17. Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey broke the baseball color barrier through remarkable persistence
Jackie Robinson’s travails as he became the first Black player in Major League Baseball since the late 19th century are well known. Robinson encountered racism and threats of violence in the clubhouse, on the field, off the field, in hotels and restaurants, and everywhere he went. At spring training Branch Rickey, the Dodger executive who hatched the plan to integrate baseball, encountered the same. Facilities for practices were locked, local communities reviled Rickey nearly as much as Robinson. So did other team owners and their players. Rickey selected Robinson as the first Black player based on his character, rather than his playing ability. It was widely believed that the best player on the Kansas City Monarchs, where Rickey found Robinson, was Josh Gibson. Rickey agreed, but selected Robinson anyway after conversations with both men.
Gibson wasn’t selected because Rickey didn’t believe he would be able to endure the constant harassment and humiliation, which was at its worst in towns like St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. Despite Robinson’s success on the field (as well as Larry Doby’s in the American League) baseball’s color barrier yielded slowly. Not until 1959, twelve years after Rickey and Robinson broke the color barrier, did the Boston Red Sox place a Black player, Pumpsie Green, on their roster. Ironically, the Red Sox had been the first Major League team to offer Robinson a tryout in 1945, though it was little more than a an attempt to convince a powerful member of the city council they were serious about considering integration. In reality they were more interested in a license to play baseball on Sunday, which required an exemption from the city’s blue laws. City council had threatened to deny the license unless the Red Sox evaluated black players.