Baseball's Whitewash: Sportswriter Wendell Smith Exposes Major League Baseball's Big Lie

Article excerpt

On the morning of Sunday, February 19, 1939, Wendell Smith, the assistant sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, sat down with National League president Ford Frick in the lobby of the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh. Smith wanted to find out for himself why there were no African Americans in base ball. If there was indeed a formal policy, Smith wanted to get that on record. If there was not a policy, he wanted to hear that directly from Frick. When Smith asked Frick why there were no African Americans in the big leagues, the baseball executive replied that there was a misunderstanding that there were no African Americans because baseball did not want them. "Many baseball fans are of the opinion that major league baseball does not want Negro players," Smith quoted Frick six days later in the Courier, "but that is not true." Frick said there were no African Americans in baseball because "the general public has not been educated to the point where they will accept them on the same standard as they do the white player." Frick insisted that the big leagues wanted African Americans but could not add them until society became more tolerant. Segregation was, in Frick's words, society's fault. (1)

Until society became more racially progressive, Frick said, segregation was in the best interests of baseball--especially during spring training in the South. "A ball club spends six weeks in the Deep South and half the season on the road," Frick said, "and there were many places where we could not take a Negro because of social problems. Such situations bring about embarrassment and dissatisfaction for all concerned." Smith asked if it would be possible to separate the African American players from the whites where segregation laws existed. Frick answered that separating the two races would not be in a team's best interests. "A ball club must be a unit," Frick answered. "The only way a manager can develop team spirit is to keep his men together as much as possible, especially on the road. It would also mean that ball players who were not broadminded would take advantage of the situation and use it to further their own cause. It might go so far as to demoralize a winning team." Frick did not explain what kind of situation he had in mind--or Smith did not ask.

When Smith asked Frick if there was a formal policy barring African Americans, Frick said there was not. Segregated baseball, Frick said, represented not the attitudes of team owners and baseball executives but the attitudes of fans and players. "I am sure that any of the major league managers would use a colored player if he thought the fans in his particular city would stand for it," Frick said, adding that there was a time when Jews were not accepted but that was not the case anymore. Eventually, the time would come when African Americans, too, would be accepted in baseball. "I think that in the near future people will be more willing to accept the Negro ball players just as they have the Negro boxer and college athletes," Frick said. "Times are changing." Smith pressed Frick on how long before there would be African Americans in organized baseball. The National League president was noncommittal. "I can not name any particular day or year, but assure you that when the people ask for the inclusion of your players we will use them. I do not think the time is far off and with constant crusading by the press of both races it is bound to come. However, you must keep fighting," Frick said. "Never let the issue die, because there is no way to measure public opinion. It may change tomorrow." (2)

Frick said it was the press's responsibility to change the attitudes of fans and society. There simply was not anything the baseball establishment could do about the color line until public opinion supported integration. Frick's position was plainly disingenuous. The baseball establishment had the authority to put African American ballplayers in big-league uniforms. …