To say that basketball “must still acknowledge baseball’s contribution to their diversity” is not even in the ballpark. If anything it’s the other way around.
Major League Baseball is doing something very innovative and special at their annual First Year Player Draft on June 5. This is from an article that appeared on MLB.com yesterday:
At the First-Year Player Draft on June 5 in Orlando, Fla., each team will make a special selection of one of those former players whose professional careers began and ended in the Negro Leagues.
The Draft will be a symbolic link between baseball’s past and its present — a present that speaks to a sport with a global perspective that might be second to none. And even if other pro sports might boast a more diverse workforce today, they must still acknowledge baseball’s contribution to their diversity.
Jack Mann (center) played with the Sheboygan
This is M.L.B. doing something big to make history now! It’s got to be one of the most innovative promotions ever done with a history-related brand. How cool would it be if the National Basketball Association did something similar at their annual draft?
But to say that basketball “must still acknowledge baseball’s contribution to their diversity” is not even in the ballpark.
If anything it’s the other way around.
MLB.com’s article claims baseball was the leader in racial integration, and that acceptance of black players on the diamond led to their acceptance in other sports.
But the summer of ’47 ushered in a change that would soon sweep away nearly a half-century of segregation in professional sports.
According to Negro Leagues Baseball Museum marketing director Bob Kendrick, Major League Baseball was at the epicenter of that socio-political revolution. Baseball, thanks to Jackie Robinson, laid the groundwork for the progress that led to professional sports emerging as a force for equal rights in America.
“I don’t think you can help but feel that if the Robinson experiment failed, it would have pushed the notion of integrating sports — but also integrating other aspects of business life in our society — probably back,” Kendrick said. “That’s why this thing is so relevant, because failure was not an option.”
I have high respect for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Bob Kendrick, for what they’ve done and continue to do. I visited there with my kids last April on the occasion of the Jackie Robinson anniversary.
But these statements just aren’t true. At least not for basketball.
Robinson himself played for a racially integrated professional basketball team prior to his first at-bat with the Brooklyn Dodgers
Jackie Robinson, whose pro basketball debut on an integrated team
MLB.com quotes historian Adrian Burgos, who may be an authority on baseball but apparently isn’t clear about what was going on in basketball at the time:
“If integration of baseball had failed, it would not have put pressure on any other sport to pursue it,” said Adrian Burgos, a history professor at the University of Illinois and an authority on baseball. “It relaxed society’s resistance to integration as a cause, because people would have had to reflect, ‘Why didn’t it succeed in Brooklyn?’”
Just not true.
Basketball was driven by a completely different dynamic. That’s why 12 black players integrated the National Basketball League in 1942. Other professional basketball teams like the Toledo White Huts, the Sheboygan Art Imigs, and the Syracuse Reds were racially integrated even earlier.
Their names may be obscure today, but these were top level teams. The White Huts, for example, beat the Sheboygan Redskins and the Chicago Bruins in the 1941 World Pro Basketball Tournament, finishing 4th overall in a field of 16. The Redskins eventually joined the N.B.A. So, it’s not like the N.B.A. or the basketball world didn’t know about racial integration.
The racially inclusive annual invitation-only World Professional Basketball Tournament began in 1939. The inaugural event featured the 12 best pro basketball teams in American, including 2 all-black teams — the New York Rens and Harlem Globetrotters — and teams from the major pro basketball leagues. Black teams won the 1939, 1940, and 1943 tournaments.
Since when did baseball invite Negro League teams to participate in a professional series that included the best teams in the Major Leagues? Well, never. In baseball, black teams weren’t even allowed to play white teams from the majors unless it was done outside of the country and even then it was under risk of banishment.
["They Cleared The Lane" author Ron] Thomas pointed out that baseball, despite its trend-setting in the ’40s, had played the lead role in first putting up barriers to integration when it banned ballplayers of color in the 1890s. For periods throughout U.S. history, sports and entertainment had proved the two races could mix, Thomas said.
Thomas, who’s written extensively about race and professional basketball, argued that had Robinson not succeeded, the National Basketball Association would not have explored signing Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd in 1950.
The NBA, which integrated before the National Football League did, watched closely what kind of reception black and Latino players like Robinson, Doby, Willard Brown, Don Newcombe, Satchel Paige and Minnie Minoso got from white fans and white teammates, Thomas said.
White fans slowly warmed to them, and other ballplayers of color began a steady stream of talent into the Majors.
None of these players proved more influential than Robinson in disproving the notion that whites wouldn’t root for a black ballplayer.
I admire and appreciate Ron Thomas as a friend and fellow basketball historian, but I disagree. Or, at least, some explanation and clarification by him and by MLB.com is required.
By the time Jackie Robinson graduated from U.C.L.A., it was already long since established and commonly known that all-black teams like the New York Rens routinely sold out arenas, field houses, armories, and gymnasiums in even the most rural white communities. This wasn’t the case in baseball.
And what would that failure in baseball have done for society as a whole?
According to Burgos, it would have delayed integration across the spectrum.
I’m just not so sure. This sounds hopeful and revisionist. Even naive.
No one doubts the important role that Jackie Robinson played in moving forward the pace of racial integration in American society. But I don’t agree that baseball can take such vast credit for something that was already happening and inevitable.
As is the case today, it was all about the money back then. The economic pressure was too great. The reason that the N.B.L., the B.A.A. (Basketball Association of America) and eventually the N.B.A. delayed introducing black players wasn’t because they were waiting to see how baseball’s “experiment” would go. It was because they feared losing their alliance with Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein. Those financially vulnerable leagues scheduled doubleheaders with the Trotters because whenever they did their attendance would skyrocket.
Saperstein threatened to shut down these doubleheaders if any league ever signed African American players. They needed Saperstein in order to stay solvent. The rest was history. Until 1950 when New York Knicks owner Ned Irish threatened to pull out of the N.B.A. if the other owners couldn’t get over their fear of Saperstein and allow the Knicks to sign black basketball star Nat Clifton.
Here’s a brief clip about that back story, from an MSG Network film that aired earlier this year (for much more detail, please see Ron Thomas’ book):
I appreciate the nostalgia, the ingenious marketing to bring back important history and players, and the shout out to Jackie Robinson. Robinson did have a tremendous impact on society and in baseball.
But Major League Baseball is going too far by claiming that its courageous actions influenced basketball and the N.B.A. This is more than a stretch. It’s historical revision and self-aggrandizing at a time when M.L.B. ought to just focus on baseball and getting it’s own act together.