When I came across Jackie Robinson in context with civil rights, I knew I wanted to incorporate the significant contributions his baseball success brought to civil rights in one of my blogs. Originally, I had planned for Jackie to be my cultural artifact. However, I was uncertain if a person could be considered a cultural artifact, so I chose the next best thing: the first Jackie Robinson baseball card. I played several sports when I was younger, among them, baseball. While I could knock them out of the park during practice, I never seemed to get over my nervous adrenaline on game day. I frequently froze up when it came to my times at bat, and thus almost always struck out. This left me with a horrible batting average and the worst position of right fielder. Even though I was not all-star quality, I had a blast with the guys in Little League, especially in the dugout where we chewed an enormous amount of sunflower seeds (tobacco was forbidden) and talked about who our favorite players were. I remember learning about the baseball greats like Babe Ruth, A-Rod, and Jackie Robinson.
Prior to Jackie Robinson, African Americans could join minor and major league teams (“Negro League History”). However in 1867, the National Association of Baseball Players agreed to make it technically illegal for the athletic integration of black players (“Negro League History”). In addition to this new ruling, many negro players fell victim to the widespread racism of the time, so only a handful black players maintained professional status during this tumultuous time in African American history (“Negro League History”). By 1890, there remained no black players in the International League and all African Americans would be barred from professional baseball by 1900 (“Negro League History”).
To make matters worse, de facto segregation was rampant across the nation, but especially in the South, where this also took the form of de jure segregation. De jure segregation is racist segregation legalized by law, whereas de facto segregation is segregation caused by racism, but is not legalized by law (Pittman, The Great Migration Part 2). The most prominent examples of de jure segregation are Jim Crow laws and black codes. Jim Crow (1876–1965) laws mandated separate but ‘equal’ facilities for blacks and whites, which were implemented quickly after emancipation to regain control of blacks (Pittman, The Great Migration Part 2). Some of these rulings detailed that separate bathrooms, drinking fountains, entrances, etc be made for each race, but only if it would be reasonable to create secondary, black facilities (Grossman, 361-362). To make matters worse, these facilities were anything but equal because de facto segregation across America demanded that black facilities be cheaper and worse overall to show the superiority of the white man (Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, personal communication, Fall 2015). In addition, black codes, which were effectively legal slave codes, limited black autonomy and became implemented immediately following the Civil War (Slavery By Another Name: The Documentary Film). With the new laws limiting black rights, it is not surprising that they segregated professional baseball for black and whites, but that it took so long for the full enforcement of the 1867 ruling of segregation to be implemented across the United States.
Because black facilities were inferior to those of white people, their impacts would resonate into a downward spiral that would be difficult to overcome. Arguably, the most impacting of the Jim Crow laws were those regarding schooling and housing. Segregation in schools was especially debilitating. With a proper, formal education, black people could compete for better jobs, which meant the accumulation of more wealth than the previous generation. This, in turn, would also improve their social standing as it would prove that African-American laborers were no different than whites in terms of capability. However, in order to maintain Caucasian superiority, black schools were kept to a low standard of learning and maintenance, often using outdated materials and textbooks obtained from sub-par white schools (Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, personal communication, Fall 2015). Even if all other socioeconomic policies against blacks were equal to those of white people, they would face a severe disadvantage in the job market without a decent education.
Housing segregation was pivotal to the lack of black success as well. Segregation ordinances, passed in 1917, controlled African American communities (Pittman, Lipsitz – Housing and Education). Many real estate agents and white neighborhoods formed racial covenants to halt any persons of color (PoC) from entering white areas (Pittman, Lipsitz – Housing and Education). This was supplemented by a process known as redlining, which was the offshoot of a racially discriminatory practice that determined the ‘quality’ of the community (Pittman, Lipsitz – Housing and Education). The determining quality was race, and a community was redlined only if it included blacks or other PoCs, which meant that fewer loans and other finances were resourced to those neighborhoods (Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, personal communication, Fall 2015). Redlining was one method that caucasians used to keep black housing and neighborhoods inferior to their white counterparts, as well as providing financial incentives to whites living in those neighborhoods to move into other, white neighborhoods (Pittman, Lipsitz – Housing and Education). In addition, black people were the primary targets of sub-prime loans since they had blemished credit history that carried over from slavery days (Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, personal communication, Fall 2015). These subprime loans had higher interest rates and tied in with the process of blockbusting, where homes were bought from panicked whites for cheap and sold to blacks for considerably higher-than-market price values (Pittman, Lipsitz – Housing and Education). This meant that in order to rent or buy homes, blacks had to pay substantially more for the same quality home than a white person would. This limited many to move to cheaper, rundown black neighborhoods, which led to isolation of each race from the other (Pittman, Lipsitz – Housing and Education). Some blacks would never see a white person in their lifetime, which reinforced racial barriers (Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, personal communication, Fall 2015).
As a result of this intense separate but equal mentality and racially delineated communities that were given power through legislature, several black baseball clubs sprung up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (“Negro League History”). As they rose to prominence in the early 1900s, it became one of the major entertainment outlets for the urban, black male population (“Negro League History”). By the end of World War I, the black baseball circuit formally became known as the Negro National League (“Negro League History”). In 1920, it consisted of only eight teams compared to sixteen in the National Baseball League (“Negro League History”).
Another reason for the rise in interest in America’s national pastime was likely the Great Migration. While there is some debate about the time period, it is believed to have started around 1910 to 1915 and lasted until 1970 (Pittman, The Great Migration). This migration saw approximately 6.5 million African Americans migrate out of the South into different U.S. territories (Pittman, The Great Migration). Since black baseball was popular among populations in the inner cities, it is important to note that by the turn of the century, close to 90% of all African Americans were still living in the South, with nearly ¾ of them in agriculturally-related jobs (Pittman, The Great Migration). However, the destruction of the cotton crop would drive millions out of the rural South and into industrialized cities, where they would be exposed to rings of black baseball (Pittman, The Great Migration). Without this sudden shift in black urbanization, the Negro League and black baseball would likely have been in jeopardy of collapsing.
Just eleven years after its formal debut, the Great Depression would sink the Negro National League for financial reasons (“Negro League History”). Fortunately, it was quickly reinstated in 1933, but not without competition (“Negro League History”). Two other Negro leagues had been created in its absence and began to compete with the original league (“Negro League History”). This league-on-league competition, however, rendered great talent. With advanced skill levels, the leagues rose in fame and prominence, even allowing for certain all-star black baseball teams to play exhibition matches against white major league teams, promoting the black players’ visibility (“Negro League History”). These teams prospered into the 1940s, and it would not be long after that the color barrier would be readdressed in the athletic world.
Jackie Robinson was the first Negro player to break this barrier wide open, when on April 18, 1947, he contracted to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers (“Negro League History”). Within a few months of becoming an official player, Jackie Robinson’s likeness was printed on a baseball card that same year. Unlike baseball cards today, it featured only Jackie Robinson’s portrait in black and white, had rounded edges, and his signature embedded across the front (Cracknell). There were no stats listed on the back like there are now (Cracknell). It was distributed through the sale of Homogenized Bond Bread (Cracknell). The Bond Bread company was founded in 1911 in New York (“1950s Famous Firsts”). Ninety percent of its sales were from selling Bond Bread, which sold 1.5 million loaves a day on average (“1950s Famous Firsts”). Featuring Jackie on baseball cards was an attempt to create sales, which inadvertently increased his popularity as well (“1947 D302 Bond Bread”).
The most iconic iteration of Robinson cards arrived in 1948 and were the first to be sold in traditional MLB packs (Cracknell). Many more Jackie Robinson cards would become available to the public over the years as his career progressed. These cards would serve as a physical reminder to both black and white populations that the color barrier had been destroyed in baseball. As such, by 1952, there were one hundred fifty black players in Major League Baseball (MLB) (“Negro League History”). To blacks, this was a symbol of change and hope; they could begin to dare to dream to achieve their aspirations of equality without segregation. On the other hand, for white adults it was the symbol of a dreaded change that would be the ultimate chink in their armor of superiority. The biggest impact of his cards would be on the younger generation. Because both black as well as white children would clamor for Jackie’s cards, there was a quiet, internal seed being sown that fostered the beginning of not only tolerance but equality toward the black community. However, this would prove to be most influential throughout the black community. Now, not only could it be seen that desegregation was possible, it was evident that black athletes could compete against and with whites and that they were not inferior, but equal.
Jackie Robinson’s baseball cards presently sell for upwards of a few hundred dollars and are considered to be rare classics. Their history, or rather Jackie Robinson’s story, is not lost on today’s card owners and plays a major part of the cards’ staying power and appeal. Beyond their timeless popularity, Jackie’s cards are physical proof of the social reform that began to take root in the 40s, helping to accelerate the movement for equality among the races. To give an idea of how impactful this bold desegregation of baseball came to be, in 1954, the famous Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board ruled that segregation of color in school facilities was unconstitutional (Pittman, Lipsitz – Housing and Education). However, all were slow to act, whether out of fear of the unknown, fear of violence, or blatant racism. It would take two more decades for the Supreme Court to demand that the ruling be adhered to in 1975 (Pittman, Lipsitz – Housing and Education). While the first integrated school was not without major incident, the racial walls of injustice were beginning to crumble.
Titus Brown, professor of African-American studies at Florida A&M university, has theorized that Jackie Robinson’s successful entry into white baseball and subsequent desegregation led to the passage of the 1948 law that integrated the Armed Forces (Hill). He believes that Truman was potentially inspired by it and saw that there was a political opportunity to appeal to blacks (Hill). Brown also claims that the successful desegregation of baseball made it more acceptable for any one institution to have black people in their ranks (Hill). This evolution of equality that sprung up from the solitary act of Jackie becoming a Dodger would give African Americans a platform on which to not only believe in but to promote desegregation. However, Brown also states that the future of black ball players depended on Jackie Robinson’s success in the white league (Hill). If he had done poorly, it would have affirmed white views on blacks and hindered the black civil rights movement. But since he flourished, it paved the way for a more positive image of blacks across the country.
Jackie Robinson’s success in baseball changed the landscape for equal rights. Every time he hit a home run, he shattered a bit more of the racial barriers that existed at that time. His baseball cards were validation that black people were equally as capable and talented as any man and that segregation was not necessary. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Jackie Robinson’s first baseball card was worth a thousand steps toward true freedom and equality.
“1947 D302 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson.” Old Cardboard. N.p., n.d. Web. Dec. 2015.
“1950s Famous Firsts, D280-3, Bond Bread Company, USA.” Skytamer. N.p., n.d. Web. Dec. 2015.
Cracknell, Ryan. “Top 12 Jackie Robinson Vintage Cards of All-Time.” The Cardboard Connection. N.p., 15 Apr. 2014. Web. Dec. 2015.
Grossman, James R. “A Chance to Make Good.” To Make Our World Anew. By Robin D. G. Kelley and Earl Lewis. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. N. pag. Print.
Hill, Justice B. “Robinson Affected American Society.” MLB. N.p., 14 Apr. 2007. Web. Dec. 2015.
“Negro League History 101 – An Introduction To The Negro Leagues.” Negro League Baseball. Negro League Baseball Shop, n.d. Web. Dec. 2015.
Pittman, LaShawnDa (2015) The Great Migration. [PowerPoint Slides].
Pittman, LaShawnDa (2015) The Great Migration Part 2. [PowerPoint Slides].
Pittman, LaShawnDa (2015) Lipsitz – Housing and Education. [PowerPoint Slides].
Slavery By Another Name: The Documentary Film. Dir. Sam Pollard. Prod. Catherine Allan and Douglas Blackmon. Screenplay by Sheila C. Bernard. PBS, 2012. Online Documentary.