The Player That Changed America
Jackie Robinson was a hero. He was not only a hero for every young African-American boy dreaming of playing in the major leagues, but also for all those yearning for equality in a discriminatory nation. To his fellow blacks, Robinson was “a symbol of imminent racial challenge.”1 Robinson became the face of desegregation and a powerful figure for African-Americans to admire. He was thrust into the troubled world of segregated sports and emerged in flying colors. Despite unfavorable odds and much adversity, Robinson overcame the racial barrier with his own distinctive style. But Jackie Robinson does not encapsulate the entire story of the desegregation of baseball. Though he was the primary figurehead, many other players and baseball executives were vital in the success of African-Americans. Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy by Jules Tygiel perfectly articulates the story of blacks in baseball. From start to finish, it gives a broad hypothesis of how Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, revolutionized the game by signing UCLA star Jackie Robinson. Through his courage and innovative style, Robinson proved the abilities of black athletes and opened the door for the years to come.
Jules Tygiel begins his book with one of the most important days in the integration movement. Jackie Robinson, an extraordinarily athletic African-American, is in his major league debut for the Montreal Royals. In his opener, Robinson stuns the nation by producing four hits and unequaled base running. Before Robinson, there had been a series of courageous African-Americans playing in the major leagues during the 1880’s. Bud Fowler, the first African-American to play professional baseball, experienced a journey in the league similar to the journey of all blacks playing baseball in the 1880’s. It was “a composite of grudging acceptance, discrimination, physical abuse, and, ultimately, exclusion.”2 After blacks were no longer accepted, the Negro leagues became very popular. Satchel Paige, one of the greatest blacks to ever play the game, played in the Negro leagues and was often noticed by major league scouts. Tygiel mentions how the baseball commissioner from 1920 until 1944, Kenesaw Landis, declared there was no rule against playing blacks in baseball. Instead, Tygiel suggests that it was an unspoken rule to discriminate against black players. Therefore, players like Paige who had the potential to be successful in the major leagues, were often overlooked. The Robinson story then begins with Branch Rickey, a man who would become a key figure in the integration of blacks. Rickey despises the policy of baseball executives to exclude African-Americans from Major League Baseball. Soon Rickey would light the wildfire of integration with the signing of Jackie Robinson. By doing so, he satisfied his desire for the integration of blacks and whites in society
The Brooklyn Dodgers, specifically Branch Rickey, shocked the world when they signed Jackie Robinson to play professional baseball. But after Rickey made that astonishing decision, he did his homework. Because of the strong resentment towards blacks, Rickey planned every aspect of life for Robinson to eliminate all distractions and limitations on his journey to destroy the color barrier. As a part of this, Rickey launched a tolerance program in the city where Robinson would be playing in the minor leagues. Although the Dodger organization could not be too influential on the national stage, they tried to “minimize problems in Daytona Beach.”3 This would create a healthier environment for Robinson and make the likelihood of success much greater. Regardless of the anticipation, Robinson’s debut in the major leagues did not solve the problem of integration. Nevertheless, there was a great deal of interest in Robinson as he set off on a hall of fame career. Fans swarmed to the stadium in extraordinary numbers to experience the historic undertaking. After a triumphant season in Daytona Beach, Robinson was brought up to the big leagues with high expectations. Clearly the success or failure of Robinson would be in direct correlation with the success or failure of integration. Robinson did not disappoint. The overall success of Robinson in the game of baseball “constituted the most significant developments in the campaign to desegregate baseball.”4 Despite the success, most teams did not follow in the footsteps of the Dodgers. Momentum was slowed when Robinson started off hitting poorly in his second season. However, he was still able to dominate the base paths with his trademark speed. Fans understood the troubling start but hoped for a climb back to excellence.
With the early achievement of Robinson, Rickey predicted, “the signing of a Negro will be no more than the news of a white boy.”5 As seen in today’s racial climate, Rickey was correct. Bill Veeck, the owner of the Cleveland Indians, followed the path set out by Rickey and began to sign black players beginning with Larry Doby. Veeck formally announced his signing of Larry Doby, who bypassed the minor leagues and went straight to Cleveland. As more and more blacks were accepted into baseball, a sharp decline began in the Negro leagues. Satchel Paige, a key figure in the Negro leagues, signed with the Indians and finished his astounding baseball career in the major leagues. This only furthered the weakening of the Negro leagues. Unfortunately, blacks were not always welcomed into the game. The Ku Klux Klan was outraged and many people across the South were also displeased with the integration of baseball. Despite the constant speculation and protest, baseball’s color barrier was broken.
In 1957, Jackie Robinson retired with only three teams yet to sign black players: the Philadelphia Phillies, the Detroit Tigers, and the Boston Red Sox. After the signing of Ozzie Virgil and John Kennedy, the Red Sox became the last team to add an African-American player to their roster. Across the nation, the “failure of the Red Sox to integrate provoked a chorus of protest.”6 Finally, in 1959, Elijah Green was signed by the Red Sox and became the first black to play for them in the major leagues. The wall of discrimination in baseball had officially been torn down. Boston ended what had begun in Brooklyn. Desegregation of baseball has a profound effect on life in America. Since the debut of Robinson, the “desegregation in professional football and basketball had advanced rapidly.”7 Other sports, such as basketball and football, were beginning to follow in the lead of baseball on the pathway towards integration. Because of the influence of African-Americans on the game of baseball, it would never be the same. They transformed the way people played the game and opened the eyes of America to an innovative style of play. Through their courage and heart, African-Americans who signed with major league teams in the 1940’s made an incredible impact not just baseball, but the nation.
Through his extensive research and experience with the subject, Tygiel is able to formulate a noteworthy analysis of the Jackie Robinson story. Tygiel’s thesis argues for the effectiveness of Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and many other black athletes to break the barriers of sports and eliminate racial discrimination in America. He feels Jackie Robinson was a great experiment that turned out to be a watershed in the history of the game and the nation. Through reliable evidence, Tygiel explains the bravery, poise, and strength of
Robinson. This, along with the choices made by Dodger executive Branch Rickey, allowed baseball integration to be a building block for future civil rights activists. Tygiel argues how Robinson allowed racial exclusion to terminate “before the onset of the major civil rights agitation.”8 While the argument of Tygiel is broad, it focuses on the lasting influence of Robinson on racial discrimination in the United States.
With just a little knowledge about Jules Tygiel, it is easy to see why he was a fan of Jackie Robinson. He often times praises Robinson, saying that he “reaffirmed the openness of American society.”9 Tygiel was born in 1949 and was raised in Brooklyn. Because of the overwhelming love for Robinson in Brooklyn during Tygiel’s youth, it seems only fitting that Tygiel became a reliable analyst on Robinson. The upbringings of Tygiel clearly influenced his perspective on Robinson and his story. Growing up, the seeds of Tygiel’s love for Robinson, his favorite player, were planted. This love for Robinson grew into a passion for all things baseball. Along with the praise of Robinson, Tygiel also criticizes the South and other groups during the 1940’s for the injustice they placed on African-Americans. Having grown up in Brooklyn, these views may have been molded from his upbringings as well. Just before his death, Tygiel was a professor who taught important stages in American history such as the Great Depression. Being a history teacher, Tygiel must have further recognized the influence of Robinson on the rest of the civil rights movement and the entire world. All of Tygiel’s background aspects are the roots to his admiration of Robinson. The time period Tygiel wrote his book also has an unquestionable influence on it. It was published in 1983 with the civil rights movement well behind the United States. Despite this, the elimination of discrimination in society was still something many whites were hostile towards. Therefore, Tygiel may have wanted to not just acknowledge Jackie Robinson in his book, but also call attention to the unlawful treatment of blacks that still occurred.
Baseball’s Great Experiment has been highly recognized by many scholars as a formidable account of Jackie Robinson. Michael E. Lomax of the University of Georgia wrote a critical review of the book and the importance of it. In his review, Lomax outlines the key points made by Tygiel. He mentions how “Tygiel analyzes the forces that denied blacks access to organized baseball and the various individuals and societal pressure that attacked the conspiracy of silence.”10 Most of the review praises Tygiel for his insightful examination of Jackie Robinson and the desegregation of baseball. Lomax sees the book as “the standard by which other books on the Robinson legend will be judged.”11 Some criticism of the book includes Tygiel’s assertion that integration was unopposed in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It was clear to Lomax this was not the case during the time period. Despite this, Lomax recognizes Baseball’s Great Experiment as a wonderful reference for research on the Jackie Robinson story and the desegregation of baseball.
Amy Worden of Marquette University also gave her input on Tygiel’s pride and joy. Much like Lomax, Worden honors Baseball’s Great Experiment and appreciates the excellent analysis by Tygiel. She notes it as “an exciting recantation of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the race barrier in professional baseball.”12 Worden recognizes Tygiel’s book as the most outstanding piece on Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball ever written. It allows the reader to dive into the life of the Brooklyn Dodger and view the desegregation of baseball from Robinson’s lens. Worden has nothing but praise for the highly acclaimed Baseball’s Great Experiment.
From reading Baseball’s Great Experiment and its’ book reviews, one can easily see that it is a fabulous work with ample recognition. It tells the full and complete story of not just Jackie Robinson, but also the entire desegregation of baseball. Beginning from the first African Americans to play in the major leagues, it takes you all the way up until the Red Sox Elijah Green stepped onto the fresh grass at Fenway Park. Instead of covering solely Jackie Robinson, Tygiel brings up the struggles of many different black baseball players. These include the likes of Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, and Josh Gibson. He highlights the intense emotion provoked by the taunting and hatred of those in the crowd. Along with this, Tygiel also gives a background about those blacks that played in the 1880’s. While it would be easy to skip over the 1880’s like many authors have, he finds it important to utilize this topic to give the reader a full and complete history. Throughout the book, Tygiel speaks extremely highly of Robinson and many of his attributes. At one point, he states Robinson’s efforts have brought the idea of equality “closer to a reality.”13 Baseball’s Great Experiment explains all that Robinson did on and off the field to further the cause of African-Americans. Whether it is getting four hits in his major league debut or refusing to give up his seat on buses, Robinson always took the opportunity to stand up for what he believed in. Branch Rickey is also a vital element in the story by Jules Tygiel. Tygiel follows his quest to desegregate the game of baseball. This gives the reader an understanding of how and why Robinson came into the league. Without doing so, it would be hard to understand why such a miraculous event would occur. Tygiel covered the entire legend of Jackie Robinson like no other historian before him and to this day his book acts as the most useful one on the subject.
Throughout history there have been many periods of time that provoke change in an unjust world. In American history, the 1940’s were undoubtedly one of these times. In Baseball’s Great Experiment, Tygiel constantly claims the Robinson story revolutionized the game of baseball and beyond. According to Tygiel, Robinson “did not simply end baseball segregation.”14 Robinson challenged racial discrimination in a hostile country, forced barriers to fall for every profession, and contributed to legislation passed to protect the rights of blacks. Along with all of this, Tygiel argues that Robinson proved the abilities of African-Americans. Jackie Robinson showed the world that blacks could compete just as well as whites in the game of baseball. Never again would someone question the athletic prowess of an African-American when they could simply point to Jackie Robinson. Not only that, but Tygiel argues Robinson and other blacks forever changed the style of play in the major leagues. Before Robinson, major league ball clubs relied solely on the power and strength of hitters to produce runs. African-Americans showed whites how to manufacture runs through base running and execution. Today, baseball is exceptionally appreciative of what blacks did for the game. But the main effect of Jackie Robinson was on racial discrimination. Tygiel argues that Robinson “challenged deeply entrenched Jim Crow traditions.”15 Robinson and Rickey tore down unspoken laws that had been accepted by society for over half a century. While others watched, Robinson and Rickey took action against the poor treatment of blacks in a country founded on equality. They spoke up against the unjust system of discrimination dominating the nation. Ultimately, their actions would have undeniable implications for future African-Americans in the United States.
Jackie Robinson is a symbol of bravery and strength for all Americans. Because of this, Major Leagues Baseball has a specific day to commemorate his debut. In Baseball’s Great Experiment, Tygiel effectively presents a thorough history of Robinson and the desegregation of baseball from “Rickey’s search for black players”16 to the last team to sign an African-American. Baseball’s Great Experiment gives a full and complete understanding of how Robinson and others forever altered the course of baseball and history.
1: Tygiel, Jules. Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Print. 9.
2: Tygiel, Jules. 10.
3: Tygiel, Jules. 104.
4: Tygiel, Jules. 152.
5: Tygiel, Jules. 211.
6: Tygiel, Jules. 331.
7: Tygiel, Jules. 335.
8: Tygiel, Jules. 343.
9: Tygiel, Jules 340.
10: Lomax, Michael. “University of Georgia,” george.edu. Web. 3 Jun 2013
11: Lomax, Michael. “University of Georgia,” george.edu. Web. 3 Jun 2013
12: Worden, Amy. "Marquette Sports Law Review." marquette.edu. Web. 3 Jun 2013.
13: Tygiel, Jules. 344.
14: Tygiel, Jules. 343.
15: Tygiel, Jules. 343.
16: Lomax, Michael. “University of Georgia,” george.edu. Web. 3 Jun 2013