Integration is the process through which Organized Baseball went from excluding any player who had "dark" skin to admitting players of all races. Prior to integration, black players or dark-skinned Latino players had to play in separate "colored" leagues (i.e. the Negro Leagues) whose top players would often rival that of the Major Leagues in quality. Integration of Organized Baseball took place largely in the second half of the 1940s and the first half of the 1950s.
The 19th Century
It must be remembered that in its earliest days, in the 1870s and 1880s, there were a handful of black players in both the major and minor leagues, although it was always a fight for them to be able to play with white players. But, black players like Fleet Walker and his brother Welday Walker were able to play in the Major Leagues (with Toledo of the American Association in 1884), even if they encountered some hostility. However, the social climate became noticeably less tolerant as the decade of the 1880s advanced, and under the influence of bigoted star players like Cap Anson, Organized Baseball became completely closed to blacks by the end of the 19th Century. The first leagues and teams made up exclusively of black players were thus constituted and would last well into the 1950s. This state of fact, not codified in any formal way, was known as the color line.
The Decades of Segregation
In the first four decades of the 20th Century, Organized Baseball was strictly segregated. A few attempts were made by bold minor league team owners to sign lighter-skinned black players or Latinos and pass them off as either whites or Native Americans, but these efforts were generally stopped by the baseball establishment before going very far. The separation between black and white players was not air-tight however. There were regular exhibition games played between Major League teams and Negro teams and games between teams of All-Stars from the two Major Leagues against their brethren from the Negro Leagues. In Mexico and in Winter Leagues in the Caribbean, integrated teams played one-another, and many Latino players who were accepted as "whites" by the Major Leagues also played in the Negro Leagues at some point. Such events were relatively common in the Northeast and on the West Coast, as well as outside the United States, but were unthinkable in the strictly-segregated southern states.
Segregation was not accepted by everyone as an inescapable fact. Certain journalists wrote regularly about the shame of segregation in professional baseball, and many white players, including major stars, had no qualms about playing against blacks and would heap high praise on the quality of their black opponents. By the early 1940s, even a few powerful figures within Organized Baseball wanted to break the taboo. Bill Veeck reportedly concocted a plan to buy the financially-struggling Philadelphia Phillies in 1943 and stack the team with the best available Negro League players. He was never able to put the plan to execution (and there is some question about how far along he had moved on the road from a simple idea to an actual project), but by the end of World War II, the time to act was ripe.
Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, who opposed segregation on moral grounds, signed Jackie Robinson to a professional contract with the minor league Montreal Royals before the 1946 season. Robinson had been a four-sport star athlete at UCLA, had served as an officer in the US Army, and had impeccable credentials; while baseball was not his first love and he was far from the most prominent black baseball player of the day, Rickey considered he had the talent and strength of character needed to make the Great Experiment work. Robinson had a great year for the Royals in 1946, leading them to the International League title and winning the league's Most Valuable Player award, and was warmly embraced by the fans in Montreal. However, the French-speaking Canadian city was not representative of the United States, so there was still concern that Robinson's presence in the Brooklyn Dodger line-up would cause strife or riots once he was promoted to the parent team.
With the strong support of commissioner Happy Chandler, Rickey promoted Robinson to the Major League team in spring training of 1947. He made his Major League debut on April 15, and in spite of hostility from fans in some cities and certain rival players and managers, Robinson had an excellent rookie season, winning the newly-created Major League Rookie of the Year Award that first year as the Dodgers went all the way to the World Series. In fact, it did not take the whole season for more enlightened figures in the game to see the tide had turned. Veeck, by then owner of the Cleveland Indians, signed Larry Doby early in the season and had him make his debut with the Indians on July 5. The St. Louis Browns followed suit immediately with Hank Thompson and Willard Brown. At the end of the season, the Dodgers brought in the first black pitcher, Dan Bankhead, for a few games. The floodgates were now open, with a few teams scrambling over each other to sign all the best available black players. There were a few notable exceptions in this rush, such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox who took years to sign their first black players.
Robinson quickly became recognized as a true American hero, and his immense stature has cast a shadow over the other pioneers who also had to endure abuse and hatred in order to open the ranks of Organized Baseball to everyone. For example, Doby was not admitted to the Hall of Fame until 1998, in spite of an impeccable résumé (Robinson had been the first black player admitted to Cooperstown, in 1962). The names of the other black players who joined Robinson in the majors in 1947 have been largely forgotten. In addition, the role of people like Chandler, Veeck, or even Pee Wee Reese, the Dodger captain who accepted Robinson into the line-up with (literally) open arms, has not been fully appreciated, as is the case with the numerous little-known black minor leaguers who integrated the vast network of minor leagues in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
In any case, by the early 1950s, the sight of black players in Major League uniforms was no longer remarkable, while the Negro Leagues frittered away, their purpose having been served.
The Completion of Integration
It took longer for some of the minor leagues, particularly in the southern states, to integrate. This was becoming particularly embarrassing by the turn of the 1960s, and led to the disappearance of the venerable Southern Association after the 1961 season, when Organized Baseball withdrew its support in light of its steadfast refusal to integrate. It was rapidly replaced by other integrated leagues, completing a process that had taken some 80 years.
However, it took longer to integrate other levels of the game. While the first black managers were appointed in the minor leagues by the early 1950s, opportunities to work as a coach, manager or front office executive were few and far between for qualified blacks who fell outside the largely white "Old Boys Network". It took until 1975 for a black man, Frank Robinson, to be appointed as manager of a Major League team, and by the time baseball came around to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut in 1987, he was still the only black man to have managed a team for a full season. Asked about this discrepancy, Dodger executive Al Campanis, who had been a teammate of Jackie Robinson's, said that perhaps blacks lacked the qualities required to accede to these positions. Those remarks created a furor, and forced Major League Baseball to act, creating affirmative action programs to increase opportunities for qualified black men in those areas. While the situation is still far from perfect, and in recent years many observers have noted with dismay the decline of popularity of baseball among black youth, the major barriers to full integration have now all been smashed.
- Mark Armour: "The Effects of Integration, 1947-1986", in The Baseball Research Journal, Number 36 (2007), SABR, Cleveland, OH, pp. 53-57.
- Brian Carroll: When to Stop the Cheering?: The Black Press, the Black Community and the Integration of Professional Baseball, Routledge, New York, NY, 2006.
- Jeffrey S. Copeland: After Jackie: Fifteen Pioneers Who Helped Change the Face of Baseball, Paragon House, Saint-Paul, MN, 2021. ISBN 9781557789488
- Amy Essington: The Integration of the Pacific Coast League: Race and Baseball on the West Coast, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2018. ISBN 978-0-8032-8573-6
- Timothy M. Gay: Satch, Dizzy and Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2010.
- Daryl Russell Grigsby: Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball, Dog Ear Publishing LLC, Indianapolis, IN, 2010. ISBN 978-160844-798-5
- Roger Kahn: Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball, Rodale, New York, NY, 2014. ISBN 978-1623362973
- William C. Kashatus: Jackie and Campy: The Untold Story of Their Rocky Relationship and the Breaking of Baseball's Color Line, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2014. ISBN 978-0803246331
- Chris Lamb: Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2012.
- Robert Kuhn McGregor: A Calculus of Color: The Integration of Baseball’s American League, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2015. ISBN 978-0-7864-9440-8
- Bryan Soderholm-Difatte: The Golden Era of Major League Baseball: A Time of Transition and Integration, Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Lanham, MD, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4422-5221-9
- Lyle Spatz, ed.: The Team That Forever Changed Baseball and America: The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2012.
- Rick Swaine: The Black Stars Who Made Baseball Whole: The Jackie Robinson Generation in the Major Leagues, 1947–1959, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2006. ISBN978-0-7864-2316-3
- Rick Swaine: The Integration of Major League Baseball: A Team by Team History, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2009.
- Jules Tygiel: Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1997 (originally published in 1983).