This is the second part of my previous blog post on the process of racially integrating professional baseball coinciding with the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. They were both a part of the massive seismic shift in racial relations occurring after World War II that would forever change the nation. An example of 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. As mentioned in Part 1, they were cancelled on February 16, 1956.
With the toxic racial climate that existed in the city during the 1950s, it puzzled me how and why the games were even scheduled. There had to be information to add clarity to what happened. I would like to thank Jim Baggett of the Birmingham Public Library for providing that additional information to solve the puzzle.
First a short recap. As part of the “Jim Crow” laws racially segregating the city, Birmingham’s City Commissioners banned interracial athletic competition. However, the ban clashed with Major League baseball becoming racially integrated in the 1950s. 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. As more Major League teams became integrated, the fewer opportunities existed for Birmingham to receive the economic benefits of being on the circuit. The City Commissioners lifted the ban on January 26, 1954 and that spring the Brooklyn Dodgers played two exhibition games in Birmingham against the Milwaukee Braves.
According to information from the Birmingham News in 1954 sent me by Mr. Baggett, the second game drew 10,474 fans; the largest crowd to see a spring exhibition game in the city since 1947 and the third largest ever. There were no reports of racial violence or unrest during the games. Afterwards, since Major League baseball exhibition games evidently were normally handled on a two-year ahead basis, five games for Birmingham were scheduled for 1956; the Braves vs the Dodgers on April 6, the Pittsburgh Pirates vs the Kansas City A’s on March 31 and April 1, and the Boston Red Sox vs Birmingham’s Southern League Double A minor league team (the Barons) on April 7 & 8.
However, the racial harmony on the ball field displayed during the games between the 1954 Dodgers and Braves games disturbed the racial hardliners in Birmingham’s city government. It went against what they called, “the South’s way of life”, and their belief that athletic competition between blacks and whites could not be done peacefully. They orchestrated a campaign of fear saying the desegregation of sports would lead to desegregation in other aspects of life in Birmingham (schools, department stores, public accommodations, etc.) and forced a voter referendum to reestablish the racial athletic competition ban. On June 1 the referendum passed City Ordinance 597, called “the checker ordinance”, and the ban again went into place.
As the spring of 1956 approached, the general managers of the Major League teams scheduled to play exhibition games in Birmingham received a copy of the ordinance:
“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”. City Ordinance 597
The maximum penalty for violation: $100 fine and/or 180 days in jail.
By 1956, the racial integration of Major League baseball remained slow, but steady. It had passed the “experiment” label some had put on it. Seven of the eight National League teams and six of the eight teams in the American League had become racially integrated. Since 1947, former Negro League players had been named National League Rookie of the Year six times. Three of them, Jackie Robinson (1947), Don Newcombe (1949), and Junior Gilliam (1953) played for the Dodgers who were scheduled in one of the games that spring. Although African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players in the Major Leagues still encountered racial discrimination in 1956, their teams were beginning to be less willing to subject them to municipal segregation laws such as in Birmingham.
The Birmingham Barons were the sponsor of the games that spring. On February 14, 1956; Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Buzzie Bavasi and Milwaukee Braves General Manager John Quinn issued the following joint statement to the Barons’ general manager: “Due to the current conditions in the Birmingham area, all parties concerned have agreed to cancel the game in Birmingham between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Milwaukee Braves”. Two days later, February 16, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City A’s cancelled their two games scheduled to be played in Birmingham that spring.
The Boston Red Sox games against Birmingham Barons were played as scheduled. The last Major League team to integrate, the Red Sox would not have its first African-American player until 1959.
Information for this blog was provided by Jim Baggett of the Birmingham Public Library