The Real Reason Blacks Got to Play Major League Baseball

Askia Muhammad | 4/17/2013, 9 p.m.
I grew up in Los Angeles, Calif., when baseball was the dominant sport, when our neighborhoods had not even begun ...
Askia Muhammad

I grew up in Los Angeles, Calif., when baseball was the dominant sport, when our neighborhoods had not even begun to be called "Da Hood." This was long before the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants moved to the West Coast, taking up residency in L.A. and San Francisco, respectively.

Little did I know, but my father's older brother was a real baseball celebrity in those days. He was a left-handed pitcher with El Centro Mexicali, because in his prime, Black players only dreamed of playing for teams like the Dodgers, even though, going way, way back, my Uncle Nate had played at Pasadena Junior College, with the immortal Jackie Robinson, the subject of a new hit movie titled "42."

The movie features Chadwick Boseman in the lead role, and Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey who made the critical decision to integrate his team, and then went on a two-year recruitment campaign to find the ideal Black player who would not only help his team win games, but one who had the character and endurance to withstand the racial backlash from not only opposing players and fans, but from his teammates as well.

Robinson was that player, and he excelled beyond expectations, winning the Rookie of the Year in 1947, performing feats like stealing home base, that are still the stuff of legends today, and by winning friends with his endurance of the racial abuse heaped on him.

There are a number of curious ironies, surrounding this new film. The title of the film is taken from Robinson's jersey number, which has been retired throughout the major leagues. Only one of the 30 MLB teams still has a player who wears number 42, and when New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera retires, the number will be permanently retired throughout the league.

On March 18, 1942, my Uncle Nate who was Robinson's neighbor in Pasadena asked Chicago White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes for a tryout for the two men. Dykes permitted the two to workout with his team. Of course neither player won a spot on the White Sox roster.

But 1942 was also a year in which there was a major challenge in the Black community to the foundations of Jim Crow baseball, tied to the hypocrisy of Blacks fighting and dying for this country in the heat of World War II, but unable to participate in the national pastime. "I can play in Mexico," Uncle Nate protested later that year, "but I have to fight for America where I can't play."

Ironically, in the years before Robinson's breakthrough, a committee was formed to help baseball overcome its "Negro problem" then. The late Queen Mother Audley Moore of Harlem, then 84 years old, told this writer for a 1982 documentary for the Black Scholars Radio series that in her early years, she had tried to be a "good Negro" and that she was involved in just such an effort.

"I worked hard at it. And this was what I did as a Negro," she said. "I'll give you an example of it. A group of people, my enemies, asked me to form a committee to get Black players into Major League Baseball. I formed a committee, and had Adam Powell and Captain Hugh Mulzac to head it.