Major League Baseball (MLB) was a reflection of American society, and as the 1940s got underway African American ballplayers were denied their rightful opportunity to play in the major leagues.
Late last baseball season, I wrote a post looking at old-time baseball and particularly some leading major league events and personalities of the 1920-1940, 1940-1960, and 1960-1980 eras. While focusing on the second of these time periods, I discussed the contributions of Jackie Robinson.
For decades the best African American baseball players in the country had been toiling in the Negro Leagues. Although the exploits of players such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson are well known, many other former Negro League players and their records have long been forgotten. Nonetheless, former MLB Commissioner Faye Vincent credits Negro League players with “keeping our game alive during the long years when players of color were denied the opportunity to play in the major leagues.”
Some power brokers in Major League Baseball were resistant to change in the early 1940s. Even the baseball commissioner of the day, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was strongly against integrating the major leagues. While a few individual team owners are believed to have made efforts for African Americans to play on their teams, by all accounts Commissioner Landis, Major League Baseball’s first commissioner, thwarted every such attempt.
Two factors helped turn the tide by 1945. The first was Landis’s death in 1944. The second was the recognition that many Negro League players had served with honor in World War Two and shouldn’t be denied their fair opportunity. The major league color barrier didn’t come down quite yet, but it was only a matter of time.
The efforts of Happy Chandler, Landis’s successor as baseball commissioner, and Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Richey played a key role in changing the major league landscape. Richey was determined to bring an end to the color barrier, decided a talented infielder named Jackie Robinson should be the first African American to play for the Dodgers, and in 1946 assigned the college-educated Robinson to the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal, where he was accepted by fans.
Early in 1947, with the full backing of Commissioner Chandler, Robinson appeared for the first time in a Dodgers’ game. The color barrier was broken. Robinson went on to be a major league star, an inspiration to the country, and, in 1962, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.