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Baseball Analysis  John Holway

Also Read: The Real HR Rankings - Includes Japanese & Negro Leagues.400 and the Negro Leagues 233 under .200

For what is history but a myth agreed upon?



By John B Holway

     Hollywood is about to give us its version of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers. It will polish up the statue of Branch Rickey as a saint of American history. The story is baseball’s greatest myth. It isn't true. 

The history of baseball integration was not a simple moralistic tale of two heroic, saintly men. It was a tale of many men, of greed and generosity, timidity and courage. 


John B Holway is author of The Complete Book of the Negro Leagues.

Rickey was not the game’s Abe Lincoln; he was its Jesse James.

The next nickle Rickey pays for Jackie Robinson, Roy  Campanella, Don Newcombe, Joe Black, and Junior Gilliam will be the first. These ex-Negro Leaguers led Brooklyn to five pennants in nine years, 1947-55, and Rickey snatched them all from their black owners for free.

“It’s like coming into a man’s store and stealing the goods right off the shelves,” muttered Cumberland “Cum” Posey, owner of the Washington Homestead Grays.

The Jackie Robinson revolution was a blessing to black players. But it was a disaster to black owners, who saw their life investments wiped out.

     Rickey did pay a pittance, reportedly $3,000, for pitcher Dan Bankhead. 

However, when he tried to steal Monte Irvin from the Newark Eagles, their glamorous owner, Effa Manley, threatened to sue. Branch recoiled and dropped Monte like a hot foul tip. It never occurred to him to pay her a fair price for him.

The whites called the black owners racketeers. Many of them were gambling kings; it was one of the few ways a black man could raise enough capital to buy a team - without gamblers there would have been no Negro Leagues and no Robinson. But Jackie’s owner, J.L. Wilkinson, was not a gambler. Neither was Posey. 

When Rickey stole their players, he himself became a bigger racketeer than any black owner had been.

Branch made a show of his Christianity. He never entt a game on Sunday; however, this didn't prevent him from depositing the Dodgers’ Sunday gate receipts in the bank every Monday morning.

There are several ways to live a Christian life. One is not to play ball on Sunday. The other is to treat others as you would like them to treat you. Branch Rickey passed the first test. He flunked the second.

He was not a revered Methodist saint. He was a pious Methodist hypocrite.

Rickey had been general manager of the St Louis Cardinals in 1939 and ’42, when there was excitement in the press about possibly signing black players to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Senators, Philadelphia Phils, and other teams. Rickey’s voice was notably silent.

Not until the death of hard-line Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1944 did Rickey feel it was safe to speak up.

There were many others, both villains and saints, in baseball’s integration drama.

Happy Chandler. Rickey not only stole the players, he stole the credit for stealing them. That credit properly belong to the commissioner who replaced Landis, Senator A.B. “Happy” Chandler of Kentucky. Blacks feared he would be a southern racist, but he shocked everyone by immediately declaring, “Hell, yes, if a black boy can make it on Guadalcanal, he can make it in baseball.” It was banner news in the black press and the green light for Rickey to begin his raids. 

Chandler paid the price. As soon as the owners could, they fired him. And Rickey didn't raise a finger to save him. 

But Chandler’s hands were not clean either. He never insisted that Rickey pay for the players he was plundering. He also outawed any white player who jumped to the Mexican League for higher pay. It was OK for the whites to raid the black leagues, but not OK for Mexico to raid the white leagues.

Bill Veeck. The flamboyant owner of the Cleveland Indians followed Rickey into the market, buying Larry Doby from Manley for $10,000. She was grateful to get it, though she said, “You know you would have paid more if he had been a white boy.”  

What of the players who never got a shot to make the big leagues? “They say Jackie paved the way,” said his Monarchs teammate, Joe Greene. “He didn't pave the way, we did.” 

Cool Papa Bell. The self-effacing Bell was one of several old-timers who coached Robinson; they knew that if he failed, it might be decades before a black would get another chance. They told him he didn't have the arm or range to play shortstop and that he’d better switch to second base. Bell, perhaps the fastest man to put on spiked shoes, also showed Jack how to evade the tag and bounce back to his feet, ready to take another base.

Cool Papa also scouted the Cubs’ Ernie Banks and the Yankees’ Elston Howard. He was paid with a basket of fruit and ended his days as a janitor.

Jackie Robinson never thanked the old-timers who helped him enter the promised land while they stayed on Mt Pisgah, cheering him on. One of his first acts as a big leaguer was to sneer at the Negro Leagues for traveling by bus all night and staying in second-rate black hotels. He said he was glad to be out of them, and it wasn't said in sympathy. (“It wasn't our fault,” Manley retorted.) 

Nor did Jackie thank the owners who had kept the black leagues alive through the Depression, giving him the showcase that sent him to the majors.

Willie Mays was different. “You were the pioneers,” he told a reunion of old-timers, “you made it possible for us.” 

Bowie Kuhn. In 1969 the head of the ACLU, Ira Glasser, and I called on the commissioner to ask that the Hall of Fame to open its doors to greats of the Negro Leagues. Kuhn sent an attorney to meet us. He listened, then retired to “consult.” After he returned, he informed us that the Hall is a private organization and therefore not subject to the Interstate Commerce clause of the Constitution. Thus, he said, Kuhn declined to support our plea.

This is strange law. Every American, public or private, has to obey the Constitution, including the Hall of Fame.

Yet Kuhn’s bluff worked. Glasser snapped his brief case shut and left. I never heard from him again.

Ted Williams. Foul-mouthed womanizer he may have been, but Ted had the humanity to say what nobody else in baseball would: It was time to open the doors of Cooperstown.

“I'm proud of that,” he boomed – Ted didn't say things, he boomed them. “As I look back on my career,” he told a lunch in his honor at black Howard university, “I often wonder what I would have done if I couldn't play baseball. A chill goes down my back when I think I could have been denied all this if I'd been black.”

J.L. Wilkinson, the white owner of the Monarchs, was no racketeer. For 30 years Wilkie traveled with his players, shared their hardships, and mortgaged his home to meet his payroll.

Just as the end of World War II brought promise of an economic boom, Rickey grabbed Robinson from him.

Wilkinson’s partner urged him to sue, but Wilkie refused. “I won't stand in the way of a man who has a chance to better himself,” he said quietly.

If Robinson ever thanked him, I am not aware of it.

Just suppose: If Willkie had done what Manley did and threatened to sue, would Rickey have dropped the whole idea? That might have set integration back a decade.

In all, Wilkinson lost over 30 men to the white majors and got almost nothing for them. He would die, blind and infirm, in a nursing home at the age of 90, greatly mourned by all his old players.

If we are searching for a saint, Rickey is not it. The real saint, the man who made baseball integration happen, was James L Wilkinson. The story of Wilkie and Bell helping Jackie make the majors - now, that would make a great movie.

Also Read Writing About Jackie Robinson: An Experience at Once Moving, Poignant, Inspirational by Harvey Frommer

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