I hope you enjoyed Opening Day, or as I like to think of it, the 61st anniversary of America. Yes, there was 1776, when the 13 colonies declared independence, or 1787, when the current Constitution kicked off, or even 1865, when Abraham Lincoln both ended slavery and established the supremacy of the federal government over the states by force of arms. Yet, in all that time, the country never began to close the gap between its rhetoric and its realities. That had to wait for 1947 and Jackie Robinson.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. A couple of weeks ago, Jay Jaffe and I were in Philadelphia for a BP book signing. We were doing our usual Q&A when an older black man, standing at the back in a tweedy newsboy cap, raised his hand. He didn’t really want to ask a question, but to say a few words-well, a lot of words-about Barry Bonds, and how the color of his skin influenced the way he had been treated by the media and by official baseball. I’m not completely clear on how the conversation progressed, because the gentleman was making a speech without stopping to breathe, let alone allow us to answer, while Jay and I were simultaneously trying to respond and reclaim our platform, with the result that the three of us were talking over each other in a way that became unintelligible even to me.

I do know that at one point, while the gentleman was indicting baseball for racism, I brought up Jackie Robinson, saying that whatever happened since, the breaking of the color line was a huge, gigantic thing, more than just a seminal moment in baseball but in all of American history.

That gave him pause. “Why?” he asked.

“Because for the first time in this history of the country, something that had been promised at the very beginning was finally delivered: equality of opportunity.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” the gentleman said. At that point Jay jumped in again, and the conversation spiraled off in another direction. Eventually, the gentleman thanked us for the use of our soap box and left.

“I don’t know about that” is a fair reaction, because not all changes happen in an instant or at the stroke of a pen, and it is clear that, even with a man of mixed race running for president, equality of opportunity is something we’re still struggling to figure out. Evolutionary change has to start somewhere, though, and in the case of this particular American ideal, it began for real with the Brooklyn Dodgers, with Branch Rickey, with Jackie Robinson, with baseball.

Equality of opportunity was not stated anywhere as an explicit goal of this country at its founding, but it is implicit in the most famous line from our greatest political document, the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The promise of equality of opportunity can be found in all three, but let’s stick with liberty. In Inventing America, his exploration of Thomas Jefferson’s intellectual source material for the Declaration, Gary Wills cites this definition of liberty by the Scottish enlightenment philosopher Francis Hutcheson:

As nature has implanted in each man a desire of his own happiness and many tender affections towards others in some nearer relations of life, and granted to each one some understanding and active powers, with a natural right to exercise them for the purpose of these natural affections, it is plain each one has a natural right to exert his powers, according to his own judgment and inclination for these purposes, in all such industry, labor, or amusements as are not hurtful to others in their persons or goods, while no more public interests necessarily require his labors or require that his actions be under the direction of others. This right we call natural liberty.

In other words, you know what makes you and the people around you happy. Provided you’re not bothering anybody and your society doesn’t have a more pressing claim on you, you have an inherent right to do what you want in pursuit of the natural end of liberty, happiness. Parenthetically, the definition of “happy” and “happiness” in the enlightenment/societal/political context can mean many things beyond the traditional, self-centered, “whatever makes you feel groovy,” but I think we’re safe to leave it at this: happiness is that thing which makes you feel that you are living a satisfying, fulfilling life.

Jefferson set a high standard for the new country to live up to, an ironic one given that as slaveholders many of the founders were busy depriving multitudes of all three of the rights he named. Simply put, if you were black, these things did not apply. No one has ever missed this irony, not even at the time. “How is it,” wondered Dr. Samuel Johnson (of dictionary fame), “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?”i

Eighty years later, Lincoln had a rejoinder:

In a speech he delivered in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln pointed out that when it is understood that all human beings are equal not only in their common humanity but also in having by virtue of their common humanity the same human rights, it should not be thought that the signers of the Declaration were asserting “the obvious untruth that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they [the signers] were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.” …”The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration not for that but for its future use.”ii

Nice save, Abe, but the Declaration was just a press release with some very high-flying language, and later on Americans, and you in particular (“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”) formed a kind of cult around it. As no less a sage than Kermit the Frog sang, “somebody thought of that, and someone believed it.” From then on, there was a basic disconnect between what America supposedly aspired to and what it actually did.

And so to baseball. The abolition of slavery only went halfway to fulfilling Jefferson’s trio of human rights. African-Americans had their right to life-unless they were lynched. They had their liberty, though that too was circumscribed in any number of ways. Even in the years after the Civil War, states and territories had laws preventing freed blacks from crossing their borders. And of course, they couldn’t play major league baseball. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness means many things, even within the definitions above supplied by Hutcheson and adapted by Jefferson. Contained within it might be the right to take a job in the field of your choosing and attempt to better yourself. This was among Lincoln’s understandings of it:

Reminding his Ohio audiences that “at an early age I was myself a hired laborer at twelve dollars per month,” he insisted that in a free society there was “no such thing as a man who is a hired laborer, of a necessity, always remaining in his early condition.” …He thought of economic opportunity primarily in terms of individual enterprise.iii

In that same 1859 speech, Lincoln said, “I say that whereas God Almighty has given every man one mouth to be fed, and one pair of hands adapted to furnish food for that mouth, if anything can be proved to be the will of Heaven, it is proved by this fact, that the mouth is to be fed by those hands, without being interfered with by any other man who has also his mouth to feed and his hands to labor with… That they are to go forth and improve their condition as I have been trying to illustrate, is the inherent right given to mankind directly by the Maker.”iv

Before Jackie Robinson, African-Americans did not have this inherent right; certainly African-American ballplayers did not. The only way to pretend that they did have it was to say, as the Supreme Court did in 1896 when it gave its blessing to segregation, that the only reason they did not have the right is that they refused to acknowledge its existence. “We consider the underlying fallacy,” the Court said, “to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is …solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”v

Why did racism overtake baseball? There was no inciting incident, even though Cap Anson‘s 1884 refusal to play in games involving Toledo catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker is often cited as the beginning of the color line. But Anson was more a culmination than a beginning. As early as 1867, the National Association of Base Ball Players [sic] denied membership “to any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.”vi Racism was simply the spirit of the times. Even before abolition, the Northern states had a system of Jim Crow laws that was worse than anything in the South, where the close quarters that slavery required of whites and blacks made segregation impractical.vii

It is impossible to make a detailed study of the origins of racism and its offspring, segregation, in this small space. Suffice it to say that racism is a retroactively-generated justification for the oppression of a people. If the oppressed are in some way-biologically, psychologically, intellectually-held to be inferior, that’s the excuse for abridging their rights. An animal cannot claim the same rights as humans, nor can a human who has been classified as an animal claim those rights. Simply put, racism is a rationale invented by one group to keep abusing another.

Once you’ve gone to the length of dehumanizing someone, you don’t even have to make sense. In From Slavery to Freedom, John Hope Franklin quotes the early 20th century governor of Mississippi, James K. Vardaman: “I am just as opposed to Booker Washington as a voter, with all his Anglo-Saxon reinforcements, as I am to the coconut-headed, chocolate-colored, typical little coon, Andy Dotson who blacks my shoes every morning. Neither is fit to perform the supreme function of citizenship.” This is not too far distant from Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News, who wrote, “[Jackie] Robinson will not make the grade in the Major Leagues. He is a thousand-to-one shot at best. The Negro players simply don’t have the brains or the skills.”viii There is no logic at work here, only a horrifying tautology: blacks are inferior because they are black. Even blacks who are demonstrably educated, like Washington, or excellent athletes, like Robinson, are still black and therefore not educated and not excellent athletes. It makes no sense, but society ran on these principles for years.

Baseball, of course, had to go further than this, because the national game was also the nation’s most visible meritocracy. Pit two men of any race or nationality against each other in a series of foot races; if one wins two out of three, he’s the fastest, regardless of color or place or origin. Let each throw a fastball, and see who throws harder. Let them each take batting practice and see who knocks more balls out of the park. To do this, to stand, say, a strapping, 23-year-old Josh Gibson next to the worst-hitting white major leaguers of the moment, perhaps someone exactly like Tommy Thevenow, and claim that Thevenow had superior gifts just because he was a Caucasian, would be to deny any possibility of an objective reality.

Accordingly, in August, 1946 (long after Robinson had been signed), an ownership committee headed up by Larry MacPhail of the Yankees presented the reasons why baseball could not integrate, or at least had to conduct intensive studies of the issue before it could make a move, among them, that if there were black players, too many black fans would come to the games, ultimately diminishing the value of the franchises; that it would be irresponsible to take too much talent away from the Negro Leagues; that baseball needed the revenue it got from Negro League rentals of their ballpark more than they needed the Negro players themselves.

Best of all, though, in terms of rank hypocrisy, was this wonderful bit of circular reasoning: to be a major league player, you needed training in the minor leagues. The report claimed that the average big leaguer required seven years in the bus leagues. Since there weren’t any black players in the minors, “comparatively few good young Negro players are being developed.” Since they weren’t being developed, they weren’t capable of playing in the big leagues. “Gosh,” you can hear the owners whining, “if only someone would come along and let those poor guys into the minor leagues (which we own) so we could train them. Gee, Josh Gibson has only hit .426 in exhibitions against our boys. If only he had had proper minor league seasoning, he might have been able to make a better showing.”ix

This is the reason that baseball had to go first, before the armed forces (1948-50), before the schools (1954 and onward). Its racism was so much more transparent than anyone else’s. An objective scout might not be able to say that you could vote if you couldn’t pass a literacy test, but that same objective scout (if you could find one-not the guy who filed a bad report on Willie Mays) could say that a Robinson or a Larry Doby could hit a fastball as well as anybody else. If they could, and they still weren’t allowed to play, then baseball was a fraud, one that pointed up the greater fraud of the values supposedly handed down from the promulgation of the Declaration onwards. Moses Walker felt it, ending his life believing that blacks should quit the United States and emigrate to Africa. For the African-American, the country held “nothing but failure and disappointment.”x

Now, when that finally changed it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t all at once, and it wasn’t constant. First baseball tried to drive out Robinson, and it failed to integrate all teams for years. Then it kept subtle limits on how many blacks could be on a team, and how many could be on the field at one time. Then it said that they couldn’t be managers or general managers. On April 10, 1947, though, when Branch Rickey issued a press release that said, simply, “The Brooklyn Dodgers today purchased the contract of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson from the Montreal Royals. He will report immediately,”xi when Robinson played against the Braves at Ebbets Field in the season opener on April 15, all the promises-the unalienable rights, the reward of hard work, America itself-came true. In that moment, there was equality of opportunity.

As I said, there were still miles to go. The whole civil rights movement and the convulsions that accompanied it were still in the future. The debate on affirmative action (is it a path towards or away from equality of opportunity?) continues. Race itself continues. The forces of reaction are always pushing back against progress. I say to our visitor in Philadelphia that we still have work to do. I say further that though I believe that Barry Bonds almost certainly did things that were against the rules, I agree that the vitriolic reaction to him, so out of proportion to any other player similarly compromised, has not been color blind. I say that in spite of all this, let us celebrate the 61st birthday of America together, for as Jackie Robinson said, “Integration in baseball has already proved that all Americans can live together in peaceful competition.”xii I say, whatever has happened since, that great truth can never be withdrawn.

Play ball.

For my friend, Christina Kahrl.

  1. Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom.
  2. Mortimer J. Adler, We Hold These Truths.
  3. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln.
  4. Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865.
  5. Victor G .Rosenblum and A. Didrick Castberg, eds. Cases on Constitutional Law.
  6. Dean A. Sullivan, ed. Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1908.
  7. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow.
  8. Jonathan Fraser Light, The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball.
  9. Dean A. Sullivan, ed. Late Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1945-1972; Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment; John B. Holway, Josh and Satch.
  10. Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White.
  11. Red Barber, 1947, When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball.
  12. Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment.