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
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.
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.
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”.
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!
*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)