Tuesday, February 18, 2014

did you know that Jackie Robinson wrote a book?

Baseball Has Done It includes comments by Jackie Robinson (JR) as well as his narration accompanying a series of mini-interviews with players, coaches, and owners. The players range from stars to the relatively unknown. The interviewees describe a range of experiences-- on how things were growing up and how things were for them in baseball. The interviews depict a wide range of views-- on how to handle the difficult situations they encountered with newly-integrated baseball and the state of race relations in America at the time of the interview

JR graciously notes that he was not the first "Negro" to play in the major leagues: Fleetwood Walker and his brother Weldon played for the Toledo MudHens in 1884 (30). And he notes that the same sort of discrimination happened in other fields of entertainment. He cites Florence Mills who had the #1 song in 1925 but was never allowed to sing in a white establishment. "The 1920s were called the Golden Age of sports, but no Negro was allowed to face Jack Dempsey in the ring, Bill Tilden on the tennis courts, Bobby Jones on the links; no Negro pitcher faced Babe Ruth." (40)

JR said regular season fans could be hostile, but Spring Training was a lot rougher, esp. in Florida. Ironically, Los Angelenos were "in certain respects...less understanding than Southerners and even more were openly hostile." (41) And his "Southern teammates were more reliable than some Northerners. I knew where I stood with them. After they knew me better, they were regular guys on the field. The Northerner might give you the glad hand, but after he discovers that you have as much ability...he's a different person altogether." (73) One hears this sort of thing off-and-on even today-- about overt vs. covert racism; honest dealings vs. condescension.

In response to all of this, JR famously chose to "turn the other cheek" for two years-- and then was given latitude by Branch Rickey in 1949 to fight/stand for his rights, etc. Even so, he clearly "picked his battles", not letting "small things" set him off. Along the way, JR's teammates were supportive. He gives details, including the famous moment where PeeWee Reese put his arm around him at second base, during a game (55, 80).

JR had strong ideas about the best way to proceed, but generally respected those who chose other paths. (In contrast, he noted that Roy Campanella had been critical of his approach [123]. And there were limits to JR's tolerance: he critiqued Willie Mays and Maury Wills for failing to speak in general and submitting to an interview for his book in particular [208-209].) 

JR spends a big chunk of the book on Branch Rickey: his initial interview with him (which included Rickey yelling racial taunts at him to se how he would respond); his strong words of encouragement to JR; his desire for his team to win; the history of his thought process that led up to the big decision; the wisdom of the decision to have JR play on the farm team in Montreal.  

JR also talks about Bill Veeck-- who combined a quirky preference for novelty with a desire for profit and winning team. Veeck was the first owner to integrate an American League team-- with Larry Doby (68-69). Next up were the Giants with Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin (chapter 8). Late in the book, JR describes the integration of Latin players, including Minnie Minoso and Vic Power.

Within a decade, integration had exploded and life in baseball was forever changed: "Colored players" on every team by 1959; in 1963, "51 Negroes and 24 colored Latins"-- 15% of the players-- including five batting champs, six Rookies of the Year, and six MVP's. Ten of the top eleven batters in the NL (and 3 of the top 10 in the AL) were non-whites.

Of course, as a labor economist, I find the economics of discrimination to be fascinating. For example, in competitive markets, it is costly to engage in personal discrimination: avoiding good workers, employees, tenants, etc. because one wants to indulge odd tastes and preferences about traits unrelated to "productivity". Moreover, in a competitive setting, if you discriminate and I don't, then I have a competitive advantage over you-- and will find it difficult to stay in the market.

This is one of many reasons why producers would seek restrictions against competition. JR fingers Cap Anson for leading a collusive arrangement against Negros in baseball. In this, we find the common desire to lock out competitors, bolstered by government. Anson didn't want to compete as hard-- and his racism was correlated with that desire-- so he fought for segregation and used peer pressure and regulation to accomplish his goals. Likewise, some owners were bigots-- and didn't want to compete with non-bigots (or the less-bigoted)-- so they sought integration regulation from the industry (and the government who condoned it).

JR points to some fascinating examples of this. In 1901, John McGraw tried to pass off a Black as a Native-American (32), but the plan didn't work. JR repeatedly claims that baseball led the way in integrating many restaurants (56), hotels (86, 100), movie theaters (100), and entire smaller Southern towns (111), clubs and neighborhoods (185). They tried to retain segregation, but they started to lose customers and reversed course.

JR saw it happen quickly-- when the tide turned. But he imagined this, at least nationwide and in the hearts of people, as a slow and steady process (218). He didn't trash law, but thought it had an exaggerated importance, especially when it would not be enforced (149). I think he would also point to what might be called the "Spike Lee-- Do the Right Thing" effect. In that movie, the Italians are bigoted toward "Blacks", but their favorite entertainers were all Black.

As an aside, JR provides a sad commentary on discrimination and its impact on building human capital: "My brothers, their friends and acquaintances, all older than me, had studied hard and wound up as porters, elevator operators, taxi drivers, bellhops. I came to the conclusion that long hours over books were a waste of time. Considering my situation, I was not far wrong." (44)

Finally, JR's discussion of language is interesting and useful: "Nigger is offensive only when employed in a derogatory senses...We object to boy or girl in reference to adult Negroes...Girl, as applied to a woman who is a mother or even grandmother, is particularly insulting." (63-64) In this, JR points to the intent behind the language. While I understand why some people find it bothersome for African-Americans to use the term "nigger" and while their use of that term undermines their critique of it, they still have a point: it is different, depending on the context in which its used. Along the same lines, JR's critique of "girl" is now (quite) dated-- as the term has become quite popular, even across racial lines.

A h/t to Matt Welch, whose excellent article put me onto the book in his Reason essay.

The misleadingly titled Baseball Has Done It was not some kind of gee-whiz celebration of the sport’s integration. It was a forceful attempt to document the human struggles involved in that monumental project, through first-person accounts from black and white players and coaches ranging from Branch Rickey to eventual homerun champ Henry Aaron to accused racist Alvin Dark. Robinson’s explicit aim was to apply lessons learned from baseball to the raging civil rights debate of the day.

Reading the book in 2013 doesn’t just deliver a sharp slap of a reminder about how disgustingly racist much of this country still was within recent memory. (Black players still routinely faced “whites only” public accommodations in Florida during the 1960s, for example.) It also calls into question just why a contemporaneous history of great ballplayers discussing their struggles faded into immediate obscurity while Glory’s paean to segregation-era ball rocketed to instant fame...

Freezing Jackie Robinson in 1947 amber also lets baseball—and society—off the hook for all the governmental and private racism that was still actively poisoning the country two decades after Branch Rickey’s great experiment. Better to remember that one magical year than dwell on all the different southern minor leagues that were still being integrated well into the 1960s. When your face is unlovely, it’s always more fun to look at old photographs than the bathroom mirror.

Perhaps the most surprising part of Baseball Has Done It is Robinson’s report that during his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1962, “No one mentioned that I was the first Negro in the Hall of Fame, or that another bastion of prejudice had fallen. No one was thinking about such things that day.” He says this as a point of pride, that the quality of his performance—the content of his baseball character—was evaluated on its own merits and found victorious. Maybe one day that can again be true.  


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home