How Jackie Robinson Desegregated America
Perhaps the least-learned lesson of the saga of Jackie Robinson is that
competition can transform self-interest into an engine for racial fairness.
from the National Review
by STEVE SAILER
Mr. Sailer is a Chicago businessman and writer (e-mail address is
FIFTY years ago, on April 18, 1946, Jackie Robinson broke organized baseball's
color barrier with a characteristic bang, homering and scoring four runs in his
historic first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers' top farm team. This anniversary
will no doubt unleash a wave of media meditations, since it combines the two
national pastimes of the American male intellectual: denouncing racism and
waxing nostalgic over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Spike Lee is preparing The Jackie
Robinson Saga, and I'm sure Stephen Jay Gould will favor us with his thoughts.
Yet, beyond the obvious platitudes, baseball's long struggle over race can yield
some surprising perspectives on our national predicament. The Robinson epic is
generally lumped in with the 1954 Brown decision against segregated public
schools and the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing job discrimination. Yet two
crucial differences stand out. 1) The integration of organized baseball preceded
the civil-rights revolution, and in reality baseball helped make later reforms
politically feasible by giving white Americans black heroes with whom to
identify. 2) Government had almost nothing to do with this triumph of the
competitive market. Baseball owners finally realized that the more they cared
about the color of people's money, the less they could afford to care about the
color of their skin.
It's ironic that the hallowed civil-rights revolution owed so much to something
as seemingly trivial as pro sports. Yet, without this business of producing
heroes for public consumption, whites might never have cared enough about blacks
to be bothered by racial injustice. It's not the most noble trait of human
nature, but we tend to be more outraged by minor slights to winners (note the
endlessly recounted tales of the indignities Robinson endured) than by mass
atrocities against downtrodden losers.
That competitive markets make irrational bigotry expensive -- not impossible,
but costly -- was first formally demonstrated in 1957 by University of Chicago
economist Gary Becker (the 1992 Nobel Laureate), and in the four decades since
has barely gained a toehold in conventional thinking. Let me be clear: this idea
does not pollyannaishly presume that white people (or any other people) are
motivated by disinterested good will. It merely assumes that if forced to by
competition, people will hire whoever makes them the most money. Don't forget,
though, that we humans are always conniving to exempt ourselves from
competition. The more we can insulate ourselves from the open market, the more
painlessly we can then discriminate for kin and countrymen and against people we
don't like. Baseball's often ugly history shows this clearly.
Back in the 1880s, when the term ``organized baseball'' reflected ambition more
than reality, the general anarchy let a few dozen blacks play in integrated
leagues. By the turn of the century, however, blacks had been utterly banished.
Although liberal demonology would assume that the owners were the villains, the
prime agitators for segregation were, as economic theory would predict, the
white ballplayers. Cap Anson was the best known of the many white athletes who
threatened strikes or violence against black rivals. The banning of blacks came
up for a vote only once, in 1887 in the International League. Following many
nasty anti-black demonstrations by white players, the owners of the six
all-white teams outvoted the owners of the four mixed teams. Elsewhere, blacks
were driven out by ``gentlemen's agreements.''
Why did all the owners, although often after some resistance, ultimately give in
to rabble-rousing white players? Easing the slide into segregation was organized
baseball's curious status as a sort of Portuguese man-of-war of economic
entities -- in some ways an industry of independent competitors, in others a
single enterprise. Baseball teams must agree upon how they will compete, and,
while they're at it, it's always tempting to agree upon how they won't compete.
Congress ratified organized baseball's collusive tendency in 1920 by exempting
it from the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The team owners' ill-named ``gentlemen's agreement'' to discriminate against
blacks closely resembles today's unspoken understanding among the presidents of
another government-sanctioned cartel, our elite colleges, that they will all
discriminate against whites and Asians. Both clubowners and college presidents
chose to head off ugly incidents by pre-emptively caving in to racial activists.
They then browbeat all their peers into closing ranks, lest a lone dissident
spotlight their spinelessness.
When all teams colluded against blacks, each team could assure itself that it
was no worse off competitively than if all hired blacks. Cartels often collapse
quickly because of cheating, but it was easier to enforce a national ban on
black ballplayers than on, say, black factory workers. A ballclub couldn't hide
its black workers away inside the mill, but would have had to flaunt them on the
road before hostile, even murderous crowds. JACKIE ROBINSON'S vast (and
deserved) fame tends to make us assume that blacks and whites never played
together before April 1946. In truth, as the supply of black baseball talent
exploded after World War I, the demand for it could not be contained either.
There were of course the Negro Leagues. By the 1940s they were booming, and
their All Star game frequently outdrew the white version. More forgotten are the
many venues outside the South where blacks and whites increasingly played
together. 1) Collegiate athletics had been haphazardly integrated for decades.
At UCLA, for example, Robinson starred in baseball, football, basketball, track,
tennis, golf, and swimming. 2) The California winter baseball league was
integrated, though not its individual teams. 3) In the Caribbean winter leagues,
race meant even less. Many teams had black and white American stars playing in
the same lineups, with few problems. 4) In the mid Forties, a Mexican mogul
raided both the Negro and the Major Leagues to stock his summer Mexican League's
integrated teams. (Among 18 big-leaguers heading south after the 1945 season was
Dodger catcher Mickey Owen. Whether this increased competition for whites
encouraged the Dodgers' owner, Branch Rickey, to plunder the Negro Leagues is
unknown, but it certainly didn't hurt.) 5) Semipro ball, which was hugely
popular before TV, was surprisingly integrated. For instance, in 1935, Bismarck,
North Dakota, fielded an awesome team, half white, half black, lead by the
fabled pitcher Satchel Paige. Soon, practically every town in the Dakotas
boasted ``semipros'' lured from the Negro Leagues. 6) Barnstorming was the
chaotic epitome of Disorganized Baseball, requiring only two teams willing to
play and a crowd willing to pay. In many Midwestern villages, the annual
athletic highlight was the arrival of a Negro Leagues squad to play the local
semipros. 7) Each October the black Satchel Paige All Stars and the white Dizzy
Dean All Stars barnstormed the nation together. (Predictably, the blacks won a
sizable majority of these games.) During World War II, Paige could claim to be
the highest-paid player in all of baseball.
In the liberal world-view, discrimination stems from prejudice, from ignorance
of the actual talents of blacks. In organized baseball, the opposite was true.
White Major Leaguers freely admitted that many blacks could have taken white
players' jobs. Yet, somehow, this enlightened perception failed to make the
white pros into ardent integrationists. Meanwhile, a number of owners and
managers tried to cheat on their gentlemen's agreement. For example, many
historians claim that the Washington Senators quietly broke the color barrier in
the late 1930s by playing Cubans dark enough to have been banned as Negroes if
they had spoken English.
There was strikingly little correlation between the rectitude of the man and his
urge to integrate baseball. For example, among managers the most creative was
the choleric John J. McGraw, a ferocious scrapper who won ten pennants. In 1901
he almost succeeded in smuggling a light-skinned black second baseman onto his
team as a full-blooded Cherokee named ``Chief Tokohama.'' During World War II
huckster Bill Veeck tried to buy the dreadful Philadelphia Phillies and stock
them with Negro Leagues stars. Like all direct challenges, though, this was
rebuffed by the autocratic Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain
Landis. After the Chicago Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series, the owners had
restored faith in the game by appointing Landis, who was famed for his strict
moral standards -- one of which was Segregation Forever. After the good Judge
went to his reward in late 1944, the owners, hoping to lighten up, picked as
Commissioner the Southern politician A. B. ``Happy'' Chandler. When Happy
surprisingly indicated that he wouldn't veto black players, Branch Rickey set
his plans in motion.
``Mahatma'' Rickey was as renowned as Landis for his righteousness (as Rickey
tirelessly reminded his players while chiseling down their salaries). No one
should look down upon Rickey, however; pursue his self-interest he certainly
did, but with infinitely more intelligence and courage than his rival owners.
(Today's elite colleges, for example, have yet to produce their own Branch
Rickey, a school president brave enough to dump affirmative action.) Rickey
chose Robinson because they had so much in common: both were Methodists who
didn't smoke, drink, or chase women, and both were smart enough to know the
historic importance of their undertaking. Most importantly, both were too
competitive to back down.
Further undermining the naive presumption that breaking the color line was an
act of progressive piety was the key role played by Rickey's favorite field
manager, the little ferret Leo Durocher. Bonding the Mahatma and Leo the Lip was
a shared passion for victory and money. During spring training in 1947, Rickey
scheduled a series between the Dodgers and Robinson's minor-league team. He
hoped that when the Dodger players saw Robinson's talents, they would demand his
promotion. Instead, fearing for their jobs or those of their friends, they said
nothing. But when some Dodgers from Dixie actively protested against Robinson,
Durocher deflated their mutiny: ``I don't care if the guy is yellow or black, or
if he has stripes like a f -- -- -- zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I
say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you
can't use the money, I'll see that you are all traded.''
WHAT lessons can we learn from this tangled tale? A few simple ones seem to leap
out. The more greed and lust for victory, the less discrimination. The more
competition between teams and businesses, the more cooperation between the
races. In contrast, the more collusion, centralization, community standards, and
concern for the feelings of people you know, the more bias. If we now look at
the remarkable impact that the first few dozen blacks had on Major League
baseball, we can confirm the Chicago School's theory that competition tends to
make irrational discrimination self-defeatingly expensive. The 1946 World Series
looked as if it would be only the first of many between the Boston Red Sox and
the St. Louis Cardinals. Led by Ted Williams, the greatest hitter since Babe
Ruth, the 1946 Red Sox had won an exceptional 104 games, losing only 50. The
Cardinals, meanwhile, had averaged 104 wins per season during the four seasons
that the young Stan Musial had anchored their lineup. Both leftfielders would
long remain superlative hitters. As late as 1957 Musial led the National League
(NL) with a batting average of .351, while Williams topped even that with .388,
the highest average between the Roosevelt and Carter Administrations. Yet
neither man ever returned to the World Series. Why not?
Largely because of St. Louis's and Boston's boneheaded bigotry. With Robinson
apprenticing in the minors throughout the 1946 season, the Brooklyn Dodgers
finished two games behind the Cards. In 1947, Rookie of the Year Robinson made
the difference, as the Dodgers edged the Cards for the pennant. Jackie instantly
became the league's biggest draw, with the Dodgers setting NL records for both
home and away attendance. During each pre-season alone, Robinson earned his
annual salary from the huge Southern crowds, black and white, that turned out to
cheer and boo him at Dodger exhibitions. (By barnstorming through Dixie, Rickey
was exposing Robinson to a real threat of assassination, as well as the insults
of Jim Crow, but, hey, the money was too good to pass up.)
Rickey followed up his masterstroke by signing more Negro Leagues stars like Roy
Campanella and Don Newcombe. During Robinson's ten-year tenure, Brooklyn's
dividends for desegregating first were six NL titles, fueled by black Dodgers'
winning five Most Valuable Player awards and four Rookie of the Year awards.
In contrast, St. Louis frittered away the heart of Musial's stupendous career by
not obtaining a black regular until Curt Flood in 1958. The Cards paid a brutal
price for discriminating. During the first four years they had Stan the Man (up
through 1946), the Cards won almost 18 more games per year than the Dodgers. But
during the Robinson era, the Cards fell to nearly 13 victories per year fewer
than the Dodgers, a monumental swing of over 30 wins per 154-game season. The
Cardinals stubbornly ignored blacks until Augie Busch bought the team in 1954.
Fearing a black boycott of Budweiser, he immediately ordered his scouts to find
black players, but by then the easy pickings were gone. Although too late for
Musial, Busch's integration move finally paid off in the 1960s, as blacks like
Flood, Lou Brock, and Bob Gibson became the core of great Cardinal teams. As
could be expected, the National League, which had been sorely trailing the
American League (AL) in superstars since the days of Ty Cobb, more aggressively
pursued black talent. By the mid Fifties all NL teams except the Cardinals and
the hapless Phillies featured at least one black headed for the Hall of Fame.
Between 1949 and 1962, blacks won 11 of the 14 NL MVP awards, while no black was
the AL MVP until Yankee catcher Elston Howard in 1963. And the AL lacked an
African-American superstar until Frank Robinson arrived via a 1966 trade and
promptly showed the league what it had been missing by capturing the rare Triple
Crown for batting.
Integration electrified the NL's style of play, as blacks showed that sluggers
didn't have to be sloggers -- e.g., Willie Mays led the league four times in
home runs and four times in stolen bases. The balance of power shifted away from
the slow, complacent American League. The AL had won 12 of the 16 All Star games
played in the Thirties and Forties, but could capture only 5 of the 24 held in
the Fifties and Sixties.
Where competition is not particularly intense, however, discrimination can
linger. In the AL, the New York Yankees ruled, winning 29 of 44 pennants from
1921 to 1964. Not surprisingly, the Yankees saw little need to rush into
integrating, especially after they signed Mickey Mantle, a white man even faster
and stronger than the NL's black stars. With most of the AL not expecting to
dethrone the Yankees (indeed, some forlorn AL franchises subsisted by routinely
selling their top prospects to the Yankees), most other AL teams also lagged at
The main exception was the Cleveland Indians. Under master promoter Bill Veeck,
in 1948 the Tribe suddenly overtook the Red Sox as the Yankees' chief
challenger. The Indians edged out the Red Sox for the pennant that year by a
single game, a difference more than accounted for by their two blacks,
outfielder Larry Doby and a 42-year-old rookie phenom named Paige. As the AL's
most integrated team, from 1948 to 1956 the Tribe would average 94 wins, peaking
with a 111 - 43 record in 1954, the best anywhere since 1906. In comparison,
under the ownership of beloved philanthropist Tom Yawkey, the Red Sox would fade
into mediocrity, wasting Williams's bat as they refused to play a black man
until 1959. Still, to be fair, the Red Sox did take only seven more years to
hire a black than the Braves -- the Osaka Braves, that is.
WHILE the complete integration of baseball through competition took longer than
we would have liked, it's worth contrasting baseball's record to the
civil-rights milestones dependent upon the Federal Government. For example, the
vaunted 1954 Brown decision remained mostly a symbol until the Nixon
Administration began broadly enforcing it 15 years later. Likewise, although the
decline in job discrimination in the South in the 1960s is often attributed to
the 1964 Civil Rights Act, little of the now vast array of bureaucratic and
legal machinery for enforcing that law existed before the end of that decade.
Far more beneficial during the 1960s than pestering private companies was
federal intervention freeing up the Southern economy by cracking down on
state-authorized discrimination, whether imposed by legislatures or by mobs
winked at by local authorities. These gains became permanent under the most
wholly successful civil-rights law, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. By finally
establishing a competitive market for political power, this law rapidly made
hatemongering unprofitable for Southern office-seekers.
Today, conservatives tend to lionize the 1964 Civil Rights Act for embodying
color-blindness. In denouncing quotas while supporting anti-discrimination laws,
however, the Right shows a surprising faith in the ability of government
bureaucrats and judges to decide case by case which private hiring decisions
were tainted by bias. In reality, close study of possible instances of
discrimination shows why the sainted 1964 act made quotas inevitable.
Frequently, no outsider, and sometimes not even those involved, can know which
of the many possible reasons for an employment decision was actually conclusive.
For example, the Yankees first employed black minor-leaguers in 1949 but didn't
promote any to the big club until 1955. Was this long delay caused by
discrimination? If you assume that any team in the early 1950s that didn't have
a few blacks must have been discriminating, it appears obvious that the Yankees
were guilty. But if you reject this kind of statistical or quota-based
reasoning, how do you find the smoking gun? Did the Yankees trade away their top
prospect, the black Puerto Rican Vic Power, for his uppitiness (when a Southern
waitress once told him, ``I'm sorry, but we don't serve Negroes here,'' he
blithely replied, ``That's OK, I don't eat them'')? Or were they sincere in
claiming they'd lost faith in his potential? Or both? Presumably bias played a
role, since Power turned out to be a good (though not great) Major Leaguer. But
who can say for sure? Ballclubs constantly make honest mistakes about
minor-leaguers (in the same period, the integrated Dodgers discarded another
young black Puerto Rican, the great Roberto Clemente). Did the Yankees then
force their other most promising black minor-leaguer, outfielder Elston Howard,
to convert to catcher in order to delay his rise to the big leagues? Possibly,
but this time the Yankees proved right, as Howard became an MVP behind the
This ambiguity inherent in so many hiring decisions explains why aggressive
anti-discrimination laws always end up impelling employers toward quotas.
Unfortunately, racial quotas have numerous side effects. While the overall
impact of reverse discrimination remains harshly controversial, we can safely
say that year by year quotas' benefits to blacks diminish while quotas' costs to
blacks rise. Since strong anti-bias laws make quotas inevitable and quotas are
inexorably becoming a net harm to blacks, then logic would imply that we must
eventually repeal enforcement of the Civil Rights Act's prohibitions against
discrimination by competitive employers.
How, then would we fight racism in hiring? I suggest: in roughly the same way as
we now deter its cousin, nepotism. In noncompetitive organizations like
government agencies, laws often ban nepotistic hiring. On the other hand, the
government allows the market to police competitive firms. If a CEO promotes
Junior and he turns out to be inept, well, the firm pays the price in lost
Our country is probably several years away from even beginning to grasp this
logic, but in the long run it may prove compelling. Conservatives, however,
can't seize the rational high ground until they stop leaping to defend
institutions they, especially, should be wary of -- e.g., unions, regulated
monopolies, and government agencies -- against the threat of racial quotas.
True, competition does restrain irrational discrimination. But where competition
is lacking -- such as in government monopolies like police and fire departments,
or in labor unions, which exist to negate competition -- then quotas can
sometimes be necessary to put a price on discrimination.
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