- Baseball’s Great Experiment Revisited
In 1983, Oxford University Press released Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. Commenting in the New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt stated that Tygiel placed the baseball story “on a bigger canvas—one so capacious that there [was] even room for anecdotes about what it was like for blacks to play in the Texas minor leagues during the 1950s—and lets the reader draw his own conclusion.” Using this “bigger canvas” allowed Tygiel to examine issues in depth like Branch Rickey’s real motive in making the decision he did. Was it humanitarianism, or did the Dodgers president simply envision how popular and profitable black players would ultimately prove? According to Lehmann-Haupt, Tygiel appeared to credit both factors, as well as the increasing pressure that was being put on baseball to desegregate.1
To be sure, Baseball’s Great Experiment remains one of the most definitive monographs about the integration of organized baseball. Tygiel’s book can be briefly summarized as follows. Although his primary focus was on Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey and Robinson, Tygiel analyzed the forces that denied blacks access to organized baseball and the plethora of individuals and societal pressures that attacked the conspiracy of silence. He provided an in-depth and critical look at Rickey’s strategy for integration and recognized that his motives resulted from a combination of economics, the desire to exploit a new source of baseball talent, a commitment to humanitarian principles, and the desire to move beyond the limited world of baseball and influence developments in the broader society. Tygiel praised Rickey’s courageous action, but he was also [End Page 199] critical of his uneasy caution. Furthermore, Tygiel provided an extensive examination of Robinson’s trials and tribulations, explored his impact on attendance, illustrated how his on- and off-the-field behavior influenced people to reassess their racial views, and discussed the pride he infused in the black community and that community’s response to him. For Tygiel, Robinson, more than any other individual of his generation, brought attention to the inequalities in American society and simultaneously confirmed that the dream encompassed all, regardless of race.2
Tygiel’s extensive research allowed him to provide a balanced and nuanced account of baseball integration. Not only did he comb through black and white newspapers and mainstream and sporting periodicals, he examined several archives and collections. A.B. “Happy” Chandler’s papers—Chandler was the commissioner of Major League Baseball from 1945 to 1952—and historian William Marshall’s interviews of the commissioner’s career were an invaluable resource. Los Angeles Dodgers Vice-President Al Campanis assisted Tygiel in locating former players. He interviewed a plethora of players, managers, and executives like Walter Alston, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Lee MacPhail, Monte Irvin, and Bill White. Finally, Rachel Robinson let Tygiel examine the Robinson family scrapbooks at the Jackie Robinson Foundation in Brooklyn.
In chapter one, Tygiel cited Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944), the groundbreaking study of the race problem in the United States. Myrdal concluded, “‘Not since Reconstruction has there been more reason to anticipate fundamental changes in race relations, changes which will involve a development towards the American ideal.’” Few people shared Myrdal’s optimism, however. During the 1930s, Myrdal argued, the “popular theory behind race prejudice” in the U.S. had gradually “decayed.” The inclusion of African Americans in New Deal relief programs, several Supreme Court decisions limiting discriminatory practices, and a growing exasperation with the South among Northern liberals reflected this shift in attitude. Moreover, the growing militancy among African Americans would also contribute to the forthcoming transition.3
Myrdal’s study enabled Tygiel to show how the integration of baseball embodied the transformation of American racial practices in the aftermath of World War II. Baseball integration represented a symbol of imminent racial challenge and a direct agent of social change. Robinson’s campaign against the color line in 1946–1947 captured the imagination of millions of Americans who had previously ignored the nation’s racial dilemma. The baseball experience offered civil rights advocates a model for peaceful transition...