Part 10 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building. See introduction, and up-to-date list.
On April 15, 1947 Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, bringing to an end a six-decade ban on dark-skinned players in the major leagues. This was a great day for Robinson, a great day for the Dodgers (who had gained one of the game’s all-time great players), and a great day for America. The story of Robinson and the brave men who followed his lead and helped change the game has been told often and well over the succeeding years, and cannot be told enough. Robinson’s bravery and outstanding play combined to right baseball’s great wrong, and led the way for many other players who followed.
Although baseball’s belated foray into social justice is worth all the attention it has received, the issue that concerns us here is that the integration of the game had an extraordinary impact on how a team could be built. Jackie Robinson improved baseball ethically and morally, but he also made it better because he was a great player, and his playing time came at the expense of someone who was a lesser player. Robinson opened the doors for a vast new source of baseball talent, and that talent could not help but dramatically improve the game.
For all the major structural changes that we talk about in this series – the farm system, the amateur draft, free agency – most of them deal with how players get sorted between teams, or how they shift around from team to team. Integration was different. Integration opened up an essentially brand new pool of talent to the 16 major league clubs. The player pool was not new, of course; African-Americans and Latinos had been playing baseball at a high level for decades. The fact that none of these players had played in the major leagues was a crime, variously blamed on many people. All we know for certain is that Branch Rickey signed Robinson, he joined the Dodgers, and the game got a whole lot better.
When baseball integrated in 1947, most teams were likely oblivious to how much talent had just become available. Many had expressed skepticism about whether many black players would be able to play in the majors. Their doubts proved unfounded. There were not just a handful of players who could play in the majors, but dozens of them, many of them among the greatest players ever to play the game: Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson were discovered and signed within the first decade.
In order to take advantage of this extraordinary point in time, a baseball team needed both moral courage (although this arguably became less important by the mid-1950s when blacks were excelling in the game) and the willingness to expend the additional time and money to find and scout these players. If a team employed a dozen scouts spread over a still largely segregated country, chances are they would not have seen many dark-skinned players unless they were instructed to do so, to go see different games in different towns and cities.
Jules Tygiel, the preeminent scholar of baseball’s integration period, pointed out that it was not enough that a team express a willingness to integrate, or even to have a legitimate willingness to do so. A team had to redirect its scouts or hire new ones, including Latino scouts for Mexico and the Caribbean. The Boston Red Sox often claimed to be looking for black players in the 1950s, and they made a few high-profile attempts to acquire established blacks, but they were the last team to actually field a black major league player, in 1959. They had the money – their owner Tom Yawkey might have been richest man in the game – but when faced with one of history’s great talent windfalls, they sat on their hands. The team paid dearly for doing so – on the field, going through its worst string of seasons of the past 80 years, and off the field, tarnishing the reputation of the team and its management for decades.
The pace of integration moved slowly in the early years; through 1953 only 9 of the 16 teams had fielded a black player. But although there were only 24 blacks in the game, these included several future Hall of Famers: the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, the Giants’ Willie Mays and Monte Irvin, the Indians’ Larry Doby and the Cubs’ Ernie Banks. Over the next few years the pace quickened, especially in the National League where there were 36 blacks in 1956 and 66 in 1960.
Importantly, these players changed the balance of power in the game especially in the National League. The most aggressive integrators – the Dodgers, Giants and Braves – dominated the NL in the 1950s. The Cardinals, the best NL club for the two decades before integration, were slow to sign black players and went through some lean years. In the AL the Yankees were a grand exception – winning pennants regularly with largely white teams – but its best competition came from the two most integrated AL teams, the Indians and White Sox.
In ensuing decades the game has done much better seizing on newly available talent pools, in several Latin American countries, in Japan, in Korea.
But the Jackie Robinson debut remains its most important and best moment.