The Black Press Played a Key Role in Integrating Baseball

By Deardorff, Donald L., II | St. Louis Journalism Review, July-August 1994 | Go to article overview

The Black Press Played a Key Role in Integrating Baseball


Deardorff, Donald L., II, St. Louis Journalism Review


In 1947, John Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson stepped to the left side of the Ebbett's Field batter's box in Brooklyn, New York, stared the opposing hurler in the eye, waited, watched, swung, and instantly made contact, shattering decades of segregated, lily-white baseball in the major leagues. Both Robinson and Dodger president Branch Rickey received honors, accolades and tremendous public attention in what was perceived by black Americans as an event symbolic of freedom and liberty, and by whites as an example of the greatness of American democracy.

It is ironic that one of the principal instigators of this watershed of American history, the "Negro" press, was and has been largely forgotten in the story of Robinson's achievement. A handful of scholars, most notably David K. Wiggins, William Simons, William Weaver and Jules Tygiel, have described the intense, heart-felt campaign waged by the Negro press against segregation. They have generally concluded that "the Negro newspapers played an important part in his [Robinson's] assault on professional baseball's color line."

The black press was instrumental in disseminating the issue of segregation into white society, partly through its own papers, but mostly via its appeals to sympathetic white sportswriters. By appealing to sympathetic ears in the white press, these black writers not only rallied the increasingly influential black populations in Northern cities, but helped to mobilize potentially powerful whites as well. In this manner, the black press corps constantly pressured the owners and executives of major league baseball, often inciting public protests against segregation and forcing team owners to consider integration that had behind it the sympathy of a growing number of Americans.

The black press scouted Jackie Robinson, promoted him as the right type of man to break the color barrier, and succeeded in getting him a serious tryout. Members of the black press roomed with Robinson during the early part of his career, providing him with companionship and moral support. They pressured black fans not to embarrass Robinson with behavior that would in any way offend white fans, on whose healthy wallets rested the success of integration.

In addition, black writers created a pleasant, acceptable public image of Robinson that was picked up and displayed by the white press for its readers. The persona packaged was a calm, controlled man, who was clean cut and behaved with values consistent with those of Middle America. In this way, the black press helped facilitate the good relations between Robinson and white America, which, through numerous articles and photographs, saw that the newest Dodger hardly embodied the negative qualities that whites fearfully associated with blacks at the time. Even after Robinson's integration, the black press continued to promote new black players and to point out how financially beneficial these players were to major league teams, assuring that the experiment's success would be permanent.

Discrimination had softened

After World War II, some of the overt racial prejudice suffered by blacks in the northern United States had softened. Blacks had fought gallantly in the war, and the war itself was fought, in part, to halt the spread of racist ideology. Most citizens of the country wanted peace, not racial conflict. By this time, thousands of blacks had congregated in Northern cities, working in the industries that spurred the war effort. For the first time, a large body of black Americans had some political vote in state and local elections in the North. The black press capitalized on this situation, using baseball's color line as a symbol to unite blacks.

The black press, by deluging black communities with articles that railed against the injustices and the hypocrisy of the "national game," helped to move blacks to action. As Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier wrote as early as 1939: "It is an issue that big league moguls dodge and neglect whenever possible . …

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