Here’s the beginning of my story “Being on the Outside.” This story is about two men who were on the outside: Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball in the US; and Wendell Smith, an African American sportswriter who was not allowed in the press room at ball parks. Both Jackie Robinson and Wendell Smith are members of The Baseball Hall of Fame.
Have you ever been on the outside, looking in? Knowing how hard it was going to get inside, knowing how hard you’d have to prove that you belonged inside once you got there, but still wanting to be inside?
Wendell Smith had those feelings for a lot of his life, especially when he started asking questions in 1938.
Wendell Smith was an African American sports reporter for the biggest African American newspaper in US – The Pittsburgh Courier. In 1938, he started asking white players, managers and owners of major league baseball teams visiting Pittsburgh questions.
He started with an easy one: “Have you seen any Negro players you thought could play major league baseball?”
Then he asked, “Do you think black players ought to be allowed to compete with white players?”
Wendell Smith reported the answers in The Pittsburgh Courier. 75% said they supported integration of the major leagues.
Wendell Smith later said, “When I asked those questions, I was not in the press box. I was not allowed in there. I had to ask my questions outside the ballpark or at the hotel.” He was literally on the outside.
The integration of the major leagues didn’t happen then in 1938. But other African American sports writers started asking the same questions. And they continued to ask those questions.
Five years later, in 1943, in order to get these African American reporters off his back, the Commissioner of Baseball held a meeting with Wendell Smith, a few other reporters and the owners of the major league teams. The presentation lasted 30 minutes. After the reporters left the room, the Commissioner declared, “There will be no discussion.”
That might have seemed like a complete waste of time. But Wendell Smith later said, “I thought I saw a gleam in Branch Rickey’s eye.” Branch Rickey was the general manager and part owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team that had never won the World Series.
Two years later, in April 1945, a white Boston politician, whose district was filling up with African American voters, helped Wendell Smith. The politician made a stink that Boston’s two baseball teams, the Red Sox and the Braves, were not integrated. The general manager of the Red Sox said, “No black player has ever asked for a tryout.” When Wendell Smith read that, he called up that manager and said, “I know of three black players who would like to try out for your team: Sam Jethroe, Marvin Williams, and Jackie Robinson.” Wendell Smith later said, “I picked three young men playing in the Negro Leagues, intelligent men who had played with white athletes in college, and who weren’t afraid to take some harassment.” Men like himself.
Wendell Smith and those three went to Boston for the tryouts, where the Boston Red Sox management just went through the motions for one hour, then sent everyone away. That might have seemed like a complete waste of time. But on his way back to Pittsburgh, Wendell Smith stopped in Brooklyn to speak with Branch Rickey.
Wendell Smith later recalled, “When I was telling him about the tryouts and said, ‘Jackie Robinson’, Branch Rickey raised his bushy eyebrows and said, ‘Jackie Robinson! I knew he was a good football player but I didn’t know he played baseball.’” Branch Rickey recognized Jackie Robinson’s name because Jackie had become famous across the US playing football on a scholarship for UCLA. But he had also been on the baseball, track and tennis teams.
Later that year, 1945, Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers’ top minor league team, the Montreal Royals. He wanted to see how Jackie would do there. He told Jackie: “I want a ballplayer with guts enough NOT to fight back.” Well, in 1946, Jackie had a league leading batting average of .349, 113 runs scored, 40 bases stolen, and lead his team to victory in the minor league’s World Series. So April 1947, Branch Rickey signed on Jackie Robinson as Brooklyn Dodger, nine years after Wendell Smith had started asking questions.
In the next few weeks, I'm pleased to be telling several different programs open to the public:
Thanks for reading this issue. I’ll be sending you some more story highlights in a few months.