In Remembering Baseball’s Racist Past and Present, Today’s Players Continue the Fight for a Radical Future

By Marcus Paine, Red Phoenix Sports Correspondent

Major league baseball players recently displayed powerful class and racial unity during the sport’s annual celebration of Jackie Robinson’s courageous legacy. Just as Robinson’s story reflected the history of postwar America, today’s players understand that the game has been and is intimately connected with the tenor of the country’s racial relations. A much-neglected portion of the story resides in the countless incidents of racism that minority players have experienced in the years 1947-2020, Robinson was, indeed, the pioneer, but spent the rest of his life disappointed at the lack of significant racial progress in baseball and the nation.

Like Robinson, African American players continued to be subjected to racial taunts, death threats, spikings, and beanballs. Robinson led the league in being hit by pitches for the first five years of his career. While Robinson was catching a routine throw at first base, the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter leaped to spike him on the thigh. Ku Klux Klan death threats were so prominent that the FBI was informed. Players on the Phillies used bats to pretend they were shooting Robinson with rifles as he played the field. Racist taunts from fans in Cincinnati were so severe that teammate Pee Wee Reese (from Louisville, Kentucky) walked over to Jackie and embraced him in front of the hostile crowd of over 30,000. Reese’s brave action may have silenced the crowd that day, but a hate-filled wave of racism continued to plague baseball.

In the first quarter century after Robinson’s career, black players continued to suffer from individual and institutional racism. Each ball club (except the Dodgers, Giants, Pirates, and Cubs) employed black players only if they were stars, with virtually all bench positions going to white players.

When Newcombe met Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader told him, “You’ll never know what you and Jackie and Roy did to make it possible to do my job.”

Racial stereotypes were part of the lexicon of too many fans. I grew up in Chicago as a fan of the San Francisco Giants in the 1960s, a team who had embraced the hiring of black and Latino players. Countless times I was told by baseball “friends” that the Giants would never win a pennant because “they had too many black players.” The implication was that black players were talented but didn’t know how to win, that they were “chokers.” In fact, the Giants own manager, Southerner Al Dark, told reporter Stan Isaacs in 1964, “You can’t make most Negro and Spanish players have the same pride in their team that you can get from white players. And they just aren’t as sharp mentally.” Superstars Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays were, according to Dark, “exceptions to the rule.”

Black ballplayers also were required to desegregate minor league baseball teams and leagues throughout the most racist regions of the country. These players were often assigned as the only black player on the team or in the league. Star first baseman Dick Allen recalls his experiences playing for Little Rock in 1963, “Coming in from the outfield to the dugout, I would hear the voices- ‘Chocolate Drop’ or ‘Watch your back n****r.’ I could never find the guy who made the remarks. Racist fans have a way of hissing and mumbling under their breath.” Allen, like all other black players in the South of the era, experienced death threats, couldn’t eat with their white teammates, and often stayed at homes of black citizens rather than with their teammates in segregated hotels.

The ugliness of bigotry was not just confined to the playing field. After Robinson’s rookie-of-the-year season in 1947, it would be another 12 years before every team hired its first black player. The racist ownership of the Boston Red Sox did not field a black player until 1959. The New York Yankees were also late to the game, having rejected the talented Vic Power because he wasn’t “the right kind of Negro.” MLB also would not see a black manager until the Indians hired Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson in 1974. This was 27 years after Jackie Robinson made his big-league debut. 

By 1987 there still had been only three black managers. In that year, Dodgers’ general manager Al Campanis told ABC Nightline’s Ted Koppel that there was no prejudice in baseball, and that blacks were not hired in leadership positions because, “I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager.” Pressed by Koppel, Campanis lamely defended organized baseball’s bigotry by claiming further that blacks were not meant to perform certain tasks. For example, he stated, blacks were not good at swimming “because they don’t have buoyancy.” Campanis’ statements unfortunately reflected that MLB still had a long way to go in fulfilling its legacy of racial justice.

“Politicians don’t really give a fuck about us,” stated Anthony Rizzo, “All they care about is their own agenda.”

During the great era of the Civil Rights Movement of (1954-1972) baseball was clearly regarded as a clarion of racial progress or the lack thereof. Don Newcombe was a black pitcher and teammate of Robinson and outstanding African American catcher, Roy Campanella. When Newcombe met Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader told him, “You’ll never know what you and Jackie and Roy did to make it possible to do my job.” This poignant statement reveals that baseball was and still is inexorably connected to the politics of race in America.

Unfortunately, Major League Baseball, like the nation, has now hid for too many years behind the myth of a “post-racial society.” The number of black players in MLB has dramatically decreased. This decline, however, has not discouraged a working-class unity among ballplayers who are largely white suburbanites, Latinos, and African Americans. Players made sure that games were canceled. Black Lives Matter has become a rallying cry for ballplayers, if not the racist leanings of some baseball owners.

The Yankees and Mets chose a unique matter of dissent in their refusal to play a recent game. Both teams lined up on the baselines before the game and then departed the field, refusing to play in protest of the shooting of Jake Blake and the killing of so many others. All personnel left the field vacant, but a Black Lives Matter t-shirt was left on home plate for America to see. Scores of players and managers have spoken with thoughtful fluency about the desperate need for racial equality in America. A huge draped sign of “Black Lives Matter” covers the three outfield decks of Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. All of these actions have come from the players and field managers, the wage-earners of modern baseball.

In response to the importance of Jackie Robinson, Chicago Cubs’ star first baseman honestly expressed his frustration with the ruling class’ lack of concern about equality in America. “Politicians don’t really give a fuck about us,” stated Anthony Rizzo, “All they care about is their own agenda and it’s just the way it is and it’s upsetting.” Rizzo’s incisive understanding of the bourgeoisie’s destructive and indifferent approach to human suffering and inequality serves as a call to all of us who care. Racial equality can only be achieved if working-class people do all of the work. This axiom is as true on the streets as it is on the baseball field.

Categories: U.S. News

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