters in the film “42.” It evokes anger, humor and marvel at the perceptible changes in attitude as Robinson, with Rickey’s encouragement, displayed “the courage not to fight back.” Instead he did his fighting with his bat, his glove and his feet.
The eventual transformation slowly became evident through the changed attitudes of first his teammates, then opposing players and fans. Robinson survived hostility in forms such as blatant brushback pitches and vitriolic bench jockeying that would not be tolerated today. Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman’s racial taunts were exemplified and he eventually was ordered to make peace with Robinson. And Kentuckian teammate Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Jackie during a game in Cincinnati helped cool off fan hostility.
Robinson was the first 20th century black in any major team sport. He was not the first successful black athlete, though. Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson already were world champions in the boxing realm, and a couple of decades earlier Jack Johnson had paved the way. And sprinter Jesse Owens called Hitler’s bluff at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Other changes already were underway. President Truman ordered the U.S. armed forces desegregated. Soon the U.S. Supreme Court would rule segregated schools unconstitutional. Led by Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement would lead to the elimination of institutionalized public racial segregation.
Before Robinson reached the major leagues, black players were confined to the barnstorming Negro leagues despite such talented performers as Satchel Paige, said to be the best pitcher ever when he was in his prime; Josh Gibson; and “Cool Papa” Bell. Anderson’s own Johnny Wilson played in the Negro leagues as well as for basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters.
Another Andersonian, Carl Erskine, would become part of the Dodgers revolution. Erskine has said often it was no groundbreaking thing for him, having grown up and palled around with Wilson during their ballplaying days.
The other major sports would soon follow suit in desegregating. It is a tribute to baseball, however, that only the real aficionados remember the names of the first black players in football or basketball. By that time baseball already had other headliners of color, including Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Willie Mays, Larry Doby, Luke Easter, Hank Aaron and Paige.
And predictions that black players would “take over” baseball have not come to pass. In part that is because the path to stardom has become quicker in football and basketball. But in baseball there are more Hispanic players than African-Americans.
Jim Bailey’s reflections on Anderson’s past appear on Sunday. His regular column appears on Wednesday. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.