I’ve given it a lot of thought: it’s still an insult.
I’m talking about Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball way back in 1947. Or, more specifically, the condition and conditions under which said integration took place.
Yes, I’ve seen “42.” Darned good movie. Excellent, in fact. And it’s based on a great story.
My assessment of Robinson’s breaking the color line in Major League Baseball’s modern era in no way reflects my feelings about Robinson. He was, and will always remain, a major American hero.
No, my target here is the man I targeted some 16 years ago, when the 50th anniversary brouhaha about Robinson’s integration of MLB was going on.
That would be none other than Branch Rickey, the man that owned the then-Brooklyn Dodgers, and the one that brought Robinson from the Negro Leagues to integrate MLB.
Rickey has been hailed as a liberal visionary, a man who went against the grain and popular opinion by integrating MLB. He’s viewed as a courageous champion of equal rights. Indeed, that’s how he’s portrayed in the film.
All of that is true; it’s also true with a huge “BUT” attached to it.
Yes, Rickey integrated MLB. But he imposed conditions on Robinson that were downright insulting.
Rickey asked – actually, it was more like demanded – that Robinson meekly submit to every racist, bigoted insult hurled at him. The notion was that if Robinson fought back, it would reflect on black people in general.
So WE were the ones facing Jim Crow, segregation, poverty, inadequate housing, discrimination in housing and the job market, LYNCHING, and WE were the ones that had to prove we were fit to integrate?
Rickey had the right idea; he was just wrong as wrong can be about which race had to prove it was civilized. Had that been Rickey’s only sin, it might be easy to forgive him.
But Rickey made some comments about blacks in general that reflected he might not have been as liberal on the race issue as is generally thought.
The remarks are in author Mark Ribowsky’s book “A Complete History of the Negro Leagues.” In it, Rickey presumes to tell black Americans how to act – and react – to Robinson’s integration of MLB.
“Rickey went to great lengths to admonish the black community against getting too carried away,” Ribowsky wrote. “Rickey implored them not to make Robinson into a political cause célèbre, not to stage ‘parades and welcoming committees’ or to hold ‘Jackie Robinson days.’
“To pound home the point,” Ribowsky continued, “baseball’s self-styled Great Emancipator was blunt, some might have said offensive. ‘You’ll get drunk. You’ll fight. You’ll get arrested,’ Rickey lectured his audience of well-heeled blacks, part of the growing black bourgeoisie. ‘You’ll whine and dine the player until he’s fat and futile. You’ll symbolize his importance into a national comedy and an ultimate tragedy.’”
This drivel – which WASN’T heard in the movie “42,” by the way – deserved an “Oh no this white man didn’t!” reaction of black folks in 1947, but it was not forthcoming. I guess our people were so glad that just one of us integrated MLB that we were ready to take just about any insult.
And what was with this business of integrating only one, lone black person into MLB? Were Rickey serious about integrating, the man would have INTEGRATED.
That would have meant choosing at least two black Negro League players, not just one, at least so that Robinson wouldn’t have had to take that heat alone.
And the Negro Leagues didn’t just have black players. There were black umpires. There were black coaches and managers.
Negro League teams had black front office personnel. The teams had black OWNERS, for heaven’s sake.
Were Rickey more worried about genuine integration and less worried about his legacy as the Abe Lincoln of baseball, he’d have brought that second black player to the Dodgers along with Robinson. He could have added some black front office personnel as well.
Black players did indeed follow Robinson into MLB. Black umpires, coaches, managers, front office personnel and owners didn’t make the same trip. They weren’t welcome.
Within a few short years after 1947, the viable black baseball clubs of the old Negro Leagues had been integrated out of existence.
That might have been the greatest insult of all.