For Major League Baseball, no moment was more transformative than the arrival of Jackie Robinson, who, in 1947, paved the way for African Americans and darker-skinned Latinos to reshape the game.
But integration destroyed the Negro Leagues, plucking its young stars – Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Roy Campanella and Ernie Banks – who brought their fans with them. The big leagues never considered folding in some of the best black teams, and its owners rejected the Negro National League owners’ proposal to become a high minor league.
Like many black papers, colleges and businesses, the Negro National League paid a price for integration: extinction. The league ceased play after the 1948 season. Black owners, general managers and managers soon disappeared, and it would be decades before a black manager would get a chance to steer a major league ballclub.
Major League Baseball benefited from talent cultivated in the Negro Leagues and on the sandlots that sustained the sport, especially in inner cities. But when those leagues crumbled, prospective black pros were relegated to minor league teams, often in inhospitable, southern cities. Many Negro League regulars simply hung up their cleats or played in the Caribbean.
The playwright August Wilson set his play, “Fences,” which tells the story of an ex-Negro Leaguer who becomes a garbageman in Pittsburgh.
“Baseball gave you a sense of belonging,” Wilson said in a 1991 interview. At those Negro League games, he added, “The umpire ain’t white. It’s a black umpire. The owner ain’t white. Nobody’s white. This is our thing … and we have our everything – until integration, and then we don’t have our nothing.”
The story of African Americans in baseball has long been portrayed as a tale of their shameful segregation and redemptive integration. Segregation was certainly shameful, especially for a sport invested in its own rhetoric of democracy.
But for African Americans, integration was also painful. Although long overdue and an important catalyst for social change, it cost them control over their sporting lives.
It changed the meaning of the sport – what it symbolized and what it meant for their communities – and not necessarily for the better.