- Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball by Chris Lamb
As Chris Lamb observes in Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball, Major League Baseball’s integration “was not an isolated act” (p. 17) but a long battle, often mediated by “the symbiotic relationship between baseball and the press” (p. 31). “The long campaign” is framed by Heywood Broun’s 1933 speech at the New York Baseball Writers’ Association dinner, challenging the baseball establishment to eliminate the color line that had segregated the sport since 1887 and Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Set between these events, Lamb’s book analyzes many touchstones of baseball’s integration narrative—Moses Fleetwood Walker’s confrontation with Cap Anson, the Jake Powell affair, the Double V campaign, and the Bear Mountain tryout, among others—however, to his credit, Lamb does not merely retell well-known tales. The book’s strength is its detailed analysis of both the black and the white press’s arguments and approaches as they evolve over the long campaign to desegregate the national game.
Organized Baseball could ignore the color line as long as the mainstream press either ignored segregation or defended it. According to Lamb, white sportswriters were often “willful conspirators in the perpetuation of the color line,” and they “bear culpability for prolonging baseball’s ‘gentlemen’s agreement’—just as baseball’s executives and team owners have been condemned for their role in keeping the national pastime segregated” (p. 24). Many white sportswriters, who frequently socialized with ballplayers and team officials, hesitated to criticize the baseball establishment, but the black press understood baseball’s integration as part of a larger campaign to promote racial equality in America. Black sportswriters questioned white baseball’s attempts to justify the color line, appealing to individual team executives, like Pittsburgh’s William Benswanger, rather than the do-nothing commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis. When Daily Worker sportswriters like Lester Rodney, Nat Low, and Bill Mardo refused to accept Organized Baseball’s big lie—that the color ban did not exist; that white players and managers objected to playing with or against black ballplayers; that black players were not talented or skillful enough to succeed in white baseball—their opponents labeled desegregation as a Communist plot. But press-inspired protests following the Jake Powell affair demonstrated that Organized Baseball could not ignore the voices of the black community. In 1939, Wendell Smith’s landmark series in the Pittsburgh Courier challenged owners’ claims by quoting many major league players and managers who favored desegregation. Three years later, when Landis denied the existence of a color line in baseball, most white sportswriters said nothing. In 1943, Landis allowed the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association to present the case for integration at baseball’s annual meetings, but the wily judge invited the controversial Paul Robeson to make the presentation to the owners, again linking desegregation with Communist politics. By the time of Landis’ death at the end of 1944, the integration [End Page 169] campaign had moved beyond the black press, as mainstream politicians took up the cause. Yet even the 1945 announcement that Montreal’s International League team had signed Jackie Robinson, effectively breaking professional baseball’s color line, was met in the white press “with aggravation and even silence” (p. 293). “What is particularly revealing,” Lamb writes, “is not that white sportswriters failed to acknowledge what Robinson represented and what he accomplished but rather how sympathetic they remained toward the racists who stood in the way of baseball’s becoming the game it promised to be” (p. 331).
The integration of baseball is arguably the most significant sports story of the twentieth century, and no less an authority than Jackie Robinson himself noted the important role black sportswriters played in the long campaign to desegregate the game as “a press victory” (p. 291). Conspiracy of Silence offers a nuanced and detailed examination of the many strategies they employed to confront the color...