Baseball and Black American Memory

Champions Negro National League, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, 1935 (New York Public Library)

October in the United States means the arrival of the Major League Baseball (MLB) playoffs. Arguably more than any other sporting event, the lead up to the “Fall Classic,” the World Series, invites both excitement and a nostalgic look to the American past. In recent years, MLB has devoted considerable time to the commemoration of the Negro Leagues, along with remembering the desegregation of MLB in the twentieth century by Jackie Robinson. However, it is worth thinking about these processes of memorialization in context of broader African American—and American—intellectual history.

The commemoration of the first “Jackie Robinson Day” in 1997 offers additional food for thought in broader consideration of the memories of sport history and broader civil rights history. Coming on the fiftieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, Jackie Robinson day was marked by special events at Shea Stadium in Queens, New York, and events across Major League Baseball. The number 42 was retired across Major League Baseball—an honor that still only belongs to Jackie Robinson.  President Bill Clinton commented during the occasion, “It’s hard to believe that it was 50 years ago that a 28-year-old rookie changed the face of baseball and the face of America forever. Jackie Robinson scored the go-ahead run that day; we’ve all been trying to catch up since.” The ceremony itself honoring Robinson also made it clear that part of the memory of Robinson’s desegregation was a clear acknowledgment of work that had to be done on race relations in the 1990s. Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s widow, stated, “I believe the greatest tribute we can pay to Jackie Robinson is to gain new support for a more equitable society.” President Clinton himself added, “If Jackie Robinson were here today, he would say we have done a lot of good in the last 50 years, but we could do a lot better.”

At the ceremonies, there was no mention of the collapse of the Negro Leagues in the aftermath of Robinson’s desegregation of the Majors. The memory of Robinson’s desegregation was tied to a moment frozen in time, which only seemed to have positive effects but little in the way of considering the price paid by African American owned and operated institutions. One of the ironies of the ceremonies themselves were the backdrop of racial politics against which they were held in 1997. Later that same year, President Clinton would issue Executive Order 13050 creating the “Initiative on Race,” chaired by historian John Hope Franklin and designed to give the President ideas “on how to build one America for the 21st century.” During the meetings and discussions, Franklin made it clear that an accurate reckoning with the past was required for the panel to give the president tangible, real solutions for problems facing racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States. “The beginning of wisdom is knowledge,” Franklin said, “and without knowledge of the past we cannot wisely chart our course for the future.” 1

The rise of Black Lives Matter in the 2010s has pushed a reckoning across American culture with memory of the past. The Negro Leagues and the desegregation of baseball have not been spared. Some of this has simply been a greater acknowledgment of the importance of the Negro Leagues due to efforts by Major League Baseball and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Since the original Jackie Robinson Day in 1997, MLB has expanded the celebration, with every player wearing number 42 on April 15. However, with increased interest has come a comparable rise in questioning the traditional narrative of Robinson’s desegregation of Major League Baseball. In 2021, Andrea Williams pointed to this narrative of Black institutional decline in a piece designed to push readers to rethink what they know about Jackie Robinson’s historic moment. “Robinson’s signing, a watershed moment in the sport,” she wrote, “was far more complicated than it has been portrayed in the years since. The move of Robinson, and every other star, to the National and American leagues contributed to the swift decline of the long-established Negro Leagues.” For Williams, part of why this narrative has been ignored in favor of the more triumphalist narrative of Robinson’s desegregation—without attention paid to the eventual collapse of the Negro Leagues—is due to the fact that only one Major League owner, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith, bothered to speak out in support of proper compensation for the Negro Leagues losing their star players.

Today, Major League Baseball continues to wrestle with the history of the Negro Leagues—and its own history of anti-Black racism. In response to Black Lives Matter protests, MLB decided to strip the Most Valuable Player award of the name Kenesaw Mountain Landis. In their decision, the Baseball Writers of America stated that Landis “failed to integrate the game during his tenure.” In an era where American society has been forced to deal with the issue of how we remembered our past and our past sins on racism, this was but one skirmish in the larger fight over American memory. But it—like the larger fight over utilizing Negro League statistics, or continuing to talk about the importance of Negro League players to the larger history of baseball—will continue into the future. It is up to historians, especially those of both sport and intellectual history, to make clear to the broader public why the Negro Leagues mattered—and why remembering them matters today.

  1. One America in the 21st Century: Forging a New Future, September 1998, p. 34.
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Robert Greene II

Robert Greene II is an assistant professor of history at Claflin University and lead associate editor of Black Perspectives. He studies American history after 1945 with a focus on the American South, political history, and memory. Follow him on Twitter @robgreeneII.