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Tantalizing Question of If History

More Tantalizing Questions of “If Baseball History”
Entry of May 15th

Yesterday I raised the intriguing speculative question about what if baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had lived for at least another year past his death in November 1944 and was faced with the contract that Dodgers president Branch Rickey had signed with Jackie Robinson. Landis and the vast majority of the baseball owners believed in maintaining the color line barring Afro-American players from organized white professional baseball. “Black players have their Negro Leagues and why should we rock the boat and mix the races?” went the conventional thinking. Most owners of the Negro League teams felt the same way because they were making a good dollar out of segregated baseball.

There was also no love lost between Landis and Rickey, baseball’s most powerful and prominent executives. They had a longtime feud over the vastness of Rickey’s farm system during the Ferocious Gentleman’s long tenure as St. Louis Cardinals’ major domo. Before the start of the 1938 season Landis had freed nearly 100 Cardinal farmhands for being illegally covered up by the shrewd executive. In fact, most of these minor leaguers returned to the St. Louis fold once the commissioner deemed their contracts legitimate. The only future star that got away was Pete Reiser, a St. Louis teenager who Rickey had scouted early on and later became a Brooklyn Dodger and served in Rickey’s employ again. (If Reiser had not been injury-prone, many baseball savants believe he could have been as good as Mickey Mantle.)

Would Landis have blocked Rickey from signing Jackie Robinson? Would Rickey have even asked him? I think the answer is negative to both questions. After all, as early as June 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt had issued an executive order barring the federal government from doing business with companies that discriminated against race and religion. The edict created a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to ostensibly enforce the ruling.

During spring training 1945 as Branch Rickey was reading the morning newspaper with his wife at the breakfast table, his eyes lit up when learning that the New York state legislature had just passed the Ives-Quinn bill forbidding discrimination in employment at the risk of fines and imprisonment. “They can’t stop me now!” he exclaimed as he raced off for another day of adventure preparing the Dodgers for a new season.

Shortly after the end of the 1945 season Rickey announced the signing of Robinson and his assignment to Montreal, the Dodgers’ top minor league club. Soon thereafter he signed Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe and assigned them to a lower minor league club in Nashua, New Hampshire. Credit is due to former Kentucky governor Happy Chandler, Landis’s successor as commissioner, who approved the contracts of all the Afro-American players. Though the other owners were enraged that Rickey had beaten them to the punch in tapping the lucrative market for Afro-American talent, they could not stop him. And I don't think Landis could have either.

Baseball’s story of integration is one that never grows old because it set the stage for the other coming dramatic changes created by the civil rights movement. And it showed that baseball is a game that rewards talent “regardless of the pigmentation of one’s skin or the number of syllables in your last name,” as Rickey often eloquently put it.

My closing thought before wishing you a rewarding weekend of baseball playing and watching on all levels is to observe how many nationalities are playing in today’s professional baseball. Let’s applaud another great movement that baseball is leading towards greater diversity and equality of opportunity in our society.

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