Television history was made on September 30, 1947. People who were lucky enough to watch one of the few black and white tv sets available at that time saw the first televised game of the World Series. That World Series was an important act in a morality play in black and white that had been unfolding during the spring and summer of that year. A black man, Jackie Robinson, broke the color line which had separated the races in professional baseball by his inspired performance as a major league player. His example led to the elimination of racial segregation in other walks of life and to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.Prior to the Second World War segregation was a way of life in many American institutions, especially in the states south of the Mason-Dixon line. In the South schools, trains, busses, restaurants and theatres were all segregated. Blacks were required to sit in the back of the bus and to give up their seats to whites. The armed forces were segregated by race in 1947, as they had been during World War II.
Ironically, the great American pastime of baseball was segregated also. Major league baseball was concentrated pretty much to the northeast and Midwest. Of the sixteen major league teams the Washington, D. C. Senators was the team furthest south. Two teams representing St. Louis were the teams furthest west. Although most of the cities represented by major league teams were in the states where segregation was not officially sanctioned their major league teams were restricted to white players until 1947.
But the fact that there were no Black players in the major leagues or their farm teams did not mean that there were no good black players. Because of the practice of segregation there were several "Negro leagues" where skilled black men played professional and semi-professional baseball at a very high level.
Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was interested in bringing a black baseball player to the major leagues to c hallenge racial segregation. He chose a player from the Negro leagues, Jackie Robinson, to test the long-time ban on black players.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson already had proven himself as an excellent athlete. He had been a four letter winner in baseball, football, track and basketball at UCLA. Robinson had served in the Army during World War II. After the war Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro leagues. Rickey brought Robinson to the Dodger farm team in Montreal, the Royals, in 1946 in order to prepare him for the transition to the Dodgers in 1947.
Robinson became the regular second baseman for an excellent Dodger team. He endured a great deal of abuse during the season. The general manager of the Phillies had threatened to pull the Phillies out of the National League if Robinson played, but was vetoed by the National League President, and the Phillies were forced to play.
Philadelphia was not the "City of B rotherly Love" for Robinson, for their redneck field manager, Ben Chapman, was particularly abusive to Robinson. But Robinson kept his temper, and excelled in the field and as a base runner and hitter. He was a fierce competitor.
The Dodgers won the National League pennant that year, and Jackie Robinson was named the Rookie of the Year at the age of 28. The American League champion that year was the New York Yankees, and the Dodgers lost to them in the World Series. But Robinson had won a victory for Blacks as others followed him into organized baseball and became stars. He was truly a hero of the civil rights movement.
Another Black player was recruited for the Cleveland Indians the next year, 1948. Outfielder Larry Doby was the first black man to play in the American League. He was joined during the season by a pitcher, Leroy (Satchel) Paige. Paige was born in 1906 in Mobile, Alabama. He played for several Negro league teams, but racial prejudice kept him out of the major leagues until the end of his career. He was signed to the Cleveland Indians as a 42 year old rookie. Cleveland got into the World Series and Paige helped with his 6-1 record. Satchel Paige retired from baseball in 1953. He was elected into major league baseball's Hall of Fame in 1971. Paige is remembered for his pithy sayings. Most famous was his remark, "Never look back, somebody might be gaining on you."
Players such as Robinson, Doby and Paige were the pioneers who opened the doors to major league baseball for Blacks. During the next decade other teams began to recruit players, especially seasoned players from the Negro leagues. Arguably the most famous of the black players who followed Robinson was Henry (Hank) Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth's record of 714 major league home runs. Aaron began his professional career with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League in 1952. By 1954 the major league Milwaukee Braves purchased his contract. He was the Most Valuable Player in the National League in 1957.
When Aaron challenged Ruth's record be received threatening letters, including death threats. He broke the home run record in April 1971. Eventually he hit 755 home runs. His record was broken by Barry Bonds last year, but there are questions about the possibility that Bonds was helped by performance enhancing drugs. Aaron is Vice-President of the Braves, who are now in Atlanta. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.
More than sixty years have passed since Jackie Robinson challenged the color line and won. Now black athletes participate and excel in many professional sports. But Robinson's courage in the face of discrimination was a victory for the human race.
Robert L. Leight is a resident of Richland Township and a retired professor of education at Lehigh University.