On Sunday night, Connor Orr of New Jersey’s Star-Ledger wrote of how important the Jackie Robinson Day celebration is to Yankees players. Said Curtis Granderson:
This day is the reason I get to play this great game of baseball, with Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier 65 years ago, and doing a lot of things not only for baseball but for the civil rights movement… For African-Americans like myself and other minorities as you look around this clubhouse, to get a chance to play this game, it’s all because of one person.
It's a very generous and accurate thought from the Yankees centerfielder. Granderson almost always speaks wisely, but it’s good to see him speaking is such a way as a Yankee. The Yankees, as the game’s winningest organization, have as much to make up for in terms of perpetuating baseball’s system of apartheid as any in baseball.
It’s well-remembered today that the Yankees put off integration as long as they could, even trading away Vic Power when the first baseman was ready for the big leagues, then finally yielding to the inevitable and bringing up Elston Howard. It is perhaps less easily recalled that the Yankees, in the person of then-managing partner Larry MacPhail, were at the forefront of baseball’s attempt to quash integration from the inside.
MacPhail headed up a special committee formed by the National and American Leagues in 1946, after Branch Rickey had signed Robison, to study a variety of issues then facing baseball, among them integration. In the report MacPhail ultimately issued, the league's main goal seemed to be not to promote fairness in the game, but rather to insulate baseball from charges of racism. Reasons to deflect these charges needed to be found, the report suggested, because if there were African-American players, there would also be African-American fans in the stands, and in turn fewer white fans, who would conceivably be offended by having to share the ballpark with their fellow countrymen.
MacPhail’s conclusion, as cited in Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, was a shot at Rickey:
Your Committee does not desire to question the motives of any organization or individual who is sincerely opposed to segregation or who believes that such a policy is detrimental to the best interests of Professional Baseball [but] the individual action of any one club may exert tremendous pressures on the whole structure of Professional Baseball, and could concebably result in lessening the value of several Major League franchises.
As Tygiel put it:
The “Report of the Major League Steering Committee” is a damning document. Couched in palatable phrases defending the rights of all men to enter the national pastime, MacPhail sought, through often dubious logic, to explain away the absence of blacks in the big leagues. Blame re4sted not with the baseball establishment, which was free of prejudice, but with the ignorant protestors, inadequate black athletes, and selfish Negro League owners. The threat of financial loss, largely unsubstantiated, also prevented an end to segregation. The report suggests no methods to bring blacks into the major leagues, nor any desire to do so.
Racism was baseball’s original sin. It helped perpetuate and legitimize the Jim Crow system in America and punished not only black players, but whites as well—we will never know how good Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb and many others were because they played in leagues that represented not the best competition of its time, but the best white competition.
Larry MacPhail is in the Hall of Fame. George Weiss, who succeeded him as head of the Yankees and was just as emphatic an opponent of equal treatment, is in the Hall as well. Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, who was on the committee with MacPhail, is there too.
The Yankees are a few ownerships removed from the MacPhail and Weiss days now, but should the current team wish to lay claim to the legacy of Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and those 27 championships won by men long dead for other men long dead, they must also acknowledge the crimes of that legacy as well. Kind words from Curtis Granderson and all the Yankees—not just Mariano Rivera—wearing 42 are nice gestures, but are only a start.
A real acknowledgment of just how long the team resisted racial progress would be even better, and help heal a wound which would still bleed over the pinstripes were anyone aware of it.