1997 marked the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's rookie season for the Brooklyn Dodgers. When he stepped onto Ebbets field on April 15th, 1947, Robinson became the first African American in the twentieth century to play baseball in the major leagues -- breaking the "color line," a segregation practice dating to the nineteenth century. By Popular Demand: Jackie Robinson and Other Baseball Highlights, 1860s-1960s was created to commemorate his achievements and describe some aspects of the color line's development and the Negro Leagues.
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- Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861
- The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
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- Postwar United States, 1945-early 1970s
- Contemporary United States, 1968-Present
Related Collections and Exhibits
These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.
- African American Odyssey
- American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
- American Variety Stage, 1870-1920
- Baseball Cards
- Panoramic Photographs
- Horydczak Collection
- Words and Deeds in American History
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Jackie Robinson and Other Baseball Highlights, 1860s-1960s, offers materials from the history of the national pastime including magazines, sheet music, and game-related memorabilia. These primary sources, along with transcripts of speeches by and interviews with participants involved with Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the major league, provide a history of the game and its influence on various aspects of American society.
1) The History of Baseball
Baseball evolved from an amateur sport into a national pastime during the nineteenth century. This collection contains images of teams that reflect the growth of the game in both the amateur and professional ranks. Team photographs include military players represented in the 1863 painting, Union Prisoners at Salisbury, N.C. and an 1898 photograph of the U.S.S. Maine Base Ball Club as well as professional teams such as the Baltimore and All-America team and the Chicago Indoor Base Ball team (both photographed in 1897).
Two Special Presentations in this collection provide a brief history of the sport. "Drawing the Color Line: 1860s-1890s," the first part of "Baseball, the Color Line, and Jackie Robinson," offers insight into baseball’s evolution with a timeline chronicling the professionalization of the sport. "Baseball Beginnings" from "Early Baseball Pictures, 1860s-1920s" provides additional images of this era and discusses traditions such as the President of the United States throwing out the first pitch on opening day.
- What does it mean to be a national pastime?
- Where did this phrase come from?
- Why do you think baseball became known as the national pastime instead of other sports?
- How did the sport change as it became professionalized?
- Do you think baseball is still the national pastime?
- What other sports currently compete with baseball in terms of popularity and participation (on both the amateur and professional levels)?
2) Breaking the Color Line – Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey
In 1947, Jackie Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers to become the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues. Robinson was a gifted athlete who was the first student at UCLA to letter in four different sports. He signed on to play shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs upon leaving the army in 1944. After a successful season with the Monarchs in which he hit .387, Robinson was contacted by Branch Rickey, the general manager and partial owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
- What kinds of challenges did Robinson face in the major leagues? What kind of reception did he get on the occassion of his major league debut?
For help, see the Special Presentation, "Baseball, the Color Line, and Jackie Robinson, 1860s-1960s."
Branch Rickey changed the nature of baseball in 1920 when he developed the farm system for minor league affiliates while he was the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Next, he became interested in altering the complexion of the sport by signing an African-American ball player to the major leagues. The first page of a 1946 Look magazine article, entitled "A Branch Grows in Brooklyn," features a photograph of Rickey and the caption: "I cannot face my God much longer knowing that His black creatures are held separate and distinct from His white creatures in the game that has given me all that I can call my own."
- Why does Rickey describe segregation in religious terms?
- Who is he attempting to appeal to a year before he introduces Jackie Robinson to the major leagues?
- How does this photograph from Look magazine portray Rickey?
Many black players had the skills to compete with their white counterparts on the field but Robinson was selected for his ability to handle the pressures that would come off the diamond. He demonstrated poise in the face of Jim Crow laws, taunts by white players and fans, and even death threats. In his 1955 interview with Davis Walsh and his 1956 speech for the "One Hundred Percent Wrong Club" banquet, Branch Rickey described the two-year personal and financial investment that resulted in the signing of Jackie Robinson:
I must be sure that the man was good on the field, but more dangerous to me, at that time, and even now, is the wrong man off the field . . . I wanted a man of exceptional intelligence, a man who was able to grasp and control the responsibilities of himself to his race and could carry that load.
- What were Robinson’s "responsibilities . . . to his race"?
- How did Rickey expect him to act in public? Why?
- What were the potential hazards if Robinson responded aggressively to racism on or off the field?
- What did Branch Rickey gain by signing a talented African-American baseball player? What were the potential benefits for the Brooklyn Dodgers on the field and in the stands?
- What did Jackie Robinson gain by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers? What were the potential hazards?
- Are there different expectations made of contemporary athletes? To what extent are they the same?
After describing his experience, Rickey offered his impression of race relations in 1950s America:
I am completely color-blind . . . I know that America . . . is more interested in the grace of a man's swing . . . and his speed afoot . . . America . . . will become instantly more interested in those marvelous, beautiful qualities than they are in the pigmentation of a man's skin, or indeed in the last syllable of his name.
- Why does Rickey conclude his speech with these sentiments? What do they suggest about baseball?
- What does this statement suggest about how or why race relations can improve in America? According to Rickey, what is the basis of such improvement?
- What is the appeal of this argument? Is this a realistic argument?
- Does Rickey provide a fair assessment of America in the 1950s? Is this a fair assessment of contemporary America?
3. Baseball Merchandise and Advertising
Many pieces of baseball merchandise celebrate the game but have little to do with the game itself. Advertisers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often associated their products with a leisure activity. The tobacco industry was one of the first groups to use baseball images in their advertising. An 1867 "Star Club" tobacco label prominently features a generic baseball scene on its packaging while later cigarette products included photographic cards depicting players such as the 1887 Washington Base Ball Club. (Additional cigarette cards are featured in the Card Set that is part of the American Memory collection, Baseball Cards). In 1933, the Goudley Gum Company began including baseball cards with its product, thereby using the cards to appeal to a younger demographic.
- How do baseball cards depict the game and its players?
- Why would cigarette and gum manufacturers include baseball cards with their products? What audience of consumers is being targeted?
- Now that baseball cards are an independent industry, do they serve a different purpose than when they were packaged with cigarettes and gum? Explain.
- What is the appeal of collecting sports cards?
Jackie Robinson’s achievements on the field were celebrated in baseball cards and other products during the middle of the twentieth century. His popularity spawned a number of products during the 1950s including a comic book series and The Jackie Robinson Story, a biographical film in which Robinson played himself.
- How do products such as a comic book series or film about Jackie Robinson differ from a baseball card featuring Jackie Robinson? What are the film and comic book selling?
- How are professional athletes used in marketing today? What products are they associated with?
- How is today's merchandising of athletes different from merchandise sold in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?
4. Segregation in Baseball
Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the major leagues marked the end of segregation in baseball, but two documents in this collection demonstrate the impact of the racial policy and its lasting effect. In 1953, Jackie Robinson served as the editor for Our Sports magazine. This short-lived periodical focused on African Americans as athletes and fans. The subscription page on the inside cover advertised its coverage of "famous Negro athletes in every field of endeavor" and "Negro athletes in your town among your own neighbors," while the table of contents from the second issue of Our Sports featured articles such as "What White Big Leaguers Really Think of Negroes" and "My Toughest Fight," a piece by boxer Joe Louis about segregation on the golf course.
- Why was Jackie Robinson an ideal editor for Our Sports magazine?
- Who was the target audience for the magazine?
- Are there limitations to presenting sporting news in terms of race?
A year later, a Negro League game program featured "The Charleston Story", a short biography of Oscar Charleston, manager of the Indianapolis Clowns and one of the greatest Negro League players of all time. Charleston played and managed in the league from 1915 to 1954. The biography explains that it was at the peak of his career, in the mid-1920s, that Charleston began to consider managing: "His accomplishments became a matter of record and he’d gone as far as he could as a Negro. The majors wouldn’t accept him. . . . "
- What is the tone of Charleston’s biography? How does it reflect the effect of segregation?
- Why is this biography included in the program? How might a fan attending a Negro League game react to the piece?
- How do Our Sports magazine and the Charleston biography address racial attitudes of that time?
- How do they relate to the civil rights movements that would begin a few years later?
5. The Stadium in Urban Life
In the early twentieth century, Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field was the smallest and most intimate park in the National League. Fans sat close to the action and interacted with the players on a regular basis. Photographs in this collection include images of fans waiting outside Ebbets Field, in one example waiting to see a World Series game.
Ebbets Field and other stadiums offered recreation within cities. They provided a venue where fans could spend an afternoon watching athletes perform on a manicured field. On April 14, 1957, Jackie Robinson was interviewed on NBC's news program, Meet the Press. A transcript from this program briefly discusses the time-honored tradition of skipping work on opening day to catch the first game of the season while a search on stadium yields photographs of Philadelphia’s Shibe Park and the Polo Grounds during a 1913 World Series game. Insurance maps of Ebbets Field and Blues Stadium provide an opportunity to see how these parks related to the neighborhoods that surrounded them.
- How and why do fans identify with a baseball team in their community?
- What role did professional baseball play in urban centers during the early twentieth century?
- What is the appeal of skipping work to go see an opening day game?
- What role do baseball teams play in contemporary cities? Has that role changed over time?
- Is a stadium seen as more than an entertainment center? If so, what other value does it hold?
The photographs, interviews, game programs, and other materials in Jackie Robinson and Other Baseball Highlights, 1860s-1960s, provide several opportunities to make investigations into the social and economic influences on baseball. Investigations center around unique items such as a 1954 program from a Negro League game and a transcript from Robinson's appearance on NBC's news program Meet the Press. Other materials provide an opportunity to explore Robinson's contribution to promoting civil rights and to question the fairness of baseball’s reserve clause.
This collection's timeline provides a history of the events in baseball that led to integration. Jackie Robinson’s accomplishments can also be placed in a larger social and chronological context by reviewing other American Memory collections. The African-American Odyssey chronicles the call for equality throughout American history with the Special Presentation, "African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship." One section of this presentation, "The Depression, The New Deal, and World War II," features the social and athletic achievements of African-American athletes such as tennis star Althea Gibson and track legend Jesse Owens in a portion entitled "Breaking Barriers in Sports."
- What do you think were the most significant events in the history of baseball?
- What events established segregation in baseball and created the color line?
- What challenges did athletes such as Gibson, Owens, and Robinson face in their respective sports?
- How did these athletes' accomplishments relate to the progress of the civil rights movement?
- How did Jackie Robinson’s predecessors pave the way for his arrival in Major League Baseball?
Historical Comprehension: Jackie Robinson as a Community Leader
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Jackie Robinson was celebrated both as an athlete and as a social figure. On December 8, 1956, Robinson was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an annual prize for outstanding achievement by an African American. The citation accompanying the medal recognized Robinson’s "superb sportsmanship, his pioneer role in opening up a new field of endeavor for young Negroes, and his civic consciousness."
One month later, Jackie Robinson retired from baseball after being traded to the New York Giants. He became Vice-President of Community Affairs for the restaurant chain, Chock Full O’ Nuts. He also served as Chairman of the NAACP’s Freedom Fund campaign, seeking to raise one million dollars. Frank van der Linden asked Robinson about his role with the NAACP during an April 14, 1957 appearance on Meet the Press:
Mr. Van der Linden: As a leader of NAACP, would you use the money to hire lawyers, for instance, to press school segregation cases?
Mr. Robinson: I want to make one thing clear: I am not what you call a leader of the NAACP. . . . They have asked me if I would head the Freedom Fund for this year - their campaign - and I said yes. . . . I don't touch the money; I don't see it when it goes in. I have nothing to do with it.
After Robinson was pressed on the subject, however, he said that he imagined the funds were "going to be used in our fight to achieve first-class citizenship. . . . Money is needed to hire lawyers to handle these specific cases. . . . I don't know whether the Freedom Fund is used for lawyers or whether it goes through the other branch that they have." Later in the interview, Robinson is described as "one of the leaders of your race" before being asked about the "responsibility of the Negro himself and, maybe, of the NAACP" in reducing the high crime rate among African Americans.
- Why do members of the press consider Robinson a "leader" of the NAACP and of African Americans in general?
- Why does Robinson initially contest the notion of being a leader of the NAACP?
- How might the NAACP describe Robinson’s role in the organization as a chairman for a campaign fund?
- Do you think Robinson felt obligated to explain where he thought the NAACP money might go? Why might he have felt such obligation despite having explained that he wasn't an NAACP leader?
- Is there a difference between being a "leader" and, as the Spingarn Medal notes, having a "civic consciousness"?
- How does Robinson’s role in the African-American community compare to other recipients of the Spingarn Medal such as W.E.B. DuBois (1920), George Washington Carver (1923), Richard Wright (1941), and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1957)?
- To what extent are a leader's responsibilites taken upon by one's self and to what extent are they created by others' perceptions and expectations?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation: 1954 Negro League Game Program
Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 paved the way for other African-American baseball players. The demise of the color line also marked the beginning of the end of the Negro Leagues which lost both their players and their fans to major league baseball. The last Negro League games were played in 1955. A 1954 program for a contest between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Indianapolis Clowns provides an example of how the League appealed to its audience.
Photographs and biographies of "Feminine Stars" such as Toni Stone, who started at second base for the Kansas City Monarchs and was "famous as the first girl to play in the League," follow articles such as "Interesting Facts About the Negro League."Other attractions included Things You Might Like to Know about Clown Ed Hamman, a photograph of King Tut and his wife with bandleader Lionel Hampton, and two pages of humor from Ed Hamman, the premiere funny man of the Indianapolis Clowns.
- What role do features such as female baseball players, celebrities, and humor play in a baseball game?
- Are these features the type of things you would expect to be find in a game program?
- How much of the program focuses on the game being played?
- Who is the target audience of the different articles in the program?
- What does this program tell you about what a game in the Negro League might have been like in 1954?
- What are some possible reasons why the Negro League might have included features such as humor and celebrities in their entertainment in 1954?
- What seems to have been the appeal of the League itself in the 1950s?
- How do notions of nostalgia and spectacle contribute to the marketing of the League?
Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Baseball’s Reserve Clause
The reserve clause in a baseball player’s contract requires that he stay with the team with which he signs until the team owner decides to trade him. This inability to freely move from one team to another has been a part of professional baseball since 1876. In 1917, a lawsuit, aimed at removing the reserve clause, claimed that baseball owners had an unfair monopoly on their product. The lawsuit failed, however, and the reserve clause remains a part of baseball today.
Antitrust legislation in the early twentieth century broke up monopolies such as Standard Oil. However, professional baseball became exempt from such laws when the Supreme Court ruled in 1922 that professional baseball was a sport and not a business. Despite the fact that all other professional sports are subject to antitrust legislation (which prompted them to institute salary caps and other rules that prohibited one team from snapping up all of the best players in a league), baseball still enjoys this antitrust exemption.
Jackie Robinson ended his ten-year career in major league baseball when he retired in 1956. Around the same time that he announced his retirement, he learned that he was being traded from the Brooklyn Dodgers to the New York Giants. During his April 14, 1957 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, reporters questioned Robinson about his opinion of the reserve clause, quoting Congressman Emmanuel Celler: "'The few who own the Major League clubs aren't trying to benefit the public but only to make all the money they can by moving players around like pawns and chattels.' You were one of the players who was moved around. Do you think that statement is true or false?" Despite his personal experience, Robinson defended the reserve clause as the best available means by which club owners could keep from losing players to other teams:
At the present time I would have to go along with it, because there has to be some sort of protection. Until they find some other way to handle all these situations, I think that - it is a personal observation, but I think they have to continue it. In all my years of baseball I have always expected to be traded. I never liked the idea. I expected it because that is the way baseball has been run all along, but I don't see at this time any way that they can handle the situation. . . .
I don't know why I'm defending this reserve clause . . . so, I will just say here, for the players' benefit certainly something should be done, but I hope it doesn't have to be done through the courts.
- Why does Robinson defend the clause?
- Should a policy be defended simply because it is the only system currently available? Why or why not?
- How does this attitude compare with Robinson breaking the color line?
- Is the reserve clause fair to players? Why or why not?
- Is major league baseball a business or a sport? Explain.
- Should the league be exempt from antitrust legislation?
- Why are other professional sports leagues subject to antitrust legislation?
Historical Research Capabilities
Baseball stadiums often serve as a recreation and entertainment center in the heart of an urban area. This collection features a photograph of the Polo Grounds during a 1913 World Series game and October 6, 1920 images of baseball fans waiting outside Ebbets Field and watching the World Series game. Insurance maps of Ebbets Field and Blues Stadium provide an opportunity to see how these parks related to the neighborhoods that surrounded them, while additional photographs of stadiums are available in the collection, Panoramic Photographs. These materials provide an opportunity to examine the role these stadiums played in the life of the city.
- Where, within a city, are stadiums built?
- What is the relationship between stadiums and the areas (neighborhoods, business districts, etc.) that surround them?
- How has this relationship changed over time?
- How has the design of ballparks changed over time?
Jackie Robinson and Other Baseball Highlights, 1860s-1960s, contains speeches, jokes, and works of fiction that provide a number of opportunities to discuss the symbolic depiction of baseball players in the media and other forms of contemporary popular culture. These primary sources offer different accounts of baseball’s impact on American culture and provide the catalyst for a number of writing activities.
Baseball Players as Symbols
This collection contains a variety of images depicting baseball players from throughout the game's history. Early baseball images include an 1869 illustration of the first nine of the Cincinnati Red Stockings base ball club, which presents formal portraits of players in ties and jackets surrounding an image of a single man in the Red Stockings uniform. Later, cigarette cards such as the uncut sheet of cards depicting the 1887 Washington base ball club offer staged full-length photographs of players using a bat or a glove.
The twentieth century provided candid photographs of players such as a 1915 portrait of Casey Stengel standing in the outfield wearing sunglasses. Examine and compare these images to determine the symbolic values assigned to baseball players through time.
- Are the players in these images represented as part of a team or as individual players?
- What is the appeal of each type of representation?
- What personal skills or qualities are emphasized in the images? What adjectives would you use to describe the players?
- How is the baseball player depicted as a hero?
- How do the images from the mid-nineteenth century compare to the photographs in the collections, Civil War and Daguerreotypes?
- What purpose do you think these symbolic images of baseball players have served? How has that purpose changed through time?
- What are the implications of segregation in baseball when the players are treated symbolically?
A 1954 Negro League game program features profiles of two different performers affiliated with the League for more than three decades. "The Charleston Story" describes the accomplishments of the legendary Negro League player and manager Oscar Charleston and chronicles achievements such as hitting two home runs in one game in 1924. "Things You Might Like to Know About Clown Ed Hamman" features different records of note:
One was in 1932, when he played before eight paid admissions on a Sunday afternoon in Berks County, Penn. The other was before a crowd of 86,288, the largest crowd in baseball history.
- When and why are biographies written? Why do some people have biographies written about their lives and others do not?
- Why are profiles of both Charleston and Hamman featured in the program?
- How is each man described? What terms are used? Why?
- What is the tone of each article? How does each man’s role in the League influence the tone of his biography?
- Choose an athlete or entertainer that you admire and write a brief biography. What details should be emphasized? What tone will you use?
Woodrow Johnson’s 1949 song, "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" is one of many songs written to honor Jackie Robinson’s on-field accomplishments, but Count Basie’s recording of the piece made it one of the most famous. Johnson’s lyrics provide an opportunity to discuss poetic devices such as rhyme scheme, word choice, and narration.
Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball?
It went zoom in cross the left field wall.
Yeah boy, yes, yes. Jackie hit that ball.
And when he swung his bat,
the crowd went wild,
because he knocked that ball a solid mile.
Yeah boy, yes, yes. Jackie hit that ball.
- How are Jackie Robinson’s actions described?
- Does the songs describe a single event in a game or a general description of Robinson’s ability? Why?
- What is the relationship between Robinson and the crowd?
- What does the repetition of the rhyme scheme add to the song? How does it reinforce the lyrics?
- How does this account compare to other songs about baseball players?
- Choose an athlete and write a song (or poem) describing his or her abilities using a similar structure.
Branch Rickey’s personal beliefs about race and baseball provided the opportunity for Jackie Robinson to enter the major leagues. Rickey’s 1956 speech for the "One Hundred Percent Wrong Club" banquet allows one to examine some of Rickey's arguments on race in America, in both his description of the "Robinson experiment" and in Rickey's presentation of the speech itself. Near the end of his speech, Rickey describes the change in attitude of Jackie Robinson’s minor league manager:
He took me and shook me and his face that far from me and he said, "Do you really think that a 'nigger' is a human being, Mr. Rickey?" . . . And six months later he came into my office. . . . And he said to me, "I want to take back what I said to you last spring." . . . And then he told me that he was not only a great ball player good enough for Brooklyn, but he said that he was a fine gentleman. Proximity . . . will solve this thing if you can have enough of it. But that is a limited thing, you see.
- What is the purpose of this anecdote? Why would someone use an anecdote in a speech?
- How does the anecdote contribute to Rickey's argument? How does it contribute to the tone of the speech? How does the tone of the speech in turn contribute to the argument?
- Does Rickey simplify race relations in America through this anecdote arguing for proximity?
- Are there any imaginable scenarios in which the manager might not have changed his attitudes with equal or greater exposure to an African-American player?
- Describe a time when you’ve changed your opinion of a person (whether for good or ill) after you’ve spent some time with him or her. How did it feel? Is this turnaround an argument for or against what Rickey would call, "proximity"?
Biographical films often take liberties with historical events to enhance their dramatic effect. An excerpt from the screenplay of the The Jackie Robinson Story featuring the first interview between Branch Rickey (played by Minor Watson) and Jackie Robinson (played by himself) provides an opportunity to discuss how real life is depicted in the movies. Consider the following scene and the questions below:
RICKEY: Suppose I'm a player . . . in the heat of an important game. Suppose I collide with you at 2nd base. When I get up I say, "You dirty, black so-and-so." What'd you do?
JACKIE: (stops and thinks for a moment, then) Mr. Rickey, do you want a ball player who is afraid to fight back?
RICKEY: I want a ball player with guts enough not to fight back. You've got to do this job with base hits and stolen bases and fielding ground balls, Jackie. Nothing else. (whirls on him) Now, I'm playing against you in the World Series and I'm hot-headed. I want to win that game, so I go into you spikes first and you jab the ball in my ribs. The umpire says "Out." I flare -- all I see is your face -- that black face right on top of me. So I haul off and I punch you right in the cheek. What do you do?
Jackie stops, grinds his right fist into the palm of his left hand, as the camera moves in, then
JACKIE: (slowly) Mr. Rickey, I've got two cheeks.
- What is the desired effect of this scene?
- How do the stage directions contribute to meeting this goal?
- How does the dialogue sound? Is it always realistic?
- How would you perform this scene if you were playing the role of either Robinson or Rickey? What elements of the script will help you decide how to perform the scene?
- How else might this scene be staged?