Jackie Robinson is an American icon, who broke the color barrier in professional baseball, but efforts to confront racism during his stint in the U.S. Army nearly cost him his chance to integrate baseball. The color of his skin cost the Red Sox a chance to sign him first.
On July 6, 1944, wearing his uniform, he got on a city bus in Texas and when the driver said:
“Get to the back of the bus, where the colored people belong,” Lieutenant Robinson refused.
Robinson knew that the U.S. Army had recently ordered that soldiers could no longer be separated by race on military buses.
He might have been shocked when the Military Police sided with the driver, who was enforcing “Jim Crow” laws and disappointed that the Provost Marshall at his base in Fort Hood, Texas, came down against him.
His protests led to a court-martial a month later for “insubordination.” *
According to Jules Tygiel, due to “an able defense lawyer, a modicum of pre-trial publicity, and the weakness of the case against him,”** the Army judges found in his favor:
“He had acted within his rights in his refusal to bow to Southern tradition.”**
On the other hand, Robinson was denied a tryout with the Army baseball team.
Pete Reiser , who, as a civilian would later play with Robinson on the Brooklyn Dodgers was on the field that day:
“An officer told him ‘You have to play with the colored team.’ That was a joke, there was no colored team. …That was the first time I saw Jackie Robinson. I can still remember him walking away by himself.”**
Hypocritically, the Army was eager to put him on their football team; he turned them down.
Prior to his court-martial in Fort Hood, Texas, Robinson was a morale officer at Fort Riley, Robinson advocated for additional seating for black soldiers at the segregated PX; he eventually succeeded, but only after he was told by an officer on the phone:
“How would you like to have your wife sitting next to a nigger?”
Baseball was not accommodating then either.
- In 1952, The Sporting News chided:
“It is reasonably certain that there are some clubs in both major leagues which prefer to operate with all-white casts.”
- In 1952, the Cardinals, Phillies, Tigers, and Red Sox had one black player on their collective rosters.
- Fred Saigh, owner of the Cardinals [1947-53] said:
“I think we’re thought of as the team for the South.” He attributed growing ticket sales to the team being unwilling to give up its “Jim Crow” Era policies; the fans would write to support the team saying: ‘Well, we’re glad you’re not scumming.”
Saigh also offered his opinion about the anti-Jim Crow press; he said the Eastern writers were not like the Midwestern scribes, because the Easterners were “Mostly Jewish boys” and very “minority minded.”
- A Philadelphia scout was warned that “If you keep talking about those Negro players you are going to find yourself working for Branch Rickey!” [Brooklyn Dodgers, GM].
- Some owners set the bar impossibly high for black players:
“The first Negro to appear in a Yankee uniform must be worth waiting for.” [George Weiss, Yankee GM]
The first black player on a team would “have to be a great one.” [Clark Griffith, Wash. Senators owner]
Reds’ executive, Gabe Paul, was an exception to the “High bar/Jim Crow” majority in MLB:
“Any ball club that has a winning team will draw, regardless of whether there are any Negro players on it or not.”
- Black players were held to higher standards than whites.
From a Boston Red Sox scouting report on Earl Wilson, the first young black the club signed:
“…a well-mannered colored boy, not too black…conducts himself as a gentleman.”
Yankee officials described their first black player, Elston Howard as “a clean-cut, religious young man.” Perhaps someone like Ty Cobb.
A term most frequently used to describe black prospects was “gentleman,” as Tygiel observes: “a characteristic rarely stressed about whites.”
Red Sox Century, traced the racial history of the Red Sox back to the Jackie Robinson tryout and asserted that racism- not the spurious “Curse of the Bambino”–was the major factor that prevented the Red Sox from winning a world championship since 1945.
How many citizens of Red Sox Nation know that Jackie Robinson, before he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and made baseball history was rejected in a tryout with the Red Sox?
Jackie Robinson, who tried out for the team in 1945.
Back then, it took a City Councilman to threaten to not approve Red Sox games on Sundays [due to Blue Laws], to force the franchise to reluctantly to give the man a tryout at Fenway.
But, the team stalled for three days and the player was forced to sit in a hotel room, until a local paper broke the story. When the player and two other black players ran onto the field, it was reported, anecdotally, that someone yelled out “Get those niggers off the field,” but not in any newspaper.
“It burns me up to come fifteen hundred miles to have them give me the runaround…Not for one minute did we think the tryout was sincere.” [Jackie Robinson]
The Boston Red Sox franchise was the last team to put a black player on its Major league roster. Cantankerous owner [1933-76], Tom Yawkey was a racist:
“The Red Sox had several black players in their farm system during the 1950s. Many would have good seasons but then, without explanation, be traded away or even released outright, while the slow, lumbering power-oriented white players that typified the Red Sox were no longer in style in the major leagues. Against his personal wishes, Yawkey finally allowed the team to be integrated. In 1959, the Red Sox became the last major league team to field a black player, (Pumpsie Green), twelve years after Jackie Robinson‘s rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Yawkey]
“We scouted them right along, but we didn’t want one because he was a Negro. We wanted a ballplayer,” said Yawkey.
Until 1959, they rejected players who were not up to Yawkey’s “ballplayer standard”—Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, while all the other MLB teams were signing Lary Doby, Satchel Paige, Hank Thompson, Monty Irvin, and Hall of Fame SS, “Mr. Cub,” Ernie Banks.
“The Red Sox were one of the most racist teams in baseball. You’ve got a 50-year legacy of difficulties between the Red Sox and the African-American population.” [Howard Bryant, author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston (2002).
“Bolstered by the undertone of racial apartheid that long was otherwise-liberal Boston’s dirty little secret, Yawkey’s Red Sox neither sought nor signed African-American players [until 1966]… Pumpsie Green was the token black player’s name, and he had to play for a manager, Yawkey pal Mike Higgins, who was an unrepentant southern racist who could have stepped into Rod Steiger’s “In the Heat of the Night” role without an acting coach.”
Although “[Mike] Higgins was prone to using racist slurs…Yawkey not only kept him on as manager for several years, he promoted him to general manager.”
“I have no feeling against colored people. I employ a lot of them in the South. But they are clannish…”
Yawkey and his ilk tended toward a more Klan-ish attitude.
Boston general manager and Hall of Fame infielder Eddie Collins claimed, disingenuously, in March, 1944:
“We [the Red Sox] have never had a single request for a try-out by a colored applicant.”
But, almost a year later at approximately 10:30 in the morning on Monday, April 16, 1945, Boston city Councilman Isadore Muchnick and sportswriter Wendell Smith and three African-American baseball players from the Negro leagues arrived at Boston’s Fenway Park.
One month earlier the Red Sox reluctantly agreed to hold a tryout for African American ballplayers: Shortstop Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs, second baseman Marvin Williams of the Philadelphia Stars and outfielder Sam Jethroe of the Cleveland Buckeyes.
The audition of the three players took a little over one year to arrange and lasted only a perfunctory ninety minutes. A blatant insult.
In other sports, Boston had a much better record: the Bruins had the first black NHL player, Willie O’Ree. Chuck Cooper was the first black drafted by an NBA team, the Celtics, who also hired the first Black coach.
The Red Sox NL rivals the Boston Braves had Sam Jethroe, ROY in 1950.
But, according to Boston Sport’s writer Al Hirschberg, during the 1950’s, Red Sox Manager Pinky Higgins told him:
“They’ll be no niggers on this team.”
This form of inculcated racism cost the Red Sox the opportunity to sign Jackie Robinson.
*For more details, see “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson,” Jules Tygiel, American Heritage.
**Primary source: Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy by Jules Tygiel, Chpt. 4.