In the book Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy by Jules Tygiel you are taken on a ride through the most transformative years of not just our national pastime but America as a whole when it comes to the topic of race relations and stereotypes. From 1945-1959 baseball embarks on a journey to end the white only rule that had plagued not just the game of baseball but the country. Baseball would pave the path for the civil rights movement of the 1960s by showing that whites and blacks can interact peacefully. As Tygiel puts it Jackie Robinson’s campaign against the color barrier in 1946-1947 captured the imagination of millions of Americans who had previously ignored the nation’s racial dilemma. For civil rights advocates the baseball experience offered a model of peaceful transition through militant confrontation, economic pressure, and moral suasion. (9) Tygiel highlights how post WWII attitudes towards race in America created the perfect storm of events necessary to bring the first black man into Americas national pastime leading to the eventual desegregation of America.
The book begins in post WWII America 1945. The decades leading up to this had been some of the most violent for blacks in America since the days of the slave trade with public lynching’s almost being common place especially in the Jim Crow South. As people across the country witnessed the evils of racism displayed by Hitler’s Jewish concentration camps race relations began to come under scrutiny not seen since the 1860’s when we fought a civil war over it. This along with FDR’s New Deal, which provided some relief to African Americans in the 1930’s and several Supreme Court decisions that tried to outlaw some segregation created the opening Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers, would use to launch his noble experiment. Up until that fateful day that Rickey made his announcement baseball had looked the way the rest of the country did. Blacks and whites played in different leagues with no interaction among the two; just like the rest of America, baseball was separate and unequal. (Tygiel 8)
Thankfully for not just baseball but America this was all about to change. With his mind set on integration he sets his plan in motion by: creating the United League, Creating the farm system and finally getting the support of the donors. Once these initial roadblocks were out of the way Rickey had to find a man with the right qualities to break the color barrier. This man was Jackie Robinson. On April 28, 1945 Branch Rickey’s top scout brings Robinson in for a meeting with the Dodger GM that would not only chart a new path towards integration in baseball but America as well. At the meeting Rickey starts to give Robinson examples of what he might deal with on a daily basis, which leads to one of the most significant quotes in baseball history. When Robinson is sitting there he asks Rickey Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer who’s afraid to fight back? The Mahatma had awaited this moment. I want a player with guts enough not to fight back. (Tygiel 66) With this quote the Dodger GM had officially charted the course for baseball integration.
Along with challenging the role of blacks in baseball Jackie Robinson made lasting impacts on how the country saw and perceived blacks, as well as provided a blue print for civil rights advocates in the 1960’s. As the black players in MLB became established big leaguers they had a change in approach and attitude that would foreshadow the civil rights advocates who came later. Robinson fashioned himself as what he termed the new Negro. He would shed the persona of the militant pioneer of the black race to a much more outspoken, combative and more than anything controversial figure. He was no longer content with the fact that there were blacks in baseball he was now pushing for equal rights for all.
The last tool that was used to help integrate baseball was the power of economic pressure. When Jackie Robinson broke in to the league he was a huge draw no matter where he played, even in heavily segregated places like Baltimore and Florida. When Branch Rickey realized this he was able to use it as bargaining leverage to get these areas to desegregate. At the time many of the cities spring training, minor and major league baseball were played were heavily segregated. As a threat to the cities the Dodgers said they would move their minor league and spring training locations if these places did not treat Jackie fairly. The thought of loosing the profit forced these areas to desegregate before they wanted to.
Throughout Tygiel’s book there are numerous occasions when baseball is dealing with some of the main concepts we have touched on during lecture, a few of the concepts would be: quest for equality, the collision of sports and politics, and the fact that sports when used correctly can serve as the great unifier. At this point baseball had already adopted six of the seven characteristics of modern sport, this is the moment where it will attempt to overcome the hurdle of equality. In 1945 baseball: was secular, had the written rules of the game well established (rationalization), had a governing body in place to keep the rules enforced, MLB commissioner (bureaucratization), kept track of numerous statistics (quantification), players learned and trained normally at one position ex. Pitcher (specialization), players would go after the records of earlier players to etch their name in the record books (quest for record), the dark mark on the game of baseball was the fact that their was not a single black man in the majors or minors tell Robinson was signed. In the book he introduces numerous occasions when sports and politics come together. During the 1945 campaigns there were several candidates that tried to use this issue to attract voters out to the polls. They would do things like ask the question if a black can fight in war with whites why cant he play ball with the whites. Last but not least is in my opinion the most important quality sports provide to us as a country, they can serve as a great force for unification. In 1947 when the Dodgers played the Phillies public opinion was still not favorable when it came to Jackie playing with the Dodgers, but this was all about to change. While in Philadelphia, Robinson endured the worst treatment of his MLB career. Before the games were played he had received numerous death threats if he was to take the field. Playing on this threat some of the Phillies players pretended their bats were guns and made firing noises directed at Robinson. This was the first incident that really garnered national press and began to sway the opinion of his teammates but also that of the American public in defense of Robinson. The next case study provided by Tygiel happens when the Dodgers are playing Boston. When Jackie took the field he was getting taunted and badgered from every angle imaginable. In defense of his teammate Pee Wee Reese, who was born and raised in heavily segregated Kentucky, walked over to Jackie and put his arm around him on the infield which all but shut up the Boston players who were bashing Jackie with all they had. His teammates were at first skeptical of the prospects of playing with a black man, they quickly became some of Jackie’s biggest defenders when it came to on field incidents. This can be best summed up by the native of Deep South Alabama, Eddie Stankey when he said they were all on one team and had to pull together. All this negativity and hate hurled toward Robinson by a select group of people caused a majority of the country and his teammates to unify around the fact that if Jackie can play he deserves a shot regardless of the color of his skin.
Having lived for a few years in Georgia I can say firsthand that even though 99% of the racism is gone in America there is still a select few that have not let go of the past. When it was time for our little league coach to pick the players he wanted on his team 30-35 players he picked were white even though there were more blacks that tried out than whites. I knew something was wrong because there were numerous African Americans that got cut that were ay better than I could’ve dreamt of being. This is almost a mirror image of how blacks were treated in the early days of baseball integration. An example given in the book describes a try out of three blacks with the Boston Red Sox. The three players were: Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marwin Williams. Even though all three performed exceptionally well during the tryout not one was given a chance due to the color of their skin. So even though baseball and society have come along way there is still work to be done to achieve equality but as Tygiel says if the vision of an integrated and equal society, free from racism and discrimination, which impelled Rickey and Robinson to launch their great experiment, remains unfulfilled, their efforts have brought it closer to reality.
Overall the book did a great job in describing how Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson not only changed baseball but the whole country. For me it was helpful to have examples of other players that went through similar trials as Jackie to drive home the point of how widespread the attitude towards blacks was. Tygiel does a masterful job at explaining the culture and landscape of America prior to and during the integration attempt in baseball. The most important thing for me about the book was how precise it was. When I read I like the book to get right to the point. This book did not have any information that was not relevant to advancing his argument. I would definitely recommend the book to anybody that wants to learn how sports evolve over time as well how sports are connected to our everyday lives more than we think.
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