Baseball and Civil Rights 1956 – Part 1

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Roberto Clemente

Jackie Robinson’s erasing of the color line in 1947 to become the first African-American to play Major League in the 20th Century began the process of racially integrating professional baseball.  A slow and reluctant process, it coincided with the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s.  Overcoming racial discrimination and prejudice in a sport did in no way compare to facing physical harm and even death in fighting for equal rights given under the Constitution of the United States.   However due to baseball’s prominence as the “national pastime”, many saw the integration of Major League baseball symbolically as one of the first steps in social progress for African-Americans.   The racial integration of Major League baseball and the Civil Rights Movement were both a part of the massive seismic shift in racial relations occurring after World War II that would forever change the nation.  How they coincided is shown in the story of the scheduled exhibition games in the spring of 1956 between the Kansas City A’s and the Pittsburgh Pirates to be played in Birmingham, Alabama.  On February 15, 1956; they were cancelled.

 

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Vic Power

It had been a tradition for Major League teams at the close of spring training to play exhibition games as they traveled north to begin the season.  The spring “barnstorming circuit” mostly consisted of cities in the southern United States.  These games were an economic boom for them as baseball fans from the surrounding areas came, for what would be the only opportunity for some, to see Major League players.  When Major League teams began to become racially integrated in the 1950s, this tradition clashed with the “Jim Crow” laws that forbade interracial sports competition.  The municipal government of these cities had to choose between receiving the commercial benefits from the games versus upholding their racial separation law.  Most chose the former.  Despite threats of violence from the Ku Klux Klan, Atlanta officials overrode the laws to allow the Brooklyn Dodgers who had Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Jackie Robinson to play the all-white Atlanta Crackers a three game series in the spring of 1949.

 

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Harry Simpson

The city of Birmingham, Alabama initially made a different choice and maintained its ban of interracial athletic competition.  However, after being eliminated from the spring exhibition circuit for years due to the ban, the city commissioners lifted it on January 26, 1954.  That spring, the Brooklyn Dodgers played an exhibition game in Birmingham against the Milwaukee Braves.  But the city racial hardliners used the fear that the desegregation of sports would lead to desegregation in other aspects of life in Birmingham (schools, department stores, public accommodations, etc.) to force a voter referendum to reestablish the ban.  On June 1, the referendum passed stating, “It shall be unlawful for a negro or white person to play together or in company with each other   any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, baseball, football, softball, basketball, or similar games”.  It was City Ordinance 597, named the “checker ordinance”.

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Hector Lopez

With the ordinance reinstated banning interracial athletic competition in June 1954, how did the two exhibition games between the Kansas City A’s and Pittsburgh Pirates get scheduled for the spring of 1956?  The A’s at that time had American League All-Star and former Negro League outfielder Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, first baseman Vic Power who was from Puerto Rico, and outfielder Hector Lopez from Panama.  Power’s friend and fellow islander future Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente and former Negro League infielder Curt Roberts both played for the Pirates.  The games would have been a violation of the ordinance.  Were they scheduled while the ban had been lifted in 1954?  Had there been talk of overriding or ignoring the ban to play the game? What if any part did the racial tension caused by the bus boycott by African-Americans in Montgomery, 92 miles down state, going on at that time play in the decision to cancel the games?  Come back for Part Two!

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Curt Roberts

*Information for this blog was provided from the book “Carry Me Home:  Birmingham, Alabama:  The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution” by Diane McWhorter (Simon & Schuster 2001)

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