Thursday, April 14, 2016

"What's Wrong With Negro Baseball?" by Jackie Robinson Provides Insights

The Ebony issue carried this image, which is the best version of the picture I've seen. Any eagle-eyed ballpark experts able to identify the park? That's a road uniform, so it's probably not in KC.

I am thrilled to have finally found articles penned by Jackie Robinson from the June, 1948 Ebony magazine. I've known that they existed for quite some time, but the full text has been surprisingly difficult for me to locate. It contains a treasure trove of information regarding Jackie's time with the Monarchs and his opinion of the Negro leagues in general.

The cover of the issue featured a close-up of Jackie's face with the provocative headline "What's Wrong With Negro Baseball?" In the article under the same title, Jackie excoriates the Negro leagues for a lack of official contracts, low salaries, sloppy umpiring, questionable business connections of owners, a lack of practice before starting spring training games, uncomfortable buses, cheap hotels in disrepair, lack of rules controlling player behavior, and player expenses not being covered by clubs. Quite the list.

Jackie had a passionate moral certitude that perhaps was a necessary component of his incredible strength in his fruitful fights for integration and equality. His fiery hatred of segregation is understandable and natural, but what is less clear to me is why, when it came to baseball, he directed that hatred toward the institutions that were the victims of segregation and oppression instead of the perpetrators. He claims in this article that he knows "Negro club owners cannot afford to be as generous as the big leagues," but the rest of the article clearly demonstrates he did not have a full appreciation of that fact, and, more importantly, why the Negro leagues couldn't afford to spend like the white major leagues or who was at fault for that disparity.

He laments the lack of a formal contract with the Monarchs, which made him worry about his ability to collect the full salary promised him. He also points out, "from the club's point of view, I felt that I could in no way be held liable to the Monarchs and could leave at any time I wanted to go." In all my reading on the Monarchs, I've seen exactly zero charges of players being underpaid by owners J.L. Wilkinson or Tom Baird. I'm sure Jackie would have included it in this article if he was ever short-changed. While I agree with Jackie that it would have been better business for the leagues to have used formal player contracts, Jackie seems to have lacked an awareness of which party the lack of a contract ended up harming in his case. His overall point that the Negro leagues could have increased their professionalism by signing formal player contracts is accurate, though they had been given no reason to think they were at risk of having their players poached by white baseball. It is my understanding that after Jackie joined the Dodgers organization, Negro leagues owners did make sure they had their ducks in a row regarding solid player contracts.

He also laments low salaries in the Negro leagues, though he himself had considered his $100/week salary in 1945 a "financial bonanza" compared to other opportunities available to him (according to his 1972 autobiography). Negro league salaries were indeed lower in comparison to the white majors, but by placing the blame for that on the Negro leagues, Jackie again shows a surprising lack of awareness.

The article clears up that there was some contact between Jackie and the Monarchs after he took off for Brooklyn to meet Rickey. I had felt pretty sure he had not returned to play the end of the season with the Monarchs, though I remember seeing one source suggesting he did which left some nagging doubt. It is clear now that he did not play any more games with the club after August, but, somewhat surprisingly, he did actually want to. The true nature of his trip to Brooklyn and agreement with Rickey was a closely guarded secret for two months, so what excuse he gave the Monarchs for his sudden absence, I don't know. But the Ebony article reveals:
In September 1945 I went to the management of the Kansas City club to get permission to play up until September 21 in exhibition games and then go home, as I was tired. I was told I would have to play all the games or none. I was left with no other alternative than to leave the ball club. The owner's son gave me a lecture and assured me that if I left the club I was through, that I could play no place outside of the Negro National League, and that he was sure that Kansas City was the only team with which I could play. The "cooperation" I received that afternoon made me glad I no longer had to play with the Kansas City ball club.
September 21 is a very specific date to remember as Jackie wrote this three years after the fact, but it does make sense with what I know about the Monarchs schedule in September of '45. The club was in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas through the 20th, then down to Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana for the rest of the month, so perhaps Jackie was willing to tour the Midwest in order to earn some money but couldn't stomach the idea of adding a Southern trip on top of that.

The same Ebony issue featured excerpts from Jackie's 1948 book My Own Story. It contains a wonderful telling of the Brooklyn Dodgers first contact with Jackie in August, 1945. A Monarchs player asked,
"Who's the white fellow you were talking to, Jackie?" "I don't know," I said. "He says he's scouting me for the Brooklyn Dodgers." Everyone on the bench laughed, including me. One of the players jumped up and saluted me. "I'm a scout, too," he said, standing very erect. "I'm from Moose Face Troop No. 60 and if I pass my Eagle test next week, I'm gonna fly away." We all got a great kick out of it. The possibility of a Big League scout spending his time looking at Negro players was nothing but a joke.
The article also reveals that he later that same day expressed worry to the "white fellow," Clyde Sukeforth, about losing his job with the Monarchs if he takes off for Brooklyn to meet with Branch Rickey. Jackie remembered Sukeforth smiling and saying, "Don't worry about that. I think you've seen your last day with Kansas City." That doesn't gel with other impressions I've gotten that Sukeforth was not 100% certain of what Rickey's intentions were. I'd be surprised if Rickey himself was definite about signing Jackie before they discussed it face to face.

I'm pleased to host legible images of both articles in full below. These are important pieces that should be freely available to all. (If clicking on the images brings up a smallish slideshow, try then right clicking on the image in the slideshow and selecting "open image in new tab" or something similar in order to view at full-size.)


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