Part IV- Jackie Robinson and the
Demise of the National Negro League
By Jim Halloran
Post war baseball was haunted by discrimination issues. There was mounting pressure from black activists on the owners to end MLB segregation rules.
The death of Commissioner Kennesaw Judge Landis, a devout segregationist, in 1944 opened the door for Brooklyn Dodger President Branch Rickey to sign Jackie Robinson in 1945 to a minor league contract with the Montreal farm club. Robinson had been a young star for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League after having been a standout in four sports at UCLA.
More importantly to Rickey was the belief that Jackie had the personality, character and fortitude to become the first African American to play Major League baseball. Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947 and went on to win the Rookie of the Year Award despite the never ending harassment he was confronted with in every city the team visited.
Later in the same season outfielder Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians became the first black player in the American League. Jackie led the National League in batting in 1949 and was named the MVP.
He went on to a magnificent baseball career that included being selected to six all star games, playing in six world series, and being the two-time stolen base leader. Jackie retired from the game after the 1956 season but continued to be an activist for African American civil rights including marching alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. The integration of baseball set the stage for the civil rights movement to follow..
Baseball played an important role in this movement. Black ballplayers legitimately stole the spotlight from the whites.
Over a 10 year span in the 1950s they won seven league Most Valuable Player awards. Outfielders Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Larry Doby; infielders Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks of the Cubs; and catcher Roy Campanella and pitcher Don Newcombe of the Dodgers were a few of the standout black players of this era.
One drawback to the success of baseball’s integration was the demise of the Negro Leagues due to losing their star players. The African American population enjoyed following the success of black players in the major leagues and joined the rest of America in following Major League baseball. At the same time baseball interest continued to grow in the Latin American countries.
With the death of Jackie Robinson’s death the mantra for African American baseball was passed on to a lesser known star of the Negro League, Buck O’Neil. Buck was given the name The Soul of Baseball by author Joe Posanki in his book of the same name. It was deservedly given as he was a man who stood for all that is right in baseball for over seven decades. Buck never got to play Major League baseball due to segregation.
He did have a splendid career for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues but was too old by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barriers in 1947 to make the big leagues as a player. He did however serve as a scout and coach for the Chicago Cubs.
He held no bitterness at not being able to play in the majors but grateful for the chance to play in the Negro Leagues with the likes of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibbons. But what made Buck “the Soul of Baseball” was what he stood for in the later part of his life. He became the story teller for the Negro Leagues and a national good will ambassador for the game itself.
In 1990 Buck led the drive for the creation of the Negro League Museum in Kansas City. He went on to serve as Chairman of the Board and gained national prominence when he was featured in Ken Burns documentary video and book, Baseball, in 1994.
His electrifying presence and optimistic outlook on life and baseball made him the face of baseball for 20 years until his death in 2006 at the age of 94.
In 1996 Buck was nominated for induction into the Hall of Fame by a special committee researching Negro League players. Everyone was stunned when 17 former Negro League players were named to the Hall but not Buck O’Neil. But Buck wasn’t. As the man of grace that he was, O’Neil said, “Don’t shed any tears. You think about this: Here I am, the grandson of a slave. And here the whole world was excited about whether I was going into the Hall of Fame or not. We’ve come a long ways.”
He was proud to serve as the players induction presenter for the players that were enshrined that same year. Posthumously Buck was given the nations highest honor, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President George Bush in 2006.
Today he is remembered with a single red seat amidst all the blue stadium seats behind the plate at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.