April 21, 2020

Review: Conspiracy Of Silence: Sportswriters And The Long Campaign To Desegregate Baseball, by Chris Lamb

[Draft Post: November 1, 2014
An Unfinished Book Review]

Every April 15, Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson's 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Players on all thirty teams wear Robinson's #42 (players once chose to wear it, now it's compulsory) and there are tributes at every ballpark to the man who broke – at long last – baseball's 20th Century colour line.

MLB manages (with the complicity of the mainstream sports media) to both pat itself on the back for its inclusiveness while simultaneously ignoring how it worked overtime for decades and decades to keep blacks out of organized ball.

Dodgers president Branch Rickey and Robinson are presented as the stars of desegregation, but, as Chris Lamb points out in Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball (University of Nebraska, 2012), that's because the popular story was told by Rickey himself and repeated by unquestioning sportswriters. (The movie 42 (released in 2013) dealt mostly in myth, ignoring the reality of, as The Atlantic's Peter Dreier writes, "how baseball's apartheid system was dismantled".)

What has been lost is context – and that is what Lamb provides. By looking closely at the decade before Robinson (1933 to 1945, specifically), Lamb charts the unceasing efforts of sportswriters at numerous black newspapers and the Communist Daily Worker (along with countless activists) to push the issue relentlessly, forcing organized baseball to finally confront its institutional racism.

Conspiracy of Silence has a slight academic tone, but that should in no way dissuade anyone from picking it up. It's both highly entertaining and deeply educational, and essential to understanding this important chapter of baseball (and American) history.

Lamb begins his story in 1933, when Heywood Broun speaks to the New York Writers' annual gathering and makes the case for desegregating professional baseball.


Regarding the Communist newspaper, Daily Worker, Lamb writes: "No newspaper was more insistent in demanding that baseball live up to its democratic ideals. No newspaper called more often for baseball to admit blacks. And no newspaper recruited more people to protest against the colour line."

Lamb's history gives us new heroes: Lester Rodney

August 1936
Writing for the Daily Worker, Lester Rodney "pounded away at the injustice, denial, and apathy that surrounded baseball" and "shamed the sport into defending itself against racism".

Lamb notes: "One cannot tell the story of the desegregation of baseball without including the Communists."
(Well, apparently, you can. MLB has been doing it for more than half a century.)
petition drives, prodded Landis to break his silence on the issue
"picketing, petitions, and unrelenting pressure"

Daily Worker founded in 1924
"superimposed the Capitalist hierarchy upon the U.S. professional sports establishment"
saw/presented athletes as workers who did not receive a fair share from their bosses
neither athletes nor factory workers had unions protecting their interests
Over the years, the newspaper became a "persistent and unwanted intruder" to major league baseball.

Rodney and other writers used Marxist ideology to show the players were nothing but property to the owners, and easily discarded if necessary.

The Daily Worker began its decade-long campaign on August 16, 1936 with a page 1 editorial: "Jim Crow Baseball Must End".
The campaign was equal parts education and confrontation.
Why was this allowed to occur in a supposedly free and equal country?
One week after the editorial, National League president (and future commissioner) Ford Frick said there was no ban on signing black players and that the responsibility was with team owners, not league executives such as himself.


Time and time again, management and baseball executives deny the existence of a law forbidding blacks from playing professional baseball. And that is true: there was no actual law.

But Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who ruled baseball with a dictatorial iron hand, passed the buck when it came to integration, saying it was up to the various teams. Management of the 16 major league teams passed the buck onto fans, saying that fans and players would have to be better educated and prepared for the sight of black and white men playing together and against each other. Lamb shows that in petition after petition, huge numbers of baseball fans had no problem with the idea of integration.

In 1939, National League president Ford Frick claimed that big leagues teams wanted black players but could not sign them until society became more tolerant. The general public allegedly needed more education. Until then, segregation was in the sport's best interest. Frick and others claimed that because there was no formal policy barring blacks, the responsibility for ending any color line belonged to the fans and society, in general. There was simply nothing organized baseball could do until then!

Frick claimed that segregation reflected the believes of fans and players, not the owners or club executives. Wendell Smith, a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier went to the players and asked them (a) if they knew of any black players who could play in the major leagues and (b) would they play with and against them?
He interviewed players on every National League team when they came to Pittsburgh. Every player knew at least one black player who could likely succeed in the big leagues and most said they would have no issues with playing with black teammates and opponents.
Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher: "I've played against some coloured boys out on the coast who could play in any big league that ever existed."
Dizzy Dean on Satchel Paige: "Only his colour holds him back."
Smith's series on interviews ran all summer - and showed an unprecedented level of support - contrary to what Commissioner Landis and league executives claimed.

Other reasons given were that blacks did not want to play in the major leagues, preferring their own leagues. Owners appeared altruistic by claiming they did not want the Negro Leagues to go out of business if blacks were eligible for MLB.

Mainstream sportswriters contributed to the problem by simply ignoring the issue. Many baseball fans had no idea there was a growing movement to desegregate professional baseball. Some knew next-to-nothing about black baseball – and so, when executives claimed that they would sign a black player if one was good enough, fans assumed that baseball was lilly-white simply because no black players were good enough.

Bill Mardo, Daily Worker: "As long as mainstream sportswriters maintained their silence, the color line remained firm. Most newspaper readers didn't know there was a massive campaign to end Jim Crow in baseball."

The issue grew during and after World War II, as blacks fought and died alongside whites on the battlefield, but were second-class citizens at home.

The baseball establishment ignored black baseball, and ignored the long fight to crack the colour line. Most of the time, white sportswriters even ignored the fact that there was a colour line. Baseball continues to ignore this part of the story.

One example of how the mainstream deprived its readers of knowledge of black players came in 1937. Joe DiMaggio, in his second season with the Yankees, was asked about the best pitcher he ever faced. He answered: "Satchel Paige." While this promptly became a headline in the Daily Worker the next day, no white writer quoted DiMaggio anywhere.

Yet white writers would occasionally comment on the issue.
In 1938, Westbrook Pegler wrote a scathing column, saying that baseball "has always treated the Negroes as Adolf Hitler treats the Jews".

Landis had always claimed to be the final and ultimate authority, so if he opposed discrimination, as he claimed, why not simply end it in baseball?

On June 22, 1942, Daily Worker writer Conrad Komorowski interviewed Landis for 90 minutes in his Chicago office. While he initially refused to comment on various matters, such as a resolution passed by 80,000 Ford workers condemning Jim Crow in MLB, he eventually began to talk:
"There is no man living who wants the friendship of the Negro people more than I"
"So why not end the colour line?"
"No comment."
("And that is the answer - thus far - from the head of organized baseball in a nation at war for freedom, equality, and democracy.")

After the story appeared, Landis, for some reason, decided he needed to defend himself. He was apparently provoked by a comment made by Leo Durocher three years earlier.
Negroes are not barred from organized baseball by the commissioner and never have been ... There is no rule in organized baseball prohibiting their participation and never has been ... [If Durocher wanted to sign 1 black player or 25 black players] it was all right with me.
The next day, Landis denied the existence of any "rule, formal or informal, or any understanding, written, subterranean or sub-anything" against the hiring of black players.

Writer Fay Young asked the logical question: "Since no Negroes are barred, what keeps them out?"

Pittsburgh Courier, ever optimistic: "The Great White Father of Baseball has finally spoken ... Landis has left the issue to the owners and the fans. The end is in sight."

While Landis's comments were reported in a few mainstream newspapers, some, such as the New York Times, ignored them completely. One white writer, Joe Williams, criticized Landis for bringing the issue into the open, implying that it belonged safely behind closed doors.

One white writer who fired back at Landis was Dave Egan of the Boston Daily Record. His column was later re-published in the Defender and Daily Worker.
[I] waited for the fearless journalists to haul off and ask the Judge who in the hell he thought he was kidding, waited for somebody to say that his statement was a cruel contradiction of fate. ... But everybody, everywhere, keeps an uncomfortable silence and allows the statement of the judge to pass unchallenged, like a saboteur in the night. ...

We are fighting, as I understand it, for the rights of under-privileged peoples everywhere. We weep for the teeming masses of India. Down the years, we must have contributed millions to the suffering Armenians. We have room in our souls to pity the Chinese, the Arabs, and the brave Greeks. Could we, by any chance, spare a thought for the Negro in the United States? Do we, by any chance, feel disgust at the thought that Negro athletes, solely because of their color, are barred from playing baseball? ... I suggest that our national sport should be the very first to discourage discrimination and start practicing democracy.

Lamb's story ends with Robinson's first season with the Dodgers, a year in which Robinson would win the Rookie of the Year award and Brooklyn grabbed the National League pennant.

Even after Robinson was a member of the Dodgers' lineup, the process of truly integrating the major leagues was an extremely slow process, with teams moving at a glacial pace to place even one black player on their rosters. The following list shows when each of the sixteen teams debuted their first black player:
1947: Dodgers, Indians, Browns
1948: —
1949: Giants
1950: Braves
1951: White Sox
1952: —
1953: Athletics, Cubs
1954: Pirates, Cardinals, Reds, Senators
1955: Yankees
1956: —
1957: Phillies
1958: Tigers
1959: Red Sox
[Note: Hank Thompson was the first black player for two teams: St. Louis Browns (1947) and New York Giants (1949).]


In Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball's Color Line, Tom Dunkel presents the hidden history of a semi-professional team from Bismarck, North Dakota, that featured both black and white players in the mid-1930s.

Neil Churchill, who owned a Bismark car dealership, sought the best available players during the Depression, regardless of race. The famous battery of Satchel Paige and Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe spent several seasons in Bismark, and the fully-integrated squad was enormously successful.

Dunkel has done remarkable research, combing through countless small town newspapers, looking for any scrap of information, while also interviewing long-time residents of the town.

1 comment:

Paul Hickman said...

From a faraway viewpoint - the interesting thing about this Article to me is that IF, hypothetically, this all happened today, a century on, Boston would be 1 of the first places on the list & North Dakota the last !

That probably says much about boldness, sense of adventure, conservatism, status quo & how they have evolved & almost "flipped" locations as time & tide has moved on ?