Tuesday, May 17, 2011

When Jackie was rapped as racist collaborator

 Uncommon commons. Contemporary accounts of tidbits that as a collector of baseball and football cards I found interesting because they helped bring to life the faces on the cards I collected. I figure that if I found these items of interest, so would other vintage card collectors.

"From now on, Jackie should keep his mouth shut about racial discrimination because what he did in Birmingham outrages his fine utterances on fair play."

Those strong words of condemnation for Jackie Robinson came from Alabama's largest "Negro newspaper," the Birmingham World, in mid-October, 1953. "Chalk up another victory for bigotry in Birmingham," the paper said. "Add Jackie Robinson's name to America's shame list. He gave in to racial intolerance. We aren't rooting anymore for Jackie."

This outpouring of disappointment and rage was precipitated during a post-season barnstorming tour of the South. Promoted by Ted Warner, the month-long series of exhibition game in cities and towns that lacked major league baseball featured "Jackie Robinson's All-Stars.," playing nines made up of stars of the Negro American League, usually augmented with some local talent. 

The post-season tour was something of an annual event for Robinson. In 1953 his picked team for the first time included three white players. Dodgers first baseman Gil Hodges and former Brooklyn pitcher Ralph Branca, who'd ended the '53 season with Tigers, were joined by St. Louis Browns second baseman Bobby Young on Robinson's otherwise all-black assemblage.

The 1953 tour began in Baltimore on Oct. 9, not long after it had been confirmed that the city would be getting major league ball in 1954 with the St. Louis Browns moving to Maryland.

The exhibitions drew 92,824 fans in 32 games played across Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. The Robinson All-Stars defeated their opponents 24-6 with two tie games.

One of the tour's stops was Birmingham, on Oct. 18. Because there was a local ordinance in force at that time precluding black and white players from competing in the same contest, Robinson benched his trio of Caucasians. 

"Democracy was benched and sportsmanship sidelined when Warner and Jackie did this," the World editorialized.  The game should have been cancelled as a gesture of protest against such laws. He let us down."

Attempting damage control, Robinson said later in a press conference back in Harlem that he "may have been wrong," but that he "thought he was right at the time."

When the game had been booked prior to the end of the baseball season, it appeared that Birmingham's law prohibiting integrated sporting contests might have been on the way out, at the behest of Mayor James Morgan, who called the law unconstitutional. A late-season surge by the Birmingham Barons team in the Southern Association made it appear as if the city might be hosting games in the "Dixie Series" pitting the SA champions against the Texas League pennant winners, the Dallas Eagles, who had a number of black players on its roster. There were no black players on Southern Association rosters in 1953.

Birmingham eventually finished fourth in the SA, and talk of repealing the segregationist policy was largely scrapped, though it remained an issue in that fall's local elections.

In justifying his taking of money to play the game under segregated conditions, Robinson said he was influenced to play the game by the opinions of local citizens, both black and white, by Ted Warner and by his teammates. Robinson said the biggest mistake was in booking the game in the first place.

Roscoe McGowan, a New York baseball writer who provided The Sporting News with the majority of its scant coverage of Negro Leagues baseball in 1953, weighed in on the controversy with tihs, ". . . since the Dodgers always had refused to schedule games in cities where their Negro members were not permitted to play, Jack had compromised on a principle for which he was supposed to battle and for which Brooklyn club officials and other white organizations had been battling."

At his press conference, Robinson said he planned another barnstorming tour in 1954, and would again field a team of mixed black and white players. He declared that proceeds from that tour would go to local charities in the South to repay "the people of the South for being so nice" to him.

As a side note, playing for Robinson's All-Stars during part of the tour was "Murry" Wills, future L.A. Dodgers infield star, who in 1953 was shortstop of the Miami Sun Sox of the Florida International League. Besides playing at short, Wills did some pitching, as needed.

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