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On Jackie Robinson Day, the Yankees must answer for Jim Crow Baseball

The Yankees held to the color line longer than all but three teams. An organization that wants to be credited with the franchise's positive history must acknowledge the negative as well.

Elston Howard
Elston Howard
Wikimedia Commons

I began this post before the terrible events in Boston that have already claimed two lives. As we wait for further news, we can only hope that no more innocents are lost and look forward to a time when baseball is again the most important subject we have to talk about.

Each Jackie Robinson Day, I wait in vain for the Yankees to actually do something about it. Yes, the players wear no. 42 and everyone says the right things, but the team never addresses its history. The Yankees were one of the last teams to integrate, holding on to Jim Crow baseball for eight years after Robinson broke the color line. As far as I know, the team has never said or done anything to acknowledge the role the organization had in perpetuating racism in baseball.

I realize that when Robinson arrived on the scene the Steinbrenner boys' daddy was just 16 years old. The Yankees at that time were owned by a partnership headed by Larry MacPhail. After the 1947 championship, MacPhail's partners, Del Webb and Dan Topping, bought him out. They owned the team until 1964, when they sold out to CBS. George Steinbrenner purchased the team in 1973, so if you consider his reign as distinct from that of his sons, there are two or three changes of ownership between Hank and Hal and the franchise's ugliest period.

Yet, the current Yankees claim to be heirs to all that has come before: If they win the World Series this year, they will claim it is their 28th world championship, not their first. Babe Ruth's and Lou Gehrig's numbers hang on the wall. So, you can't have it both ways: if you take the good parts of the heritage, you also have to take the bad, and it remains true that a baseball team known as the Yankees refused to employ African Americans for the first 52 years of its existence, far longer than every team except the Phillies, Tigers, and Red Sox.

In 1946, Baseball set up an ownership "steering committee" in response to Branch Rickey's signing of Robinson. The committee's final report, authored by MacPhail, showed that in the main its goal was not to further integration but to suppress it, reasoning that if teams added African American players, there would also be African American fans in the stands, and in turn fewer white fans. Thus would franchise values be destroyed. "The employment of a Negro on one AAA League club in 1946 resulted in a tremendous increase in Negro attendance at all games in which the player appeared... The situation might be presented, if Negroes participate in major-league games, in which the preponderance of Negro attendance in parks such as Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, and Comiskey Park could conceivably threaten the value of the major league franchises owned by these clubs."

The report repeated the traditional calumny that since black athletes hadn't been allowed into the minors, they couldn't possibly be refined or professional enough to participate in the majors. Why they hadn't been recruited into the white minors or how that situation might be remedied was never addressed -- the minors were just a convenient scapegoat. If only the minors would let in black athletes, the cry went, then we might have someone worth promoting. But since they don't...

Finally, the report got to the heart of the matter, the only one that transcended pure bigotry: money. "The Negro leagues rent their parks in many cities from clubs in organized baseball. Many major and minor league clubs derive substantial revenue from these rentals. (The Yankee organization, for instance, nets nearly $100,000 a year from rentals and concessions in connection with Negro league games at the Yankee Stadium in New York -- and in Newark, Kansas City, and Norfolk)."

As Jules Tygiel put it in Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy:

The "Report of the Major League Steering Committee" is a damning document. Couched in palatable phrases defending the rights of all men to enter the national pastime, MacPhail sought, through often dubious logic, to explain away the absence of blacks in the big leagues. Blame rested not with the baseball establishment, which was free of prejudice, but with the ignorant protestors, inadequate black athletes, and selfish Negro League owners. The threat of financial loss, largely unsubstantiated, also prevented an end to segregation. The report suggests no methods to bring blacks into the major leagues, nor any desire to do so.

Even after MacPhail's departure, when the organization was run by the longtime farm director George Weiss, the Yankees clung to the excuse of so many clubs: We're not going to promote just anyone to the majors because they happen to be black; we're holding out for someone special. The first black Yankee, Weiss said, must be someone "worth waiting for." By that standard, of course, only the black Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig was going to get the call. Then again, Josh Gibson was known as "The Black Babe Ruth" and Buck Leonard was called "The Black Lou Gehrig," and the Yankees gave no thought to signing them, so this was yet another smokescreen.

The public wasn't privy to statements that Weiss was reported to have made saying that, "I will never allow a black man to wear a Yankee uniform. Box-holders from Westchester don't want that sort of crowd. They would be offended to have to sit with--" And then he used a racial epithet. However, just like fans today, they did know a good prospect when they saw one, and looked forward to his promotion. In the recent past, Yankees fans awaited the arrival of Jesus Montero with the same intensity children awaited the next Harry Potter book. First baseman Vic Power was anticipated the same way.

Power, a native of Puerto Rico, was one of the few dark-skinned players the Yankees had deigned to have anywhere in their organization. An athletic, mobile first baseman who would later win several Gold Gloves, in 1952, Power had hit .331/.370/.553 in 140 games with the Yankees' International League team at Kansas City. The Yankees had no regular first baseman that year, manager Casey Stengel rotating Joe Collins and others in the spot. He got solid results (.276/.360/.445) but nothing like what Power suggested he might do. Nevertheless, the kid was back at Kansas City the next year. This time he hit .349/.380/.521. In the majors, Stengel again used Collins and others and got unspectacular (.264/.348/438) results.

That winter, Power and Elston Howard were added to the roster. In time, Howard would emerge as the better major league player, but that was far from clear at the time -- having just spent two years in the military, Howard hit only .286/.326/.427 at Kansas City in 1953. Power, it was anticipated, would be the first black Yankee. It didn't happen: Power was traded. On December 16, 1953, he went to the Philadelphia A's as part of a massive, eleven-player deal: the Yankees acquired pitcher Harry Byrd, first baseman Eddie Robinson, outfielders Carmen Mauro and Tom Hamilton, and third baseman Loren Babe. The A's received Power, first baseman Don Bollweg, outfielder Bill Renna, catcher Jim Robinson, third baseman Jim Finigan, and pitcher John Gray.

The trade itself was called "grand larceny" by Arthur Daley, the New York Times sports columnist, who said that the Yankees got Byrd and Robinson for "a batch of expendable second-line ballplayers... This was the perfect trade from the Yankees' standpoint. They get something for nothing--or virtually nothing." Daley acknowledged that Power was "the sine qua non of the entire transaction" for the A's. "Without him it was no dice and no deal, so Weiss risked censure and criticism to complete one of the most profitable trades the Yankees ever have made." Besides, the Yankees still had Howard, "a smarter and more tractable performer."

It is hard to imagine a commentator today promoting an African American player on the basis of his tractability--by which it was meant that he was less likely to rock the boat than Power. Once, in Kansas City, Power went into a restaurant. The waitress asked him to leave. "Sorry," she said. "We don't serve Negroes." Power thought it over. "I don't want to eat Negroes. I just want rice and beans." Lines like that meant that you weren't "tractable." Jackie Robinson wasn't tractable either, which was why, when Robinson publicly accused the Yankees of prejudice in 1952, the Yankees issued a statement saying, "There is nothing of the sort in the Yankee organization. With the exception of Jackie Robinson we have been interested in just about every Negro player who has come up to the majors." [emphasis added]

Later, the Yankees spread rumors that Power was unintelligent, that he dated white women, and hadn't hustled in the minors. "They were just looking for excuses," Power replied. "What did they want me to do? Mow the outfield after the game was over?"

Weiss insisted he had to deal Power to get what he wanted out of the A's. "Power," he said, "was the key player. The Athletics mentioned his name and then wouldn't hear of anybody else. Apparently they are going to make a bid for Negro fans and figure Power will help them at the gate."

Weiss was asked if he was worried about criticism of the deal. "Power was the first name they mentioned and I don't think you can do business if you're afraid to deal a colored player because of censure." Because Power and Howard had recently been added to the major league roster, Weiss felt that the Yankees had already given the foes of segregation enough. "We showed our good faith towards Negro players by bringing up Power and Howard and will bring up others to the Yankees when they merit it." But Howard and Power were out of options, which meant that the Yankees either had to protect them or lose them for no return.

Privately, manager Casey Stengel had lobbied for the Yankees to call up Power in 1953. Stengel is an interesting case. Born in 1890, Stengel frequently used racist language, not least in heckling Robinson during the several World Series the Yankees played against the Dodgers (Howard denied this charge, conceding Stengel had heckled Robinson and Don Newcombe, but hadn't said anything racial). At the same time, he was not a racist in the sense that he was happy to have anyone on the ballclub who might help the team win and would have preferred the Yankees integrate years earlier. He had always supported black baseball players; his informal scouting of an all-black US Army team had led directly to the creation of the Kansas City Monarchs.

It is very difficult to reconcile both sides of the man, the vile things he said with the positive things he did. In this he had some similarities with Lyndon Johnson, who used similarly offensive language but then did more for civil rights than any president of the 20th century. Biographer Robert Caro rationalized the dichotomy by saying that Johnson's bigotry was of class and culture, not of race. Perhaps this also explains Stengel. For all of Stengel's celebrity, it was always clearly understood within the organization that his position was subordinate to Weiss, Webb, and Topping. Had he spoken out, he would have been fired. Nevertheless, for being a key player in one of the last bastions of lilywhite baseball, Stengel must shoulder some responsibility.

Despite the rave review in the Times, the backlash against the Power trade ensured that Howard would be promoted to the majors. The Yankees did get value out of the deal, and with Moose Skowron also coming along, the Yankees had an even better first base prospect to try. Still, the symbolism of the deal was more important than the baseball aspects of the trade. Howard was meant to quiet the critics, and largely succeeded, though there wouldn't be a second black Yankee until after Weiss's forced retirement after the 1960 season.

In keeping the team segregated for so long after Jackie Robinson, in so clearly refusing to play the best players, as opposed to the best white players, the Yankees made it clear that they were not merely one of 16 teams that were following a time-honored though misguided policy, but a diehard defender of a racist regime. Everyone involved is now long dead, but that doesn't matter; today, Japan is still called upon by China and Korea to apologize for its actions during World War II, and the ongoing dialogue about race in our own country has sometimes included debate as to whether the United States government should apologize for state-sanctioned slavery. The past is still with us, and for those groups who can claim family or friends who were injured--and there are many still alive who can claim that--the wounds will always be fresh. I was born 25 years after the Holocaust, but because so many relatives in the generation before were turned into smoke and ashes by the Nazis, when the German nation speaks of its sorrow at what happened in those dark years, they are in some small way talking to me.

I will leave it to others to decide if the proper thing for the Yankees to do is apologize for or merely acknowledge the stain of racism that the club bears for 1903 to 1954 (or, at the very least, 1947 to 1954). To my knowledge, they have never done either. As such, for however long they remain silent, the Steinbrenners, as people who exploit and profit from the team's history, have an obligation to respond to all of that history. Until they do, dressing the players up in 42 costumes will be, at least at the organizational level, an empty gesture.

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