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Collection Connections

By Popular Demand: Jackie Robinson and Other Baseball Highlights, 1860s-1960s

U.S. HistoryCritical ThinkingArts & Humanities

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Jackie Robinson and Other Baseball Highlights, 1860s-1960s, offers materials from the history of the national pastime including magazines, sheet music, and game-related memorabilia. These primary sources, along with transcripts of speeches by and interviews with participants involved with Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the major league, provide a history of the game and its influence on various aspects of American society.

1) The History of Baseball

Baseball evolved from an amateur sport into a national pastime during the nineteenth century. This collection contains images of teams that reflect the growth of the game in both the amateur and professional ranks. Team photographs include military players represented in the 1863 painting, Union Prisoners at Salisbury, N.C. and an 1898 photograph of the U.S.S. Maine Base Ball Club as well as professional teams such as the Baltimore and All-America team and the Chicago Indoor Base Ball team (both photographed in 1897).     The Maine base ball club "The Maine Base Ball Club,"
Havana, 1898.
Two Special Presentations in this collection provide a brief history of the sport. "Drawing the Color Line: 1860s-1890s," the first part of "Baseball, the Color Line, and Jackie Robinson," offers insight into baseball’s evolution with a timeline chronicling the professionalization of the sport. "Baseball Beginnings" from "Early Baseball Pictures, 1860s-1920s" provides additional images of this era and discusses traditions such as the President of the United States throwing out the first pitch on opening day.
  • What does it mean to be a national pastime?
  • Where did this phrase come from?
  • Why do you think baseball became known as the national pastime instead of other sports?
  • How did the sport change as it became professionalized?
  • Do you think baseball is still the national pastime?
  • What other sports currently compete with baseball in terms of popularity and participation (on both the amateur and professional levels)? 

2) Breaking the Color Line – Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey

Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson,
Kansas City, 1945.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers to become the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues. Robinson was a gifted athlete who was the first student at UCLA to letter in four different sports. He signed on to play shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs upon leaving the army in 1944. After a successful season with the Monarchs in which he hit .387, Robinson was contacted by Branch Rickey, the general manager and partial owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Branch Rickey changed the nature of baseball in 1920 when he developed the farm system for minor league affiliates while he was the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Next, he became interested in altering the complexion of the sport by signing an African-American ball player to the major leagues. The first page of a 1946 Look magazine article, entitled "A Branch Grows in Brooklyn," features a photograph of Rickey and the caption: "I cannot face my God much longer knowing that His black creatures are held separate and distinct from His white creatures in the game that has given me all that I can call my own."

  • Why does Rickey describe segregation in religious terms?
  • Who is he attempting to appeal to a year before he introduces Jackie Robinson to the major leagues?
  • How does this photograph from Look magazine portray Rickey?
    Branch Rickey
Photograph of Branch Rickey from Look Magazine,
March 19, 1946.

Many black players had the skills to compete with their white counterparts on the field but Robinson was selected for his ability to handle the pressures that would come off the diamond. He demonstrated poise in the face of Jim Crow laws, taunts by white players and fans, and even death threats. In his 1955 interview with Davis Walsh and his 1956 speech for the "One Hundred Percent Wrong Club" banquet, Branch Rickey described the two-year personal and financial investment that resulted in the signing of Jackie Robinson:

I must be sure that the man was good on the field, but more dangerous to me, at that time, and even now, is the wrong man off the field . . . I wanted a man of exceptional intelligence, a man who was able to grasp and control the responsibilities of himself to his race and could carry that load.
  • What were Robinson’s "responsibilities . . . to his race"?
  • How did Rickey expect him to act in public? Why?
  • What were the potential hazards if Robinson responded aggressively to racism on or off the field?
  • What did Branch Rickey gain by signing a talented African-American baseball player? What were the potential benefits for the Brooklyn Dodgers on the field and in the stands?
  • What did Jackie Robinson gain by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers? What were the potential hazards?
  • Are there different expectations made of contemporary athletes? To what extent are they the same?

After describing his experience, Rickey offered his impression of race relations in 1950s America:

I am completely color-blind . . . I know that America . . . is more interested in the grace of a man's swing . . . and his speed afoot . . . America . . . will become instantly more interested in those marvelous, beautiful qualities than they are in the pigmentation of a man's skin, or indeed in the last syllable of his name.
  • Why does Rickey conclude his speech with these sentiments? What do they suggest about baseball?
  • What does this statement suggest about how or why race relations can improve in America? According to Rickey, what is the basis of such improvement?
  • What is the appeal of this argument? Is this a realistic argument?
  • Does Rickey provide a fair assessment of America in the 1950s? Is this a fair assessment of contemporary America?

3. Baseball Merchandise and Advertising

 Washington Baseball Club
Washington Base Ball Club, c.1887.

Many pieces of baseball merchandise celebrate the game but have little to do with the game itself. Advertisers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often associated their products with a leisure activity. The tobacco industry was one of the first groups to use baseball images in their advertising. An 1867 "Star Club" tobacco label prominently features a generic baseball scene on its packaging while later cigarette products included photographic cards depicting players such as the 1887 Washington Base Ball Club. (Additional cigarette cards are featured in the Card Set that is part of the American Memory collection, Baseball Cards, 1887-1914). In 1933, the Goudley Gum Company began including baseball cards with its product, thereby using the cards to appeal to a younger demographic.

  • How do baseball cards depict the game and its players?
  • Why would cigarette and gum manufacturers include baseball cards with their products? What audience of consumers is being targeted?
  • Now that baseball cards are an independent industry, do they serve a different purpose than when they were packaged with cigarettes and gum? Explain.
  • What is the appeal of collecting sports cards?

Jackie Robinson’s achievements on the field were celebrated in baseball cards and other products during the middle of the twentieth century. His popularity spawned a number of products during the 1950s including a comic book series and The Jackie Robinson Story, a biographical film in which Robinson played himself.

  • How do products such as a comic book series or film about Jackie Robinson differ from a baseball card featuring Jackie Robinson? What are the film and comic book selling?
  • How are professional athletes used in marketing today? What products are they associated with?
  • How is today's merchandising of athletes different from merchandise sold in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?
Jackie Robinson Story The Jackie Robinson Story
Eagle-Lion Films, 1950
Reproduction number: LC-USZC4-6142.

4. Segregation in Baseball

Table of Content from Our Sports Table of Contents,
Our Sports Magazine, 1953.

Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the major leagues marked the end of segregation in baseball, but two documents in this collection demonstrate the impact of the racial policy and its lasting effect. In 1953, Jackie Robinson served as the editor for Our Sports magazine.  This short-lived periodical focused on African Americans as athletes and fans. The subscription page on the inside cover advertised its coverage of "famous Negro athletes in every field of endeavor" and "Negro athletes in your town among your own neighbors," while the table of contents from the second issue of Our Sports featured articles such as "What White Big Leaguers Really Think of Negroes" and "My Toughest Fight," a piece by boxer Joe Louis about segregation on the golf course.

  • Why was Jackie Robinson an ideal editor for Our Sports magazine?
  • Who was the target audience for the magazine?
  • Are there limitations to presenting sporting news in terms of race?

A year later, a Negro League game program featured "The Charleston Story", a short biography of Oscar Charleston, manager of the Indianapolis Clowns and one of the greatest Negro League players of all time. Charleston played and managed in the league from 1915 to 1954. The biography explains that it was at the peak of his career, in the mid-1920s, that Charleston began to consider managing: "His accomplishments became a matter of record and he’d gone as far as he could as a Negro. The majors wouldn’t accept him. . . ."

  • What is the tone of Charleston’s biography? How does it reflect the effect of segregation?
  • Why is this biography included in the program? How might a fan attending a Negro League game react to the piece?
  • How do Our Sports magazine and the Charleston biography address racial attitudes of that time?
  • How do they relate to the civil rights movements that would begin a few years later?
    Oscar Charleston
Photograph of Oscar Charleston from "The Charleston Story."

5. The Stadium in Urban Life

In the early twentieth century, Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field was the smallest and most intimate park in the National League. Fans sat close to the action and interacted with the players on a regular basis. Photographs in this collection include images of fans waiting outside Ebbets Field, in one example waiting to see a World Series game.
Fan outside Ebbets Field Baseball Fans Waiting for Gates to Open at Ebbets Field,
Oct. 6, 1920.
    Ebbets Field and other stadiums offered recreation within cities. They provided a venue where fans could spend an afternoon watching athletes perform on a manicured field. On April 14, 1957, Jackie Robinson was interviewed on NBC's news program, Meet the Press. A transcript from this program briefly discusses the time-honored tradition of skipping work on opening day to catch the first game of the season while a search on stadium yields photographs of Philadelphia’s Shibe Park and the Polo Grounds during a 1913 World Series game. Insurance maps of Ebbets Field and Blues Stadium provide an opportunity to see how these parks related to the neighborhoods that surrounded them.
  • How and why do fans identify with a baseball team in their community?
  • What role did professional baseball play in urban centers during the early twentieth century?
  • What is the appeal of skipping work to go see an opening day game?
  • What role do baseball teams play in contemporary cities? Has that role changed over time?
  • Is a stadium seen as more than an entertainment center? If so, what other value does it hold?
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Last updated 09/26/2002