The book: “Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball”
The author: Chris Lamb, an associate professor of media studies at the College of Charleston.
The vital stats: University of Nebraska press, 416 pages, $39.95
The pitch: Those already familiar with the work of Lester Rodney and the 2003 biography by Irwin Silber called “Press Box Red” (linked here) know a bit more about the task Lamb is tackling with this book.
Fortunately, Lamb says he was able to interview Rodney prior to his 2009 passing, and Lamb’s plea again (along with David Zirin) to get Rodney inducted into the writer’s wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame is apropos here.
Lamb, who also wrote the 2004 book “Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training” (linked here), credits Jules Tygiel’s “Baseball Great Experiment” in 1997 for giving him an appreciation for the importance of the story of desegregation, as well as Brian Carroll’s 2007 book, “Where to Stop the Cheering? The Black Press, the Black Community and the Integration of Baseball.”
But where Lamb takes the next call to action is actually pouring through thousands of microfilm stories from newspapers, some more than 100 years ago, and making more of a pinpoint discovery about how some writers were strongly talking about integrating baseball as far back as 1933.
Lamb’s interest in this subject came, he says, while as a columnist for the Dayton Beach News-Journal when he did a story in 1993 about retired Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter Billy Rowe, who accompanied Jackie Robinson in spring training, 1946. Rowe’s boss was famed sports editor Wendell Smith, one of the strongest minority voices about integration, with Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American newspapers.
What follows is a clearly academic look by Lamb at how change slowly came, at how conflict arose at almost every paragraph, white or black, and how even some of the black writers who campaigned for change may have been very careful for what they wished for.
An excerpt: From page 14:
“Baseball could not have maintained the color line as long as it did without the aid and comfort of the country’s white mainstream sportswriters, who participated in what black sportswriter Joe Bostic called a ‘conspiracy of silence’ (a phrase taken from Tygiel’s “Great Experiment”). When (former New York World-Telegram sportwriter Heywood Broun, in a 1933 speech before the N.Y. Baseball Writers’ Association dinner) confronted the color line, he violated the conspiracy of silence …
“White sports writers may have grumbled to themselves and squirmed in their seats … but they said nothing about the issue in their own columns and articles. But Broun (and New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Powers) sent a message to black sports writers that they were not alone.”
Page 200, how Bostic later was supporting the existence of the Negro Leagues:
“If (Major League) owners opposed desegregation for business reasons, Joe Bostic said he did so for practical reasons. Bostic said he was ‘lukewarm’ to the idea of blacks in the big leagues. He said that desegregation would destroy the Negro Leagues and with it one of the more important black businesses. Second, why should black players willingly submit themselves to the ‘humiliation and indignities associated with the problems of eating, sleeping and traveling in a layout dominated by prejudice-ridden southern whites!’ And finally, Bostic said he was not convinced the quality of play was any better in the big leagues than it was in the Negro Leagues. He suggested the winner of this year’s World Series play the winner of a series between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Homestead Grays.
“‘From the idealist and democratic point of view we say ‘yes’ to blacks in the big leagues. But ‘from the standpoint of practicality,’ Bostic said, the answer was ‘no.'”
How it goes down in the scorebook: There’s no black-and-white conclusion to whether the arrival of Jackie Robinson 65 years ago was too late for some, and too early for others.
But Lamb’s research shows the struggle that took place in the media had a lot to do with the tug-o-war of ideals and practicality of all the issues involved in the decision. It’s as good a book on the subject as we’ve ever come across, and it matches up well with the recent review we did on “A People’s History of Baseball” by Mitchell Nathanson (linked here).
Lamb’s research also brings to light how Los Angeles and the Pacific Coast League was talking about adding black players four years before Robinson’s debut in Brooklyn. He writes that in January, 1943, the American Negro Press wire service reported that Clarence “Pants” Rowland (left), manager of the Los Angeles Angels, the top minor league team in the Chicago Cubs organization, had been scouting black players and was particularly interested in pitcher Nate Moreland, from Pasadena — who had been at a tryout with Robinson with the Chicago White Sox. But under pressure from fellow owners, he canceled tryouts with some black players. And The Defender reported that former UCLA star halfback Kenny Washington had asked for a tryout with the Angels and Hollywood Stars but was rejected by both teams (and then made racial inroads into the NFL).
Page 224: “Robert Smith of the Defender reported that no Los Angeles sports writer — except for Gordon Macker of the Daily News — had anything to say about the efforts to desegregate baseball. In addition Smith reported that journalists Halley Harding, sports editor of the Los Angeles Tribune … asked owners and managers to try out black players (and they enlisted the ) Los Angeles County of Supervisors and the Los Angeles City Council … Smith reported that the CIO workers and members of the community would protest outside Wrigley Field in Los Angeles on May 23 before a game between Los Angeles and the Hollywood Stars (and the Defender published a photograph of protesters with picket signs).”
It’s not a read for those looking for something that won’t tax their brains, as the Robinson annual celebrations are fresh in our minds. But it’s worth the time and effort to learn more about the social context of what was at stake, and how there was never a simple answer.
You’d like to think today’s media would have been just as assertive, on both sides, in trying to right a wrong and make the transition more seamless than it turned out to be.
More to read: On how the University of Nebraska, of all places, is helping to nurture the scholarly works of baseball literature (linked here).