Baseball, like America, was indeed once segregated. How that came about — and how things might have turned out differently — is an interesting story in itself.

When Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones opined recently that baseball is a "white man's sport," and thus its players were not joining in protests about racial injustice, both praise and scorn were heaped upon him.

On the left, he was portrayed as another brave voice speaking truth to power: Blacks are 13 percent of the population but only 8 percent of ballplayers and 7 percent of managers — surely another sign of structural racism. On the right, Mr. Jones and the man he defended for kneeling during the national anthem, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, were slammed as unpatriotic and ungrateful for the riches and celebrity they enjoy.

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With racial tensions running high, this is a teachable moment. We can learn a lot about America's racial past and present from sports, especially baseball. Unfortunately, the rhetoric on all sides is so over-heated that it is obscuring rather than illuminating some important lessons.

Baseball, like America, was indeed once segregated. How that came about — and how things might have turned out differently — is an interesting story in itself.

In the years after the Civil War, there was ample racial bias even in the North, but also pockets where progressive views prevailed. A key but short-lived victory for integration occurred on a baseball diamond in Toledo in 1883.

The Toledo club, which included a black catcher named Moses Fleetwood Walker, was due to play the Chicago White Stockings, led by the most famous player in the game, Cap Anson. When the racist Anson saw Walker, he threatened not to play. The Toledo manager counter-threatened to cancel the game, which would cost Anson and his teammates their gate receipts. Both Walker and Anson played.

Soon, pro baseball had enough black players that the periodical Sporting Life opined that "at the present rate of progress the International League may ere many moons change its name to 'Colored League.'" In 1887, John Montgomery Ward, the New York Giants' star shortstop, lobbied team management to acquire Walker and a splendid black pitcher named George Stovey, the better to take down Anson's White Stockings, who had won the last two National League pennants.

But it was not to be, for Anson had by then persuaded many of his fellow white players that blacks posed a threat to their jobs. They promised boycotts if owners integrated their workplace, so the owners soon implemented a "gentleman's agreement" not to do so.

Given baseball's status as the national pastime, it is both tempting and frustrating to contemplate how much more rapidly America would have made racial progress if Anson and his ilk had not "triumphed" in this way. Integration was delayed by over a half-century — and it came not by force of law or regulation, but thanks to old-fashioned, capitalist competition.

It's common to hear these days that we live in a racist society. More accurately, people have varying sentiments about race — we are on a spectrum, so to speak, from "bigot" to "ally." The late Nobel prize-winning economist Gary Becker taught us that, given such "heterogeneous tastes for discrimination," competitive markets could punish prejudiced employers and diminish the effects of their biases. Baseball proved his thesis.

In 1946, Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, like Monte Ward before him, was a man of good will looking for a way to win ballgames and make money. Given the inaptly-named "gentleman's agreement," there was a large pool of supremely talented players that his more-prejudiced rivals overlooked.

Rickey took advantage: He hired Jackie Robinson, who would lead the Dodgers to six pennants over a 10-year career while bravely enduring racial invective from some fans and other players. This not only punished those rivals on the field but taught them the error of their ways: Indulging in racial bias put one at a huge competitive disadvantage.

So equal-opportunity hiring spread. Not as quickly or uniformly as it should have, surely, but by the time the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in the workplace, almost 12 percent of big-league players were black, and 9 percent were other racial minorities. Today, minorities hold 36 percent of major-league jobs. The lesson is clear: While capitalism and racism are often held up as equally contemptible, baseball's history — though as troubling on race as is the rest of America's — puts the lie to that; market competition made discrimination unwise and unprofitable long before it was illegal.

Capitalism is therefore not the enemy of racial progress, but one of its most important allies.

Stephen J.K. Walters teaches sports economics at Loyola University Maryland and is the author of Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream. His e-mail is swalters@loyola.edu.

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