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The story of the Negro Leagues is undeniably bittersweet,” wrote Andrew Lawrence about the recently released documentary on the confederation of Black baseball teams known as the Negro Leagues.

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It’s true. The sweetness comes in part from the teams full of exceptional players, brilliant managers, and savvy owners. American literature scholar Ursula McTaggart writes that the leagues “stressed athletic talent comparable to the white major leagues”—there were players as good, or better, than those playing in the white leagues, and they showed it every game. But the bitterness came as the Negro Leagues quietly ended in the 1960s, the end result of major league baseball opening their doors to all players. It was the end of an era. But make no mistake, the fight to integrate baseball was a worthy one.

It’s also one that’s often focused on Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey and his signing of Jackie Robinson in 1945. A huge step forward, without a doubt. But part of the credit for baseball’s eventual integration belongs with the Black press of the time. As McTaggart writes, it “inserted anti-racist discourse and social consciousness into baseball’s commodity spectacle.”

Black newspapers often spoke to the conscience of the nation. As historian Bill L. Weaver notes, the Black press was “acutely perceptive and remarkably capable of assessing the importance of racial advances in the context of what the race ultimately hoped to achieve.”

They were essential. But the Pittsburgh Courier may have taken the strongest stance. As physical education scholar David K. Wiggins points out, the paper waged a twelve-year battle against baseball’s segregation and “relentlessly hammered away at Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, club owners, field managers, ballplayers, and anyone else it felt was responsible for the ban on Black ballplayers.”

The Courier had the largest circulation of any Black newspaper in the US, so its voice was particularly loud. It was also, according to Weaver, “perhaps most radical Black newspaper in America.” The campaign to integrate baseball came after several members of the white press publicly spoke out about breaking the color line. Westbrook Pegler of the Chicago Tribune, for example, expressed his shock in 1931 that “sports minded Americans had not lashed out against the color line.”

Two years later, at the annual baseball writers’ dinner, many baseball bigwigs signaled their willingness to integrate. The Courier saw this as an opportunity to begin its campaign, which they called the “Big League Symposium.” The Symposium “was set up to solicit the opinions of leading baseball men concerning the sport’s exclusionary policies,” Weaver explains.

The paper’s next big move was trying to convince white baseball that Black players were good enough to play.

“It was customary for the paper to send letters and telegrams to baseball’s top brass imploring them to hire Black players,” Weaver writes. In 1937, the Courier’s sports editor even sent what he called a “Roster of Stars” to the president of the New York Giants. It featured some of Black baseball’s most talented players—Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Cool Papa Bell—touting them as not just great players, but the key to defeating their rivals, the New York Yankees. But lack of awareness wasn’t the issue as much as lack of concern. So, the paper amped up its campaign in 1938.

Under the leadership of a new sports writer, Wendell Smith, the Courier became more outspoken. Smith not only pointed the finger at MLB but at its Black supporters, who continued to spend their money on an “institution that places a bold ‘not welcome’ sign over its thriving portal.” He also chided the readership for not throwing their support to the, then thriving, Black baseball leagues. It wasn’t enough to fight against baseball’s segregation; he believed that it was Black fans’ responsibility to make sure “Black baseball was a thriving and healthful institution.” He also suggested more direct action like forming a branch of the NAACP on behalf of Black players and fighting “until we drop from exhaustion.”

Overseas, the fight became even more urgent. Smith used his platform to point out “the similarities between [America’s] treatment of Blacks and Nazi Germany’s treatment of minorities.” How could a nation fight for freedom abroad when there wasn’t freedom at home? he wondered.

Once the US entered World War II, the paper launched its “Double V” campaign, which, as Weaver explains, “expressed desire for a civil rights victory at home to accompany a military victory abroad.” Smith was also vocal “in calling upon President Roosevelt to adopt a ‘Fair Employment Practice Policy’ in big league baseball just as he had done in war industries and governmental agencies,” Wiggins writes. And as McTaggart points out, “The Pittsburgh Courier contextualized and gave voice to the anti-racist struggle by articulating integration with other movements.”

Ultimately, it was Black newspapers, particularly the Courier and the People’s Voice of New York, that were able to arrange a try-out for the Dodgers for two Black players—Terry McDuffie, and Dave “Showboat” Thomas—in April 1945. Though those two didn’t make the cut, the next day, three other players were given a try-out—Sam Jethroe, Marvin Williams, and Jackie Robinson. It would be the start of a new age in baseball.

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American Studies, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Spring 2006), pp. 113–132
Mid-America American Studies Association
Phylon (1960–), Vol. 40, No. 4 (4th Qtr., 1979), pp. 303–317
Clark Atlanta University
Journal of Sport History, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Summer 1983), pp. 5–29
University of Illinois Press