Baseball's Great Experiment
By Jules Tygiel
Random House, 1983

For more than half a century, the "color barrier" was Major League Baseball's not-so-secret shame. Although a number of African-Americans played in the earliest days of organized baseball, the National Pastime erected a strict "Whites Only" sign during the first half of the 20th Century.

The long process of dismantling that barrier -- particularly during the pivotal years of 1945 to 1959 -- is the subject of Jules Tygiel's magnificent Baseball's Great Experiment. The author, a history professor at San Francisco State University, provides an engrossing account of baseball's integration saga that really is as much American social history as it is baseball history. Tygiel places the Robinson story in the context of the larger social and political climate that engulfed the United States after World War II. To his credit, he does so without being heavy-handed.

The well-researched book briefly looks at the experience of African-Americans in baseball's early years and traces the history of the Negro Leagues (these opics are covered more comprehensively in Robert Peterson's Only the Ball was White.) Baseball's Great Experiment really takes off, however, when Branch Rickey signs Jackie Robinson to play with the Montreal Royals in 1946. Tygiel provides an in-depth look at Robinson's 1946 and 1947 seasons, when he was the most watched man in sports, and closely examines the reaction of the press, the fans and other players to Robinson and his remarkable on-field success.

But while Robinson is the central character in Baseball's Great Experiment, Tygiel shows that the story of baseball's integration was played out on several other fronts during the 1940s and 1950s. Thus, the reader meets the other Negro League stars who joined Robinson in organized baseball in 1946-1947. Some of the players -- Roy Campenella, Larry Doby, Don Newcombe -- were destined for lasting fame, while others, like John Wright and Dan Bankhead, have long since been forgotten.

Perhaps most interestingly, the book examines an area seldom remembered today. As Tygiel puts it, "Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, the drama of baseball integration unfolded primarily in baseball's shadow empire -- the minor leagues." In this period, Negro Leaguers integrated many minor league circuits throughout the United States and often dominated those leagues statistically. For young players, like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, the minors provided a steeping stone to Major League fame. "But for many Negro League veterans, trapped by the persistent racism of the newly integrated sport, the minor leagues at mid-century marked the final frustration of a lifetime of exclusion," Tygiel writes.

Perhaps the best example of this is the case of legendary Negro League third baseman Ray Dandridge. Compared favorably by some observers with Brooks Robinson and Graig Nettles, Dandridge was signed in his late thirties by the New York Giants and assigned to their AAA affiliate in Minneapolis. Despite winning the American Association MVP in 1949 and following up that effort with two more outstanding years, Dandridge never got the big leagues, largely because of his age.

The book also looks at the experience of blacks who during the 1950s became pioneers on teams that played in the South. While the integration of countless leagues in the Jim Crow belt elicited surprisingly little formal resistance, "for dozens of black, thrust into the region at a time when racial tensions had dramatically escalated, the experience imposed a personal trial," Tygiel writes. "Once the color line had yielded, most major league
clubs gave little though as to where they sent their young athletes."

Among other fascinating topics the book addresses:

  • The role the black press -- particularly reporters Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American and Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier-- played in the integration of organized baseball.
  • The quick demise the Negro Leagues, which lost the interest of the African-American public as soon as Robinson and others started playing in the bigs.
  • The Major League debut of Satchel Paige, already famous even to white Americans, during the 1948 pennant race.

Tygiel takes the story up to 1959, when the Boston Red Sox promoted "Pumpsie" Green to the Majors, thus becoming the final team to integrate. Along the way, the author adds some salient analysis to the story, like this somewhat iconoclastic view of the mythologized Rickey approach to breaking the color barrier:

The credit for banishing Jim Crow from baseball belongs solely to Branch Rickey, and the strategies that he pursued must be judged overwhelmingly effective. Yet the magnitude of his success has eradicated from memory the alternatives that existed. Rickey indeed was the only owner in 1945 with the courage and foresight to sign a black player. But with public pressure mounting, particularly in the New York area, it seems likely that political events would have forced the issue within the next few years. Rickey's action and his presentation of the Robinson case as an "experiment" actually relieved the pressure on other owners and allowed them to delay while awaiting the outcome of Rickey's gamble. It is also likely that if Rickey had not set the precedent, Bill Veeck would have. Veeck purchased the Cleveland Indians in 1946, and given his background, he most likely would have tapped the Negro Leagues. The color line in baseball faced imminent extinction and probably would have collapsed by 1950, even if Rickey had not courageously engineered that collapse.

Baseball's Great Experiment is not only recommended reading, it is in fact required reading for anyone interested in the remarkable story of how baseball finally ended the blatant discrimination that for decades kept African-Americans out of the National Pastime.

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--Justin, June 1, 1999