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Baseball’s Great Experiment

by Jules Tygiel

This is the farthest-ranging, most thoroughly-researched book I've read on the integration of baseball. Author Jules Tygiel, an associate professor at San Francisco State University, writes not only of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, but Willard Brown, Artie Wilson, and Ray Dandridge: men who either made it briefly to the bigs or not at all. The case of Dandridge is particularly tragic. A great Negro League third baseman, he was signed early by the New York Giants and sent through their farm system; but because he was rather old (in his early forties), he never made it past the Triple-A Minneapolis Millers despite batting .364 in 1949 and winning the Most Valuable Player Award in the American Association in 1950. As Dandridge said to Giants owner Horace Stoneham years later, "The only thing I wanted to do was hit the major leagues... You could have called me up for even one week! I could have said I hit the major leagues."

In other words, Tygiel doesn't merely celebrate the great experiment but reminds us of the cost of decades of silent, unrelenting segregation. He also tells us the fate of the post-integration Negro Leagues. By the mid-'50s, they consisted of only of four teams who barnstormed from state to state; by the early '60s, only the Indianapolis Clowns remained. Then they too disappeared.

Tygiel also does an excellent job of placing the integration of baseball within its historical context. It wasn't merely Branch Rickey reaching down like some deus ex machina; it was the achievements of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens in the 1930s, and the performances of thousands of black American soldiers in World War II. In a way, the Nazis did as much as anyone to help integrate baseball by demonstrating the final outcome of our own prejudices. The flood of southern blacks to the big, northern cities — and thus to the big league ballparks there — didn't hurt matters either.

The nascent steps on the road to integration are numerous — moreso than is usually chronicled. In 1942, pitcher Nate Moreland and Jackie Robinson won tryouts with the Chicago White Sox. In 1943, Pittsburgh Pirates' owner William Benswanger, succumbing to local pressure, arranged tryouts for Roy Campanella and pitcher Dave Barnhill but cancelled at the last minute. Gadfly owner Bill Veeck, Jr. was always a possibility. Boston tryouts were arranged for Jackie Robinson, Marvin Williams, and Sam Jethroe in April 1945, but they were a sham, and the Red Sox, rather than becoming the first team to integrate, became the last.

Even Branch Rickey was pressured by the black press into arranging tryouts for black players — which enraged him, since, behind the scenes, he was working on this very issue. Rickey's carefully orchestrated search for and presentation of Jackie Robinson is usually recounted without criticism, but not here. "Rickey's preparations...appear overelaborate and unnecessary," Tygiel writes. He suggests that many Negro players could have been pushed through the system, rather than one, thus relieving Robinson of standard-bearer pressure. Yet Tygiel also finds fault with the Cleveland organization who, in 1947, did just this. Robinson, it should be remembered, was told about the great experiment in the summer of 1945, and it was revealed to the press in October of that year. He spent all of 1946 in Montreal. It wasn't until April 1947, nearly two years after his initial conversation with Branch Rickey, that Robinson officially broke the color barrier. In comparison, Tygiel writes, "(Larry) Doby received less than twenty-four hours notice before he found himself the sole representative of his race in the American League." This lack of preperation led to an abyssmal first year for Doby. In the end, despite Tygiel's criticism, I feel Rickey's caution was justified.

Other parts of the myth are taken apart and examined as well. Tygiel doubts the supposed racism of Montreal manager Clay Hopper along with his well-publicized comment, "Mr. Rickey, do you really think a nigger's a human being?" Since Rickey was so cautious about his great experiment, why would he bring in a racist to manage Robby's first year in white baseball? Robinson was signed before Hopper, after all, so both Rickey and Hopper knew what they were getting into.

Then there's the matter of Pee Wee Reese. According to Tygiel, it wasn't Robinson the Boston Braves were riding but Reese himself — for having to play alongside Robinson; but then Reese "strode over to Robinson, placed his arm around his teammate's shoulder, and prepared to discuss the upcoming game. The gesture silenced the Boston bench." Tygiel's source for this incident? Carl Rowan's book Wait Till Next Year, which was published in 1960.

Indeed, half the fun of this book is checking out which source Tygiel used for which fact. His footnotes are well-documented and extensive. The bibliography is a dream. There must be ten books, if not more, I want to read from the list, including Kirby Higbe's The High Hard One, Bill Veeck's Veeck — As In Wreck, and Quincy Trouppe's 20 Years Too Soon. Most of these, of course, have long gone out-of-print.

There's more: the struggle of Negro players traveling with their white teammates, the housing situation in spring training, the brushback pitches and beanballs the black players endured. Tygiel lets us know that Rickey's great experiment provided a blueprint not only for other Major League teams (with each elaborately searching for their own Negro to break the color barrier), but, in a way, for the Civil Rights movement. In the struggle for equality, Jackie Robinson was the first African-American who gained national attention for courageously turning the other cheek. That proved to be the winning strategy.

—May 10, 1997

© 1999 by Erik Lundegaard