Tag Archives: civil rights

Baseball And Civil Rights 1956: Part 2

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Curt Roberts 1956 Pittsburgh Pirates

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.

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Johnny Logan, Henry Aaron, Ed Mathews 1956 Milwaukee Braves

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.

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Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers

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

 

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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)

Revisiting Dr. King, Baseball, & Jackie Robinson

In honor of  today’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, the repeat of my 1/15/17 blog post, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Baseball, & Jackie Robinson”, follows below.

 

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Today is the national celebration for the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., what would have been his 89th.  Much will be written giving tributes to his life and the impact his legacy continues to have not only on this country, but also the world.  However, I want to mention what appears to have been Dr. King’s favorite sport, baseball.

When Jackie Robinson crossed the “invisible color line” in 1947 to be the first African-American to play Major League baseball in the 20th Century, he became the idol of an 18-year-old teenager in Atlanta, Georgia; Martin King Jr.  Like many other African-Americans at that time, whether baseball fans or not, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the young King’s favorite baseball team because of Jackie Robinson.  Many of those African-American Dodger fans, including King, remained loyal to the team after Robinson retired and it relocated to Los Angeles in 1958.  In addressing the 1966 Milwaukee Braves’ move to his hometown of Atlanta, Dr. King indicated it would complicate his personal allegiance that had existed since 1947.  “And so I have been a Dodger fan”, he said, “but I’m gonna get with the Braves now.”*
But Dr. King had been more than a fan of the Dodgers; he understood the significance for African-Americans of what Jackie Robinson had done in 1947.  After becoming a leader in the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King knew where his idol as a teenager’s accomplishments fit overall in reference to that movement.
When Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on that Montgomery, Alabama city bus in December of 1955 triggering the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, Jackie Robinson was nearing the end of his baseball career.  He announced his retirement on January 5, 1957; fifteen days after the successful end of the Montgomery bus boycott led by the 26-year-old pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the 1960s, Robinson became actively involved in the Civil Rights movement with Dr. King.  He spoke at Civil Rights rallies in the South for Dr. King, marched in demonstrations with him, and held fund-raisers for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  Dr. King and Robinson became co-laborers in the African-American struggle for equality.  He considered Jackie Robinson a friend.

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At a testimonial dinner for Jackie Robinson on July 20, 1962 celebrating his upcoming National Baseball Hall of Fame induction in three days, Dr. King paid tribute to him.  He defended Robinson’s right to speak out about segregation and civil rights.  “He has the right”, King insisted stoutly,  “because back in the days when integration was not fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes from being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways towards the high road of Freedom.  He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.  And that is why we honor him tonight.”**

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have liked other sports.  However; because of Jackie Robinson, baseball appeared to be his favorite.  Since idolizing Robinson while being a teenager in 1947, Dr. King never forgot the significance of the baseball player’s accomplishments in the struggle of African-Americans for equality.

*”At Canaan’s Edge:  America in the King Years 1965 – 1968″, Taylor Branch p. 394

** “Jackie Robinson:  A Biography”, Arnold Rampersad p. 7

 

*”At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965 – 1968”, Taylor Branch, p.394

 

*”At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965 – 1968”, Taylor Branch, p.394

**”Jackie Robinson: A Biography”, Arnold Rampersad, p.7

*”At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965 – 1968”, Taylor Branch, p.394

**”Jackie Robinson: A Biography”, Arnold Rampersad, p.7

Remembering Jackie Robinson

Despite the current lukewarm attitude about baseball of African-Americans, April 15 is still an important date in not only baseball history, but also African-American history.

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American since before the turn of the century to play Major League baseball. Wearing Number 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson played first base and batted second in the team’s home opener at Ebbet’s Field against the Boston Braves. In three at bats, he reached base on an error and scored a run in the Dodgers’ 5 – 3 win.

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To celebrate the day of Robinson’s debut, April 15 is designated by Major League Baseball; “Jackie Robinson Day”. All Major League players will wear number “42”, Jackie’s number, on their uniforms during games today and other activities will also be held at Major League ballparks to honor him.

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Growing up in a home where my father and two older brothers were baseball fans, I was made aware at an early age of Jackie Robinson. However; his mark in history, both African-American and Twentieth Century American, continues to grow in significance sixty-nine years after that Brooklyn spring day in 1947.  A mark that he made through his excellence on the baseball diamond whose impact goes well beyond the sport itself.

Robinson hit .297 in 1947 and led the National League in stolen bases. Although many sportswriters doubted he would be successful, the National Sportswriters Association named him 1947 National League Rookie of the Year.  In 1949, he led the National League in hitting (.342), stolen bases, and drove in 124 runs.  For his efforts Robinson won the National League Most Valuable Player Award.  He hit over .300 six in his 10 Major League seasons, and over .290 two others.  A six-time National League All-Star, Robinson helped the Dodgers win six National League pennants (finishing second four times) and one World Series championship (1955).

But I missed his playing career!   When I made my entrance into the world in August 1951, Robinson and the Dodgers were in the process of blowing a 14 1/2 lead against the second place New York Giants to lose the National League pennant.  There was no ESPN, CNN Sports, Fox Sports Net, or MLB Network in the 1950s.  I am sure Jackie would have made the ESPN Top Ten Plays of the Day highlights numerous times.  He retired after the 1956 season as I was in the kindergarten class of Miss Williams at Kealing Elementary.  That is why I love seeing the black and white films showing him in action like in the documentary showed last week on PBS; “Jackie Robinson:  A Film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMaHon”.  The daring way he ran the bases, especially stealing home, is still exciting today.

robinson running

Truthfully Jackie Robinson was not the best player in Negro League baseball when Dodger Vice-President and General Manager Branch Rickey signed him in 1945. But he was named the 1946 International League’s Most Valuable Player while with the Dodgers top minor league team in Montreal.   Bob Feller, the star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians said Robinson would never be good enough as a hitter to make it in the Major Leagues.  How ironic was it that they were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame together in 1962.  Jackie Robinson accepted the hopes and expectations for success of his race as he faced the expectations and predictions of his failure from those opposed to him.  Despite this pressure from all sides, he proved his skeptics wrong and opened the door for other African-American and dark-skinned Latino ball players to play Major League baseball.  Jackie Robinson was an extra-ordinary man God equipped for a super extra-ordinary task!

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To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Baseball, and Jackie Robinson

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Today is the national celebration for the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., what would have been his 88th.  Much will be written giving tributes to his life and the impact his legacy continues to have not only on this country, but also the world.  However, I want to mention what appears to have been Dr. King’s favorite sport, baseball.

When Jackie Robinson crossed the “invisible color line” in 1947 to be the first African-American to play Major League baseball in the 20th Century, he became the idol of an 18-year-old teenager in Atlanta, Georgia; Martin King Jr.  Like many other African-Americans at that time, whether baseball fans or not, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the young King’s favorite baseball team because of Jackie Robinson.  Many of those African-American Dodger fans, including King, remained loyal to the team after Robinson retired and it relocated to Los Angeles in 1958.  In addressing the 1966 Milwaukee Braves’ move to his hometown of Atlanta, Dr. King indicated it would complicate his personal allegiance that had existed since 1947.  “And so I have been a Dodger fan”, he said, “but I’m gonna get with the Braves now”.*

But Dr. King had been more than a fan of the Dodgers; he understood the significance for African-Americans of what Jackie Robinson had done in 1947. After becoming a leader in the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King knew where his idol as a teenager’s accomplishments fit overall in reference to that movement.

When Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on that Montgomery, Alabama city bus in December of 1955 triggering the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, Jackie Robinson was nearing the end of his baseball career. He announced his retirement on January 5, 1957; fifteen days after the successful end of the Montgomery bus boycott led by the 26-year-old pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the 1960s, Robinson became actively involved in the Civil Rights movement with Dr. King. He spoke at Civil Rights rallies in the South for Dr. King, marched in demonstrations with him, and held fund-raisers for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  Dr. King and Robinson became co-laborers in the African-American struggle for equality.  He considered Jackie Robinson a friend.

At a testimonial dinner for Jackie Robinson on July 20, 1962 celebrating the former Dodger’s upcoming National Baseball Hall of Fame induction in three days, Dr. King paid tribute to him. He defended Robinson’s right to speak out about segregation and civil rights.  “He has the right”, King insisted stoutly,  “because back in the days when integration was not fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes from being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways towards the high road of Freedom.  He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.  And that is why we honor him tonight.”**

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have liked other sports. However; because of Jackie Robinson, baseball appeared to be his favorite.  Since idolizing Robinson while being a teenager in 1947, Dr. King never forgot the significance of the baseball player’s accomplishments in the struggle of African-Americans for equality.

*”At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965 – 1968”, Taylor Branch, p.394

**”Jackie Robinson: A Biography”, Arnold Rampersad, p.7

 

 

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