As the 2019 baseball season is among us and Major League Baseball (MLB) is doing its annual dance with Jackie Robinson’s legacy—a waltz that makes it seem like its relationship with African American players has gone smoothly since Robinson’s debut in 1947—it is important to remember that segregation did not end with Jackie Robinson. Coupled with the slow pace of integration that took twelve years to complete when the Boston Red Sox finally signed Pumpsie Green in 1959, it took another four years for the full integration of spring training. This is not a story MLB celebrates, however, because this is not a tale with a white savoir like Branch Rickey. Black players like centerfielder Bill Bruton, a forgotten activist athlete, forced complete integration. Bruton was fueled by the belief that full freedom meant being seen as a Black person, not only as an athlete, while also being treated with dignity.
Raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Bruton came into professional baseball battling Jim Crow. He lived in a segregated section of the city in which the local government provided few resources, attended an overcrowded high school with inadequate supplies, and faced the prospects of menial work if he remained. Upon graduation, he left Birmingham for the military and never returned. After being discharged, he moved to Wilmington, Delaware, another segregated city, but it was there that a Boston Braves scout discovered him playing semi-pro baseball. Signing with the Braves in 1950 meant playing minor league ball in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, an all-white industrial city of 40,000 residents. There he struggled to find housing, could not eat at some establishments, and was warned to stay away from white women. Despite the isolation and discrimination, Bruton succeeded and made it to the big leagues in 1953 with the newly minted Milwaukee Braves. At some point, white fans in Milwaukee came to love Bill Bruton the baseball player.
Called the “Doctor of the Science of Humanitarianism,” for his ability to talk about race without upsetting whites, whites celebrated him for his play, personality, and his family first orientation. Although most Black folks remained segregated in Milwaukee, Bruton, along with his wife and three kids, was the first Black baseball player to make his full-time residence in the city. Whites showed so much appreciation for Bruton that when the Braves traded him to the Tigers in 1960, 712 fans showed up to a farewell dinner, including the governor. As well, the state legislator passed a resolution asking him to keep his home in Milwaukee.