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The Robinson Interregnum: The Black Press Responds to the Signing of Jackie Robinson, October 23, 1945-March 1, 1946

 

 

There is little about the life of Jackie Robinson that historians do not know. Each part of his saga has been analyzed time and again. Among the periods sometimes given short shrift, however, is the time between the seminal event of his signing with the Montreal Royals, AAA farm team of Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers, in October 1945 and his arrival in Sanford, Florida, for his first spring training in an unapologetically racist South.

Such is not to say that the period has not also received its chronicle. Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment is the most substantial account of the sport’s integration, and Tygiel does recount Robinson’s time during the interregnum. So too does David Falkner in his Robinson biography Great Time Coming and Chris Lamb in his account of Robinson’s first spring training. [1] Each of those accounts uses major black weeklies to create a picture of Robinson’s actions and the black response, but looking at smaller black weeklies, less trumpeted than the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender, a more nuanced picture of that response helps color the solid scholarship that already exists.

The initial response from smaller black newspapers, as found in African American Newspapers, 1827-1998, was, understandably, elation. Robinson’s signing was an “e[p]ochal step,” reported the Kansas City Plaindealer. “A Negro has actually been signed by a major league team! Unbelievable, but true!” For Washington Tribune columnist Edwin Henderson, the signing was “another nail driven into the coffin of American Fascism.” The Chicago Bee expressed relief that “another stepping stone was reached.” [2]

 

 

 

Ben Davis, attorney, New York City councilman, and former editor of the communist Daily Worker, also celebrated the signing as “a milestone on the road toward full and unconditional citizenship,” reminding readers that he had launched an early “end-jimcro-in-baseball” drive as Worker editor years prior. He submitted a 1945 resolution, adopted by the city council of New York, calling on the city’s three teams to hire black players. “There are a number of Jackie Robinsons among the Negro people,” he argued. “Let us keep up the fight of labor and the American people until the stand taken by the Dodgers is not the exception but the rule.” [3]

 

The People’s Voice, headquartered in New York, assigned its Montreal correspondent to cover the event and had a firsthand account of the contract signing. “Guess I’m just a guinea pig in this noble experiment,” Robinson commented. “Maybe I am doing something for my race.” He was gracious to reporters and they, in turn, were pleased with the signing. Another Voice correspondent was down the street covering a return concert by Paul Robeson, and after the show, the reporter stepped into Robeson’s dressing room and told him about Robinson’s event nearby. “Great!” said Robeson. “This is wonderful news. That’s what was needed. Something solid to go ahead with it and there’s no better man to be given this break than Jackie Robinson.” [4]

 

In a rally later that week for Davis’s reelection to city council at New York’s Golden Gate Ballroom, the group, including Robeson, Margaret Webster, Joe Louis, and Lena Horn, passed a resolution against lynching in the South and in support of Robinson. The People’s Voice credited Davis’s activism, as well as “pressure resulting from the Ives-Quinn anti-discrimination law of the state of New York.” There was also Rickey’s determination and, in a moment of self-promotion, the constant advocacy of papers like the People’s Voice and Pittsburgh Courier. The Voice devoted more than a full page of coverage to the signing, listing positive comments and negative, providing biographical material and man-on-the-street interviews about the signing. [5]

 

Don Deleighbur of the Chicago Bee credited Gus Greenlee, Pittsburgh Crawfords owner, for making the signing possible. “It is a fact,” he wrote, “that had not Greenlee come up with his ill-fated United States Baseball League with a franchise club playing out of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn” in 1944, Robinson might never have been signed. Greenlee’s new league, Deleighbur explained, was designed to rupture Negro Leagues baseball as it currently existed, and he began by naming teams and signing players away from the established organizations until the Negro National and Negro American Leagues shut him down. “In retaliation, Greenlee spread the word around the lobby of Chicago’s Grand Hotel that launched the ‘player strike’ before the East-West Classic in 1944.” The players eventually played after a pay increase for the game, but “from then on, the ‘heat’ was on Greenlee.” Still, he soldiered on with only two teams, the Crawfords and the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers playing a barnstorming schedule for the season. It was that association with Brooklyn that gave him “a chance to get the ear of Branch Rickey. What he told Rickey may never be known,” but it certainly encouraged Rickey to support black baseball. “That is why Rickey came out with that statement about the games and got more interested in the possibilities of Negro baseball players being good material for minor and major league use.” [6]

 

Ludlow Werner, columnist for the New York Age, recalled a meeting with Rickey several months previous who railed at black reporters who asked him about two black players who had tried out for the team at Bear Mountains. He denounced Negro Leagues players and the Negro Leagues themselves. So his announcement about signing Robinson “came as a pleasant surprise.” As for Robinson, Werner was confident that the pressure of the situation would “bring out the best in him; and the best in him should prove sufficient to break up another myth that Negroes do not belong in ‘white’ baseball.” [7]

 

Almost simultaneously, however, there was criticism. “Hollering murder long and loud,” wrote the Washington Tribune’s Al Sweeney, “are the Negro club owners. The management of the Kansas City Monarchs in particular,” who believed that team management deserved consultation before the signing. Other owners, however, were also upset, worried that their teams would be raided, as well. Backing them was Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, but Sweeney took little stock of Griffith’s stand, as he “manages to hire every nationality of a ballplayer for his Senators, except Negroes.” Besides, argued Sweeney, contract jumping was “a perennial pastime in the Negro leagues,” and the Dodgers were doing the same things as every other Negro League team. “As far as this writer is concerned there is no such thing as Negro owned baseball. Time and again, we have pointed out that the so-called Negro leagues are being controlled by whites.” [8]

                

Sweeney was more optimistic about Robinson’s chances. Montreal’s southernmost opponent was Baltimore, the only city in the International League circuit with a potential housing problem. In spring training, he believed, “the Royals will undoubtedly schedule games in an environment that will not be hostile to the Negro star.” His teammates and fellow players “might be disgruntled for a short while,” but baseball competition would be the ultimate arbiter of their respect. [9]

In the same edition of Sweeney’s paper, however, the description of the signing included skeptical quotes from Rogers Hornsby and the Dodgers’ own Fred “Dixie” Walker. There were complimentary statements in the chronicle, as well, but the statements were an ominous sign. “There was no use worrying about Jackie’s signing,” said Walker, “as long as he isn’t with my club.” But he was. [10]

As the Associated Negro Press reported in another Plaindealer edition, J.B. Martin, president of the Negro American League, was overjoyed and wrote to Rickey to praise the signing. Horace Stoneham, president of the New York Giants, announced that his team would scout black players that season, too. But then there was the statement of James Titus, city manager of Daytona Beach, where the Dodgers held their spring training, who publicly reminded Rickey and Montreal owner Hector Racine that segregation laws would be strictly enforced in the city, but “neither has showed any inclination to forsake Robinson,” the ANP reported. [11]

 

Despite such warning signs, optimism seemed rampant. Officials for both leagues, however, gave lie to some of Sweeney’s more cavalier pronouncements, meeting together at New York’s Hotel Theresa in mid-November “for the specific purpose of taking measures to prevent organized baseball from raiding Negro organized baseball.” The group “went on record as lauding the chance for Negroes to be admitted to major league ball,” but castigated Rickey and the major league for not contacting the Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson’s Negro League team. In a stern letter to commissioner Happy Chandler, the team owners argued that player raiding would never be tolerated between white teams. It was “unjust to our heavy investments and we will be rewarded nothing for having developed players and putting them in the limelight and then have them plucked off.” [12]

 

It was on the heels of that letter that reports surfaced that Rickey had just weeks after hiring Robinson signed Homestead Grays pitcher John Wright to a similar minor league deal, only leading to more frustration by team owners. Chandler acknowledged that he received the protest letter but dismissed it out of hand. The argument was not a “bona fide dispute for consideration by his office.” [13]

It would not take long, however, for the white owners of the Kansas City Monarchs to back down from their protests. “This writer,” claimed an unattributed article in the Plaindealer, “feels that [Thomas] Baird realized that he would kill himself with Negroes all over the country if he attempted to block Robinson’s playing in the major league set up.” Rick Hurt of the People’s Voice agreed with the Monarchs’ decision, noting that black America was behind Robinson, and the team would only bring itself ill feelings if it pressed forward. “More important they realized that they couldn’t win in a fight with Branch Rickey.” At the same time, however, Hurt explained that it was perfectly reasonable to support Robinson and the end “of all jimcro in baseball” and still be “fully behind any justifiable demands by Negro ball club owners for compensation when their players are signed.” [14]

 

Hurt denied claims of “reactionaries” who were “fried to a crisp” over Robinson’s signing and claiming that “Negro fans will riot if Robinson should ever be spiked or hurt on a ball field.” On the contrary, explained Hurt, when Robinson walked onto the field, “it will not be he alone who is out there playing—thirteen million Negro Americans will be out there with him. And no Negro is going to riot or engage in anything that is detrimental to the progress and advancement of our entire people.” [15]

 

Meanwhile, Robinson was feted as a conquering hero. When Morgan College defeated Lincoln University at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Robinson acted as “honorary linesman.” He also appeared on Bert Lee’s WHN “Sports Final” on November 11. In December, Robinson went to Caracas, Venezuela, to play on a black all-star team, touring for two months. Baltimore Elite Giants manager Felton Snow managed the all-stars and upon returning called Robinson a “good ball player” who would “probably develop into a top-notch ball player,” but “he needs to know the brain work and strategy that goes with playing shortstop.” [16]

 

The signing had an almost immediate effect. In late December, Bakersfield’s team in the Class C California League signed black outfielder Chet Brewer. That fall, the first black player played on Princeton’s football team, and the Bee’s Don Deleighbur used Robinson’s signing to wonder about integration in professional football, as “the professional grid world spins along season in and season out with not a single dark face to color the lineups of the many teams.” [17]

 

Then there were the foreign comparisons. Chatwood Hall, the Associated Negro Press’s foreign correspondent, reported from Moscow that Russian sportswriters were pleased with the signing and were surprised that such a move had not happened sooner, as “American Negroes are among the world’s top ranking sports figures.” The Plaindealer ran a Continental Features syndicated story about the Mexican response to Robinson’s signing, arguing that “nobody was any happier than a fine group of Mexican citizens who are waging an all-out war to keep Jim [Crow] from crossing the Rio Grande and taking over their country as he has taken over Mexico’s next-door neighbor—Texas.” The report went on to detail the work of the Mexican Committee Against Racism and the inspiration the group drew from Robinson’s success. [18]

 

It was in early January when reporters for the black press started to openly discuss the fact that the team’s spring training would take place in strictly segregated Daytona, Florida. Alton Moses of the Plaindealer described the segregation laws as they existed in the city. “Me-no-likee as my China boy associate would say.” [19]

Though the Plaindealer had announced the John Wright signing in November, the Montreal Royals waited until early February to officially announce the deal; papers reported that the pitcher would report to spring training in Daytona with Robinson. Like Robinson, Wright was a veteran. He was from the South. And with those credentials, he “became the second Negro star to crash the color line of modern organized baseball.” The Plaindealer’s Alvin Moses asked, “Where, oh where is the party who coined the expression—‘lightning never strikes twice in the same place’?” [20]

In early February, Robinson married Rachel Isum in Los Angeles, “with a dignity which has characterized both young people,” according to the Los Angeles Tribune. Soon after the wedding, the Coast Edition of the Pittsburgh Courier held the First Annual Sports Awards Banquet in Los Angeles, celebrating Robinson, among others, with entertainment stars like Eddie Green and Lena Horne in attendance. On March 2, the day after Robinson was scheduled to report to camp, he was scheduled to appear on a national radio program celebrating National Newspaper Week, along with Paul Robeson, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Louis, William Hastie, and others. [21]

 

For all of the fanfare, however, there was still the game and the various bigotries that accompanied it. Thus it was on March 1, 1946, Robinson reported to spring training in Sanford, Florida, where the Royals would practice before moving to Daytona on March 11. John Wright arrived, as well. The black press looked on, waiting with anticipation “the historic try-out of these two trailblazers in bigtime baseball.” [22]

It was the beginning of a monumental journey and the culmination of another, but for those who found meaning in the events and the press who represented them, it was an uncertain step into deep water, and the smaller circulation black newspapers were vital in interpreting it to the readers in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Washington, and Little Rock.

 

Footnotes

[1] Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 74-95; David Falkner, Great Time Coming: The Life of Jackie Robinson, from Baseball to Birmingham (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 116-127; and Chris Lamb, Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 44-57. Robinson himself spends less time on the period, as does Arthur Mann, Branch Rickey’s original biographer. Jackie Robinson, I Never Had It Made (New York: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1972), 47-49; and Arthur Mann, Branch Rickey: American in Action (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), 233-235.

[2] Plaindealer, 26 October 1945, 1; Washington Tribune, 30 October 1945, 6; and Chicago Bee, 4 November 1945, 27.

[3] People’s Voice, 3 November 1945, 33.

[4] Plaindealer, 3 November 1945, 34.

[5] People’s Voice, 3 November 1945, 19, 25. Ives-Quinn was an amendment to New York’s Executive Law prompted by New York State Temporary Commission Against Discrimination in early 1945. It sought to “eliminate and prevent discrimination because of race, creed, color or national origin either by employers, labor organizations, employment agencies or other persons.” For more, see Terry Lichtash, “Current Legislation,” St. John’s Law Review 19 (April 1945): 170-176.

[6] Chicago Bee, 11 November 1945, 17.

[7] New York Age, 3 November 1945, 6.

[8] Washington Tribune, 30 October 1945, 27.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Washington Tribune, 30 October 1945, 28.

[11] Plaindealer, 2 November 1945, 6.

[12] People’s Voice, 17 November 1945, 33.

[13] Plaindealer, 23 November 1945, 4.

[14] Plaindealer, 2 November 1945, 6; and People’s Voice, 24 November 1945, 33.

[15] People’s Voice, 3 November 1945, 33.

[16] Washington Tribune, 30 October 1945, 28; New York Age, 3 November 1945, 1, 10 November 1945, 10; Arkansas State Press, 9 November 1945, 4; Plaindealer, 9 November 1945, 6, 7 December 1945, 5; and Los Angeles Tribune, 9 February 1946, 14.

[17] People’s Voice, 22 December 1945, 43, 29 December 1945, 41; and Chicago Bee, 25 November 1945, 20.

[18] Plaindealer, 28 December 1945, 6, 22 February 1946, 7; and People’s Voice, 29 December 1945, 42.

[19] Plaindealer, 11 January 1946, 6.

[20] People’s Voice, 9 February 1946, 42; Los Angeles Tribune, 16 February 1946, 14; and Plaindealer, 15 February 1946, 5.

[21] New York Age, 9 February 1946, 11; People’s Voice, 23 February 1946, 39; Plaindealer, 8 February 1946, 6, 15 February 1946, 7; Los Angeles Tribune, 16 February 1946, 11, 23 February 1946, 19; and Chicago Bee, 24 February 1946, 4.

[22] Los Angeles Tribune, 9 March 1946, 14.

About the Author

Thomas Aiello is an associate professor of history and African American studies at Valdosta State University. He is the author of The Battle for the Souls of Black Folk: WEB DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and the Debate That Shaped the Course of Civil Rights (Praeger, 2016), Jim Crow’s Last Stand: Nonunanimous Criminal Jury Verdicts In Louisiana (LSU, 2015), Model Airplanes Are Decadent and Depraved: The Glue-Sniffing Epidemic of the 1960s (Northern Illinois, 2015), and The Kings of Casino Park: Race and Race Baseball in the Lost Season of 1932 (Alabama, 2011), among several other books. He has also published dozens of articles on American history, philosophy, religion, linguistics, and culture.

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