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Jackie Robinson’s MLB Debut, and Black Baseball’s Death Knell

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On April 15, 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers rookie Jackie Robinson stepped to the plate as a Major League ballplayer for first time. But Robinson had already played on year in the first MLB affiliate team to be break the color barrier, the Montreal Royals (the Brooklyn Dodgers' International League team), and the effect of integration on the Negro Leagues had begun to be felt. In this excerpt from Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game, author Rob Ruck looks at the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues.

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RUCK-Raceball As the 1946 season began, the degree to which integration would savage the Negro Leagues was not yet apparent. Robinson's appeal, however, was. More than fifty-one thousand tickets were sold for his minor league debut in Jersey City, twice the number that could squeeze into the ballpark. After Robinson homered in his second at-bat, Wendell Smith wrote: "Our hearts beat just a little faster and the thrill ran through us like champagne bubbles." For his colleague Joe Bostic, the game meant that baseball had taken up "the cudgel for Democracy."

Negro League attendance held its own in 1946, but that would be black baseball's last decent season. After an abrupt but short postwar downturn, the consumer demand that had been pent up because of enforced wartime saving launched the U.S. economy on a skyward trajectory. The major leagues took terrific advantage of the economic bounce and sold a record 18.5 million tickets that season. A few black clubs, particularly the Newark Eagles and the Kansas City Monarchs, also drew well thanks to the strong economy. In May, Branch Rickey signed another black player, Roy Partlow. Because the pitcher had actually signed a contract with his Negro League team, the Philadelphia Stars, Rickey paid the team $1,000. Partlow's signing represented the first time that a major league club compensated a Negro League team for a player. Still, there were cautionary signs; black teams that played within the International League's footprint found that swarms of their fans were traveling to Newark, Jersey City, and Baltimore to watch Jackie Robinson play whenever the Montreal Royals came to one of these towns.

Owners on both sides of the color line fretted as Major League Baseball's large-scale integration became more and more likely. While black owners saw impending financial doom, white ones had a more amorphous set of fears. Never known for their foresight, major league executives formed a committee that reported back to the owners in the summer of 1946 on a series of problems, including what they called the "race question." The internal document, whose existence several owners later denied, drew a dire portrait. Its authors complained that their game was besieged by "political and social-minded drum beaters" with an agenda that would damage both MLB and the Negro Leagues. While allowing that every boy "should have a fair chance in baseball" regardless of his race, the report concluded that no African Americans were ready for the majors. Furthermore, it argued that integration would jeopardize a $2-million-a-year black business that employed thousands and would cost major league teams rental and concession fees. Most noxiously, the report expressed the concern that large crowds of black fans at major league games in New York and Chicago, where four of the sixteen major league teams played, could "threaten the value" of these clubs by scaring off white fans.

The next year began badly for black baseball. Josh Gibson, perhaps its best player ever, died in January 1947 at the age of thirty-five; the cause of his death would never be definitively determined. Misfortune continued that spring when bad weather forced many games to be canceled, sinking struggling teams deeper into the red. But it was Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15 that sounded black baseball's death knell. Black fans went gaga over Robinson, taking Jackie Robinson Special trains to see him play. The Dodgers' attendance rose by over three hundred thousand on the road, black attendance at Ebbets Field quadrupled, and all but one National League club set a single-game attendance record that summer when playing Brooklyn. "Jackie's nimble, Jackie's quick, Jackie makes the turnstiles click," the Courier's Wendell Smith wrote. But Negro League baseball hemorrhaged as a result. "After Jackie," Buck Leonard sighed, "we couldn't draw flies."

In July, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck signed Newark Eagles outfielder Larry Doby to a contract with his team, and Robinson was no longer the sole African American in the majors. Three other Negro Leaguers—outfielders Hank Thompson and Willard Brown, and pitcher Dan Bankhead—arrived later that season. In each case, the player's Negro League team was compensated. The sale of players to major league organizations recouped some of the losses that the Negro League clubs were facing, but without formal affiliation with Major League Baseball, their long-term prospects were bleak.

Those prospects became even bleaker after the season ended. In December 1947, with their options narrowing, the Negro Leagues applied for membership in the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. Their request to become a minor league was denied on the pretext that Negro League territories overlapped with preexisting territorial rights of current members. The handwriting was on the wall; black clubs would not be accepted into white baseball's fraternity.

Negro League attendance continued to plummet in 1948, as radio and limited television broadcasts of Dodgers games further siphoned away crowds. It didn't help that coverage of Robinson and a handful of other black major leaguers in the black press overshadowed that of the Negro Leagues as a whole. The Newark Eagles, who had drawn 120,000 fans in 1946, attracted only 35,000 in 1948. Negro League games at Yankee Stadium pulled in a third as many fans as they had in 1946, and the Eagles and the Homestead Grays lost money for a second consecutive season. The Eagles, Grays, and the New York Black Yankees left the NNL following the 1948 season; the three remaining NNL clubs joined the NAL, but that league wasn't viable either. The storied Homestead Grays barnstormed for a few more years, then shut down for good.

Interestingly, segregation offered some protection for black teams in the South, where minor league baseball remained all white. The Kansas City Monarchs, located outside major league territory, also remained profitable, in part due to player sales. But the number of players who could be sold to major league teams was dwindling and by selling their best or most promising players, black baseball was mortgaging its future. At the same time, more black prospects were entering organized baseball directly from high school, sandlot, or college ball, bypassing the Negro Leagues altogether. Nor could black teams continue to make up for diminished crowds at league contests by playing what had often been lucrative games with white independent clubs. Even white independent baseball was withering under the onslaught of television and suburbanization.

For many African Americans, the erosion of segregation in baseball, if not its total disappearance, had weakened the Negro Leagues' reason for being. Separate black institutions were now perceived as less worthy, even backward, at a time when African Americans were moving forward into white institutions. Moreover, integration had freed the relatively captive audience that the Negro Leagues and other black businesses had relied upon for lifeblood.

Most major league teams, despite Brooklyn's success, were in no rush to follow suit. Although Jackie Robinson first took the field as a Dodger on April 15, 1947, only six of sixteen clubs had fielded black players by 1952. All of them, however, would integrate their minor league systems by August 1953. Former Negro Leaguers Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Henry Aaron, Monte Irvin, Ray Dandridge, and Satchel Paige were now the property of major league organizations. In July 1959, the Boston Red Sox reluctantly became the final team to integrate when, amid a wave of political pressure, they called up infielder Pumpsie Green from the minor leagues.

By then, the Negro National League had been history for a decade, disbanding after the 1948 season. The league's inability to defend itself against Jorge Pasquel and the Mexican League in 1940 had foreshadowed its helplessness to withstand a much more powerful predator less than a decade later. Little was said about its disbandment. The black press, with its attention newly riveted on MLB, had all but dropped the Negro Leagues. After the Homestead Grays beat the Birmingham Black Barons to win the 1948 Negro League World Series—the last ever played—the Pittsburgh Courier devoted just two paragraphs to the victory, which was buried by coverage of black major leaguers.

Amid mounting financial losses, black teams were unable to reconstruct themselves in ways that would return them to profitability or persuade the major leagues to accept them as affiliates—not that the latter ever seriously considered that outcome. The Negro American League limped along during the 1950s with an ever-changing roster of teams. Clubs barnstormed, clowned, cut rosters, instituted salary caps, and promised to elevate their standards of organization. But none of these efforts stopped the bleeding of talent, fans, and dollars to the major leagues. Black baseball became a pallid shadow of its former self, soon to become a thing of the past. Few seemed to mind: everybody was watching Jackie Robinson anyway.