"What's Wrong with Baseball": The Pittsburgh Courier and the Beginning of Its Campaign to Integrate the National Pastime

Article excerpt

On February 5, 1933, the grand ballroom of New York City's Commodore Hotel crackled with laughter during an evening of songs, skits, and speeches at the 10th annual New York Baseball Writers' Association dinner. Sportswriters took turns spoofing everyone from the guest of honor, retired New York Giants' manager John McGraw, to the New York Yankees, who had won the World Series in October. In addition, the scribes performed their annual minstrel show in front of the all-white crowd of 600 owners, managers, players, journalists, other dignitaries and guests. New York Times sportswriter John Drebinger (1933) called the minstrel show the most entertaining part of the evening.

In his speech, New York World-Telegram columnist Heywood Broun responded to a recent editorial in the New York Daily News, headlined "What's Wrong With Baseball," which called for abolishing the color line. Broun asked why there were no Blacks in baseball, then answered his own question: "I can see no reason why Negroes should not come into the National and American Leagues." If Rutgers star Paul Robeson was good enough to be named to the team of the greatest college football players ever and Eddie Tolan could represent the United States at the 1932 Olympic Games, Broun said, then Blacks were good enough to play in the big leagues ("Heywood Broun," 1933, p. 1). When he was told that baseball did not have a rule or policy prohibiting Blacks, he recalled how New York Giants' manager John McGraw had once been prevented from signing a Black player by the other team owners ("Heywood Broun," 1933).

After Broun's speech, Daily News columnist Jimmy Powers asked several league and team officials if they objected to Blacks in baseball. National League president John Heydler, New York Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, Philadelphia Phillies president Gary Nugent and ballplayers such as Lou Gehrig, Herb Pennock and Frankie Frisch all told him they did not. In his February 8 column, Powers called the response a sign of progress in race relations. This was in contrast to the prejudiced ballplayers of the past, he said, who wandered into the ballparks from Southern swamp lands. "The bulk of the players then came from the other side of the Mason Dixon line. They brought the (Jim Crow) ... ideas into the North with them." Powers said it was only a matter of time before Blacks were admitted into the big leagues ("Broun and Powers Take a Stand," 1933, Section II, 5).

Powers was wrong about how soon Blacks would be allowed in the big leagues. It would be another 12 years before Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Jackie Robinson for the organization's AAA team, the Montreal Royals, in August 1945. Montreal announced the signing of Robinson two months later, on October 23, 1945. Robinson went to spring training in Florida the following March and then led the International League in hitting during the 1946 season. In April 1947, Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers, breaking major league baseball's color barrier and forever altering both baseball and American society.

If Broun and Powers had hoped to begin a dialogue on race in baseball, they succeeded--but not among baseball executives or mainstream sportswriters. Their comments prompted the attention of the influential Black weekly, the Pittsburgh Courier, which had a national readership. Between 1933 and 1946, under editor Robert C. Vann and managing editor William Nunn, the newspaper's circulation rose from 46,000 to more than 260,000--or 100,000 more than its nearest rival--not coincidentally these years coincided with its campaign to integrate baseball (Wiggins, 1983).

The Courier, in particular, achieved prominence in the 1930s and 1940s through a series of crusades aimed at ending discrimination, which included calling for the integration of baseball, protesting the racial caricatures of the Amos `n' Andy radio program, advocating the integration of the armed forces, and touting the Double V program during World War II--one "V" stood for victory in Europe and Asia, the other for civil rights in America (Price, 1997). …