AFRICAN-AMERICAN BASEBALL PLAYERS AND AMERICAN SOCIETY
The list is easy to find–the first African-American players for each of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) teams. Some of the names are instantly recognizable–Ernie Banks, Larry Doby, Elston Howard and, of course, Jackie Robinson. Others–such as Tom Alston, Carlos Paula, and Bob Trice–are little more than answers for trivia games. What no list can tell us, though, is what it meant to be the first and only player of color in a post-World war II city where Jim Crow laws prevailed (by law or custom). Unveiling that experience was the task I assigned to each of my students in an upper-level U.S. history research seminar last spring. Each student was given a single player to research and, in one semester, students had to produce a 25-30 page paper that merged biography, sports history, and urban history and sociology. It also had to be primary source-based and demonstrate the student’s mastery of historical writing.
Finding baseball data is easy–just log onto Baseball-Reference.com and a dizzying array of data appears. Much also has been written about the Negro Leagues and black baseball in general. As a class we read and discussed Jules Tygiel’s masterful Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy.
Famed players generally had accessible biographies and autobiographies, but less known players required more digging: biographical files in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, newspaper accounts, obituaries, etc. Each student was also required to consult African-American newspapers and met with a library specialists who walked them through ways to access databases.
Urban data was the challenge. Students were required to find secondary works on the city in which their player appeared and to consult both that city’s urban daily and black newspapers. (Some papers had to be ordered on interlibrary loan.) One section of their paper was devoted to an overview of race relations within the city (or section thereof). A different library specialist showed students how to use U.S. Census material. Both he and I warned students that though U.S. Census materials were online, walking up to the 6th floor and grabbing a hard copy would save loads of time. I even did a humorous rant that began, “I’m going to tell you how to save time and you’ll all nod politely, ignore me, and waste hours online….”
Each student–each of whom is white–gained a greater appreciation for the loneliness experienced by those who were the only players of color on their respective teams. They also marveled over the self-control they exhibited and shuddered at some of the raw racism they experienced. Of course, paper content varied according to the city under the microscope, but here are a few of the consistent findings:
- Students were accustomed to thinking of cities as enclaves of color and were surprised by how “white” American cities were into the 1950s. Boston, for instance, was nearly 95% white in 1950.
- Shifting urban demographics also surprised students. Elston Howard of the Yankees, for example, lived in New Jersey because he was uncomfortable being a man of color in the Bronx.
- Many of the students came with preconceived notions that all black players embraced the civil rights movement, and several were astonished to learn that their player had little or nothing to say on the subject and rebuffed efforts to recruit them as spokesmen (even after they retired in a few cases).
- The slow, but steady racial awakening of white teammates also emerged as a pattern. MLB had plenty of racists but, in most cases, white fear of black teammates was greatest before the player signed. Several white players dramatically altered their views.
- A greater surprise still was the number of white players who welcomed black players and saw them as “just another teammate.” Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams are famed examples.
My greatest reward? I’d like to say it was good papers but, if I’m honest, it was a single comment. In a group session devoted to feedback, questions, and sharing preliminary findings one of my students remarked, “Guess what? I was going nuts trying to figure out Census numbers so I walked over the library and took the books off the shelves. I got everything I needed in an hour–just like our professor said!” The students stared at me. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders.