The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

MLB’s integration struggle started with Jackie Robinson. It didn’t end there.

The Boston Red Sox and other teams honored Jackie Robinson on April 15, 2022. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
10 min

Major League Baseball recently wrapped up its season-long celebration of the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, beginning with “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr. narrating a video tribute to Robinson and ending with a nationally televised World Series promotion.

But if the high-profile commemoration gave the impression baseball solved its integration problem 75 years ago, history provides a much more complicated story. After Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, progress was haltingly slow across the sport.

Two other ballclubs integrated that year — the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns. But over the next five years, just three more teams — the New York Giants, Boston Braves and Chicago White Sox — followed suit. And Robinson was not shy about calling out the holdouts, beginning with the New York Yankees.

On Nov. 30, 1952, about two months after the Yankees beat the Dodgers in a seven-game World Series, Robinson appeared on the NBC News show, “Youth Wants to Know.” A boy asked Robinson whether he believed there was prejudice, and he replied, “Yes,” according to the New York Times. Explaining he was referring to the club executives and not the players, Robinson said, “I think the members of the Yankees team are fine sportsmen and wonderful gentleman, but there isn’t a single Negro on the team now, and there are very few in the entire Yankee farm system.”

“It seems to me,” he elaborated in a follow-up interview with the Times, “the Yankees front office has used racial prejudice in its dealings with Negro ball players.”

Yankees vice president George M. Weiss claimed in an interview with the Associated Press that wasn’t the case.

“Our attitude always has been that when a Negro comes along who can play good enough ball to win a place on the Yankees we will be glad to have him but not just for exploitation,” Weiss said.

11 weeks after Jackie Robinson’s debut, Larry Doby arrived

Some sportswriters defended the Yankees. In a 1955 Times sports column, Arthur Daley wrote:

“The charge has been leveled against the New York Yankees that they have been prejudiced against Negroes. It has been made mostly by irresponsible persons who point to the fact that the Bombers have never had one on their squad. It also has been made by the sensitive and crusading Jackie Robinson.”

Daley said he “never believed a word of it. The men in the Yankee front office have stubbornly refused to be panicked into hiring a Negro just because he was a Negro.”

But Roger Kahn would recount in his 1972 baseball classic “The Boys of Summer” that the real reason was in fact prejudice as Robinson had suspected. Kahn wrote that a high-ranking Yankees executive told him at the 1952 World Series that he would never allow a Black player to wear a Yankees uniform. “We don’t want that sort of crowd,” the executive said after three martinis, according to Kahn. “It would offend boxholders from Westchester to have to sit with” Black people, using the n-word.

‘Subversive persons came to Washington’

By 1952, 10 of the sport’s 16 teams had yet to feature a Black player on their major league roster, but the track record was better in New York. The city was home to three teams at the time, and the Yankees were the only one that remained all White. The Giants had integrated in 1949 with two players — Hank Thompson and future Hall of Famer Monte Irvin (although Thompson made his MLB debut two years earlier with the Browns). Willie Mays joined the team in 1951.

Publicly, some owners would use the same justification Weiss did.

Writing in a 1952 Sporting News retrospective, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith complained that a few years earlier “subversive persons came to Washington from New York, and picketed our ballpark. I was accused of discrimination against Negro players.”

“I stand ready, and eager, to place Negro players on our Washington club,” Griffith wrote. “But they must rate the jobs on the basis of ability, and not merely because they happen to be Negroes. I will not sign a Negro for the Washington club merely to satisfy subversive persons. I would welcome a Negro on the Senators if he rated the distinction, if he belonged among major-league players.”

The Yankees could at least claim they were fielding a great team despite their refusal to integrate the roster. The Senators could not. They hadn’t won a pennant since 1933 and often finished at or near the bottom of the American League standings.

Momentum to fully integrate baseball didn’t build until the mid-1950s. In 1954, the Senators finally put a Black player on the roster, outfielder Carlos Paula, making them one of four teams to integrate that year. In 1955, eight years after their crosstown rivals had done so in Brooklyn — and a year after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education — the Yankees debuted their first Black player, catcher Elston Howard. His first game came in the home opener of the Boston Red Sox, where Fenway fans, still waiting for their own team to have a Black player, gave him a rousing welcome.

“This is the first time I have ever been in Boston, and the people applauded me like that,” Howard said after the game. “It was real nice.”

The Yankees were the 13th team to integrate. This chart indicates when each of the 16 teams active in 1947 finally integrated.

Cleveland Indians
Larry Doby
St. Louis Browns
Hank Thompson
New York Giants
Hank Thompson, Monte Irvin
Boston Braves
Sam Jethroe
Chicago White Sox
Minnie Minoso
Philadelphia Athletics
Bob Trice
Chicago Cubs
Ernie Banks
St. Louis Cardinals
Tom Alston
Pittsburgh Pirates
Curt Roberts
Cincinnati Reds
Chuck Harmon, Nino Escalera
Washington Senators
Carlos Paula
New York Yankees
Elston Howard
Philadelphia Phillies
John Kennedy
Detroit Tigers
Ozzie Virgil
Boston Red Sox
Pumpsie Green

The last holdouts

Robinson retired after the 1956 season — nine years after his debut — and strikingly, there were still three teams that had yet to employ a Black player: the Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers and Red Sox. Again, Robinson challenged the status quo.

“I can’t understand why 13 major league clubs have Negro players and the other three clubs can’t come up with any. I don’t know if it’s their scouting systems or what,” Robinson told Boston reporters in February 1957, following a breakfast with Mayor John B. Hynes to launch Robinson’s local campaign for the NAACP’s freedom fund drive.

When told at the news conference the Red Sox had two players on their San Francisco farm club, Robinson replied: “That doesn’t mean a thing. They don’t have any on the Red Sox roster.”

Rick Swaine, author of “The Integration of Major League Baseball: A Team by Team History,” said there was a simple explanation for the slow progress by most teams.

“I don’t think they wanted to hire Black people. It was largely racism,” Swaine said in a telephone interview. “They actually thought Blacks were inferior players, even though they had proven to be as good if not better than the White players. And they were cheaper.”

Around this time, Phillies owner Robert Carpenter trotted out the same rationale for his all-White team that the Yankees and Senators had used. “I’m not opposed to Negro players. But I’m not going to hire a player of any color or nationality just to have him on the team,” he said, according to the “The Phillies Encyclopedia” by Rich Westcott and Frank Bilovsky.

Narrative of Jackie Robinson, like that of MLK, is at odds with the reality

The Phillies became the last National League team to integrate in 1957, when 30-year-old John Kennedy came into the game as a pinch runner. His career consisted of two at-bats across five games.

The Tigers were next, bringing up infielder Ozzie Virgil from the minors in 1958. Virgil, who already had played two seasons for the Giants, was also the first Dominican player in the majors. His Detroit debut followed a local boycott campaign that pressured the Tigers to integrate. And it came six years after the death of team owner Walter O. Briggs, whom Black sportswriter Wendell Smith described as “Oh so very prejudiced. He’s the major league combination of Simon Legree and Adolf Hitler.” (Legree was the villain in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”)

Briggs’s great-grandson, Harvey Briggs, wrote a 2017 opinion piece in the Detroit Free Press condemning the late owner as a racist.

The Red Sox were the final holdouts. Back in 1945, under local political pressure, they had given a tryout to Robinson, along with two other Black players, but Robinson said years later he knew it was a sham and that he would never hear from the team.

The Red Sox finally integrated in July 1959 with infielder Pumpsie Green but not without attracting criticism over how they treated him. Boston sent Green down to the minors before the season even though he hit .327 in spring training.

“The Red Sox won no prizes this spring for the way they treated Pumpsie Green,” Boston Globe columnist Harold Kaese wrote.

Kaese noted that Green spent half of spring training living alone in a motel on the outskirts of Phoenix, 10 miles away from where the rest of the team lived in Scottsdale, Ariz., because the “exclusive” Scottsdale hotels wouldn’t let him stay at their establishments. “The Red Sox should not have lived in Scottsdale themselves under such conditions,” he wrote.

Keeping up the pressure

Robinson, meanwhile, would continue to press baseball on its hiring practices. When MLB honored him at the 1972 World Series to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his debut, Robinson — just nine days before his death at 53 — used the occasion to urge a major league team to hire the sport’s first Black manager.

At the time, Dusty Baker had just finished his first full season as a player. A half-century later, Baker this month became the third Black manager to win a World Series when his Houston Astros beat the Phillies. (The first two were Cito Gaston of the Toronto Blue Jays and Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers.)

Baker has talked about growing up in Southern California and idolizing Robinson, whose No. 42 is worn across baseball on April 15 to commemorate his debut.

“I’ve kept every Jackie Robinson Day jersey that we’ve had,” Baker said in April. “It means a lot to me. I think of my dad a lot on this day.

“All the time I was growing up as a kid, my dad would always remind me when I would get in a scrap or scuffle or something, especially like a racial scuffle, my dad would also tell me to think about what Jackie would do.”