April 15, 2022 marked the 75th anniversary the desegregation in Major League Baseball with the entry of Jackie Robinson, who wore the uniform of Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson has been a legend for his courage, discipline, and on-field performance since that April 1947. He also worked tirelessly after his retirement to promote civil rights in baseball, and the U.S. as a whole.
The problem is that making someone a legend in America can often obscure the larger story. This happens so often that one must conclude this is intentional.Because it is possible to make someone a legend by separating their experience from the idea of social movements and collective actions. It can also serve to obscure the institutional obstacles that prevent justice from being done as great people challenged it. Jackie Robinson is the perfect example. Story became all about two people, and sometimes three: Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey (founder of the Minor League system and an owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers), and sometimes an acknowledgement of the role of Jackie’s wife, Rachel Robinson. The story revolves around Rickey’s brilliance in breaking the color line.
The long struggle for justice in Major League Baseball is often overlooked. There was both a struggle for workers’ rights and there was a struggle for racial justice. These struggles were centered on Jackie Robinson, but they were much more extensive and vast in scope.
Major League Baseball decided to race segregate in late 19th century. This was due to the rise of Jim Crow segregation. There were several instances when there was the possibility of desegregation. These efforts were stopped at the top. Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountains Landis was a major proponent of racial segregation in baseball. He did everything he could to stop justice being done during his tenure as commissioner of baseball, 1921-1944. He and the owners were also adamant opponents of workers’ rights for players.
In 1920, the Negro National League was created in response to racial discrimination. It raised questions about the relationship between the white Major League Baseball and the Negro Leagues. During off-season, players from both sets of leagues would play against one another in “unofficial” games. The Negro Leagues showed their excellence in every encounter they had with the white Major Leagues. Major League Baseball was still a segregated sport.
The discussions took place within the Negro Leagues. They were aimed at developing a strategy to merge the Negro Leagues into the white Major Leagues. There were many options, including the possibility of the Negro Leagues being part of the Minor League baseball operation. However, the idea was to merge the two organizations. This point is of great importance in the history of 1947 and the subsequent decades.
As part of the anti-racist movements of the 1930s, 1940s, pressure was also created for Major League Baseball to be desegregated. As part of its larger campaigns against racism, discrimination, the Communist Party highlighted Jim Crow in Major League Baseball. It joined a wide front demanding change. With the passing of Commissioner Landis, the pressure was on and there were many possibilities for how things could turn out.
Branch Rickey had his own thoughts about the future for Major League Baseball and race. Rather than entertain the possibility of a merger of the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues, he instead decided to identify an outstanding player from the Negro Leagues and make a “go” of it. This does not take away Jackie Robinson. However, the Negro Leagues’ best players were slowly but steadily drained until they became unsustainable as a business operation.
Although desegregation was achieved, it ignored the institutional reality that the Negro Leagues presented. The power dynamic remained entirely in control of the wealthy, white owners, while the former Negro League members displayed, for all to view, their extraordinary capabilities.
When we celebrate April 15, we are not only celebrating the victory a single great player. We recognize April 15, 1947, as OneAn important day in a larger struggle for justice in baseball.
This celebration is more than symbolic. Racial justice is more than symbolic. Not Major League Baseball had a dominant role, but we have seen racial inequality evolve over the years. Major League Baseball’s fight for justice has been a long-running struggle that broke the Jim Crow barrier in 1947. The transformation of the MLB industry was initiated by African American and Latino baseball players. Over time, the “barons” of Major League Baseball, having drained the Negro Leagues of their best players and having secured post-Negro League African American players, lost interest in African Americans (as well as Chicano and Puerto Rican players), refocusing on the goal of acquiring a cheaper and more vulnerable player pool.
Searching globally, Major League Baseball has developed a particular interest in Latin American players — many of whom are of African descent — as the workforce to cultivate. Major League Baseball has been de-segregated but it is not inclusive. The problem is not just what Jackie Robinson insisted upon at the end of his life — the lack of Black managers — but it is that entire demographic groups are being written off, as both players and fans.
Here are a few points: African American participation in Major League Baseball decreased slowly after desegregation. This may have been due to several factors, such as the loss of open land in cities (linked to gentrification), and the rising cost to enter baseball in pre-professional leagues. Additionally, there has been an increase in interest and opportunities to advance in football and basketball.
It is the lack of interest in Black America by Major League Baseball that makes it difficult to get into any of the U.S. baseball stadiums.
This will not be answered by the actions and displays of a few exceptional players of color. Major League Baseball has existed since. canonizedIt does not erase the historical treatment of some Negro League players. It does not eliminate the need to consider today. For example, can Major League Baseball as an institution or sport be relevant again to Black America? Indeed, can it become “America’s Pastime” in the real sense of being relevant and inclusive to communities of color, such as African Americans, Puerto Ricans and Chicanos, in whose cultures baseball flourished?
Instead, it is time to transform Major League Baseball. This transformation must be built upon previous efforts such as agreements with the Players Alliance(an organization of Black baseball stars) to make a commitment to expanding the game in Black communities. But it must also go further. This means a rethinking of team ownership structures, a deep commitment to the re-cultivation and support of African American, Chicano, and Puerto Rican minor league players and fans, and elevating the living standards and conditions of Minor League Minor Leaguers, especially those who are particularly vulnerable. None of this will happen because of the good graces of the barons of baseball, but will be the result of struggle — a struggle that must be undertaken by both the players and fans.
This is how you celebrate Jackie Robinson’s life and legacy.