North vs. South: Chicago Defender Coverage of the Integration of Professional Baseball in the City

Article excerpt

This article examines the integration of the Chicago Cubs as it was anticipated, chronicled, and contextualized by the Chicago Defender, the city's largest black newspaper during the 1950s. The Cubs' additions of Ernie Banks and Gene Baker late in the 1953 season are placed into the black community's social and cultural contexts of the time. Examined are the loyalties and cleavages of the south side, loyalties that were already divided among the White Sox, which had integrated several seasons earlier, and the Negro American League, which was struggling to survive (and losing that struggle). Also studied is the reluctance with which the Cubs finally integrated, a late-season decision made almost seven full seasons after Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color bar as a member of the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers.

More than forty games out of first place in September 1953, the Chicago Cubs quietly called up shortstop Ernie Banks and second baseman Gene Baker.1 Thus, major league baseball's first black keystone combination integrated the Cubs more than six full years after Jackie Robinson first breached baseball's color barrier.2 The Chicago Defender, once the nation's largest black newspaper and a crusader for professional baseball's integration since the 1920s, chronicled the team's historic move with a four-inch brief buried on page sixteen, just above an announcement of when high school graduates should show up for fall semester classes at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro.3

This article examines how the Defender, Chicago's leading black weekly newspaper, covered the integration of professional baseball in its own city.4 Of special interest are comparisons between how it covered the all-white Cubs and, with the promotions of Banks and Baker, how its writers perceived that organization in light of the black community's affinity for the South Side White Sox, which integrated nearly two-and-a-half years prior to their cross-town rivals. Also examined is the paper's coverage of the Negro American League, the last surviving black professional league, which had been in decline since Robinson's first season with die Brooklyn Dodgers.

Sandwiched as it was between Robinson's courageous 1947 campaign and the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the integration of the Cubs and the White Sox provides a useful lens through which to examine the values and priorities of Chicago's black community prior to the civil rights movement, which began in earnest with the brutal killing of Emmett Till in Mississippi and the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycotts of 1955 and 1956. The city's Congress Street expressway, built in the 1950s, separated white and black neighborhoods and served as a symbol of a government-supported racism.5 So also did the high-rise public housing complexes diat, as Arnold Hirsch noted, "literally lined State Street for miles" in creating a kind of vertical ghetto.6

Because members of the black press are prominent in the narrative of Negro league history, and since die mainstream press ignored the Negro leagues, black newspapers provide an important primary source for scholarship on professional baseball's integration and on the roles die writers played in that great drama.7 Journalism historians David Wiggins, Chris Lamb, and Glen Bleske are among diose who have examined this activism, focusing on the Pittsburgh Courier, the largest of the black newspapers in the 1940s when Robinson arrived in Brooklyn.8

Wiggins, along with Lamb and Bleske, revealed the central roles of the Courier and its sports editor, Wendell Smith, in facilitating Robinson's quick flight into the major leagues.9 In examining Courier coverage of, and activism in, baseball between 1933 and 1945, involvement that set the stage for Robinson's big breakthrough, Wiggins placed Smith's and his newspaper's crusade in historical context, showing that "the campaign was not merely a fight to wear a baseball uniform. …

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.