Baseball and Race in the United States

by Sean O'Mara

Background

On April 15, 1947, 27,000 fans packed Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York, to watch the Dodgers' new first baseman take to the field. They came to watch a baseball game, and they came to see a talented 28-year-old rookie, Jackie Robinson, become part of history.  

Jackie Robinson is widely known and celebrated as the man who smashed the color barrier in baseball. He became the fearless standard bearer who represented the hopes and dream of black Americans. However, he did not simply turn this page in history on his own. By 1947 others had been fighting for years to integrate professional baseball. Black veterans returning from World War II had been demanding an end to segregated baseball. Black newspapers published articles challenging baseball’s ruling class—the owners and commissioners. A new generation of major league owners and commissioners were ready to open the door to black players, just as an anti-discrimination bills were making their way through the New York State Legislature.

This lesson tells the story of the obstacles that kept so many talented African Americans from taking their rightful places on the rosters of major league teams. More importantly, this lesson will engage students in an examination of how a variety of factors, including the efforts of heroic individuals, converged in the 1940s to bring an end to Jim Crow baseball. 

 

Objectives

  • Explain how segregation in baseball reflected the legalized segregation of Jim Crow laws and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessey v. Ferguson.
  • Identify the major obstacles that stood in the way of the integration of professional baseball.
  • Analyze primary sources and use them to explain how black newspapers waged a campaign to integrate baseball.
  • Assess the impact of factors such as the black press, World War II, and the passage of anti-discrimination laws on the eventual desegregation of baseball.
  • Explain why the 1940s proved to be the turning point in segregated baseball.

Materials

Lesson Activities

Day 1

  1. Ask students the following questions: Who was the first black baseball player? Who decided that African Americans could not play in the Major leagues? What kept major league teams from simply signing black players to contracts that could help their teams win? 
  2. Distribute the student notes handout for Parts I & II of the PowerPoint presentation, and explain that all students should record two or three important facts, statistics, quotes, etc., for each box on the notes sheet
  3. Begin PowerPoint "From Jim Crow to Jackie Robinson."
  4. As the teacher moves through the slides, make sure enough time is given for students to record their notes.
  5. Upon reaching the slide entitled "Wrapping-up Parts I & II, " have students work in groups of 2–4 to compare the notes they have taken.
  6. Next distribute the "Parts I & II Wrap-Up Questions," and have students write their responses individually.
  7. Have some students read their responses aloud in class, and discuss the differences or similarities in these responses.  
  8. Assign the 1942 Sporting News Article for homework.

Day 2

  1. Discuss Homework: the 1942 Sporting News Article.
  2. Ask students, "Who was responsible for breaking the color barrier in major league baseball?” If students answer, "Jackie Robinson," ask, "Who else?”
  3. Explain that the lesson's focus will be on the people and factors that converged in the 1940s to bring an end to segregation in professional baseball.
  4. Resume the PowerPoint with Part III.
  5. With the first "Double V Campaign” slide, hand out the Double V handout, and tell students that they can choose either the primary source excerpt or the secondary source excerpt to read and analyze.
  6. After discussing student responses to these articles, return to the PowerPoint presentation. Give students the Part III handout sheet on which to record key details, quotes, etc.
  7. Upon reaching the "Your Task" slide about black journalist Wendell Smith, distribute the corresponding Primary sources from the Pittsburgh Courier (1, 2). This can be done in several ways. Each student can be given both documents, or half of the class can read one document while the others read second document. Either way, the discussion should focus on how the documents demand an end to segregated baseball. Each document uses a different argument to make its point. 
  8. After discussing the Wendell Smith articles, continue the PowerPoint presentation. Student should continue taking notes.
  9. Upon reaching the "Wrapping-up" Part III slide, have students respond to this question: "Why was the color barrier in professional baseball bound to come crashing down in the 1940s?"
  10. Have students share their responses. Compare which factors students felt were most important in bringing an end to segregation in baseball.

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