Bill Bruton’s Fight for the Full Integration of Baseball

Baltimore Black Sox, Negro Baseball League (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As the 2019 baseball season is among us and Major League Baseball (MLB) is doing its annual dance with Jackie Robinson’s legacy—a waltz that makes it seem like its relationship with African American players has gone smoothly since Robinson’s debut in 1947—it is important to remember that segregation did not end with Jackie Robinson. Coupled with the slow pace of integration that took twelve years to complete when the Boston Red Sox finally signed Pumpsie Green in 1959, it took another four years for the full integration of spring training. This is not a story MLB celebrates, however, because this is not a tale with a white savoir like Branch Rickey. Black players like centerfielder Bill Bruton, a forgotten activist athlete, forced complete integration. Bruton was fueled by the belief that full freedom meant being seen as a Black person, not only as an athlete, while also being treated with dignity.

Raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Bruton came into professional baseball battling Jim Crow. He lived in a segregated section of the city in which the local government provided few resources, attended an overcrowded high school with inadequate supplies, and faced the prospects of menial work if he remained. Upon graduation, he left Birmingham for the military and never returned. After being discharged, he moved to Wilmington, Delaware, another segregated city, but it was there that a Boston Braves scout discovered him playing semi-pro baseball. Signing with the Braves in 1950 meant playing minor league ball in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, an all-white industrial city of 40,000 residents. There he struggled to find housing, could not eat at some establishments, and was warned to stay away from white women. Despite the isolation and discrimination, Bruton succeeded and made it to the big leagues in 1953 with the newly minted Milwaukee Braves.1 At some point, white fans in Milwaukee came to love Bill Bruton the baseball player.

Called the “Doctor of the Science of Humanitarianism,” for his ability to talk about race without upsetting whites, whites celebrated him for his play, personality, and his family first orientation. Although most Black folks remained segregated in Milwaukee, Bruton, along with his wife and three kids, was the first Black baseball player to make his full-time residence in the city. Whites showed so much appreciation for Bruton that when the Braves traded him to the Tigers in 1960, 712 fans showed up to a farewell dinner, including the governor. As well, the state legislator passed a resolution asking him to keep his home in Milwaukee.2

All the accolades from whites, however, did not end the discrimination he faced in the North; rather, they highlighted the inequality. Traveling throughout the Midwest he quickly learned that there were places he could not get a meal or rent a motel room until workers realized that he was a baseball star. “They still don’t think we’re human,” Bruton once complained of the Midwest. “People forgot,” Bruton said, “that I was a Negro long before I was a ball player. And I expect to go on being one long afterward.” Bruton grew tired of being treated as a famous baseball player. He wanted to be treated like a free Black man.3

Black baseball players hated spring training in the South. No matter how many home runs they hit, how many all-star games they made, MVPs they won, or how much money they had, they could not beat Jim Crow. Before 1962, only one team, the Dodgers, had integrated facilities. Black players on all other squads had to lodge with Black families or at a Black-owned motel. They could not eat with their teammates, and if they wanted to eat at a Black restaurant instead of taking their meals outside of a white establishment, they had to take a Black taxi. Some teams would not even mix the laundry. Because of segregated stadium seating, Bruton’s wife, like many Black fans, started to boycott games. The segregation had to stop. “All you can ask,” Bruton told a reporter, is “How long must we suffer these humiliations?”4

This was the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, and Black players knew they had a role to play. They believed that by putting pressure on owners they could help speed up integration in the South. Because of his temperament, leaderships skills, history of activism, and reputation of being “outspoken,” his Black colleagues tapped Bruton to lead their push to integrate baseball in 1961. As the leader, Bruton demanded that baseball use its influence in the South to push for integration. “As important as a ball club is to these cities,” he said, “it can have a lot to say about housing if it wants to.” Bruton understood that businesses had power to reshape southern cities, but too many hid behind the he weak excuse that they could do nothing about Jim Crow. Bruton blasted the timid owners: “I know there are those in baseball who say the problem does not belong in the laps of the owners. I don’t feel that way. As long as they have players who must be quartered separately, they must be made to realize the problem is one they have to face.”5

Led by Bruton, the pressure from the Black players worked. At the beginning of the 1962 spring training, seven of the fourteen teams that had spring training in Florida integrated their facilities. The Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees, for example, built their own private hotels. When the Yankees left St. Petersburgh, the St. Louis Cardinals said they would leave too if the city did not end segregation. St. Petersburgh relented. The Phillies, who had a segregated facility at the beginning of training, agreed to integrate only after Black fans in Philadelphia said they would boycott their regular season games. By the end of spring training only the Detroit Tigers, in Lakeland, remained in segregated facilities. Upon learning this, local Black civil rights groups sprang into action and put public pressure on the Tigers. With pressure mounting, the team announced that they would integrate facilities starting in 1963. Bruton was more than pleased with this announcement. When asked if the good news helped his play, Bruton smiled, winked, and told a Black reporter, “This, of course, is what we’ve been seeking ever since we came into organized baseball. There was absolutely no justification for a situation of that type to exist.”6

Complete integration in MLB was made possible by Black players like Bruton demanding change from ownership, but baseball still has its problems. While MLB continues to revel in the image of Jackie Robinson, the lack of Black managers and front office executives is absurd, and the continuous decline of African American players is alarming. MLB knows it has these problems, yet they remain resistant. Black players, like Bruton before them, have the power to stand up to ownership to demand change.

  1.  Bill Furlong, “A Negro Ballplayer’s Life Today,” Sport, May 1962, 91.
  2. For more background see, Jackie Robinson, Baseball Has Done It (Brooklyn: IG Publishing, 2005), 120-128.
  3.  Bill Furlong, “A Negro Ballplayer’s Life Today,” Sport, May 1962, 91.
  4.  Bill Furlong, “A Negro Ballplayer’s Life Today,” Sport, May 1962, 91.
  5.  “Hits Separate Housing Problem,” Michigan Chronicle, August 5 1961.
  6.  Lawrence Casey, “Billy’s Bat Speaks Out,” Michigan Chronicle, May 5, 1962.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Louis Moore

Louis Moore is an Associate Professor of History at Grand Valley State University. He teaces African American History, Civil Rights, Sports History, and US History. His research and writing examines the interconnections between race and sports. He is the author of 'I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915' and 'We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality.' Follow him on Twitter @loumoore12.

Comments on “Bill Bruton’s Fight for the Full Integration of Baseball

  • Growing up in Minneapolis before the advent of the Minnesota Twins, I was a fan of the Milwaukee Braves. As with many other Braves fans I was a fan of Billy Bruton. I knew nothing about his life or struggle although I am not surprised by any of this. I am familiar with Henry Aaron’s time in Eau Claire and so I am not surprised by any of this. As a fellow historian I thank you for this piece.

    Dick Crepeau
    University of Central Florida
    Professor Emeritus of History

    Reply
  • Louis Moore, thank you for this wonderful article. As a boy growing up in New York playing baseball, collecting baseball cards, watching baseball and listening to games on my transistor radio ( late 1950’s @ just about the time when the Yankees played against the Braves in back to back World Series’. I was even then struck by Billy Bruton, Henry Aaron, Wes Covington, Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock Warren Spahn and of course Lou Burdette who won 3 games (1957?) WS to beat my Yankees. I remember the only players on the yankees was Elston Howard and Hector Lopez …. I never knew the essence of Billy Bruton the man @ and clearly the distinction of his personal fight to be excepted by a bigoted white culture whom as you so apply distinguish as being excepted between the “white” lines and his contributions as an athlete. Well written. I welcome you to please google my name ( Eric Newland /the Parallel Game) and please view my documentary of a similar nature.

    Reply

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