Commissioner A. B. "Happy" Candler and the Integration of Major League Baseball: A Reassessment

Article excerpt

On April 24, 1945, United States Senator and former Kentucky governor A. B. "Happy" Chandler learned that he had been elected the second commissioner of Major League Baseball. Chandler's six-year tenure in this post would prove to be a momentous period in the history of the national pastime. Attendance surged due to the postwar economic boom, the major leagues established the first pension plan for players, and the game beat back the Mexican League's vigorous efforts to lure away top talent. Yet the far most significant development of Chandler's term occurred in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the major leagues in more than sixty years. Although Robinson's debut did not end discrimination in organized baseball, it gradually opened the door to hundreds of athletes who had long been excluded due to their race, and it served as a rallying point for millions of blacks across America--especially those living in the segregated South--who sought an end to racial injustice.

The extent of Chandler's role in the demise of baseball's color barrier is a matter of dispute among baseball observers. In later years, Chandler himself often declared that Robinson "couldn't have played" without his intervention. (1) He also maintained that his endorsement of integration cost him his job because it angered the owners, who were strongly prosegregation. Siding with Chandler, noted Negro-league scholar John Holway has argued that Chandler's leadership was indispensable to integration's success.' Longtime Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Walter "Red" Barber believed that Chandler's support was "absolutely pivotal." (3) William J. Marshall, author of Baseball's Pivotal Era, 1945-1951, maintains that Chandler was not a central figure in the integration of the sport, but he nevertheless contends that "without the commissioner's support the integration of baseball might not have occurred until well into the 1950s." (4) Historian Jules Tygiel, by contrast, has written that Chandler was a "bit player" in the demise of Jim Crow baseball.' Frank Slocum, who worked in the National League front office in 1946 and served as an executive with the Dodgers in 1947 and 1948, made a similar assertion in a 1991 interview: "It was Branch Rickey that [sic] got Robinson into organized baseball. Whatever Chandler did was forced on him." (6)

Holway, Barber, and other pro-Chandler advocates overstate the commissioner's involvement in the Robinson saga. Tygiel, Slocum, and others, meanwhile, dismiss Chandler too quickly. A close examination of the record reveals that although Chandler played a smaller role than he and his supporters maintained, his actions promoted the success of baseball's "great experiment."

At the time of Chandler's election, professional baseball's color barrier was more than a half-century old. After the first recorded game in 1846, the sport became so popular that by the late 186os communities nationwide were organizing teams and leagues. These teams and leagues usually divided along racial lines, but a few rural teams, lacking an adequate population base from which to recruit sufficient white talent, occasionally fielded a black player or two. Prejudice toward black players was strong, however. In 1867, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), the governing body of the amateur leagues, officially banned blacks.' The professional leagues, which date to 1871, at first permitted interracial play, but few blacks entered their ranks. Fewer than thirty played for professional teams during the 1880s and 1890s. (8)

In the mid-1880s, white players and fans' persistent hostility toward black players convinced the baseball establishment that African Americans must be forced out of the professional leagues. Fans in Richmond, Virginia, threatened to lynch a black player if he appeared in a game, and some all-white teams refused to play integrated squads if their black players took the field. …