Jackie Robinson Day is five days from now. On April 15, 1947, Jackie played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Needless to say, this was a very good thing for baseball and for America.
But as is often the case with good things, there were ironic consequences. Almost overnight, once Jackie was donning a Dodgers uniform everyday black baseball became a source of embarrassment rather than pride for the African American community.
“When Jackie Robinson began playing with the Dodgers, everybody forgot about us,” wrote Buck Leonard, a former star for the Homestead Grays and one of the greatest Negro League hitters of all time. “Some of us got good salaries right on to ‘49 and ‘50, but most of them ended after the war in 1945. Salaries wasn’t the only thing that went down. So did attendance at black baseball games. We couldn’t draw flies. Then, when they started taking blacks into organized baseball, that was just the end of it.”
What happened? Prior to integration, especially when such a thing seemed impossible, black baseball was a symbol of black self-help, excellence, and professionalism. But after integration, it was simply a painful reminder of all that blacks had to endure under segregation. It became a symbol and reminder of blacks’ purported inferiority. Who wouldn’t want to forget about all that?
The historian Jules Tygiel concluded in Baseball’s Great Experiment, the best book about Robinson and the breaking of baseball’s color line, “The side effects of integration included the destruction of a significant cultural entity and way of life. At one time the Negro Leagues had constituted one of the largest primarily black-owned and operated enterprises in the nation. With its demise, as Charles Epstein notes, ‘The possibility is strong that fewer blacks make their living from professional baseball than at any previous time in this century.’”
That certainly wasn’t what anyone had intended. It’s an open question whether it was inevitable.