What if Jackie Robinson Had Been a Beast?

April 17, 2019

My previous article, "What If Jackie Robinson Had Been a Bust?", included the notion in my title here, that he might have been even more of a superstar, rather than less of one, than he actually was, so I’m not actually going to consider Robinson’s career specifically here. Just playing around with the title (I considered "What If Jackie Onassis Had Had a Bust?" among other variations—that’s just how my mind is miswired) which led me to the larger topic of Alternate History in general.

I’m not much of a fan of the genre, taking refuge in the "If my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a trolley-car" school of Alternate History—what’s the point, in other words, of speculating on things that never happened? Are we changing only one small event in world history here, or are we changing entire complex historical events? Are there limits on our alternative scenarios, or are we going completely nuts here? What if human nature itself were different? Seems kinda wasteful to explore in depth. The butterfly effect says that a tiny change in the path of a butterfly in China could start a chain reaction of events resulting in sweeping changes across the globe that we cannot possibly foresee, making no end to speculation.

But sometimes, with tight parameters, our speculated consequences lead to intriguing scenarios: my previous article limited the speculation to the careers of ten untried ballplayers who played successfully in MLB from 1947 through early 1951 being less successful than they were. I justified this speculation on the basis of "small sample size": with only ten players, almost any outcome is within the realistic limits of possibility.  Likewise with these pioneers bursting onto the MLB scene with far greater powers of domination than they did historically: what effect would that have had? Again, we now know exactly what these players actually did, but in 1947, it was unknown and wide-open to possibilities.

The response has been, as I noted in the "Comments" section, very conservative, for understandable reasons. "Things would have happened pretty much as they did" either way, is the general tone people have taken, and maybe they’re right. MLB was only one factor in desegregation, and there was lots of other stuff going on for decades if not centuries leading up to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, so maybe Jackie Robinson’s on-field success had little to no effect on the bigger picture, didn’t speed up the movement, and wouldn’t have sped it up any more if early black MLBers were more uniformly successful and wouldn’t have slowed it down if they’d all been busts.

But I don’t think so. Because it happened the way it did, I think we all have gotten just a little complacent in thinking that it HAD to happen the way it did. Which is the main virtue of Alternate History, to my mind: it makes us consider other scenarios by spelling out in detail how they could have unfolded.

It happens that I’m reading Ron Chernow’s biography of U.S. Grant right now. (Don’t tell me how it ends—I’m only up to his first administration.) Grant was a strange cat, as Chernow tells it. He was deeply committed to giving the newly freed slaves full U.S. citizenship, but he also felt strongly that he could not shove that status forcefully down the throats of white Southerners whom he hoped to return soon to reconciliation with the North. So as I read this account, I find myself rooting for Grant to impose, say, Federal troops on various Southern troublespots to enforce the newer amendments to the Constitution, and going "Oh! Missed opportunity, Ulysses!" when he doesn’t. Sure enough, the KKK grows powerful, as he allows them to terrorize black citizens, and his administration seems headed to ineffectiveness. (Again—don’t tell me how it ends! I’m only up to page six-zillion and ten.)

Was there nothing Grant (or Lincoln, or Jefferson, or anyone) could have done that would have significantly changed the course of race relations in this country? Was there one moment where a major choice could have been made differently that would have had that effect?

Or was racism just far too ingrained in our character? This is a difficult proposition to accept, mainly because other countries seem to have overcome their racial issues more easily than the U.S. has. One moment, to give an example from Chernow’s book, that I never heard about before (my knowledge of U.S. history is stunningly limited), was that Grant was obsessed with the idea of acquiring the island of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and turning it into a territory and then into a state (or states). He was a nut on the subject, felt very strongly that this must be done, immediately, in part because it would act as a safety valve on his pressing mainland problem: it would allow former slaves to migrate voluntarily to Hispaniola, where the racial mix was such that they would feel (and be) protected and free there.

Would this solution have fixed racism in the U.S.? Would it have accomplished anything? Would it somehow have made the problem worse?

It didn’t happen, mainly because the U.S. (Grant’s cabinet) was concerned that acquiring the island (from Spain) would lead to war with Spain, though I can see from this remove plenty of ways that Spain could have been mollified, mainly money. If Grant would have committed enough cash being funneled Spain’s way for the real estate, I can imagine that they could have felt satisfied enough to avoid a war. We certainly found the money to buy other countries’ territories during this period (e.g., Alaska) and we did have a President who was gung-ho on the acquisition, so the question remains "Would this have changed anything?"

And by "this," I mean the dozens of points I keep encountering where Grant wanted to, tried to, worked tirelessly in order to reconcile former slaveowners and former slaves to living peaceably side by side in the post-Civil War U.S. It just never took. Was this because it was impossible? Or just bad luck?

I don’t mean to focus here exclusively on the black/white problems: in many ways, the problems Grant faced in reconciling the rights of American Indians to those of settlers in the Western Territories were even more horrific. Again, I was surprised to read how generously Grant felt inclined towards the Indians (he was the first President to appoint an Indian to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a former officer under his command during the Civil War) yet he oversaw some of the most brutal encounters in our history. Was the genocide of Native Americans inevitable? Could he, or anyone, have acted differently? If so (and I think "so"), how? What would the effects of a far different policy have been?

Again, I don’t think this is far-fetched speculation: Grant wanted to treat the Indians fairly (at least at times). He wanted to assimilate former slaves as full-fledged first-class citizens. I’m not changing his essential character in speculating on what he might have been able to do. (The previous President, Andrew Johnson, had a character that seems from my reading to be committed to racism and oppression—it seems pointless and fruitless to speculate on his desire for reconciliation in a way that speculating on Grant’s is tempting.)  Can we isolate a point at which a different decision would have resulted in a sweepingly different outcome?

I think that’s why we study history, and why we examine baseball history. Not just to memorize facts and trivia and records for their own sake—I had committed to memory U.S. Grant’s place in the catalogue of U.S. Presidents and the dates of his administrations by fourth grade, I believe. But this stuff only gets truly interesting when we consider events as near-misses, and the possibilities of events unfolding differently than they did historically. There’s a world of possibilities out there, and some of them are still achievable, if we understand where we went wrong in the past, and why.

 

 
 

COMMENTS (9 Comments, most recent shown first)

Marc Schneider
smbaderesq:

"History is filled with decision points that's easy to see hindsight that were not always so clear then. Like you I study it, and I have started to look for decisions that are made in this context - between what is "right" and what is "easy." I am not sure that is a correct way to look at things, but you see that many decisions line up along those lines and that far more choose what's easy and subsequently diminished in history while those that make the "right" decision are of historical importance. "

I agree with you again. I think that's sort of the default for humanity.
4:19 PM Apr 24th
 
Marc Schneider
Smbakeresq:

Agreed.
4:16 PM Apr 24th
 
smbakeresq
Also Mr. Scheider:

"One of the big problems with racism in the US is that for so long it was used as a safety valve to distract lower-class whites from their actual problems, especially in the South. No matter how low on the totem pole poor whites were, their status was still higher than blacks. The elites in the South used this racial hierarchy to maintain their control over the southern economy. That sort of goes to your point about what if black players had been so much better than whites. It is an interesting questions as to whether whites could have accepted that in the 1940s. "


Racism is still used that way today, its a main theme of politics, its the Trump campaign.

10:01 AM Apr 24th
 
smbakeresq
Marc Schneider - " But what happened seems to have been that everyone knew it was a problem, but they couldn't figure out how to get rid of it without disrupting the southern economy and the southerners were not willing to do that."

That same idea applies all over, a simpler way to say it is "I know what the right thing is to do but it affects my money and lifestyle so I am not willing to do it." Today its fracking, Climate Change, clean water, etc, just to name few.

History is filled with decision points that's easy to see hindsight that were not always so clear then. Like you I study it, and I have started to look for decisions that are made in this context - between what is "right" and what is "easy." I am not sure that is a correct way to look at things, but you see that many decisions line up along those lines and that far more choose what's easy and subsequently diminished in history while those that make the "right" decision are of historical importance.
9:59 AM Apr 24th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Granted, agcohen. That's an underlying premise of this whole thesis. But even the best scouting is not a guarantee, and I'm arguing that Rickey and Veeck et al. could have been as gung-ho as they were about integrating baseball but could have been less good at scouting talent than they were. Most of the possibilities I mention don't really have to do with the quality of the scouting anyway, just with the negative outcomes that come along with any group of players in mid-career, injuries, loss of skill, extended runs of bad luck, etc., and this group is WAY too small to have any certainty that their careers would work as predictably as a group of hundreds of thousands of players would, statistically.​
7:10 AM Apr 19th
 
agcohen
In reading the last two articles, there is one reason why the first African American players were likely to succeed which I don't think was mentioned (unless I missed it). Rickey, Veeck, and the other owner/GMs only signed those African American players who had a strong record in the Negro Leagues and who seemed most likely to succeed in the Majors. While Rickey, Veeck, etc. were not always correct in their judgements, most of the first African American players likely to succeed because Rickey, Veeck, etc. were selecting from the best players in the Negro Leagues, who already had a record of success. They were not selecting randomly.
9:46 PM Apr 18th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Liberia, but better, because geographically it was plausible that Hispaniola (we'd have to change that now to Hisandherpaniola) could be incorporated as states. Liberia was always a way of getting rid of former slaves, but caribbean acquisitions seem like a way to embrace them as citizens.
7:09 AM Apr 18th
 
garywmaloney
Excellent book by Chernow. Grant was thinking Hispanola was another "Manifest Destiny" opportunity, plus he might have been buying into the "Liberia" idea (i.e. give freed slaves a place to live without constant oppression). He came REALLY close to sealing the deal, because the Dominicans were completely in favor; it was the Americans who balked.

People are not concrete that can be poured and molded -- that is why attempts at this in the 20th century (e.g. Stalin's forced collectivization of farms, Mao's Great Leap Forward) were horrible failures that cost millions of lives. And Grant ran into this, with white Southerners, most of whom simply refused to treat former slaves as equals. He was prepared to keep troops in the South to enforce black rights, but war-weary Republicans (and especially Northern Democrats, in league with their Southern brethren) wanted them pulled out. You see this time and again, after a war -- the winners get tired of paying the price for enforcing the peace.
6:45 AM Apr 18th
 
Marc Schneider
I am a history buff and it is certainly interesting to consider possibilities. I think almost all history is contingent and most people who study it realize that. What if Hitler had knocked out the British at Dunkirk, which he could have done? Or continued onto Moscow instead of heading for the oil? But, as you say, it's impossible to really consider because one change leads to another and so on and so on. Or here's one; someone tried to assassinate FDR while he was visiting Miami while President-elect. The assassin missed FDR and killed the Mayor of Chicago. FDR's VP was John Nance Garner, a conservative Democrat from Texas. If Garner had been president during the 1930s/40s, who knows what would have happened?

Frankly, if we are talking about racial issues, the biggest "could have been" goes back to the founding of the country, where slavery was actually up for discussion.
Essentially, there seems to have been a consensus (at least among northerners and even among some southerners, including slaveholders) that slavery was wrong and/or divisive to the country. There was discussion about eliminating slavery. But what happened seems to have been that everyone knew it was a problem, but they couldn't figure out how to get rid of it without disrupting the southern economy and the southerners were not willing to do that. Now, remember, this was before the later southern rationalizations about slavery being a "positive good" set out by John C. Calhoun. At this time, there was still slavery in the north, but, as I said, a consensus that this is a problem. But they simply couldn't get up the moral courage to get past their self-interest to outlaw slavery, which is a tragedy.

Steven, I do not necessarily agree that other countries got over racism more easily than the US. It's pretty obvious that racism still exists in a wide swath of the world. And, certainly, if you consider anti-semitism a form of racism, I wouldn't say the rest of the world has such a sterling record either. The UK outlawed slavery much sooner than we did, but they also had non-white colonies that they kept pretty much under their thumb.

One of the big problems with racism in the US is that for so long it was used as a safety valve to distract lower-class whites from their actual problems, especially in the South. No matter how low on the totem pole poor whites were, their status was still higher than blacks. The elites in the South used this racial hierarchy to maintain their control over the southern economy. That sort of goes to your point about what if black players had been so much better than whites. It is an interesting questions as to whether whites could have accepted that in the 1940s.




2:11 PM Apr 17th
 
 
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