The New York Daily News reports that a 1945 letter from Yankees executive Larry MacPhail to New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia justifying baseball’s color line is up for auction. LaGuardia had formed a committee, the purpose of which was to study segregation in baseball and, ultimately, pressure the New York teams to sign black players. Here, in part, was MacPhail’s response:
“There are few, if any, negro players who could qualify for play in the major leagues at this time. A major league player must have something besides natural ability . . . In conclusion: I have no hesitancy in saying that the Yankees have no intention of signing negro players under contract or reservation to negro clubs.”
MacPhail was not a lone wolf in this regard, of course. In saying what he said here he was echoing what many if not most executives in major league baseball were saying about black players: that they weren’t talented enough or lacked that special something — never precisely defined — that would allow them to succeed. It was, at the time, probably considered a “hey, it’s not us, it’s them!” kind of defense that kept them from having to admit that they simply did not want to have black people around.
Of course, such attitudes didn’t die two years later when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. It would be years before the Yankees — by then no longer run by MacPhail — put a black player on their roster. The Red Sox, who were the last baseball team to sign a black player, didn’t put one on the field until 1959.
And the attitude continued for managers — no team had a black manager until the 1970s — and front office personnel. Remember Dodgers executive Al Campanis saying that blacks “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager” in 1987? 1987! Campanis, of course, played in the Dodgers organization when MacPhail ran that team. Many of the men who ran baseball as late as the 1980s had their roots in baseball’s segregated past and came of age in the game with mentors and bosses like MacPhail.
But that’s how institutionalized racism works. It’s rarely someone frothing at the mouth, voicing epithets. It’s usually people in power asserting things as if they are immutable truths of the universe and that the speaker is powerless to change it. And then a lot of people believe it, defend the status quo against charges of personal bias or animus, either as a cover or because, due to their socialization into the system, they never much thought to question it. And onward life goes.
And then the personal agency of the people who perpetuated that status quo is scrubbed from history. To wit, in 1978 Larry MacPhail was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. And no one once thought that the character clause should keep him out because, hey, he didn’t do anything wrong . . .