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The baseball color line, sometimes called the "Gentleman's Agreement", was the policy, unwritten for nearly its entire duration, which excluded African Americans and other players of African descent from organized baseball in the United Statesmarker before 1947. As a result, various Negro Leagues were formed, which featured those players not allowed to participate in the major or minor leagues. The color line applied specifically to players with African descent. Native Americans, native Hawaiians, and Hispanic players of European, indigenous or mixed European-native origin were not excluded by it.


The separation's beginnings occurred in 1868, when the National Association of Base Ball Players decided to ban "any club including one or more colored persons." As baseball made the transition toward becoming a professional sport over the next decade, and the NABBP dissolved into competing organizations in 1871, professional players were no longer restricted by this rule and, for a short while – in 1878 and again in 1884 – African American players played professional baseball. Over time, they were slowly excluded more and more. As prominent players such as Cap Anson steadfastly refused to take the field with or against teams with African Americans on the roster, it became informally accepted that African Americans were not to participate in Major League Baseball.

After 1871, formal bans existed only in minor league baseball. On July 14, 1887, the directors of the International League voted to prohibit the signing of additional black players – although blacks under contract, like Frank Grant of the Buffalo Bisons and Fleet Walker of the Syracuse franchise, could remain with their teams. Grant and Walker stayed through the 1888 season.

Shortly thereafter, the American Association and the National League both unofficially banned African-American players, making the adoption of racism in baseball complete.

By 1890, the International League was all white, something that would remain true until 1946, when Jackie Robinson played for the Montreal Royals.

Jimmy Claxton

On May 28, 1916, British Columbianmarker Jimmy Claxton temporarily broke the professional baseball color barrier when he played two games for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. Claxton was introduced to the team owner by a part-Native-American friend as a fellow member of an Oklahomamarker tribe. Within a week, a friend of Claxton revealed that he had both Negro and Native American ancestors, and Claxton was promptly fired. It would be nearly thirty more years before another black man played organized white baseball.

The Negro National League

The Negro National League was founded in by Rube Foster. This created two parallel major leagues, and until , professional baseball in the United States was played in separate homogeneous leagues.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis

During his term in office as the first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis has been alleged to have been particularly determined to maintain the segregation. It is possible that he was guided by his background as a federal judge, and specifically by the then-existing constitutional doctrine of "separate but equal" institutions (see Plessy v. Ferguson). He himself maintained for many years that black players could not be integrated into the major leagues without heavily compensating the owners of Negro League teams for what would likely result in the loss of their investments. In addition, integration at the major league level would likely have necessitated integrating the minor leagues, which were much more heavily distributed through the rural U.S. South and Midwest.

Although Landis had served an important role in helping to restore the integrity of the game after the 1919 World Series scandal, his unyielding stance on the subject of baseball's color line was an impediment. His death in late 1944 was opportune, as it resulted in the appointment of a new Commissioner, Happy Chandler, who was much more open to integration than Landis was. Social change was in the wind, as the U.S. Military had become largely integrated during World War II.

From the purely operational viewpoint, Landis' predictions on the matter would prove to be correct. The eventual integration of baseball spelled the demise of the Negro Leagues, and integration of the southern minor leagues was a difficult challenge.

Bill Veeck and Branch Rickey

In , baseball executive Bill Veeck attempted to buy the Philadelphia Phillies franchise; rumors began circulating that he intended to purchase the contracts of several Negro Leaguers in order to make the longtime also-rans more competitive in a period when war requirements had depleted most rosters. However, the franchise was instead sold to a different ownership group, and some historians have recently questioned the likelihood of Veeck's rumored intentions.

Around , Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, held tryouts of black players, under the cover story of forming a new team called the "Brooklyn Brown Dodgers". The Dodgers were, in fact, looking for the right man to break the color line.

In his autobiography, Veeck, as in Wreck, in which he discussed his abortive attempt to buy the Phillies, Veeck also stated that he wanted to hire black players for the simple reason that in his opinion the best black athletes "can run faster and jump higher" than the best white athletes. Veeck's comment would now be considered an outdated stereotype; Rickey was not known to have made any similar remarks, nor was he known to have had an especially liberal world view. The broader view of both men is simply that they were businessmen who saw a large, untapped pool of players that they wanted to utilize, if at all possible.

The more important point that Veeck uncovered (and presumably Rickey also) was that there was no actual rule against integration; it was just an unwritten policy, a "Gentlemen's Agreement". Veeck stated that he was prevented by Commissioner Landis and NL President Ford Frick from buying and thus integrating the Phillies, on various grounds. Rickey had an advantage in that he was already an employee of the Dodgers. And unlike Veeck, Rickey did not need to notify Landis ahead of time, Landis having died in the interim, and the new Commissioner was supportive of integration.

Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby

The color line was formally breached when Branch Rickey, with the support of the new baseball commissioner, Happy Chandler, signed the African American player Jackie Robinson in October , intending him to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League. After a year in the minor leagues with the Montreal Royals (International League), Robinson endured epithets and death threats and got off to a slow start in his first major league season in , but his athleticism and skill earned him the first ever Rookie of the Year award, which is now named in his honor.

Less well-known was Larry Doby, who signed with Bill Veeck's Cleveland Indians that same year to become the American League's first African-American player. Doby, a more low-key figure than Robinson, suffered many of the same indignities that Robinson did, albeit with less press coverage. Both men were ultimately elected to the Baseball Hall of Famemarker on the merits of their play. Due to their success, teams gradually integrated African-Americans on their rosters.

Prior to the integration of the major leagues, the Brooklyn Dodgers led the integration of the minor leagues. Jackie Robinson and Johnny Wright were assigned to Montreal, but also that season Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella became members of the Nashua Dodgers in the class-B New England League. Nashua was the first minor-league team based in the United States to integrate its roster after 1898. Subsequently that season, the Pawtucket Slaters, the Boston Braves' New England League franchise, also integrated its roster, as did Brooklyn's class-C franchise in Trois-Rivières, Quebecmarker. With one exception, the rest of the minor leagues would slowly integrate as well, including those based in the southern United States. The Carolina League, for example, integrated in when the Danville Leafs signed Percy Miller Jr. to their team.

The exception was the Class AA Southern Association. Founded in 1901 and based in the major cities of the American South, it never yielded to integration. As a result, its major-league parent clubs were forced to field all-white teams during the 1950s, a period when African-Americans and Latin-American players of African descent were beginning to dominate baseball. By the end of the 1950s, the SA also was boycotted by civil rights leaders. The Association finally ceased operation after the 1961 season, still a bastion of segregation.

Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate, due to the steadfast resistance provided by owner Tom Yawkey. The Red Sox had refused to consider signing Jackie Robinson after a brief tryout at Fenway Parkmarker in April 1945 (spurred by a Boston city councilor, Isadore H.Y. Muchnick, who threatened to revoke the team's exemption from Sunday blue laws). Yawkey had territorial rights to acquire any player on the Negro Leagues' Birmingham, Alabamamarker, team (the Birmingham Black Barons) passed on the chance to acquire the teenage Willie Mays. The justification was that Mays was not the Red Sox's "kind of player".

Yawkey's general managers, fellow Hall of Famersmarker Eddie Collins (through 1947) and Joe Cronin (1948–58) (Yawkey was inducted as an owner in 1980), and Mike "Pinky" Higgins, field manager from 1955–59 and 1960–62, special assistant to the owner 1960, and general manager 1963–65, also enforced the segregationist policy. The club's racist ways, particularly under Higgins after Ted Williams aged and then retired, meant that the team became a perpetual second-division finisher in the American League in the early to mid-1960s. The Red Sox eventually made a half-hearted effort to conform to the integrationist trend under new General Manager Bucky Harris, promoting Pumpsie Green from Boston's AAA farm club in July , but it wasn't until 1967 that the team could to be considered fully integrated, along the parameters of the times. Harris, another Hall of Famer for his accomplishments as a field manager, was sacked after the 1960 season.

General Manager Dick O'Connell promoted Dick Williams, manager of the team's Triple-A Toronto affiliate, to manager in 1967 after the team's dismal ninth-place finish in 1966. Williams brought with him many of his minor leaguer players, some of whom were black. The 1967 Red Sox, which went on to win the "Impossible Dream" pennant and battled the fully integrated St. Louis Cardinals to a seventh and deciding game in the 1967 World Series, included such future African American All-Stars as George Scott and Reggie Smith. Unfortunately, after Williams was fired in 1969, the Red Sox commitment to a fielding a color-blind team began to slip. Perennially in need of pitching, the BoSox had a habit of trading away its top black players: Scott went to the Milwaukee Brewers, where he became a home run champion, and Smith was peddled to the Cardinals, eventually becoming a top star with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the mid-'70s, future star first-baseman Cecil Cooper was traded to Milwaukee to bring back an aging Scott, and Ben Oglivie had earlier been traded to Detroit. The Tigers eventually traded him to the Brewers, where he became a home run champion and star.

After Tom Yawkey died in 1976, Dick O'Connell failed in his efforts to acquire the team, which subsequently sold by Jean Yawkey, Tom's widow, to Haywood Sullivan and former team trainer Edward "Buddy" LeRoux, even though they apparently did not have enough funds to properly run a top franchise in the dawning era of free agency. By the early 1980s, the Red Sox were almost bereft of African Americans not only on the field, but even in the minor leagues. In 1983, the year the Red Sox had its first losing season since 1967, only one player on the major league roster was black, perennial superstar Jim Rice, who was arguably the best hitter in the game. The institutional racism of the Red Sox had become a public scandal in New England. Most journalists laid the blame on owner Sullivan, a Southerner. Yawkey has frequently been labeled a Southerner in spirit. In fact, he was a Michiganmarker-born, New Yorkmarker-bred timber baron who had been friends with the overt racist Ty Cobb as a young man and maintained an estate in South Carolinamarker; Sullivan hailed from Alabamamarker and seemed an unreconstructed Southerner, despite all his years in New England; he had made his career with the BoSox toadying up to Mrs. Yawkey, becoming something akin to an adopted son to the childless couple.

The stigma of being the last of the 16 original teams to integrate, the city of Boston's struggles with court-mandated school desegregation and busing in the mid-1970s, along with its near all-white roster in the early '80s, has made the Boston Red Sox an unappealing destination for African-American players. Lest the whole city be indicted for the sins of the Sox, it should be noted that Boston's erstwhile National League club, the Braves, were the fifth MLB team to field a black player when Sam Jethroe debuted in 1950, and the Boston Braves (who moved to Milwaukee in 1953, and then to Atlanta in 1966) were an integrated club thenceforth. Also, in 1958 the Boston Bruins were the first National Hockey League club to skate a Black Canadian player, Willie O'Ree, and Red Auerbach's Boston Celtics were the first National Basketball Association franchise to field an all-African American starting lineup. As George Scott noted in a Boston Globe article on the team's apparent racism, not having many black players on the team meant that there was a dearth of social as well as psychological help for a black player, particularly in a city racked by racial turmoil.

In the middle of the 1980s, Sullivan (by this point, chief executive officer of the Red Sox) found himself in another racial wrangle. It was revealed that the Red Sox allowed the Elks club in their spring training home, Winter Haven, Floridamarker, into its clubhouse to distribute invitations to dine there to the team's white players, coaches and management. (The club did not allow blacks as members or guests.) When Tommy Harper, an African-American and a popular former player and coach for Boston then working as a minor league instructor, protested the policy and a story appeared in the Boston Globe, he was promptly fired. Harper then sued the Red Sox for racial discrimination. His complaint was upheld on July 1, 1986.

Sullivan sold his share in the Red Sox in November 1993. In , Harper rejoined the Boston organization as a coach and as of 2007 was listed as a player development consultant for the team. The Red Sox won their sixth World Series in 2004, and seventh in 2007.

To date, however, the Boston Red Sox are still among the last in MLB in terms of the number of African-American athletes on its roster. The October 40-man roster has one African-American player, late-season acquisition Joey Gathright. The roster includes nine players of Hispanic heritage in Fernando Cabrera, Manny Delcarmen, Felix Doubront, Alex Gonzalez, José Iglesias, Mike Lowell, Victor Martínez, David Ortiz, and Ramon Ramirez. It also had four pitchers from Japanmarker on its end-of-season roster: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, and Junichi Tazawa.


A case has been made for Ernie Banks being the de facto first black manager in the major leagues. On May 8, 1973, Chicago Cubs manager Whitey Lockman was ejected from the game. Coach Ernie Banks filled in as manager for the two innings of the 12-inning 3-2 win over the San Diego Padres. The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide for 1974, p. 129, stated flatly that on May 8, "Ernie Banks became the major leagues' first black manager, but only for a day." The other two regular coaches on the team were absent that day, opening this door for Banks for the one occasion, but Banks never became a full-time manager.

See also


Further reading

  • The Black Athlete: A Shameful Story; The Myth of Integration in American Sport, by Jack Olsen. Time-Life Books, 1968.
  • $40 Million Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, by William C. Rhoden. Crown Publishers, 2006.

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