When the 1947 major league baseball season approached, the idea that a black man would be playing in the major leagues started becoming a reality. Jack Roosevelt Robinson, better known as “Jackie”, was on the Montreal Royals, a minor league team affiliated with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Branch Rickey, the owner of the Dodgers, had discussed bringing Robinson up when the season began, and the reaction in the black newspapers, specifically the New York Amsterdam News, was one of both hope and doubt. Many articles showed the immense support that Robinson had from the black community, as he tried to become the first black major league baseball player in over 50 years. However, these articles were peppered with phrases of disbelief, as if that same community did not believe that Robinson was actually going to make it. As the season grew closer, both the hope and the doubt grew as well. The hope grew because Rickey’s decision approached. The doubt grew because of all the roadblocks that were put in Robinson’s way. Once the season began, the doubt was erased, and along with it, the hope. The New York Amsterdam News, seeing that Robinson’s debut made little to no difference in immediate day-to-day affairs, turned it’s attention away from the ballplayer and instead back to the Negro leagues, which were being forgotten because of all the attention focused on Robinson. Robinson became just another baseball player, and though brief flashes of coverage throughout his career returned to the black press, the hype was over soon after Robinson set foot on a baseball diamond in a regular season major league game.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, when asked about desegregating baseball said “There is no rule, formal or informal, or any understanding – unwritten, subterranean, or sub-anything – against the hiring of Negro players by the teams of organized ball.” But Landis’ proclamation, however pious, was untrue. As of 1946, the only black man to ever reach the major leagues was Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played for Toledo of the American Association in 1884. Walker was off the team by the end of the season due to injury, but never caught on in the majors again. Despite Landis’ decree that there was no rule banning blacks from baseball, none played there for 62 years.
But on November 25th, 1944, Landis died after 24 years as commissioner. His successor was Happy Chandler, who seemed much more apt to desegregate baseball than Landis did. Chandler, when asked if he would support an owner bringing a black man onto his roster, said, “If a black boy can make it in Okinawa and Guadalcanal, hell, he can make it in baseball.” Rickey said he would lead the charge to desegregate, saying that “the greatest untapped reservoir of raw material in the history of the game is the black race.” On October 23rd, 1945, Rickey’s office announced signing Robinson to a minor league contract. For the next 17 months, America’s, and specifically New York’s, black community waited in anticipation of Robinson’s major league debut – if it would ever happen.
With approximately three weeks remaining in the 1947 preseason, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Montreal Royals faced each other in an exhibition game. Robinson’s Royals lost 10-3, but the New York Amsterdam News still ran an at-bat by at-bat summary of Robinson’s performance at the plate on March 29th. The article ended with the line “Robinson is still at first base for the Royals.” This ending explains why the Amsterdam News was hesitant to believe that Rickey would promote his young star. With only a few weeks until opening day, Robinson was still in the minor leagues.
But the coverage Robinson received was tremendous. On the following page, a story about Robinson being “Jimcrow”-ed from breakfast with Branch Rickey received a triple headline. The paper gladly declared its outrage at Robinson being treated as a second-class citizen, but ironically, in the same article, barely mentioned that Rickey assured a sportswriter that Robinson would be in the majors in 1947. The Amsterdam News instead devoted half of the article to the Negro all-star team that Robinson helped defeat. This showed the doubting nature of the Amsterdam News in regards to Robinson’s situation. Rickey had assured the press that Robinson would be brought up, but with the season fast approaching, the debut looked doubtful.
Robinson’s coverage extended into other areas of the day’s sports page as well. The paper featured three separate pictures of Robinson. One picture was of Robinson and three of his Royal teammates, all of whom were black. The caption begins “Rickey’s Experiment”, and while all of the other players have their stats discussed, the paper says “You should know Robinson’s record by heart.” This is indicative of the tremendous coverage that Robinson had been receiving while the public awaited his possible debut. Some of that coverage included a picture of Robinson after hitting a home run during an exhibition game. There was limited coverage of the Negro Leagues in the Amsterdam News as well – two 50-100 word summaries of breaking news. The final picture was of Robinson shaking Panama professional league president Raul Aranga’s hand. In the caption, Robinson was referred to as a “Dodger candidate.” It was just two weeks from the start of the season, and there was still a possibility that Robinson would not make the club, despite his owner’s claims.
The last Robinson-related piece of news in that day’s paper was a story on a Negro hockey player. Robinson’s possible debut inspired a sort of color-bar-it is, as shown by the double-size headline that read “Negro May Crack Hockey Color Bar.” The 50-word story had a broadcaster claiming that Herb Carnegie, a black man playing in the Provincial League, could be promoted to Montreal of the National Hockey League. The Montreal Canadiens’ coach, however, assured the world that the broadcaster was wrong. Nevertheless, the headline was as big as the entire story. The idea of breaking any color bar sold papers.
On April 5th, the Amsterdam News’ coverage of Robinson died down somewhat. It was growing closer to his debut, and still, Robinson was not up with the big league club. A picture of Robinson shaking hands with Dodger manager Leo Durocher adorned the top left of the sports page. But the caption said that Robinson “may some day play with the Dodgers” showed the increasing amount of doubt held by the paper. Joe Bostic’s “Sports Extra” column, which ran just below the photo, spoke of one of the roadblocks standing in Robinson’s way. Dodger outifelder Dixie Walker, second baseman Eddie Stanky, and reserve catcher Bobby Bragan drew up a petition threatening not to play if Robinson were promoted. Bostic suggested that Rickey give the three, and any other rebelling players, their walking papers. Bostic said that Rickey would benefit by “simply giving all who object to [Robinson] the right to sever their connections with the club.” Bostic also said that no one is indispensable, pointing out how well the Tigers played when they lost “their best stickman”, Hank Greenberg, to the war effort. What Bostic did not realize was the irony of the example he used. When Greenberg first rose to prominence, his performance sold Jewish papers because he was Jewish. As Greenberg became known as one of the better hitters in the major leagues, he became known more for his hitting and less for his religion. A similar transition would happen with Jackie early in his rookie season and throughout the rest of his career. Because of his outstanding performance and his quiet nature, Robinson became less known for his skin color and more for his ability.
On April 12th, less than one week before opening day, the New York Amsterdam News did not preview Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn. Instead, they covered the possibility of his teammates protesting that arrival. The one mention of Robinson in April 12th edition of the Amsterdam News was a story on how Branch Rickey would not let his players decide who makes or does not make the Dodgers. “Without mentioning Jackie Robinson by name but obviously speaking to end reports that some players had indicated that they did not want to play with Jackie,” the Amsterdam News described Rickey’s comments. Even though Robinson had already been called up to play with the Dodgers, he had yet to play a regular season game, and there was still doubt that he ever would. There was no need to cover something that might not happen.
The most telling sign of the Amsterdam News’ doubt that Robinson would ever make it, however, was how they covered, or rather didn’t cover, Robinson’s actual debut. The April 19th issue came out two days after Robinson had already played his first game in the major leagues. However, out of seven pieces of coverage in that day’s paper, only two mentioned Robinson actually playing in the majors.
Dan Burley’s 1,000-word “Confidentially Yours” sports column is subtitled “Let’s Talk Some More About Jackie” and discusses a range of Robinson related topics, but not Robinson himself. Burley delves into Rickey’s psyche, Montreal Royals manager Clay Hopper, Durocher, Landis, the New York Yankees, and finally, the fate of the Negro Leagues. But Burley doesn’t mention that Robinson debuted, probably because Burley wrote the column before Robinson actually did. The end of Burley’s column is most interesting, however. Through most of the Robinson coverage, there hadn’t been much support of the Negro Leagues by writers. Many of them had gotten caught up in the Jackie-hype. But because of all the attention focused on Robinson, attendance at Negro League games was feared to dwindle. Burley assured his readers that this was not the case, rather “far from it.” Burley also wrote that “The trouble with some folks [is] they don’t see the need for unity in support of our own” and urged fans to keep attending Negro League games. Burley’s argument centered around the Negro Leagues being able to produce Robinson, et al. But if the majors became integrated, teams like the Montreal Royals could produce future Robinsons. It seemed that Burley did not just want a pipeline to be opened to the major leagues – he wanted to have blacks control the source.
More coverage of Robinson included an article about boosters that were ready to support him. Except that the article lead with the line “Much has been written and said about Jackie Robinson, currently Montreal Royals second baseman.” Not only had Robinson debuted already, but he had been a Dodger for over a week. This article seems to have been prepared with the belief that by this time, Robinson would have been sent back down to the minor leagues as the season began. Still more coverage came for Robinson on the cover of the Brooklyn section of the Amsterdam News. Though the article described Robinson as the “first Negro athlete to play Major League baseball in modern day”, the sub-headline still read “Star Athlete Waits Rickey “˜OK’ On Plans.” The Amsterdam News was ready to publish their paper as if Robinson did not actually make the major leagues; they were expecting Rickey to go back on his word.
The final four pieces of coverage of Robinson that day came as photographs. Though one picture was of fans “Hoping for Jackie Robinson to make the grade,” and another was of Robinson signing autographs and being “popular with fans” a third was of Robinson being tagged out. And the fourth was most telling, a picture of Robinson with a caption that read, “worry is being centered around his batting.” Robinson was extremely popular amongst both black and white fans early on; thousands filled ballparks out of sheer curiosity. The controversy over the color bar had ended two days before when Robinson broke it, and in order to sell papers, the Amsterdam News created their own by showing that fans still needed to read their paper to see how he was doing. And that would last, until fans realized that Robinson was doing just fine.
Though he was hitless in his debut, Robinson was soon accepted by his team, and performed accordingly. On the third day of the season, Stanky, one of the leaders of the anti-Jackie sentiment in the Dodger clubhouse, shouted to an opposing team who was heckling Robinson, “why don’t you yell at somebody who can answer back?” There was no longer enough controversy surrounding Robinson to sell papers. The focus of the Amsterdam News shifted back to the Negro Leagues.
The April 26th edition of the New York Amsterdam News did have some coverage of Robinson, but it paled in comparison to the space devoted to the Negro Leagues. One picture showed Robinson scoring after his first big league home run, certainly a milestone. But this was a far cry from the at-bat by at-bat summary of an exhibition game. The homerun was against the Giants, another New York team, and would have likely been given more press if hit just before Robinson made the club. Next to the picture of the home run is another picture of Robinson, but this one falls much more into the category society than sports. Robinson is pictured with several black celebrities at the Melody Room, and the caption talks more about the skills of the chef than of Robinson.
Meanwhile, there are seven articles on the Negro Leagues. Joe Bostic devoted his column to the Black Yankees, the Cubans, and the Eagles. And an article about Roy Parlow, a Negro League pitcher who appeared briefly with the Montreal Royals, mocks Rickey by pointing out how good Parlow has been since he returned to the Negro Leagues. Joe Bostic’s “Sports Extra” column touches on several items, but most interesting is his closing with a discussion of the poor umpiring at a Negro League game.
“Evidently Kid Mason, the new umpire who “˜performed’ at the Stadium Sunday, got his addresses mixed. No doubt he was scheduled for Madison Square Garden. That’s where the circus is currently holding forth and we know of no other place where such antics as he got off would be in order. Seriously at this critical point in the history of Negro ball-where the operation of same is being closely scrutinized from all angles, there is room for nothing that doesn’t reflect dignity. Mason’s didoes might be wonderful”
Though Bostic probably wrote more than that, a careless editor or a layout error cut off the rest of his column in favor of an advertisement. Bostic’s assertion that 1947 was a “critical point in the history of Negro ball” was true, but rather than trumpet the benefits of integration, the Amsterdam News was lamenting the imminent demise of the Negro Leagues. No immediate positive results of Robinson’s entry were seen and the paper was left to discuss more tangible stories.
The following week, the Amsterdam News only mentioned Robinson twice. The first was a photo of Robinson being tagged out at home with the caption “No Dodger Score Here.” Though Robinson’s out had no impact on the game, as the Dodgers won 1-0, his out still made the news. It was not because readers of the Amsterdam News followed Robinson’s every move; more likely, the motivation for the picture was to show readers that Robinson may not be doing as well as was reported in white newspapers, and for them to stay tuned.
To that end, Joe Bostic’s column was the other mention of Robinson. At the end of “Sports Extra”, Bostic suggests that the Dodgers might move Robinson to second base if they trade for a hard-hitting first baseman. Bostic’s reasoning had the Dodgers first losing their May games, then trading specifically for a first baseman, and then moving Robinson to second base despite Eddie Stanky’s stranglehold on the position. No other major New York paper reported any such possible move. Bostic was alone in his projections. En route to a first place finish, Jackie Robinson played 151 games at first base in 1947, and none at any other position. Robinson wasn’t moved to second base until 1948, after Eddie Stanky was traded to the Boston Braves.
Despite Robinson’s success in his rookie season, The New York Amsterdam News did not follow his exploits with the same vigor it did before Robinson was called up. Once the color barrier was broken, Robinson was no longer as controversial as he was while the bar remained in tact, and it was difficult for a newspaper to sell copies by trumpeting a victory that seemed to have no other immediate repercussions. Even once Robinson became accepted by his teammates, opponents, and road hotels, that was still just one man. While Robinson may have been able to use previously segregated facilities, other blacks could not. It was not until 1955 that the Yankees became the last major league team to integrate by signing Elston Howard, and by then schools had already been desegregated in the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education and black newspapers had much more pressing things to discuss than baseball. Robinson’s debut, however important it became in the larger scope of desegregation, did not make as much of an immediate impact as many historians insinuate. The New York Times devoted half a column to Robinson’s debut, which writer Arthur Daley called “quite uneventful.” Daley also said Robinson “minds his own business and shrewdly makes no effort to push himself.” Perhaps that is why the New York Amsterdam News was unable to sell papers with Robinson stories after he debuted. Rickey chose Robinson because he was quiet, reserved, and would not create more frenzy than necessary. And for all of those reasons, the Amsterdam News chose to cover other subjects.