The Persistent Color Line: Specific Instances of Racial Preference in Major League Player Evaluation Decisions after 1947. (Articles)
Treder, Steve, Nine
You are in charge of a Major League baseball club. You are the decision maker responsible for determining which players will be included on the active big league roster and which ones will be farmed out. The measure of your success would seem to be exceedingly simple: how many games the team wins. It would stand to reason, then, that your motivation in deciding which players to assign to the regular season roster would be equally simple: you will choose the best players available to you to comprise your team.
The ball club you're responsible for is a particularly good one: you won the National League pennant last year. Your lineup features a host of young power hitters, which is your team's central strength; your pitching staff was good enough to win with last year, but fundamentally, yours is a ball club that wins by overwhelming the opponent with offense. Your team has starcaliber players--excelling both offensively and defensively--at six positions: catcher, first base, second base, shortstop, right field, and center field. Your third baseman isn't much of a hitter, but he's a terrific fielder. The one position, other than pitching, that could stand an upgrade would be left field: you used a motley platoon there last year, with five guys seeing action in more than 25 games, and with no one getting as many as 225 at bats.
Your farm system offers you three outfielders to choose from to add to the big league roster this year:
Player A: A twenty-five-year-old left-handed hitter. A strong arm but otherwise below average defensively in either left or right field; certainly not a center fielder. Average speed, good power. Hit very well last year at the double-A level (.328, 28 home runs), but has seen only 20 games of triple-A action in his career as well as 64 Major League games over two previous seasons, in which he batted .265.
Player B: A twenty-six--year-old left-handed hitter. A below-average arm but otherwise a decent defensive outfielder in left or right, capable as a backup center fielder. Good speed, not much power. Has shown excellent on-base capability throughout his Minor League career, hitting for average and drawing many walks; last year he hit .336 with 3 home runs in double-A. Has never played triple-A ball; has 8 games of Major League experience, in which he hit .083.
Player C: A twenty-eight-year-old switch hitter. Good enough defensively to be a regular Major League center fielder. Blazing speed and very good power. Has played the past season and a half at the triple-A level and has simply torn it up: last year he batted .326 with 17 homers, with a league-leading 154 runs scored, a league-leading 207 hits, a league-leading 19 triples, and a league-record 89 stolen bases. Base stealing is so devastating that, seven times last year, the opposing team employed the bizarre strategy of walking the pitcher intentionally ahead of his lead-off spot in the order as a means of blocking his path. Described as "the greatest attraction in the history of the International League." (1)
Which of these three players do you choose to help with your team's leftfield situation? If your choice is to get player C into your lineup as quickly as you possibly can, and to tell players A and B to get out of his way, then your choice is eminently logical.
However, if your choice is to sell player C to another National League team (where he will go on to win the starting center-field job and be named Rookie of the Year, hitting .273 with 18 homers and leading the Major Leagues in stolen bases), and if your choice is to keep both players A and B and give both of them a shot at your left-field job (in which both will struggle, batting .207 in 34 games and .205 in 38 games, respectively), then you will have made precisely the same choices as did the actual team in this historical situation.
Having made these choices, this ball club-getting another year of mediocre performance from its crew of left fielders-failed to repeat as National League champion, winning 8 fewer games than in the previous year. The team to which it sold player C won 8 more games than it had the year before and became a pennant contender instead of an also-ran.
Why would a ball club make this choice? Apparently, because there was some consideration other than pure playing ability (and by extension, team performance) involved in the decision. Indeed there was, and the consideration involved was racism. Player C was African American, while players A and B were white, and this ball club decided that it already had "enough" black players. (2)
The team that enacted this scenario was, ironically, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the organization that, under the extraordinary leadership of Branch Rickey, so commendably and courageously defied Major League Baseball's apartheid policy by employing Jackie Robinson in 1947. The typical characterization of the Dodgers' historic act is that they "broke the color line" in baseball, a turn of phrase which implies that following Robinson's success, everything was different after 1947. (3) One imagines the color line shattered in pieces on the floor, its stupidity as well as its cruelty exposed for all to see; no team ever again able to make player evaluation decisions that egregiously ignore the basics of ability and performance; with players of all colors now competing fairly for each Major League job, succeeding or failing to win each roster spot purely on the basis of demonstrated skill.
If such were the case, the scenario we have just explored-which occurred in the spring of 1950-would not have played out as it did. If the color line had indeed been obliterated by 1950, then player C (Sam Jethroe) would not have been toiling in the Minor Leagues at such an advanced age and with such extraordinary ability, and if the Dodgers had decided to deal him rather than play him, they would have been able to receive much more than a cash settlement in return for a player of such quality-presumably, they might have obtained a front-line pitcher or two, which they certainly could have used. (4) But the fact is that Jethroe, clearly a star player, was indeed passed over by the Dodgers in favor of the journeyman players A and B (George Shuba and Cal Abrams, respectively), and this occurred under the authority of none other than Rickey, the color-line buster himself.
The general facts of the integration of Major League Baseball following 1947 suggest that the color line was not very thoroughly "broken" by Rickey and Robinson. Following the Dodgers, the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns employed black players later in the '47 season. However, no other team followed suit until mid-1949. As late as August 1953, the majority of Major League clubs remained all white. No African American played for the Philadelphia Phillies until 1957, the Detroit Tigers until 1958, and the Boston Red Sox until 1959. If every Major League team was fielding the very best players available throughout this era, then it would have to be the case that there was no player of color available who was better than the least capable white player on each roster, year after year. Examination of just a few of the cases of black players striving to play Major League ball in those years demonstrates the extreme faultiness of such a premise. The plain truth is that race continued to trump skill in many pl ayer evaluation decisions following Robinson's dazzling debut. The color line did not crumble easily; in fact, it stubbornly resisted the effects of decency and logic for a long, long time.
The color line was never an officially acknowledged policy, but neither was it an abstract concept. The persistent color line following 1947 was the very real consequence of conscious, deliberate decisions made by many baseball executives time and again over a period of many years. As in the Dodgers' Sam Jethroe situation related above, the persistent color line was a phenomenon of ball clubs making player personnel choices that were clearly not in their competitive self-interests. The persistent color line was the aggregation of demonstrably poor player evaluation decisions made by people whose job it was to evaluate the skill of baseball players. The color line persisted until the poverty of these player evaluation decisions was so obvious that no amount of rationalization would support them.
MINOR LEAGUE DIFFERENCES
We will examine in some detail the lineup inclusion decisions made by numerous Major League clubs from the late 1940s to the early 1960s that impacted the careers of the following black players: Minnie Minoso, Sam Jones, Jim Pendleton, Jim Gilliam, Vic Power, Luke Easter, Luis Marquez, Carlos Bernier, Connie Johnson, Orlando Pena, and Floyd Robinson. In considering these situations, it is important to bear in mind the following points:
1. The Minor Leagues in this preexpansion period were different in some regards from the Minor Leagues of today. There were only sixteen Major League teams, compared to thirty today, and yet for much of this time there were more Minor League teams in operation than there are today. (5) This meant that the proportion of professional players active in the minors was higher than it is today, and it further meant that it was more typical then than it is today for a player to spend many years in the minors and perhaps perform at a star level in the minors without the same Major League opportunity he would likely receive today. This phenomenon occurs today in the Mexican League and in the Japanese Leagues, but not to the degree it did fifty years ago: the "career Minor Leaguer" was more commonplace then than now.
2. While not to the same degree as had been the case in the 1920s or 1930s, it was still true in the postwar era that a Minor League star, especially one playing a team not affiliated with the Major Leagues, could make pretty good money and be afforded some of the perquisites of being a local celebrity. But to acknowledge this is not to say that the lot of a Minor League star was just as good as that of a typical Major Leaguer, in terms of either financial or competitive satisfactions. Nor is it to conclude that a Minor League star was content with his status and preferred it to a Major League job: there was no instance of a player in this era being offered a big league spot and declining it. Then, as now, the majors were "The Show."
3. Nonetheless, the greater size and less strictly developmental function of the Minor Leagues in those days allowed Major League teams a greater amount of latitude then they have now to leave a player who was producing great numbers in the minors. Especially the richest organizations (that is, the Dodgers, Yankees, and Cardinals), which often operated two triple-A teams and up to two dozen lower-classification ball clubs, could choose to ignore or rationalize a Minor Leaguer's star performance and fail to promote him. This was an accepted practice that rarely occurs today.
All this being understood, the fundamental facts of fielding a Major League ball club were exactly the same at that time as they are today and as they have always been: the team that plays the best players is the team that is most likely to win, and any team that fails to play its best available players, for whatever reason, is a team that is failing to fulfill its primary obligation to paying customers, that of providing the most honest competitive effort possible. This is as basic as the forthrightly acknowledged distinction between a baseball "exhibition" and a baseball "game." Every team's fans have always had a profound right to expect that, if it counts in the standings, what they are witnessing is a sincere commitment to victory from every player on the field and from every management decision off the field.
Baseball executives are human, of course, and a sincerely competitive general manager may be prone to make an error in judgment, just as the sincerely competitive player he is evaluating may be prone to boot a …
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Publication information: Article title: The Persistent Color Line: Specific Instances of Racial Preference in Major League Player Evaluation Decisions after 1947. (Articles). Contributors: Treder, Steve - Author. Journal title: Nine. Volume: 10. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 2001. Page number: 1+. © 2009 University of Nebraska Press. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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