I have been reading about or studying the integration of baseball for many years, at first principally because I wanted to write about the effect that integration had on the quality of the game. Obviously if you add Jackie Robinson to a league, that league is not just ethically and morally better, the quality of play is also better. Much better. I mean, this is JACKIE ROBINSON for God’s sake. And then Doby, and Campy, and Irvin, and on and on.
Jackie Robinson and the extraordinary cohort of people who integrated the game in the 1940s and 1950s will always be baseball’s best story, one that can not be over-told. We (myself included) have been guilty of treating this story as a culmination rather than as an important chapter in an ongoing struggle. Today’s decreased number of Black American players, to say nothing of managers and executives, is one constant reminder of progress yet to be made. Another are the tales of just how difficult the lives of black players can be in today’s Major League Baseball. Like the rest of America, baseball has a long, long way to go.
Additionally, my integration-era research has led to collateral damage in my relationship with Jim Crow (pre-1947) baseball, and its cards. I still appreciate the history, and the stories, and I understand how great Wagner, Cobb, Ruth, and DiMaggio were, but the stories are a little less romantic, and maybe the players were all a little less great than I thought. It’s the other side of same coin–you can’t believe that Robinson, Mays and Aaron made the game significantly better without also believing that not having them made the game significantly worse.
For Christmas in 1981, I was given a beautiful 1982 calendar which I believe had been advertised in the New Yorker. With brief exceptions, it has hung on a wall in my dorm/apartment/house/office for the past 38 years–it is six feet away from me as I type. (In 2021, for the first time since 2010, the days will align.)
Its 12 pages tell the story of baseball cards chronologically–January is for 19th century tobacco cards, while the last row of December shows 1981 Topps. If you lay the calendar on a table and flip through months (the only way to really do it–the pages are 22″ x 14″), you get a high level view of 100 years of the hobby. And of Major League baseball.
What the calendar also shows, visually and starkly, is Jim Crow: page after page, row after row, of White dudes.
The first Black face belatedly shows up in August, in the penultimate row, appropriately the 1949 Bowman Satchel Paige. The final August row features 1951 Topps, and includes both Monte Irvin and Luke Easter. These three men were the 7th, 10th, and 11th Black players in the Major Leagues in the 20th century. There are four more Black faces on the page for September, which highlights the 1951 and 1952 Bowman sets.
My calendar almost always (as now) is hung so as to display October. I don’t know if it was deliberate on the part of the designer, probably not, but October’s top row is like a punch in America’s face, and the next three rows don’t really let up.
Here is a thought experiment. Imagine seeing a binder of 1956 Topps cards, except that all of the Black players have been removed. No Mays, no Aaron, no Jackie, no Banks, no Clemente, no lots of other stars. There are still great players in the binder–Mantle, Williams, Koufax, Feller, and more–but its obviously a worse group than the real set. Not just a little worse, immeasurably worse.
In other words, it would be … just like 1934 Goudey. Or 1940 Play Ball. Or T-205. Looking through that denuded 1956 binder would be at the very least uncomfortable, and more likely offensive, to a modern collector. And that is why I struggle with all the pre-war cards sets.
As Nick wrote a couple of years ago, “while cards have always existed, their role in defining who ‘real’ ballplayers are cannot be ignored.” If I collect cards to celebrate the baseball of the time, I have to ask myself: do I really want to hang a frame on the wall that glorifies segregated baseball? The 1934 Goudey card set, the T-206 set, and all pre-war card sets, perpetuate the lie that “organized” baseball sold America for decades, that these were the best players, the “real” players.
While major league baseball was barring great Black players from playing in its leagues, and most white newspapers were complicit in not reporting on the Negro Leagues, companies like American Tobacco and Goudey were not putting Black players on baseball cards. There were a lot of minor league cards or sets in these years, there were sets for pilots, and actors, and dogs, and trees, but nothing for the many fans of Oscar Charleston or Bullet Joe Rogan or Biz Mackey. Didn’t they smoke, or chew gum?
Had any of these companies chosen to make a Negro League set, or, better yet, incorporated Negro League players into their flagship sets, it might have led to increased and earlier calls for integration, and would have made these players “real” to kids all over America. But they did not.
When it comes to baseball cards, the lie began to dramatically unravel in the 1950s. By the end of the decade, nearly 10% of the players on the field had dark skin, and many of these were among the best players in the sport. If you collected, some of the best and most sought after cards depicted players who you might not have heard of had they played a decade earlier. In 1956, ten years after White America wondered if Jackie Robinson would be good enough, there were 52 Black players on big league diamonds. Nine of them are in the Hall of Fame. Nine.
I have been dabbling in the cards of the early 1950s in recent years. I don’t have any of the sets and doubt I ever will, but enjoy picking up an occasional example, including Ted Williams or Yogi Berra or Duke Snider.
Sing the praises of pre-war cards and players as you wish. But the 1950s are the first time when the best players were allowed in the major leagues and in baseball card sets. Both enterprises, belatedly, had become legitimate.