Every year around opening day I try to read a few books about baseball. This year I am reading Lee Lowenfish’s excellent biography of Branch Rickey. Let me quote a passage:
On the morning of March 13, 1945 Branch Rickey was drinking coffee and reading the newspaper in the spring training lodging at Bear Mountain. [Where the Brooklyn Dodgers had their very chilly spring training during the war] Suddenly, he looked up from his paper with an animated expression on his face. “What’s wrong dear?, Jane Rickey asked her husband, wondering what now was bothering her easily agitated mate. “It was in the paper, Mother, that Governor Dewey has just signed the Ives-Quinn Law!” he exclaimed. “They can’t stop me now.”
And what “they” couldn’t stop Rickey from doing, of course, was signing a Negro ballplayer to the Dodgers, which Rickey would do later that year, when he announced the signing of Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract, and changed baseball forever. With the passage of the Ives-Quinn Law, New York became the first state to ban discrimination in employment. It was a state extension of the Fair Employment Practices Commission, an executive agency created by FDR in 1941, and due to southern hostility and much northern indifference was allowed to lapse shortly after the end of the war. The Ives- Quinn Law was passed in NYS as a state version of the FEPC, and it was controversial, and many business groups (and racial conservatives like Robert Moses) opposed it; Dewey was on the fence about it, but was eventually persuaded to sign it.
The Ives-Quinn Law was certainly within the radical penumbra of the New Deal, the creation of a whole new class of rights, and pointing towards a fundamentally new relation between government and business, where private hiring and admissions practices were subject to government review. Branch Rickey was not a New Dealer. He strongly opposed the New Deal, and not just around the breakfast table. He was a prominent Republican in Missouri (where he worked for the St. Louis Cardinals before joining the Dodgers in 1941), and was considered for the US Senate in 1940, and actively campaigned for Republican candidates using strongly anti- New Deal rhetoric; that FDR was a tyrant, and was destroying the basis of the free enterprise system, and so on. He was very frightened by the Communists, and by what he saw as their demagoguery on racial matters, and frightened by racial radicals of all sorts whom, he felt wanted to do too much too soon.
But Rickey was a complex man. According to Lowenfish. Rickey’s favorite book in 1944 was Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, the basis of many animated conversations with friends and family. His favorite book in spring training in 1947 (the year Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers) was Frank Tannenbaum’s classic Slave and Citizen. He interpreted both books as having the same message, to quote Lowenfish “that with the passage of time, increased education, the rise of a black middle class, and greater proximity between races, the American racial dilemma would be ameliorated, if not totally solved.”
Racial gradualism generally has a bad press, and deservedly so, because moving towards racial equality with “all deliberate speed” is generally a euphemism for doing nothing at all. This obviously was not the case with Rickey, who expended tremendous care and effort into integrating baseball (and also reaped the rewards, as the Dodgers became first major league team to tap into the resources of the Negro Leagues.)
You sometimes hear that too much is made of Jackie Robinson, and that in the bigger scheme of things as pertaining to the search for racial justice in America, it was attention grabbing but not all that significant. In some ways this is so, certainly. It would be 12 years until the last major league club, the always evil Boston Red Sox hired their first black player. (Although this life long Yankees fan must acknowledge that the boys in the Bronx weren’t much better, not hiring their first black player until 1955, and supposedly missing the chance to sign Willie Mays because they felt he wasn’t “Yankee” material. Anyway, here's hoping that baseball returns to the natural order of things, starting today, with the Red Sox stareing up at the Yankees.) But to return to the point of this post, it is certainly true that in many ways the Jackie Robinson story is isolated; one cannot say that it was really was the start of a general trend towards ending discrimination in employment.
And perhaps this is the point. The Ives-Quinn law was never intended, certainly not many of its more timid backers, like Gov Dewey, to start a process whereby private businesses would be compelled to integrate, but to act as a form of moral suasion, exerting pressure to do the right thing. Rickey moved up the announcement of the signing of Robinson from the end of the baseball season in 1945 from his original intention, in November in the depths of the college football season, when LaGuardia, who sort of found religion on racial matters after the 1943 Harlem riots, wanted a pledge from the city’s three teams that they would abide by the Ives-Quinn law. The law, as Rickey said when he first read about, would not compel him to hire black players, but it would make it impossible for anyone (such as the commissioner of baseball) to cite either written or unwritten laws to stand in his way.
The limitations of voluntary desegregation are obvious, which was why in the 1960s the advocates of civil rights passed a series of measures, with far more teeth than the Ives-Quinn Act, that would compel private businesses to integrate. (Rickey, Republican to the end, backed Goldwater in 1964, feeling his civil rights stance was preferable to “national degradation’ under Johnson.)
But Rickey’s desegregation of baseball does need recognition for what it did accomplish. First, it needs to be seen as something that probably could, in 1945, 46, and 47, only have happened in New York State, and was one of the incidental triumphs of the Ives-Quinn Law. And it also needs to be seen as perhaps the greatest triumph of what racial moderates devoutly hoped would happen in post-war America, that private businesses and parties would see the evil of their ways, adopt Myrdal’s American creed and desgregate. Branch Rickey felt that integrating baseball was fully in keeping with his deeply conservative and profoundly Republican values. If there had been more people like him, the history of post-war America would have been vastly different.