Good morning, it’s Monday, April 16, 2018. Over the weekend, Major League Baseball paid its annual homage to Jackie Robinson in commemoration of the watershed moment in 1947 when organized baseball’s color barrier was finally broken.
It could have happened two years earlier, however. On this date in 1945, three black players took the field at Fenway Park for what was supposed to be a legitimate tryout.
It wasn’t, as I’ll explain in a moment. First, I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:
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Natural Disasters From Above. In RealClearLife, Rebecca Gibian compiles photos provided by NASA that offer a satellite’s eye view of hurricanes, forest fires, volcanoes and more.
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As World War II wound to a close, the nation eagerly anticipated the return to the baseball diamond of the sport’s great performers. Established stars such as Ted Williams, Warren Spahn, and the DiMaggio brothers would soon be exchanging their military uniforms for the uniforms of their teams. In some quarters, however, enlightened Americans began to speak out about a source of national embarrassment: The nation that had gone to war against murderous racist regimes in Europe and the Pacific and yet was itself racially segregated.
Among the millions of men mustering out of military service in 1945 were black baseball players who had been consigned to the Negro Leagues because the major leagues were still all-white. One of the voices raised in opposition to this shameful situation belonged to a Boston city councilman named Isadore Muchnick. Like many locales, Beantown had “blue laws” on the books back then -- regulations against selling beer, among other things, on Sundays. Baseball had long been exempted by local authorities from this prohibition regarding beer, but Muchnick was making noise about rescinding the exceptions unless the Boston Braves and the Boston Red Sox agreed to integrate.
“I cannot understand,” Muchnick wrote to Red Sox General Manager Eddie Collins in late 1944, “how baseball, which claims to be the national sport and which receives special favors and dispensation…from the federal government, can continue a pre-Civil War attitude toward American citizens because of the color of their skins.”
Collins’ disingenuous response was that in the 12 years he’d been associated with the Red Sox, “we have never had a single request for a tryout by a colored applicant.” Collins went on to say that he was willing to sign a qualified black ballplayer, but that they didn’t wish to leave the bosom of the Negro Leagues for an uncertain fate in the major leagues.
Informed of this exchange, crusading African-American journalist Wendell Smith got in touch with Muchnick and told him it was nonsense. Moreover, Smith said he could personally deliver several Negro League stars for a tryout. Caught in a web of lies -- not his own lies, really, but rather the basic hypocrisy and underlying dishonesty of Jim Crow -- Eddie Collins replied that if Smith’s newspaper paid for their transportation to Boston, he’d give the players a look.
This bluff was called. On April 16, 1945, Sam Jethroe of the Cleveland Buckeyes and Marvin Williams of the Philadelphia Stars donned their spikes and walked out onto the storied field at Fenway. They were joined by a third player who had been a college football star at UCLA and was a recently discharged U.S. Army lieutenant. Twenty-six years old, he’d been playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs. His name was Jack Robinson.
All three were obviously ballplayers, although at 20, Marvin Williams was probably too young to make the Sox’ roster that season. Robinson was another matter. When asked to hit, he began rattling line drives off the “Monster” with such authority that it sounded like machine gun fire.
“What a ballplayer!” muttered 78-year-old Red Sox scout Hugh Duffy. “Too bad he’s the wrong color.”
“If we had that guy on our club,” Sox Manager Joe Cronin confided to Muchnick, “we’d be a world-beater.”
For many years, as the Red Sox amassed a dismal record of futility, Bostonians drolly adopted a notion that they’d been “cursed” by a previous team owner’s decision to trade Babe Ruth for cash in early 1920.
But some discerning observers, among them NPR’s Scott Simon, wondered if The Curse was actually of a later derivation. In mid-century, the Red Sox brass did not have the imagination, as Branch Rickey did, to see that the “wrong color” mindset could be broken.
“I’ve come to see their hardships after 1945 as a blight they brought on themselves,” Simon wrote. “Boston barred the door to Jackie Robinson in the spring of 1945, when the team and the city had an exceptional, indispensable chance to advance themselves and enrich the country.”
The Curse, whatever its cause, was finally lifted in 2004 when the Red Sox won the World Series. Ballplayers are more superstitious than political writers, but I would note that 2004 was also the year that a lefthander out of Hawaii, by way of Illinois, was given a tryout at a Boston convention hall then called the Fleet Center.
Barack Obama’s debut was as auspicious as Jackie Robinson’s had been. This time, the city, his political party, and the nation was ready for change.
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics