Academic journal article Journalism History

Democracy on the Field: The Black Press Takes on White Baseball

Academic journal article Journalism History

Democracy on the Field: The Black Press Takes on White Baseball

Article excerpt

More than a half-century has passed since Jackie Robinson went to spring training in 1946 to try out for the Montreal Royals, the top minor league team in the Brooklyn Dodgers' organization. Baseball was integrated that spring in Daytona Beach, Florida, when Robinson became the first black in the twentieth century to share the field with whites in organized professional baseball.1 This all happened deep in the Jim Crow South, where, as sociologist Gunnar Myrdal observed, whites rarely saw blacks except as servants or in other substandard conditions.2 Segregation laws prohibited whites and blacks from sharing restaurants, hotels, theaters, water fountains, schools, and baseball fields.

Baseball was one of the first institutions in American society to become desegregated.3 The integration of the sport has been called the "most widely commented on episode in American race relations of its time."4 Robinson's name initiated discussions about national character, equality, democracy, and racism.5 Many white Americans, including journalists of that era, opposed or feared integration of any kind. A Richmond Times-- Dispatch editorial warned that any attempt to challenge segregation laws would result in violence that would leave "hundreds, if not thousands, dead."6

This article explores press treatment of baseball's first integrated spring training from two perspectives-the advocacy role of the black press and the status quo role of the white, mainstream press. Robinson's first spring training, more than a year before he played his first major league regular-season game, represents a critical juncture in the story of the integration of baseball. It provides an opportunity to examine whether the press recognized what was happening and, if so, what did journalists have to say about it? Did they capture its meaning, significance, or poignancy? More specifically, was it a different story for black journalists than it was for white journalists? Both black and white newspapers reflected and affected the beliefs and perspectives of their readers; therefore, a comparison of press coverage between the black and white press should not merely demonstrate differences in press perspectives but also differences in the personal beliefs of journalists on the issue of integration.

Other studies of press coverage of the integration of baseball have shown that black sportswriters were more active in reporting the story than white sportswriters.7 Historian Bill Weaver observed that no group had a greater responsibility as an organ of racial unity in the years after World War II than the black press, and "the extent to which it understood and met its responsibility can be observed in its handling of the assault on professional baseball's `color line.'"8 Another writer concluded that black sportswriters were instrumental in spreading the integration issue into mainstream society by campaigning for it in their columns and by appealing to sympathetic, white sportswriters.9

For the black press, the news coverage of the Robinson story reflected a society in transition as equality on the baseball field became a metaphor for equality in civil rights. Black sportswriters used the success of blacks in sports to push for integration in all parts of society.10 They reported the story with emotion, emphasizing its historical significance. They cast the story in terms of freedom, an important moment in a long struggle, while the white mainstream press generally viewed it as a curiosity or a publicity stunt.11 White sportswriters, unsure or afraid of how their readers would react to the story, remained relatively silent on the issue.12 To most of mainstream America at that time, the issue of civil rights was little more than a human interest story.13

For the black press, the Robinson story transcended sports and touched on racial issues neglected by both the mainstream press and the society at large. The mainstream press, on the other hand, rarely gave the story the social or cultural context it deserved. …

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