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April 11, 2013 / Nat Anacostia

Did Branch Rickey destroy the Negro leagues?

Unless you reside outside of North America, you’re doubtless aware that the Jackie Robinson bio-pic “42” opens this this Friday. I haven’t heard much about it yet (as far as I know, Bryce Harper hasn’t leaked any spoilers), but it gives me a great opportunity to write about my other great interest (besides the Nationals), which is baseball history. I’d like to respond to an article by Dave Zirin at The Nationhe wants to make sure that the movie doesn’t mislead us to think that Branch Rickey was admirable:

Branch Rickey was no saint. Based upon previews, it certainly appears that the hero of 42 will be not only Jackie Robinson, but Brooklyn Dodgers boss Branch Rickey played by Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford.Yet Rickey, while brave in bringing Robinson to the majors, hopefully will not be exempt from criticism. He is what Melissa Harris-Perry would call “an imperfect ally.” Rickey was responsible for Robinson’s entry in the majors. He also bears a great deal of weight for the implosion of the Negro Leagues, after Robinson made his debut in 1947.

The Negro Leagues weren’t just a place of thwarted ambitions for the country’s best African American players. They were also the largest national black-owned business in the country. Black owners, bookkeepers, trainers, coaches, and groundspeople were all part of what was a source of economic power, pride and self-sufficiency. Yet Rickey was ruthless in his dealings with Negro League owners, publicly claiming no obligation to compensate teams for signing away their talent. That became the pattern as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and many more were signed out of the Negro Leagues and this infrastructure of black economic power rotted away, creating a racial power imbalance in sports that persists to this day. Rickey’s pilfering, layered with a public campaign of denigration, set the Negro Leagues on the road to ruin.

This idea shows up in quite a few recent Negro league histories—Rickey, by not compensating Negro league owners for the players he signed, was responsible for devastating their leagues and destroying a beloved black institution.

I see a few problems with this argument. I see other strong historical forces working against the economic viability of the Negro leagues and think it’s unlikely that they would have survived even if Rickey had generously compensated the Negro league owners:

  1. After a brief post-war boom, baseball attendance in all leagues dropped off dramatically. Major league attendance peaked at 20.9 million in 1948, but by 1953 had fallen to 14.4 million, a 31% dropoff. A similar collapse was occurring in minor league attendance—the number of affiliated minor leagues fell from 59 in 1949 to 37 in 1953, and continued to drop to 21 in 1959. Baseball was being hurt by a number of broad forces in society. Television became widely available. The “greatest generation” was giving birth to, and raising the baby boomers, leaving less disposable income for excursions to the ballpark. Other sports, such as pro football and basketball, were growing in popularity and status. These same trends were reflected in the African American community, so there’s no reason to think that black baseball would have been exempt from the secular decline.
  2. Most of the Negro league teams were on a shaky financial foundation. I believe that there were only two teams—the Chicago American Giants and the Kansas City Monarchs—that were able to remain viable in the same city throughout the period of organized major Negro leagues (basically the 1920s through the 1940s). A couple more teams were able to remain viable by relocating—the Homestead Grays found financial success by moving from Pittsburgh to wartime Washington DC, and the Elite Giants made their way from Nashville to Baltimore, with intermediate stops in Cleveland, Columbus, and Washington. The other teams, however, were in constant flux, some lasting a decade or more, and others not making it through a single season. Most franchises were always one bad season away from failure, and leagues were always scrambling to find a team or two to replace the last team to drop out.
  3. In contrast with the white major leagues, the Negro leagues faced significant competitions from other leagues for their top talent. We see this beginning in the early 1930s, when Satchel Paige and several other stars jumped to North Dakota to play for integrated semi-pro teams. By the late 1930s, the competing leagues were Trujillo’s Dominican League and the Pasquel brothers’ Mexican League. It wasn’t just Paige—most of the major stars, including Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Martin Dihigo, Roy Campanella, and Monte Irvin played in Mexico and/or the Dominican Republic. In 1946, a few white major leaguers, including Sal Maglie and Mickey Owen, were banned from organized baseball for jumping to the Mexican League, but it’s seldom mentioned that a large number of Negro league stars were also playing in Mexico at the same time. All these defections further weakened the Negro league teams.

With all of these negatives, I find it difficult to believe that a few thousand dollars in compensation from Rickey would have done more than delay the inevitable.

Is there a reason that Rickey refused to pay? (Rickey did get assurances that the players he signed were not currently under contract to avoid being legally liable, but he didn’t respect the Negro leagues’ reserve lists.) Here I’m going to shift from facts to my own unproven hypothesis. I’m pretty sure that I recall reading somewhere that teams in organized baseball were forbidden from paying teams outside organized baseball for their players. This is one of those things that I’m pretty sure I saw in an old newspaper (probably Sporting News) while researching something else, but sure enough when I went looking for it for this blog post, I couldn’t find it. So please don’t take this as fact until I can find some evidence. But it makes sense that organized baseball, which went to great efforts to make sure its players didn’t jump to independent so-called “outlaw” leagues, may have also banned the purchase of players from those leagues.

If that’s the case, then Rickey’s refusal to pay compensation would have been a very reasonable precaution. The status of the Negro leagues relative to organized baseball was unclear, but Rickey—who was acutely aware that his integration plan would meet extreme opposition and went to great lengths to ward off some of the likely threats—might have been concerned that the other owners would claim that the Negro leagues were “outlaw” organizations (even though they were excluded because the white leagues wouldn’t allow them to join) and would try to invalidate Robinson’s signing as a violation of this rule.

Of course, later owners such as Bill Veeck did pay compensation. But that also would make sense. Once Robinson’s signing had demonstrated that African Americans would be allowed to play baseball, Veeck knew that the other owners weren’t going to stand up to him for paying compensation. It would have provided Veeck—never one to follow the rules—with a chance to one-up Rickey and thumb his nose at the other owners, which seems entirely in line with what we know about Veeck’s style.

Moving away from hypothesis to what we do know with certainty, we know that Negro league attendance plummeted after Robinson reached the majors, especially in cities that had major league teams. Black fans flocked to see the integrated major league  teams play, rather than attending the Negro league games.  In researching the articles I wrote on the 1948 Homestead Grays pennant and World Series championship, I was struck by how all of the attention that had been going to the Negro league teams was refocused on the handful of black players in the majors and high minors. The final game of the 1948 Negro World Series was barely covered in the black press, because all the reporters were watching Larry Doby and Paige play in the major league world series.

So, perhaps Branch Rickey did destroy the Negro leagues, not by refusing to pay compensation to the Negro league owners, but by shifting the attention of the black press and fans to the integrated majors. If that’s the indictment, I’m sure Rickey would happily stand indicted.

Sometimes sentimentalists for the Negro leagues wonder if there was any way they could have survived. Given the trends underway in baseball during the 1950s, I can only see one possibility. If the major leagues had accepted the Negro leagues into organized baseball as minor leagues and established farm club arrangements, the teams may have receieved enough in player development fees to stay viable. However, I wouldn’t have liked this alternative scenario. It was difficult enough to get the minors (and majors) fully integrated, and having a blacks-only minor league alongside the other leagues would have only retarded that progress. So while I think it may have been possible for the majors to have allowed the Negro leagues to survive, I don’t think it would have been desirable.

So, Dave Zirin, maybe Branch Rickey wasn’t a saint. Rickey, after all, was a businessman, and I think it’s pretty hard for a businessman to be a saint. But in my book, Rickey was a hero. Faced with a moral dilemma, he decided to make an audacious stand for the morally correct principle at great risk to both himself and to Robinson. By making this choice, he fundamentally changed the world and made it a better place for generations to come. That meets my definition of heroic. So, when I watch “42” this weekend, I intend to ignore the snark and the intellectual revisionism and, like Steven Golden at Baseball Nation, celebrate both Robinson and Rickey as men who changed the world for the better.

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