A People’s History of Baseball

Peter Dreier

Communists fighting the color line. Baseball players resisting owners. America’s pastime has a fascinating, untold history of radical struggles against racial injustice and labor exploitation.

Curt Flood of the Saint Louis Cardinals, May 1966. Flood challenged Major League Baseball’s “reserve clause” barring players from changing teams. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Interview by
Michael Arria

Seventy-five years ago this spring, Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Most baseball fans probably know the story, which has been told numerous times in books and film. But do they know about Robinson’s civil rights activism off the field? How about the attempts to integrate prior to Robinson or the many struggles against labor exploitation before free agency was finally established in the 1970s?

Two new books from scholars Peter Dreier and Robert Elias tell these stories and many more. Serving as a kind of people’s history of the national pastime, Major League Rebels: Baseball Battles Over Workers’ Rights and American Empire and Baseball Rebels: The Players, People, and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America show that the sport has been linked to politics and organizing since its very beginnings.

Jacobin contributor Michael Arria spoke to Peter Dreier about the books and how America’s pastime has been shaped by rebels and radicals.

Michael Arria

Many baseball fans have heard the standard story of Jackie Robinson: Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey signs Robinson, and he breaks the color barrier in 1947. However, there were pushes to integrate long before 1947 that aren’t nearly as well-known. Can you talk about some of those efforts?

Peter Dreier

Yes, there’s the standard story about how Jackie Robinson was the heroic, fantastic athlete and Branch Rickey was the brilliant political strategist that made it all happen. If you watch The Jackie Robinson Story from 1950, a biopic that starred Jackie Robinson as himself, or if you watch 42 [a 2013 film starring the late Chadwick Boseman as Robinson], or if you read one of the many children’s books about Jackie Robinson, they all tell a very similar story.

What they usually ignore, or downplay, is that starting in 1930s, when Robinson was still in high school, the Left and the civil rights movement were already fighting the battle for integration in sports — particularly in baseball, because that was the most popular sport at the time. They thought if they could push baseball to integrate it would have ripple effects on the rest of society.

The black press, and their sportswriters, were on the cutting edge of this movement. One of the arguments against integrating baseball from the white owners was, “There aren’t black players who are good enough for big league baseball.” However, the black press and leftist papers like the Daily Worker published articles about Negro League teams that played exhibition games against Major League Teams and pointed out that the Negro League teams usually won the games. There were headlines in these papers like, “SATCHEL PAIGE DEFEATS DIZZY DEAN.”

Jackie Robinson as Brooklyn Dodger, 1950. (United States Information Agency / Wikimedia Commons)

A lot of these reporters would interview white players and ask if they opposed playing with black players. Most of them said they’d be fine with it, so these reporters helped undermine the argument that the white players didn’t want integration. The protest movement pressured the owners to hold tryouts for black players, and to appease the movement, some of them did. Jackie Robinson had two of them, one for the White Sox (in 1942) and one for the Red Sox (in 1945). He never heard back from either team.

The labor movement and the Left were very involved in all of this. They mobilized people to picket outside big league stadiums. The Communist Party of the United States of America [CPUSA] held a May Day parade every year and had a contingent with signs calling for an end to Jim Crow in baseball. Some unions insisted on meeting with the owners and Major League Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He refused to meet with them.

But in 1943, the publishers of the major black newspapermen got a meeting with the baseball owners, and they brought Paul Robeson, the activist, actor, and singer. They told the owners, “What the hell are you doing? We’re in the middle of a war, and there are black soldiers fighting for democracy, and you’re keeping them out of baseball.” The owners applauded and thanked them, but Landis had instructed them not to ask any questions. That was it.

So years before Robinson set foot on Ebbets Field, there was this coalition of left-wing groups, unions, civil rights groups, and radical politicians pushing for change.

I should add that Jackie Robinson understood this history because he was a rebel himself. A decade before Rosa Parks, he had refused to move to the back of the bus when he was in the Army. So he understood all this, and he paid that debt back many times over in his involvement with the civil rights movement. He paid it back while he was playing, where he faced more physical and mental abuse than anyone, and he paid it back even more after his baseball career was over. He was all over the country, raising money for the civil rights movement and showing up at pickets and rallies. He got increasingly radicalized by that experience.

Michael Arria

There’s a sanitized version of his story where he’s just this fantastic baseball player who kept his head down while enduring terrible racism.

Peter Dreier

Yeah, that’s bullshit. There’s an iconic scene in The Jackie Robinson Story that he was always embarrassed about. Branch Rickey calls him all kinds of names in his office and asks him if he can put up with taunts like that. Robinson says, “Mr. Rickey, do you want someone who won’t fight back?” and Rickey tells him, “I want someone with the courage to not fight back!”

Robinson promised Rickey not to get into fights with players or umpires. People were calling him the n-word from dugouts. Some of his own teammates didn’t want to play with him. Rickey had to trade one of them.

But Robinson had a column in several newspapers where he wrote about civil rights. Some sportswriters complained because when they tried to interview him about baseball, he would always bring up social issues too. Even some black players, like his teammate Roy Campanella, thought he was too outspoken. The real story is that he had enormous courage and he spoke out. After that one year of imposed silence was over, he let it all out. He yelled at umpires, he complained, he wrote a column saying the Yankees were racist. He made bold, courageous statements about racial injustice.

In the late ’60s, some militant black nationalists began calling Robinson an “Uncle Tom.” That was unfair and inaccurate. The image some people have of Robinson being a conservative stems from two mistakes he made. One was that he testified against Paul Robeson during the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings in 1949. He didn’t want to do that. Congressman John Wood, the racist HUAC chairman and former KKK member, would have subpoenaed Robinson if he didn’t testify.

Lobby card promoting the motion picture The Jackie Robinson Story. Actor Minor Watson played Dodgers president Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson played himself, circa 1950. (Pathe Industries / Wikimedia Commons)

These were hearings to uncover communist influence in the black community. The whole thing was a setup to demonize Paul Robeson. They got a bunch of conservative black figures to attack Robeson, but Robinson wouldn’t do that. When he testified, he said, “I don’t agree with Robeson, but he has the right to his opinion, and it isn’t communists who are agitating black people in America. It’s white racists.”

He did have two or three lines in his testimony where he was critical of Robeson and the press jumped on that, but besides the left-wing press, the mainstream white newspapers ignored his comments on racism. Later, in his 1972 autobiography, Robinson apologized to Robeson and said he shouldn’t have testified.

The second thing people bring up is that Robinson endorsed Richard Nixon when he ran for president in 1960. What we reveal in Baseball Rebels is that he actually endorsed Hubert Humphrey first, in the Democratic primary. When Humphrey was the mayor of Minneapolis, and when he was a senator of Minnesota, he was one of the strongest Democrats in the country on civil rights. He helped force the Democrats to have a civil rights platform at the 1948 Democratic convention.

Robinson went all across the country to campaign for Humphrey, but when [John] Kennedy beat him in the primaries, Robinson had to decide whether to support Kennedy or Nixon. Nixon had been trying to cultivate his support for years. He had written letters to him. Robinson met with both of them and said Kennedy wouldn’t look him in the eye when he asked if he was going to be beholden to the segregationists in the Democratic Party. He didn’t trust Kennedy. Then he met with Nixon, who told him what he wanted to hear. He claimed he would be a civil rights advocate. So Robinson endorsed him and campaigned for him.

But Robinson quickly realized that was a mistake. He asked Nixon to campaign in Harlem, and Nixon refused. He asked him to make a statement after Martin Luther King was arrested in Alabama, and Nixon refused. Robinson stopped campaigning for him and told a newspaper reporter, “He doesn’t deserve to win.”

So those two things distort the view of his politics, but he was quite radical for the time. He talked the talk and walked the walk.

Michael Arria

If you ask people about women and baseball, a lot of them would think of Penny Marshall’s classic 1992 film, A League of Their Own, which is based on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). Can you talk about the film, which was wildly influential but also omitted some important things about the league?

Peter Dreier

A friend of mine named Kelly Candaele made a documentary film called A League of Their Own in 1987. Candaele’s mom was in the AAGPBL; her name was Helen Callaghan at the time. Another one of her sons, Casey Candaele, played in the majors for eleven years. They are the only mother/son to ever play professional baseball. Penny Marshall saw Kelly’s documentary on public television and thought it would make a great movie. She called Kelly, and he helped write the outline of the film. Then she made it, and it’s the best-selling baseball movie ever made. It had a huge impact on girls all across the country. But there are several troublesome things about the movie.

One of those things they acknowledge in the film: the league was segregated. There’s a scene where a foul ball is hit, and a black woman picks it up and throws it to Geena Davis’s character. It’s a powerful fastball. You can see Davis rubbing her hand, and you can see the black woman giving her a knowing look that says, “I belong here, too.” There were three black women who played in the Negro Leagues but never any in the AAGPBL.

Theatrical poster for the 1992 film A League of Their Own. (IMP Awards / Wikimedia Commons)

The other thing is that many of the players in the AAGPBL were lesbians. The movie says nothing about this. I don’t know whether Penny Marshall knew this. She and her team talked to a lot of the former players when making the movie, and a lot of them were gay. So it’s hard to imagine she didn’t know.

There’s a movie that came out a couple years ago, A Secret Love, about two women, one of them an AAGPBL player, who were in a relationship for decades and had to keep it a secret. The league’s lesbians were all in the closet to the public, and that was partly because of the league, which was owned by Cubs owner Phil Wrigley.

The owners wanted them all to be very traditionally feminine. They made them go through beauty-training workshops. They didn’t want them to have short haircuts or wear pants, which they thought would look “manly.” None of this was part of A League of Their Own.

Michael Arria

One of the most important labor struggles in MLB history involved Saint Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood, who famously challenged Major League Baseball’s “reserve clause” barring players from changing teams. With no free agency, players were essentially the property of teams. In the 1960s, Flood joined with labor leader Marvin Miller, the head of the players’ union, to fight the clause. Flood was blacklisted from baseball for his efforts, but Miller and the players’ union ultimately overturned the reserve clause in 1975.

In Major League Rebels, you write about how players have resisted labor exploitation over the decades. Some of the instances you cite are from almost one hundred years before Flood’s case. There’s a lot of information in the book, but I was wondering if you could mention a couple examples that you think people should know about.

Peter Dreier

The first union was started back in the 1880s by a guy named John Montgomery Ward, one of the best players of his era. There were lots of strikes happening throughout the country at the time, and the players absorbed that culture. They viewed themselves as talented craftsmen who deserved better treatment. They were being forced to pay for their own food, their own uniforms, and they could be traded at any time against their will.

In 1890 Ward and other players started the Players’ League. About two-thirds of the players from the two major leagues, the National League and the American Association, jumped to the Players’ League during its one season. The league did away with the reserve clause, raised salaries, and improved working conditions.

But the players didn’t have enough money to run the teams themselves, so they had to find outside investors. The investors obviously wanted to make a profit. The two major leagues of the time offered those investors their own teams if they would withdraw from the Players’ League teams. So that helped kill the Players’ League after just a season.

A lot of the players in the 1940s and 1950s were anti-union, apolitical, or afraid to get fired. However, by the late 1950s, it became clear that the owners were corporate moguls making a lot of money and the players were making about what the average schoolteacher made, or less. They knew they weren’t getting their fair share, and so in 1966 they hired Marvin Miller, a former official with the United Steelworkers union, who the owners tried to red-bait. He negotiated the first collective bargaining contract in professional sports history. He educated the players about labor history and solidarity. He beat the owners on every issue.

Lastly, I’d mention Danny Gardella. He was a so-so outfielder for the New York Giants. Frustrated by the low pay he was getting from the Giants, in 1946 he jumped to the Mexican League. His salary increased from $4,500 to $10,000. The Mexican League not only paid better, it was also racially integrated. He was one of several major league and Negro League players who played in Mexico.

The baseball commissioner, Happy Chandler, told him (and the other players who jumped to Mexico) that he could never play for one of their teams again if he played in Mexico. So he sued. He couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer, so he ended up settling, but the owners were really scared that the case would overturn the reserve clause. That was about twenty years before Flood’s case.

Michael Arria

Finally, I wanted to talk about the current state of baseball rebels so to speak. In recent years, with the protests of Colin Kaepernick and many NBA players embracing the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve seen an increased media focus on the intersection between politics and sports. When you look at the current state of baseball, what are some issues or causes that people should look at in coming years?

Peter Dreier

Number one: Curt Flood should be in the Hall of Fame. He sacrificed his career when he sued major league baseball. He was incredibly courageous, and a great ballplayer, too. The Hall of Fame blacklisted Marvin Miller for thirty years. He didn’t get into the Hall of Fame until 2021, nine years after his death. Curt Flood is also dead, but I hope the Hall of Fame elects him while his wife Judy is still alive.

Number two: the minor league players need to be unionized. People think minor league players are close to major league players in terms of salary, but most of them don’t make much. Many live in poverty while chasing their dream. There are now efforts underway to organize these minor leaguers, but it would be great if the MLB Players Association did more to help that effort.

The third thing is that Major League Baseball owns a sweatshop in Costa Rica. There are over a million baseballs used every season, and they’re all made in Costa Rica. A few years ago, Major League Baseball bought an ownership stake in Rawlings, which owns that factory.

I’ve talked to people in Costa Rica, and they’ve detailed the awful conditions, including low pay, serious health and safety issues, and job insecurity. I think the players’ union has an obligation to help fix that problem by drawing attention to it. It would be great if, during the off-season, a delegation of big-league players went to Costa Rica to talk with Rawlings workers and demonstrate solidarity.

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Peter Dreier is a professor of politics at Occidental College whose books include The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012) and We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style, with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin (New Press, 2020). His two books on baseball history coauthored with Rob Elias — Baseball Rebels: The Battles Over Race, Gender and Sexuality That Shook Up the Game and Changed America (University of Nebraska Press) and Major League Rebels: Baseball Battles Over Worker's Rights and American Empire (Rowman & Littlefield) — are out now.

Michael Arria is the US correspondent for Mondoweiss. You can follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria.

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