Racial hierarchy and sports


Essay Overview | How sport became a means for marginalized groups to assimilate in America.

Note: This was written for “Sports in American History” taught at Oxnard College by Dr. Joshua Lieser.

Crispus Attucks, an African and Native American, is regarded by many as the first person to die for the American cause. He was a laborer, dock worker, and the first victim of the Boston Massacre, an incident that fueled propaganda for Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, eventually leading up to the American Revolution. Following World War II, Americans adjusted to the thought of colored athletes because “African Americans were dying for their country.”[1] If others considered Attucks to be an American icon because of his death, dying at the hands of the British, then perhaps racial ideology would not have been implemented so heavily in American institutions and life. Jules Tygiel’s “A Lone Negro in the Game: Jackie Robinson’s Rookie Season” illustrates the numerous obstacles Robinson faced and overcame in his career. Tygiel’s essay successfully encompasses the racial tensions and attitudes that plagued America, its citizens, and its culture, affecting Robinson’s career, life, and Major League Baseball.

The notion of racial hierarchy is prominent in American history, and there are institutions that maintain this theory or racial supremacy. In addition to outspoken individuals spewing disgust towards people of color, the implication of racial inferiority was falsely validated through segregation, Jim Crow Laws, and the groups represented, misrepresented, and underrepresented in entertainment like theatre, music, and sports. Robinson was the ideal candidate for this progressive movement in baseball. He was an “all-around superstar athlete at UCLA and an All-American in football,” and he was from Los Angeles, “was a former army officer,  and was married to a sophisticated African American woman.” [2] Right off the bat, Robinson is held to a different standard than other players who excelled playing America’s favorite pastime. Robinson needed to fit the bill not only regarding his skills but his overall assessment in society was based on his education, service to the United States, and the classiness of his wife.

On April 18, 1946, Robinson played with the Brooklyn Dodgers against the New York Giants, breaking the color-line. In the weeks to follow, the Dodgers played the Philadelphia Phillies, where Ben Chapman the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies instructed players to spit racial remarks at Robinson “to see if he can take it.” [3] Chapman provided plenty examples “from thick lips to the supposedly extra-thick Negro skull… [and] the repulsive sores and diseases he said Robinson’s teammates would become infected with if they touched the towels or the combs he used.”[4] Robinson, already subjected to the cruelty of the public and media, was forced to mask his true emotions and maintain composure for everyone’s sake, even if he felt defeated and wanted to do away with Branch Rickey’s “noble experiment,” inserting Robinson in the white players’ league.[5] Racial ideology encourages people to view sports through a cracked lens, viewing performances in a highly racialized manner in terms of skin color and stereotypes. This meant that whites were the standard and all other groups were comparative, which is no surprise when people found mixed leagues to be distasteful and discouraged them.

Yankees President Larry McPhail issued a report to the American League regarding his stance on integrated baseball. Even though he claimed that “[t]he appeal of baseball is not limited to any racial group,” McPhail strongly opposed integrating players from the Negro League for several reasons. [6] He contended that “political and social-minded drum-beaters [were] conducting pressure campaigns… [singling] out professional baseball because it offers a good publicity medium.” [7] Sports act as a vessel for people of color since it aids them in settling in American culture, so it is reasonable to conclude that baseball was a tangible path. However, McPhail conceals the inaccessibility of other sports for non-white athletes by including pressures from particular groups, and he insisted that the spectators were primarily watching for the players who excelled, ignoring color, race, and creed. McPhail assured that his stance was “not racial discrimination. [It was] simply respecting the contractual relationship between the Negro leagues and their players.” [8] This, of course, was self-proclaimed, used to justify racial segregation, adhering to institutional racism.

When Robinson traveled with the Dodgers, the racial bias never truly faded. He had to travel separately and once arrived two days late, upsetting Rickey. Still, he acted for his safety and for the comfort of others, not arriving unannounced so he would not cause a commotion. Then, while in Philadelphia, the team usually stayed at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, but the hotel refused to allow Robinson inside, forcing him to find an alternative. The team’s officials expected this from other cities like “St. Louis and Cincinnati, but not in the City of Brotherly Love.” [9] Camaraderie and hospitality were exclusive to race. Even when Robinson felt comfortable in cities like Sanford where “[he] smiled at [others and] actually felt like waving,” he was not allowed back, making him feel humiliated. [10] Despite being a player in compliance with McPhail’s rules of “possess[ing] the technique coordination, the competitive attitude, and the discipline,” Robinson had no place to be Jackie Robinson, a person. [11] Regarding his genius in the game, his nicknames were based on white players and the color of his skin, implying that he was not good enough to be his own person and/or he was meant only for black audiences.

America’s favorite pastime was a driving force of social change because it was co-opted from its traditional purpose of entertainment and distraction, becoming a tool for marginalized groups. It was not a seamless transition, but it paved the way for other athletes. Tygiel’s essay frames the political climate Robinson survived while depicting how sport helped combat these obstacles. Most Americans do not know who Crispus Attucks was, but everyone knows who Jackie Robinson is. He is immortalized in American history not only for his talent on the field but for his ability to withstand the heat, shattering the racial hierarchy.

[1]           “Sport and Race in America Since 1945.” Major Problems in American Sport History, ed. Steven Riess. (New York City: Cengage Learning, 2015), 378.

[2]           “Sport and Race in America Since 1945,” 378.

[3]           Tygiel, Jules. “A Lone Negro in the Game: Jackie Robinson’s Rookie Season,” in Major Problems in American Sports History, ed. Steven Riess. (New York City: Cengage Learning, 2015), 389.

[4]           Tygiel, Jules, 389.

[5]           Tygiel, Jules, 390.

[6] McPhail, Larry. “Yankees President Larry McPhail’s Plan to Discourage Integration of Baseball, 1946,” in Major Problems in American Sports History, ed. Steven Riess. (New York City: Cengage Learning, 2015), 380.

[7]           McPhail, Larry, 380.

[8]           McPhail, Larry, 380.

[9]           Tygiel, Jules, 390.

[10]         Robinson, Jack R. “Jackie Robinson on the Struggles of His First Spring Training, 1946,” in Major Problems in American Sports History, ed. Steven Riess. (New York City: Cengage Learning, 2015), 382.

[11]         McPhail, Larry, 380.

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