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Sportswriters key in integration

Sportswriters key in integration

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Through the 1920s, '30s and '40s, black sportswriters like Sam Lacy, Wendell Smith and Fay Young lobbied in the black press for the integration of the Major Leagues.

Lacy, Smith, Young and other black journalists got their wish in 1947.

In the spring of that year, they wrote stirring tales of how Jackie Robinson, the college-educated son of black baseball, erased the color line.

But this historic event hadn't come at a rocket's pace. Nor had it come without an ocean of ink on the subject from Lacy, Smith and Young.

They had stayed on top of integration through most of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis' 24 years in office. While Landis displayed no appetite for blacks playing in the big leagues and had stalled integration, black journalists were undaunted. They fought Landis, a former U.S. District Court judge who died in office in 1944, hard as they continued to beat the drum for integration.

"A man whose skin is white or red or yellow has been acceptable," Lacy wrote in 1945. "But a man whose character may be of the highest and whose ability may be Ruthian has been barred completely from the sport because he is colored."

As Landis and his successor Happy Chandler lorded over baseball, newspapers like The Chicago Defender, The Pittsburgh Courier, The Amsterdam News, The Baltimore Afro-American, The Philadelphia Tribune and other newspapers wrote uncompromising editorials like Lacy's in favor of baseball's integration.

The black press covered the twists and turns that led to integration and it covered integration itself once it happened in April of '47, said Brian Carroll, an assistant professor at Berry College in Georgia who has written extensively about black newspapers.

"They meant everything to the integration of baseball," said Carroll, who published "When To Stop Cheering: The Black Press, The Black Community & The Integration of Professional Baseball" earlier this year. "But for baseball to integrate, it had to admit first that it was segregated. How long did that take? It took more than a quarter of a century."

During that quarter of a century, black baseball had built a storied history. The various leagues and federations had stars of their own, and they had owners who were ambitious and committed to peddling baseball to an audience that craved it.

The sport proved an easy sell then. For in the early half of the 1900s, baseball was the sport of choice for blacks. They celebrated the heroes of the game, and their support turned the Negro Leagues, which Rube Foster organized in Kansas City in February 1920, into the third-largest black-owned business in America.

Black newspapers fed the readers' hunger for all things baseball. It was on their sports pages during the early part of the century where fans read about the 1916 Indianapolis ABCs, the '29 Baltimore Black Sox, the '33 Chicago Leland Giants, the '35 Pittsburgh Crawfords and the '41 Homestead Grays.

It was on their pages that players like Biz Mackey, Bingo DeMoss, Ray Dandridge, Hilton Smith, Martin Dihigo, Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Buck O'Neil and Josh Gibson came to life. It was on their pages that the ups and downs of Negro League owners were chronicled. The black press told of their struggles to find order in a business that played to the whims of fate. The black press wrote of the competing interests: survival vs. integration.

The black press had to balance those competing interests. The black press had, for most of the period, been an ally of black baseball. Its partnership with black baseball had helped birth the game, and its vivid prose had made icons of Satchel, Cool Papa and Gibson.

At some point, the black press had to pick sides, said Dick Clark, an author/historian who has a long body of work in black baseball. It picked integration, and that didn't sit well with its partners on the ownership side of the game.

"I think sometimes they had an adversarial relationship with the owners," Clark said. "They weren't on the same page. I go back to another example: A newspaper is a business, and they've got to try to make money."

The money was in following the interest in integrated baseball, Clark said. The plight of Robinson, Larry Doby and the men who followed them to the big leagues became the news. So in 1947, the black press shifted its resources to the Major Leagues, a shift that proved troubling to Negro League owners.

Their partnership with the black press soon devolved into open warfare in print. As harsh as it had been toward Landis and Chandler for their roles in fostering segregation, the black press dealt just as harshly with Negro League owners who, for self-survival reasons, seemed bent on stopping integration.

"All they cared about was the perpetuation of the slave trade they had developed," Smith wrote in The Pittsburgh Courier. "[They'll] shout to the high heavens that racial progress comes first and baseball next. But actually, the preservation of their shaky, littered, infested, segregated baseball domicile comes first, last and always."

Other black sportswriters of the era shared Smith's view. They voiced concern in print that Negro League owners weren't working toward integration; they were working against it. What seemed to frighten these owners was the uncertainty about the future, which the black press spelled out in specifics.

The Chicago Defender, a leading voice in the black press, posited the notion that progress trumped whatever concerns owners might have had about the dismantling of the Negro Leagues as a viable business enterprise.

The newspaper wrote: "No selfishness on the part of Negro ownership, nor appeasement ... to the Southern reactionaries in baseball must stand in the way of the advancement of qualified Negro players."

The black press, Carroll said, understood that integration was the greater goal. It believed, and voiced that belief in countless articles, that the death of the Negro Leagues portended only good for black Americans, a position Negro League ownership disputed.

But the black press didn't come to this belief without some soul-searching. It faced this key question: Should it support a black-owned, black-supported enterprise that the press itself had worked so hard to build and sustain?

The answer: No.

"They made the break," Carroll said of the black press. "The partnership that was so strong for so long became an acrimonious split, and those black writers began to criticize those owners that they'd partnered with for their greed, for their resistance to change."

Carroll pointed out that Foster, before his death in 1930, had envisioned integration when he formed the league. His vision, however, saw one all-black team playing in the Majors, which would keep the Negro Leagues alive as a pipeline for talent to the bigs.

But Foster couldn't have envisioned a raid on black talent. Major League teams took five players in '47, and they took even more in the years that followed. Major League Baseball also took the black press along as well, and the black press took its readership with it.

The day that Robinson took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Negro Leagues went on life support. Its owners suddenly lost their tight hold on black fans who had filled ballparks and had worshipped Satchel, Cool Papa and Gibson, said Bob Kendrick, marketing director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Without the black press to chronicle the game, they soon lost the vitality that had made their enterprise prosper.

"It was bittersweet in that respect," Kendrick said of integration. "But it was progress, and there's always a cost for progress. We all know that black businesses paid a dear cost for what was deemed as progress."

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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