04/15/2012 12:24 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2012

Progressive Politics Played a Big Part in Integrating Baseball

In mid-October 1945, Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, learned that New York City mayor Fiorella La Guardia was going to call for the three New York City major league teams -- the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers -- to integrate their squads in his next weekly radio address. Rickey told La Guardia that he had his own announcement to make and asked the mayor to postpone his speech.

On October 23, the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn's top minor league team, announced that it had signed Jackie Robinson, ending professional baseball's seemingly impenetrable color barrier. Eighteen months later, Robinson, wearing number 42, played his first game for Brooklyn, forever changing baseball and society.

Robinson broke major league baseball's color barrier 65 years ago on April 15, 1947. Major league baseball will honor Robinson on April 15, as it does every year, with Jackie Robinson Day. Major league players will all wear Robinson's 42, which is the only number in baseball retired in perpetuity.

The story of the integration of baseball is almost always framed around Robinson and Rickey, who dictated his version of history to sportswriters and biographers who circulated it in the days, weeks, years and decades after the signing of Robinson.

Rickey deserves credit for signing Robinson and advancing the cause of civil rights. But the signing of Robinson was not an isolated act, restricted to two men. It was part of a far larger narrative that had been developing for years and would continue to develop during the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Like the Civil Rights Movement, the integration of baseball required courageous blacks who were willing to sacrifice themselves for something bigger, but it also required progressive politicians, mostly of whom were white, who introduced legislation that mandated racial equality in both baseball and society.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, black sportswriters and progressive whites, including most notably sportswriters with the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, which was based in New York City, intensely campaigned for the integration of baseball in editorials and articles but also by recruiting labor organizations, organizing protests and circulated petitions with perhaps a million names that were sent to baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis's office.

It was not coincidental that the campaign to integrate baseball was most intense in New York City, where many progressive politicians were elected to the U.S. Congress, the state legislature and city councils. In 1939, State Sen. Charles Perry introduced a resolution that condemned baseball for discriminating against black ballplayers. Four years later, Perry introduced a second resolution. In 1945, U.S. Rep. Vito Marcantonio of Brooklyn called for the U.S. Commerce Department to investigate racial discrimination in Major League Baseball. Al Shaffer, Marcantonio's biographer, said that the congressman was "more interested in frightening organized baseball into action than he was in any inquiry."

In March 1945, a month before Marcantonio's resolution, the state legislature passed the Ives-Quinn Act, which banned discrimination in hiring and established a commission to investigate complaints. When Rickey, who had already begun secretly planning to confront baseball's color line, heard that Gov. Thomas Dewey had signed Ives-Quinn into law, he told his wife, "They can't stop me now."

By then La Guardia was facing political pressure from the Left, including the Worker and the Committee to End Jim Crow in Baseball, which included dozens of prominent politicians, labor leaders, civil rights leaders, journalists and actors. New York City councilmen Peter Caccione and Benjamin Davis Jr., challenged baseball's color line before city council. Davis introduced a resolution ordering the State Commission on Discrimination "to investigate the question of racial discrimination in professional baseball."

La Guardia responded by creating the Mayor's Committee to Integrate Baseball. He urged the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers to sign blacks. Both Horace Stoneham, president of the Giants, and Larry MacPhail, president of the Yankees, ignored La Guardia. Rickey, however, met with the mayor but did not reveal his plan to integrate baseball.

State legislator Philip J. Schupler openly criticized Rickey that it would be in his best interests and in the team's best interests to sign black players. By doing so he would improve the Dodgers, Schupler said, "but you would also increase the prestige of the Brooklyn ball club by showing that you really believe in the letter and spirit of Ives-Quinn."

Rickey knew that if he did not integrate baseball on his own, Ives-Quinn might force him to do that. Rickey didn't want to appear that he was responding to political pressure.

The Committee to End Jim Crow in Baseball, which had received letters of support from such notables as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, told La Guardia and the city's big-league teams that the issue deserved immediate attention. In early August the committee announced it would demonstrate outside games outside Ebbets Field and Polo Grounds followed by a mass protest.

La Guardia convinced the committee to postpone the march after telling them he had asked a number of prominent New Yorkers to serve on the Mayor's Committee to Integrate Baseball. In early October, the committee issued a preliminary report that concluded that there was "little doubt that New York City's baseball public would certainly support the integration of (blacks) on the basis of their abilities."

La Guardia then announced that he would address the issue in his next radio address. A fervent anti-communist, Rickey told the press that he alone was responsible for integrating baseball, depriving not just the communists but progressive politicians from receiving the credit they deserved.