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2/15/2015 8:04 am  #1

When Jim Crow Got Cut From Spring Training

When Jim Crow Got Cut From Spring Training

Here, in March 1947, Jackie Robinson, who was vying to become the first African-American in Major League Baseball in the modern era, obliges an autograph seeker during spring training in Havana.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were starting their preseason in Cuba that spring, in part because their general manager, Branch Rickey, wanted to minimize racial antagonisms that would make it more difficult for him to promote Robinson from his farm club, the Montreal Royals.

(Rickey also hoped that training in a Latin American country would help America’s major leagues deflect competition from the Mexican League, which was offering big money — by the standards of the time — to buy off American stars.)

How Jim Crow got cut from spring training was, in retrospect, a small but significant episode in the history of the American civil rights movement.

Florida — whose Grapefruit League has included locations like Bradenton, Dunedin, St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Tampa, Clearwater and Lakeland — has been attracting spring training teams since the late 1880s.

But Florida was part of the Old South — it was the third state to join the Confederacy, two months before the Civil War — and there were extensive segregation laws on its books. For 1946, Robinson’s first season with the Royals, Rickey chose Daytona Beach, Fla., as the site of the first phase of the Dodgers’ preseason because the city’s approach to race was reputed to be less draconian than in many other Florida communities.

Daytona’s mayor, William Perry, knew that the Dodgers’ presence might boost local business and attract first-time tourists from New York City. To calm constituents who might be alarmed by the impending arrival of Robinson and an African-American teammate, Johnny Wright, Perry publicly compared the two players to one of the era’s most popular black performers, pointing out that “no one gets excited when Cab Calloway comes here.”

City Manager James Titus said — using the tortured reasoning licensed by the United States Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” doctrine, which was still the law of the land — that although Daytona Beach was segregated, “there is no discrimination.”

Rickey arranged for the newly married Jackie and his wife, Rachel (who feared that “we would be harmed, or killed”), to reside with a local druggist, Joe Harris, known as the “Negro mayor of Daytona Beach.” Rickey privately explained that he did not want to find himself embarrassed by ugly public scenes of Robinson being rejected by the managers of the Riviera Hotel, where white Dodgers and Royals normally stayed.

But when the players were taken to Sanford, 40 miles away, for workouts, a local white supremacist who said he represented a hundred others accosted a visiting African-American sportswriter, Wendell Smith, and warned, using a racial slur, of serious trouble unless Robinson and Wright left town fast. Wanting to avoid a dangerous eruption, Rickey abruptly moved all of his players back to Daytona Beach.

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Later, when the Royals returned to Sanford for an advertised exhibition game, the city’s police chief appeared and prevented Robinson (whom the Baltimore Afro-American sportswriter Sam Lacy called “a man in a goldfish bowl”) from playing.

When the Dodgers and the Royals went to Cuba (where they had also trained in 1941 and 1942) the following year, Robinson expected, as he later wrote, that a “country of non-whites” would not replicate Florida’s “racist atmosphere.”

But he was furious to discover that while white Dodgers stayed in the luxurious waterfront Hotel Nacional, and while white Royals stayed at a new military school, he and his black teammates — Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Roy Partlow — would bunk at what The New York Sun called the “musty, third-rated” Hotel Boston. Rickey confessed to Robinson that he had asked for the segregated rooms, explaining, “I can’t afford to take a chance and have a single incident occur.”

By 1948, with Robinson a full-fledged Brooklyn Dodger, Rickey and the team owner, Walter O’Malley, opted to confront the spring training problem head-on by taking over a decommissioned naval air station in sleepy Vero Beach, Fla., which soon became a national baseball landmark called Dodgertown.

Although Robinson found Dodgertown “like being confined to a reservation,” the camp, with its own barracks and dining halls, would liberate the team from Jim Crow. Players called their new baseball diamonds “Ebbets Field No. 2.”

But Dodgertown itself could not solve the larger problem of racial separation in the Grapefruit League. More than a decade after Robinson joined the Dodgers, black players for other teams were still shunned by many Florida hotels and restaurants. African-American spectators in West Palm Beach were forced to enter the baseball park by slipping through a gap in the stadium fence.

Decrying “Spring Training Woes,” Wendell Smith wrote in Chicago’s American in 1961 that the black player’s “patience is growing short.”

Robinson had long called for economic pressure against Grapefruit League team owners who resisted change, and spurred on in part by the N.A.A.C.P., the Cardinals’ owner, Anheuser-Busch, struck a housing deal in 1961 to move all of its players into two adjoining motels for spring training in 1962; other teams were not far behind in integrating.

By the time President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which desegregated public accommodations throughout the United States, every major league squad that trained in Florida was lodging its black and white players together.

Although Brooklyn’s team moved to Los Angeles in 1958, and its new local fans were now about 2,300 miles away, the Dodgers’ sentimental history with Vero Beach helped to keep the club’s spring training at Dodgertown, with its facilities by then much enhanced, for another half century.

In March 2008, during the Dodgers’ final spring training in Florida, their longtime manager Tommy Lasorda emerged from retirement to manage the team during its last game in Dodgertown. As Charles Fountain recorded in his 2009 book “Under the March Sun,” Lasorda explained: “We’re not leaving because we don’t like it here. We’re leaving because our fans can’t get here.” He added, “Let’s hope that I get the same feeling out of Arizona that I have here.”

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

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