One Glorious Season: How Baseball Helped to Integrate Decatur, Illinois

Article excerpt

Jim Freeman never intended to become a part of history. The Decatur native only wanted a chance to play major league baseball. That was not an easy thing for an African American to accomplish in 1952. Only five other major league teams had integrated since Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to play for his Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. One minor league team barred a black player from playing after he made one appearance and another league attempted to expel a franchise after trying to put a black player on the field. Many circuits did not commence integrating until 1953.1 Even with the door open, however slightly, in major league baseball, the nation had a long way to go down the path of integration. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) legal strategy was slowly working through the courts to end segregation in schools, but the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision was two years away. Rosa Parks would not make her decision to refuse to give up her seat on the bus for another three years and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had not yet gained national prominence.

Freeman left high school in Decatur in February 1943 to enter the United States Army. It was in the Army that he began playing baseball. Upon his return home to Decatur in 1946, Freeman played softball on a local team called The Jolly Boys. He went to tryouts for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1947 at the suggestion of Decatur sportswriter Howard Millard. Advocates of integration argued, "If he is good enough for the Navy (or Army), he's good enough for the majors."2 Freeman made a good showing at the camp, but Cardinals hitting instructor "Runt" Meers confided to him that the Cardinals were just not ready to sign an African-American player.3 Meers recommended Freeman to a friend with the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs.4 Harold Seymour wrote in his classic America: The People's Game, "One way children of foreign birth or parentage could fit into the new culture was to take part in baseball, and early on, many of them perceived it their badge as Americans."5 Even that path was denied African Americans. Baseball historian Edward G. White wrote that stereotypes of African Americans suggested that they could never be fully integrated, that "In terms of melting pot theory, certain inherently 'black' characteristics could never be melted down."6 Arthur Mann, Branch Rickey's biographer, challenged with, "How can you call it an All-American sport if you exclude black Americans?"7

Jim Freeman began the 1948 baseball season with the Monarchs, playing on the traveling team. Baseball immortal Satchel Paige was the drawing card and Cool Papa Bell, a legend in his own right, was manager. Paige had learned by this time that clowning around generated bigger gate receipts. While his assortment of pitches dazzled batters, he was equally talented as a performer. Freeman remembers Paige would pitch three innings and then take off in his chauffeured Cadillac. Jackie Robinson's 1947 season in the major leagues was the beginning of the end for the Negro leagues. The Cleveland Indians signed Satchel Paige for the 1948 season while the Monarchs traveling team was in Fargo, North Dakota. The team fell apart and Jim Freeman ended up in Minneapolis, playing for Harry Crump's Colored House of David and the Broadway Clowns.8 These teams also would vanish in a relatively short period of time. As several owners of Negro League franchises predicted, the end of segregation in baseball meant that fewer African Americans would earn a living from baseball due to the demise of the Negro leagues. It would be many more years before major league franchises hired African Americans as front-office personnel, coaches, and managers.9

Baseball fans of all persuasions could not help but take note of the Cleveland Indians' 1948 American League pennant and World Series championship led by African Americans Larry Doby and Satchel Paige (Paige, the oldest rookie ever to play in the major leagues,10 finished the season with a 6-1 record, but never again pitched as well). …