Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and Lessons in Change

April 16, 2020
Moses Fleetwood Walker played Major League Baseball in 1884. He was the last openly African-American to do so until Jackie Robinson stepped onto a Major League field on April 15, 1947. During that time, America completed building what might be called its version of apartheid or, as Douglas A. Blackmon entitled his Pulitzer Prize winning book: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. That system captured international attention, including by the Nazis who visited the USA to study it, referencing and documenting its functioning during construction of their race laws, as detailed in Yale Law School Professor James Q. Whitman’s book Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law.
Changing systems, even the despicable, usually requires individuals setting out to do just that. Branch Rickey, gifted, competitive, principled, and legendary general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers saw an opportunity to build a powerful team and do the right thing. He looked for his change leaders. He found them and he supported them. To get change to happen, he fought his fights and they theirs.
Agents of change, Jackie Robinson first among them in 1947, bore the initial brunt of the effort to crack open the exclusively white world of major league baseball, a world reflective of and undergirded by a broader societal support for segregation and discrimination. Later in 1947, Larry Doby desegregated the American League (as he did the ABL, a predecessor of the NBA). Nothing came fairly to these two or to the other pioneers. Resistance to the change frequently took the form of outright abuse, on field and off, physical, psychological, and emotional. In 1951, four years after Robinson joined the National League, in an era without helmets or body armor, 3 of the 4 national league players hit most by pitched balls were African-American, quite a feat given that the league only had a handful of African-American players. Moses Fleetwood Walker, oft injured himself by opposing players, might have marveled at how little had changed over more than sixty years.
Valued support came from unexpected places and exemplified the role that anyone can play in facilitating change, however fundamental and downright frightening. Manager Durocher lauded Robinson’s talent and fire, promising to banish anyone who wouldn’t play alongside him. Pee Wee Reese captained the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson’s team. He was talented, respected, and popular. He refused to sign a petition that some teammates circulated to unite against playing with Robinson and slowly developed a lifelong friendship with him. Eddie Stanky, legendary for his competitiveness and downright combativeness, screamed into a Philadelphia Phillies dugout that, led by manager Ben Chapman, was setting the standard for verbal abuse of Robinson. He challenged them to pick on someone who could fight back, namely, the diminutive Stanky.
Bill Veeck, maverick owner and general manager, had sought to desegregate baseball since the early 1940’s. He pursued Larry Doby as a talent and as a means to accomplish that desegregation. Yet upon joining Veeck’s Cleveland team, Doby received limp handshakes or none at all from his new teammates. Standing alone during pre-game warm-ups, wondering what to do and how he could ever fit in, Doby recalled hearing a voice behind him call out, ‘hey, kid, you want to play catch?’ It was Joe Gordon, former MVP, future Hall of Famer, and current team leader welcoming Larry Doby as he might any other rookie to join in perhaps the most common and most revered pre-game ritual—a catch. Doby regularly spoke about how important Gordon and his friendship were to him.
Then there was the notoriously fiery Boston leftfielder Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest hitter of all time. Doby recalled Williams walking up to him in the outfield before a game and saying ‘Glad you’re here. We can use all the good players in this league we can get.’ Doby recounted being nearly dumbfounded that the great Ted Williams had sought him out not just to welcome him, but to tell Doby of his regard for Doby as a player. At his Hall of Fame induction in 1966, Williams said that you couldn’t call yourself a great player unless you had played against all the great players, all of them. He therefore called for induction of segregated baseball’s Negro League stars into the major league Hall of Fame. A reality today.
At their best, systems enable people. At their worst, they hold us back, even maim us. People improve systems…or they don’t. What we do as individuals matters and occasionally it matters a lot, whether we lead such change or support those who do.
Be well. Stay well.