BILL JAMES ONLINE

What If Jackie Robinson Had Been A Bust?

April 15, 2019

Branch Rickey, a universally acknowledged master scout, was also the visionary strategist who waged the war to make black players eligible. It was by no means necessary that he be both a brilliant scout and a brilliant culture warrior. If Rickey’s social vision belonged instead to some idiot/doofus/baseball ignoramus of a GM/owner lacking all of Rickey’s baseball smarts (no names, nominations have been closed), what might have been the fate of black ballplayers?

Since the two skills—scouting out gifted ballplayers and integrating MLB—have nothing to do with each other, we’re lucky that Rickey knew abundantly well how to do both. But it doesn’t take much imagination to consider that having only the desire to integrate baseball, or only the ability to scout talent, falls WAY short of the mark needed to succeed. Let’s explore a little further, and see what might have been if this alternative-universe Branch Rickey had been lacking both in vision and in luck.

Before we do, however, consider Rickey’s dual roles: GM and owner. In a sense, this consideration is redundant, in that "GM= super-evaluator of baseball talent" and "Owner = man with the power to insist on signing a black player," but in recent years these two titles, GM and owner, have diverged sharply. Soon after Rickey’s time, it became a rarity for a man to own shares in his ballclub (Rickey was, I believe, a minority shareholder in the Dodgers) while heading up his team’s personnel decisions. It’s easy to see, but also easy to forget, how holding both jobs at the same time made Rickey’s path towards integrating baseball much smoother than it would have been if he had to convince a heel-dragging boss or a subordinate at every step along that path.

That circumstance is only one of the building blocks helpful to a baseball team seeking to sign its first black player. That first black player was also not necessarily as talented as Jackie Robinson turned out to be, even if it were Jackie Robinson himself.  He might have been not only less talented than Robinson was, he might have been MUCH less talented than Robinson. The first ten black players might have been farbelow the abilities of the average black player in the late 1940s. This is fundamentally a sabermetric concept, one that I’ll call your attention by an analogy that Bill has amply illustrated recently: the possibility that a pitcher with above-average abilities could conceivably, just by chance (plus some influences that we assumed wrongly would even out over a season, run-support, fielding anomalies, ballpark, etc.), have produced below-average results for longer than we think possible. Throw "injuries" and "age" into the mix and it’s conceivable that we could have come away with the mistaken impression that black players are inherently just grossly inferior to their white counterparts.

Below find a listing (taken from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_first_black_Major_League_Baseball_players) of the first 16 black players signed to a major league contract:

 

Name

Team

Date of first MLB game

Jackie Robinson

Brooklyn Dodgers

April 15, 1947

Larry Doby 

Cleveland Indians

July 5, 1947

Hank Thompson

St. Louis Browns

July 17, 1947

Willard Brown 

St. Louis Browns

July 19, 1947

Dan Bankhead

Brooklyn Dodgers

August 26, 1947

Roy Campanella 

Brooklyn Dodgers

April 20, 1948

Satchel Paige 

Cleveland Indians

July 9, 1948

Minnie Miñoso

Cleveland Indians

April 19, 1949

Don Newcombe

Brooklyn Dodgers

May 20, 1949

Monte Irvin 

New York Giants

July 8, 1949

Luke Easter

Cleveland Indians

August 11, 1949

Sam Jethroe

Boston Braves

April 18, 1950

Luis Márquez

Boston Braves

April 18, 1951

Ray Noble

New York Giants

Artie Wilson

New York Giants

Harry Simpson

Cleveland Indians

April 21, 1951

 

Five of them made the Hall of Fame-- Robinson, Doby, Irvin, Paige and Campanella-- and you would certainly have to judge Minoso and Newcombe as having put in very strong careers. Quite possibly, you  could judge two or three others not to have been complete disappointments: let’s put Jethroe, Thompson and Easter into the "not complete disappointments" category, leaving the other six.

If Brown, Bankhead, Marquez, Noble, Wilson, and Simpson had been the first six black players signed to a MLB contract, would there have ever been a seventh? 

Let’s imagine further that Paige had been signed at the age of 42, as he was, and discovered, like many another 42-year-old former superstar, that his skills were no longer what they had been, not a very far-reaching imaginary trip.

Let’s further suppose a couple of the better early black players had been signed, as they were, at a rather advanced baseball age, and found the skills that got them signed were no longer what they were, as often happens to baseball players through no fault of their own. Robinson was 27 before he ever played a minor league game—it’s easy to think of players who put up impressive stats through age 27, and then suddenly fall off a statistical cliff. Among young (white) position players on the 1959 White Sox, to pick a team randomly, three put up really strong numbers through age 27, but then did very little beyond that age to add to their accomplishments: I’m thinking of Johnny Callison, Jim Landis, and Johnny Romano. It’s not inconceivable that three of the A-A players listed above, including Jackie Robinson, could have been signed on the basis of their talent through age 27, and simply fizzled out after that. It happens. When it does, you simply have to scrape it off your shoe, and move on: being a star player through age 27 is no guarantee that you’ll put in a full star-level career.

Any number of realistic other possibilities could have easily derailed Robinson’s MLB career.  He could have gotten badly injured while playing for Montreal in 1946, and never again played to his capacities. Again, the players who suffer career-ending injuries, and career-crippling injuries, and even early deaths, will remind us how much of a role good luck plays in the careers of players who succeed. Jackie Robinson was lucky, in a way that Branch Rickey couldn’t possibly anticipate, in enjoying robust good health for a decade following his signing.

Or Rickey might have simply passed on signing Robinson. He might have found him too intelligent, too independent, too defiant of authority to be a pioneer in integrating MLB. That is to say, Rickey could easily have been far less perceptive than he turned out to be, and all the traits that made Robinson capable of understanding his situation and acting as Rickey wanted him to act—Robinson’s intelligence, independence, and self-reliance—might have filled a lesser man than Rickey with a desire for a dumber, more malleable, more easygoing personality for his great experiment.  Any number of possibilities could have reasonably blocked Robinson’s path.

The good luck enjoyed by all the African-American players, those listed above and all who followed them, derives from Jackie Robinson’s success. For that matter, the beneficiary of his success, and a handful of other early African-American players, was American culture more generally.  All it would take for us to appreciate how good the luck was is to imagine its opposite: Imagine if Jackie had gotten badly hurt, and Satch had suddenly played like he was in his early 40s, and Larry Doby’s skills had fallen off a cliff mysteriously upon his entry to the big leagues, and so on, leaving Brown, Bankhead, Marquez, Noble, Wilson, and Simpson as the first six Negro League players (plus those aforementioned injured, diminished, aged etc. players) with substantial big-league careers.

We are here, as ever, dealing with a tiny sample size, after all. It’s now required that every article on this site must include the phrase "tiny sample size," so I’m merely complying with requirements, but one of the great truths that Bill has been pounding through my thick skull these past few years is just how many MLB achievements, accomplishments, and records can be attributed to small sample sizes where my untutored mind saw plenty of sample size.

Before the skull-pounding, I certainly believed that one baseball season is sufficient space for luck, good or bad, to even out. Now, not so much. Bill’s long-established "Plexiglas principle" of entire teams typically bouncing back from good seasons with lesser seasons runs contrary to my expectations before I was exposed to it, and Bill’s recent study of deserved pitching records has convinced me that an entire career can be insufficiently long to paint a fair picture of a player’s true abilities. While career stats often give a fair approximation, of course, it’s not at all uncommon for sheer luck to subtract 20 or 30 wins from pitchers’ career marks, or to add them. But it’s the outliers-- the guys who got screwed out of (or screwed into) W-L records wildly out of whack with their deserts—who cause our eyes to pop.

To give an idea how widespread Bill’s concept (that he has been touting for a long time now) of the huge part luck plays in W-L records has become, here’s a recent article I ran across that incorporates (without credit, mind you) the concept into an article, no part of which should surprise any BJOL reader in the least: https://medium.com/@jeremylehrman/​the-unluckiest-pitching-staff-in-history-a7f32a6d19e4?fbclid=IwAR1NSn-u9xtDNV11A​YLMo6X-4t1_jVdFyGnOjxaiKHnkKrycKOPpoFsRuuw .  The formerly common idea that these worst-case-ever pitchers somehow "pitched to the score," "caved in the clutch," "lacked guts," "didn’t know how to pitch," "were throwers, not pitchers," etc. has flown out the window, and it’s now assumed that their W-L records simply reflect bad luck. Further, they get no credit, and "deserve" none for their poor W-L records, in the sense that over the course of a career, they don’t "get back" their bad luck in the form of undeserved good luck later on (or earlier). They might, and probably do, have some seasons of good luck, but wins and losses don’t necessarily even out, nor do bad luck pitchers necessarily have long enough careers to allow for those seasons to take place. To cite one egregious example, Nolan Ryan, who is the last player to complain about a prematurely shortened career, suffered his most undeserved W-L record at the age of 40. Ryan might have had to pitch another decade or two before, purely by chance, he would run into good luck on a scale that would give him back the wins he deserved in 1987. He might be pitching today, at age of 72, and not once have gotten that lucky yet. Things don’t even out, and certainly not in the sample sizes that comprise one man’s career.

Or the sample sizes that comprise the first sixteen African-Americans signed to MLB contracts. The seventeenth, as some of you have guessed by now, and the reason I cut off my list in April of 1951, is Willie Mays, who immediately emerged as a big-league superstar when he was called up in late May of 1951. Oh, no, wait, Mays actually kind of famously stunk his first week of 1951, which is another danger of small sample size I haven’t mentioned here: if we assume that the first sixteen A-A players had done poorly by chance alone, would Mays have even gotten called up to the big leagues? Or if he had, would Leo Durocher have given him the assurance after he had gone 1-for-25 that Mays was his centerfielder no matter what? Durocher, to his credit (that I am loath to grant this loathsome man), recognized that Mays was a talented hitter despite his small-sample-size showing in May of 1951, but I would argue that any baseball manager in 1951, and especially Durocher, might have begun to draw sweeping general conclusions about the skill-level of Negro League players if the first few had done poorly. In a context of black players uniformly underperforming, Mays might not have gotten called up at all, or if he had, his first 25 at-bats might have been more than enough to get him sent down to the minors, or maybe released entirely. I should look up the NYC papers to see how Mays’ first few games were received in the popular press, even given the precedent set by Robinson’s and Doby’s early stardom.

(OK, I looked up the NY Times for late May and early June of 1951—surprisingly little mention of Mays at all, with an equally surprising plethora of newsprint dedicated to covering college sports, mainly Ivy League baseball and basketball and golf. One misconception of mine did get cleared up: I had been thinking that Mays had gone 0-for-25 and then hit a massive HR off Warren Spahn that jump-started his career, but it turns out that Mays’ HR off Spahn came in the middle of his 0-for-25 streak: one 0-for-12, a HR, and then 0-for 13. The other thing I hadn’t known, or had forgotten, was that Leo’s support for Willie Mays was visibly beginning to crumble: Durocher batted Mays in the middle of the order throughout the long drought, but in Mays’ 8th game, where he finally got ONTO the interstate, raising his BA from .038 to .100, 3-for-30, Durocher slotted him into the #8 hole, and kept him at or near the bottom of the order for almost a month. To me, that signifies that Leo’s steadfast support was not all that steadfast: I can imagine if Mays’ drought had continued another game or two in the #8 hole, the next step would have been a ticket back to AAA, Leo’s insistence to the contrary notwithstanding.)

If Robinson and Doby et al. hadn’t done well from the start, if Rickey and Veeck et al. hadn’t been such keen scouts of talent, don’t you suppose the naysayers in MLB would have been happy to draw the unwarranted conclusion that ALL black players were simply inferior to their white counterparts? On what order—weeks or months or years or decades—do you suppose it would have taken for baseball to become fully integrated, given colossal bad luck?  As it was, with all these A-A Hall-of-Famers performing well from the outset, the Phillies, Tigers, and Red Sox didn’t start to integrate their teams until over a decade after Jackie Robinson’s debut. Slow learners, I guess. If they’d actually performed badly, might we still be waiting for the first Red Sox player of African-American descent?

If you arranged players by any arbitrary system of organization—by birth-month, or by the third letter of their last names, or by hat-size—it’s virtually certain that one of those systems would eventually result in at least one mindboggling outcome in a sample size that is too large for you to refute comfortably. If I were to tell you, say, that no major league pitcher with a hat-size of 8 and ½ has won a game in the first three months of the 2019 season, you might (pre-Bill) be tempted to lend some credence to the correlation of hat-size and pitching ability. In 1947, there was (and still is, I’d argue) sufficient racism in America to correlate a poor start by Jackie Robinson with some sweeping statement of the entire black race’s inability to compete in sports at the highest level.

But let’s go in the opposite direction for a moment. Baseball, and America ultimately, caught a real break in Jackie Robinson’s immediate emergence as a superstar. All Robinson really needed to do to show that Branch Rickey was on to something, after all, was to have a mediocre year in 1947—the fact that he won the Rookie-of-the-Year award (and the odd fact that his rookie year was the first year there was a Rookie of the Year award to win), or the fact that the Dodgers won the pennant his first year, merely underlined the broader point Rickey was seeking to make, that black players were, on average, about as good as white players. The great good luck that 7 out of the first 10 A-A players played at, or close to, Hall of Fame levels can’t be overstated—but imagine if the level of play of Robinson and Doby and Campy were at the minimum level, not the maximum, of the first few A-A players. Imagine if, for all their skill, the other A-A players had out-performed them.

This is even more unlikely a scenario than my grim, "bad luck," scenario, in that the first ten A-A players actually DID play at remarkably high levels, but just imagine if (again, by sheer chance) all of them got off to career starts better than Robinson’s or Mays’,  if just by chance they blew the lid off MLB even more than they did. Imagine if the first ten A-A players just happened to have their best seasons when they broke into MLB, and if in that first season they had all gotten off to strong starts. Imagine furthermore that the Dodgers and the Indians had won the first three pennants starting in 1947 (which wasn’t all that far from reality) and played each other in the World Series in 1947, 1948, and 1949, after romping to their league championships by 15 or 20 games with 3 or 4 A-A superstars apiece.

Would even the most hardened racist team owner have been able to resist the conclusion that A-A players were pretty good? How many years of their teams getting their ears kicked in on the field would it have taken for baseball to integrate fully? What effect would this have had on integration in America more broadly?

Actually, it’s hard to imagine getting any luckier than baseball did in having so many Hall-of-Fame type talents emerge in the first decade of integration—not only the ones on the list of the first sixteen players above, but also Mays, and Aaron, and Banks and Frank Robinson and others. It’s quite an amazing list of Inner Circle HoF players that you would never get by chance taking ten years’ worth of any other randomly chosen rookies of the same sample size.  But if we imagine anyway getting even luckier, and having black talent not only make the impression it did make on MLB but a much stronger impression—that the first ten A-A players played even above the level of Jackie Robinson, Doby, Campy,  Satch, Mays, Aaron, Banks, Frank Robinson—there might have been a stampede to sign A-A players based purely on the color of their skin, and not at all on the content of their caliber.

Of course, this too would have been as wrongheaded as my doomsday scenario of all ten early A-A players being flops, and for the same reason, an insufficient sample size of players to base a general impression on, and I can’t speculate precisely as to MLB’s response to inner-circle HoFers making a travesty of the game from the start, only that there certainly would have been some sort of grotesque overreaction.

I will suggest that the overreaction would have been socially beneficial, that teams would have naturally integrated much quicker than they did, that A-A players would have been more numerous early on, and that by, say, 1951 or so most teams would have been at least 50 per cent black (and black Hispanic).  More broadly, the country would have had to come to grips with the significance of this development.

Obviously, I think the whole idea of accepting blacks more broadly would have been a great advance, but we also must consider that the effect of A-A domination of baseball might have been disastrous as well. Was the U.S. in the late 1940s ready to come to grips with the idea that black people are at least equal to whites, and possibly even their superiors, in any regard?  Would baseball, to stick with this one symbolic realm, simply have shut down rather than accept the evidence of black superiority? (It is false evidence, I remind you, but the exact type of false evidence based on wholly inadequate sample size that we insisted for decades was absolutely true.) I can imagine some racist owners, maybe one whose name rhymed with "Bomb Talkie", tiring of seeing his lily-white team get stomped on for a whole season or two by these Negro upstarts, refusing to field a team against black opponents, or just giving up on owning his team. I can imagine widespread talk of baseball going straight to hell, of white fans boycotting games (especially if their particular teams stunk), of sponsors pulling out of their association with MLB until this whole controversy settled down.

Not that Mr. Talkie would have been the lone racist among owners—as it was, baseball was so slow to integrate that we can only impute most of the owners’ motivations to racism, some of it couched in terms of what "the fans" were willing to accept but obviously Brooklyn’s fans and Cleveland’s fans were no different from fans of other teams—it was Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck and one or two other owners who were themselves simply far less racist. How would a man committed to the principle of white supremacy have responded to clear-seeming evidence of black supremacy?  Again, I’ll remind you that I’m not claiming that blacks are superior to whites at playing baseball (though Bill’s comparison by race in the 1987 Abstract continues to blow me away), merely projecting that through some good luck, and a small sample size, the few teams signing black players early on, the Dodgers, the Indians, the Braves perhaps, could have dominated MLB more than they did at first, and created that impression. What would have been the Red Sox owner’s response to losing a hundred games each year while the crosstown Braves, led by superstar Sam "Death-Row" Jethroe, were winning pennant after pennant? Or the Yankees owners’ response to losing a hundred games while the Indians were perennially meeting the crosstown Dodgers in the World Series? Would they have kept their rosters lily-white in perpetuity? Would they have integrated more quickly than they did? Would they have gotten out of the baseball business entirely?

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, "Depend on it, Sir, when a man knows he’s going to lose 100 games each season in perpetuity, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Both of these unlikely scenarios, that the first dozen black major leaguers could have played much better or much worse than they actually did, are possible only because of the small sample size involved, but I wonder what effect either extreme would have had on baseball and society more generally.

 
 

COMMENTS (15 Comments, most recent shown first)

DaveNJnews
Thought I’d mention: Of the 4 players signed to break the color line in the world of pro football in 1946, Marion Motley and Bill Willis were Hall of Famers, very much on merit. Their Cleveland Browns won a string of championships, and Paul Zimmerman used to argue Motley was the best player ever.

The other 2 did not achieve much. Kenny Washington, the most accomplished of the 4 before 1946, wa too banged up to do much and Woody Strode lasted only one season, though he did well by himself in Hollywood. Both, of course, had played exceptionally well with Jackie Robinson at UCLA.
10:19 AM Apr 19th
 
MarisFan61
Steven: As per one of my comments, I thought the article showed some innumeracy in how you cast the chance of 'luck' having made those several players do poorly, and you do it further in that last comment of yours: "This is a very small sample, folks, fewer than a dozen players--just by luck, anything could happen to them."

See my analogy about flipping weighted coins.
Sure, "anything" could have happened with each one of them, but the chance of it happening with all or even almost all of them would have been tiny.

And also, since you didn't say anything further about this: Please do realize that you misremembered what Bill's thing said (or implied) in that old Abstract.
10:41 AM Apr 17th
 
Marc Schneider
garywmaloney,

Good point about the barnstorming through the South and the possible effect of integration on attendance. But aside from that, some of the existing MLB teams were in areas that were effectively southern as well, such as St. Louis. And other cities, even if not southern, had a lot of residual working-class racism in a day when the working class was a large part of attendance. So, yes, I agree that concern about reaction by fans was at least part of the reason why it took so long to integrate.

But I continue to disagree with Steven's point for the reasons that have been raised. I don't think anyone is saying Robinson's failure would have made no difference. But I think saying it would have prevented integration for decades is an exaggeration. Again, I point to the fact that other sports were becoming integrated before baseball. I understand that baseball was the number one sport at the time, but I think it would have been difficult to ignore societal/political pressure to integrate for long.
8:34 AM Apr 17th
 
Steven Goldleaf
You overrate scouting's efficiency. They had also played against, say, Johnny Rizzo, for example https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/rizzojo01.shtml and proclaimed Rizzo to be a superstar, but he turned out, after a very good rookie year, not to be such a superstar. Lots of times, with the best knowledge available, scouts would go nuts over a player and, then as now, once in a while, that information would turn out to be wrong. Or in Rizzo's case, as in some others I'm speculating about, it turns out to be pretty much what the scouts unanimously predict but the career fails for the precise reasons I'm speculating about here: injury, age, or just plain inexplicable fizzle-ability. Happens all the time, even today, with far more sophisticated scouting methods in wide use. My speculation is just that this failure of scouting, especially with this group of players subject to aging and injury, affected this group of ten players with rare and unlikely consistency.

This is a very small sample, folks, fewer than a dozen players--just by luck, anything could happen to them, and we would have wrongly attributed it to some overarching cause. I'm a little astonished by the consensus opinion here, which if I may paraphrase, seems to be "Oh, Jackie could have flopped, and every other black player as well, and that wouldn't have presented the civil rights movement with more than a hiccup. Maybe a six-month delay in the whole integration process. No, three months, if that." I offer my own speculation that Jackie's failure (et al. those guys) would have been YOOOOGE, derailing the process by years if not decades. It's hard to imagine, but there is a reason that we refer to it as Rickey's gamble, not Rickey's sure-thing. It could well have failed, and with, I offer, disastrous results.

The opposite effect I speculate on, that these players would have been instant superstars all and spark a rush on Negro League players (even more than it occurred) is also fraught with danger. I'm not sure this country was able to cope with going from total segregation to an acceptance of black players' total domination of MLB--again, that wouldn't have required much change, just some better luck. Just imagine if Rickey and Veeck would have signed Robinson, Campy, Satch, Doby, Newcombe, who all had slightly better seasons than they actually had, and also signed up a few other Negro League superstars who also had great seasons starting in 1947, and the Dodgers and Indians met in every single World Series of the late 1940s and early 1950s, with the only black players in MLB. This is nearly what did happen--those Dodgers and Indians were strong teams--but if it had, would the effect have been progressive or repressive?

4:55 AM Apr 17th
 
garywmaloney
Something else -- a reminder from Bill Jenkinson's book, "The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Homers" -- as well as Timothy Gay's "Satch, Dizzy and Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson":

All these players and executives had SEEN the great black ballplayers in person, played against them . . . they KNEW how great Oscar Charleston was, and Paige, Josh Gibson, etc.

By 1947, the quality of their play was known to everyone in the game, regardless of residual racism. This artificial separation simply was not going to last -- too much talent out there, and a society pushing inevitably towards eventual integration. The dam was going to burst.

Now -- the flip side. Pushing against this was another factor, not discussed too often -- and that was how the ML teams based in the Northeast and Midwest spent large amounts of time training, and profitably barnstorming, throughout the South. Spring and exhibition games worth lots of money and notoriety were played throughout the segregated states by teams like the Red Sox. Many minor league teams were based in this region. The attitudes of these paying customers no doubt was a factor in team decisions, and should not be dismissed.
9:14 PM Apr 16th
 
garywmaloney
Re DavidTodd's point -- the Durocher question is interesting. He was ousted as Brooklyn manager just before Jackie arrived -- so it's impossible to say how well he would have responded to the pressures. Certainly Burt Shotton handled matters to satisfaction, both in 1947 (pennant) and after the reinstated Durocher moved to the Giants in July 1948.

Whatever else you want to say about Leo -- he managed one of the teams (NY Giants) most dependent on black talent to two pennants in four years, and if he was attacked for racism, I've never heard it. Mays, Monte Irvin, Hank Thompson . . . this was the backbone of his team, they respected him and the team prospered. If there was something wrong, it didn't seem to affect their chances.

Leo's two subsequent teams (late 60s Cubs, early 70s Astros) were heavily dependent on top black talent.

But I don't know if he would have been stable or calm enough to serve as a PIONEER in the hothouse situation of 1947. Rickey couldn't control him -- that's one reason he let him go a year later, to Horace Stoneham's amazement.
7:07 AM Apr 16th
 
garywmaloney
Too much untapped talent = market opportunity for somebody. Veeck would have done it first if Rickey hadn't, IMO. The premise of the article is correct, however -- there was no guarantee Jackie was going to be a spectacular success.

The context of postwar race relations is important, and it was pointed entirely in the direction of slow-but-steady integration -- a major impact of World War II, and also domestic politics. BOTH the Northern section of the Democratic Party and the (almost entirely Northern) Republican Party was generally / vaguely in favor of increasing rights for blacks. (Recall - it was GOP votes that ensured passage of the 50s & 60s Civil Rights Acts, over Southern Democratic opposition.)

Plus, don't forget the role of A. Philip Randolph and black labor leaders -- during and after the war, they were highly influential with FDR and especially Truman (the latter, much weaker politically, trying to win re-election in 1948). Truman issued a key civil-rights report in 1947 and made tough proposals in early 1948, in the teeth of opposition from his party's powerful Southern wing -- and he would have done this without Jackie's success.
5:13 AM Apr 16th
 
DavidTodd
Is there any other record of Leo Durocher being a pioneer voice in integration. I know he pats himself on the back, but does any body else say anything about him.
12:45 AM Apr 16th
 
MarisFan61
A couple other things.....

-- Your point seems to hinge not only on supposing Jackie hadn't succeeded but also on a half-dozen or more other things that are counter to what did happen and what had any great chance to happen. It's like, you're musing about what would happen if we flipped 'tails' 6 or 7 or 8 times in a row -- with a coin that had less than a 50-50 chance to come up tails. You're musing about a thing that had only a tiny, tiny chance to happen, which doesn't feel like a good basis for spinning out a scenario.

-- You're giving a mistaken impression of Bill's thing about race in that 1987 Abstract. You seem to be implying that Bill found (or implied or suggested) that black players were superior to whites, or something like that. In fact I don't see any other way to take what you said.

That's has no relation whatsoever to Bill's findings or to what he said about them or what he suggested. What Bill found was that it seemed that if you look at players who performed comparably as young rookies (and if you controlled for every imaginable possible confounding factor), blacks as a group progressed best from that point. (Whites worst, Hispanics in the middle.)
That's important, and great food for thought, and I've been sorry to see that it seems nobody has picked up on it in these 30+ subsequent years and taken it further -- but it has no relation to anything like whether one race tends to have better players.
12:36 AM Apr 16th
 
MarisFan61
While this wasn't central to your point, it does seem to me that it might have arisen from the mindset with which you were approaching it.

You characterized these 3 players quite wrongly:
...let’s put Jethroe, Thompson and Easter into the "not complete disappointments" category...

C'mon. :-)

First of all, Jethroe and Easter were old players. If we take their ages into account, and having the full awareness that we currently have about age and baseball performance, they did great.
But, since really we're talking about how players were seen at that time, let's even forget about 'full awareness that we currently have.'
Let's just look at them (and Thompson also) just in terms of how they played, no consideration of age.

One at a time:

Jethroe had two very good years. He was Rookie of the Year in his first year and led the league in stolen bases both of those years. BTW he also had extremely good stolen base percentages in both years but we'll mostly ignore that because it probably wasn't sufficiently appreciated at the time, that he was stealing at an 80+% rate when the average rate was usually 50-60% and many top base stealers themselves were in that range; and he scored 100 runs in both of those years, ranking 6th and 7th in the league. He had 22 and 23 Win Shares in those years, according to this site's data. (The following year, which looks pretty mediocre or worse on the bare stats, still was 16 Win Shares.) I don't see why one would be inclined to consider him to be merely in the "not complete disappointment" category. He was a good player.

Thompson had a quite strong 8-year career (not counting the brief play in 1947, when he was 21). He didn't become a star but he was a clearly above average third baseman (sometimes outfield) almost every year, probably each and every year except '51 when he had an off year (I wonder if he might have been hurt -- he missed a lot of games). I don't see why one would be inclined to consider him to be merely in the "not complete disappointment" category. He was a good player.

Luke Easter, after brief play in 1949, had 3 years with OPS+'s of 122, 124, and 141; then (age 37) 119 in 68 games. His HR and RBI numbers in those 3 years:
28-107
27-103
31-97

His ranking in the league in HR's in those years was 6th, 4th, 2nd; in RBI's, 8th, 4th, 6th.
I don't see why one would be inclined to consider him to be merely in the "not complete disappointment" category. He was a good player.
9:47 PM Apr 15th
 
stevebogus
The assumption here is that Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby had immediate success. That isn't exactly true.

Jackie had a good start, and hit safely in 5 of his first 6 games for a .409 average. But he came back down to earth and it took a while before he began hitting like the Jackie Robinson we would remember. Fifteen games into the 1947 season Jackie was at .241/.333/.328, certainly below what was expected of a firstbaseman. After 36 games he was at .264/.360/.329, and if he were pulled form the starting lineup then I doubt anyone would have complained that he wasn't given a chance. From May 31 through the end of the season Jackie hit .307/.391/.458, and proved Branch Rickey was right.

Larry Doby was signed in midseason, on July 2 1947. The Indians already had their lineup set and Doby was used mainly for pinch-hitting. But he hit just .156 in 32 at-bats. It wasn't until 1948, when he came to spring training and won a starting job, that Doby showed what he could do.

Both players had the support of owners who believed in them, and they were going to be given enough opportunity. And, I believe, if they didn't become stars, or even regular players, Rickey and Veeck were going to keep trying with other players.

It wasn't as if baseball didn't know there was talent available. Black and White ballplayers had been doing barnstorming tours for quite a while. They knew they could play.
6:53 PM Apr 15th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Marc, thanks for the comment. I’m speculating more about the possibility that all of the early African-American players had come up short in MLB, rather than just Robinson, and I specifically mention Bill Veeck’s vision in addition to Rickey’s, though Robinson and Rickey serve as symbols as well as civil-rights pioneers for obvious reasons.

Consider how slow baseball was to integrate, however, in the face of Robinson’s (and Doby’s and Campanella’s et al.) instant success. The players I list comprise a little over four years of black ballplayers in MLB, yet only 5 teams out of 16 by opening day of 1951 had had even one African-American on their roster. The Dodgers and Indians and Browns and Giants and Braves had amply demonstrated that they’d found a virtually free source of star players, and the other 11 teams were still going, “Uh, not too sure about this yet. Star players? Don’t know if we need more of those, we’re doing fine with white guys so far.” If this was the rate of integration with Robinson and others playing like the Hall of Famers they were from the git-go, that rate wouldn’t have been any quicker if these pioneers had failed, would it?

The only question to my mind is how long complete integration would have taken without their immediate success. Since MLB wasn't fully integrated until the very late 1950s, I wonder if it would have taken until the early 1960s. Late 1960s? Even later? It's hard to imagine, but saying "No, it would have happened at about the same rate it did happen" is even harder for me to feature.

5:32 PM Apr 15th
 
wdr1946
Willard Brown, on your list, is also in the Hall of Fame. One factor which is seldom taken into account is that by the 1940s the Negro Leagues were a viable business. I have read that this was the largest black owned business in the US at that time. All of their clubs were owned by black businessmen, except for the Kansas City Monarchs, owned by a white man, J.L. Wilkinson. Apparently, they weren't all that thrilled at having their businesses made bankrupt by Branch Rickey, Bill Veeck, et al., with little or no compensation. It is possible that a different kind of integration might have occurred, in which two of their clubs (say) might have been added to the existing major leagues intact. By the late 1950s, certainly the pressures to integrate would have been overwhelming, even if Jackie Robinson hadn't existed.
5:23 PM Apr 15th
 
Marc Schneider
Steven,

I understand the points you are making, but I disagree for a number of reasons. First, let me make it clear that I am not denigrating at all Robinson's courage and his contributions to baseball and to the United States. I could never have survived what he did.

However, I do not think that Robinson's failure would have significantly delayed the integration of baseball. In the late 1940s, the country was changing. Everyone thinks of the civil rights movement as starting with Rosa Parks, but it really started after WW II. Yes, baseball was among the most reactionary institutions but I think it was just a matter of time before baseball was integrated. In fact, the NFL was integrated before baseball. (And when I say integrated, I mean there was a smattering of African-American players; obviously, it was some time before the sports were fully integrated.) And I don't think Branch Rickey was the only person who recognized the talent level among Negro League players. African-Americans were becoming, even in the 1940s, a more significant segment of the northern population so I suspect some of the owners would have seen some benefit in having African-American players. The issue you raise about the effect on white fans is interesting, but I haven't seen any evidence that white fans began staying away because of the presence of black stars.

This isn't to say that you would still not have had issues with some teams (Yankees, Red Sox) being slow to integrate, but I think it would have happened even if Robinson had failed. It was simply inevitable in my view. The idea of white supremacy in the athletic arena was already fading; see, for example, Jesse Owens. (And, obviously, I'm excluding the South from this, but the South had no major league teams at the time.) At the same time, the government was beginning (slowly) the integration of the armed forces. It just seems to me that there were too many things happening in the society to prevent integration of the major leagues, even if a lot of players, owners, and some fans were not ready for it.
3:22 PM Apr 15th
 
DavidTodd
I do remember, in the late 50s, saying to my uncle that Negro players were better than white players, because, or course, there were so many good Negro players, and very few, if any, poor ones. When I got older I realized that was because only the very good ones were getting to the majors, the star and his roommate idea. The idea at the time was that Negroes were good at sports and entertainment.​
1:02 PM Apr 15th
 
 
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