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Jules Tygiel is a professor of history at San Francisco State University. It is not surprising that Tygiel approaches the subject of baseball in his text Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy from an historical standpoint, considering not only the history of the sport itself but also its profound influence upon the history of the United States. Since its publication in 1983, it has received praise for being the most important as well as the most celebrated book about baseball, and especially about African Americans in baseball history. Tygiel reconstructs this era of baseball within a larger history that links racism, baseball, and the Civil Rights Movement. This is a story about segregation, resistance, and community action. It is also a story of how America’s passion and love for baseball helped bind communities together to shape the cultural history of the Nation. Tygiel carefully structures his arguments to support the theme that the integration of Major League Baseball led to the integration of American society.
Tygiel states his case in a scholarly manner which is made apparent by his meticulous research from secondary sources, government and baseball documents such as second baseball commissioner ‘Happy’ Chandler’s papers, and numerous primary sources including over thirty-five interviews from a veritable list of well-known figures in Major League Baseball. Tygiel does overwhelm the reader with details and useless facts. He understood that his audience is already fans of the game, so he doesn’t seek to convert anyone to the fanbase. But it is evident that he seeks to impress fellow sports enthusiasts by expressing the historical significance of integration of black players in the Majors. The text opens fittingly on baseball’s opening day, April 18, 1946, the first opening day since the end of the Second World War. Tygiel sets the stage and tone of his book by quoting a New York Times editorial, which said, in part, “This is a particularly good year to campaign against the evils of bigotry, prejudice, and race hatred because we had witnessed the defeat of enemies who tried to found a mastery of the world upon such cruel and fallacious policy” (3).
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This was the perfect time for executive Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers to initiate “a ‘great’ or ‘noble experiment’” by signing the first African-American baseball player Jackie Robinson to a contract (Tygiel 8). Until 1947, baseball was just as segregated as practically everything else in Jim Crow America, with the struggling Negro Leagues featuring their own heroes who never achieved fame or financial success of their white counterparts.
With Jackie Robinson paving the way, there was a renewed hope that other African Americans would be successfully integrated into the game. After all, as Tygiel noted, “Rickey and Robinson… did not simply end baseball segregation. Their tours through the South… challenged deeply entrenched Jim Crow traditions” (355). But the initial optimism began to fade when by 1953, there were still only six Major League Baseball teams that had been fully integrated. The author blames this on predominant attitudes regarding race and on management decisions to recruit new young players instead of integrating established Negro League players into the MLB. Tygiel held Major League Baseball accountable for doing little to help players adjust to the racism they encountered on and off the field. Jackie Robinson would go on later to express his personal frustrations with the lack of organizational commitment to putting blacks in management and front office positions, lamenting, “I have become bitterly disillusioned” (Quoted in Tygiel 340).
But off the baseball diamond, the United States began to reassess the segregation policy, and as Tygiel reminds his readers the landmark Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) occurred within seven years of Robinson’s historic contract. However, Tygiel describes this decision as both a blessing and a curse because it actually provoked some areas of the Deep South to resist integrating minor league baseball teams. In addition, he often unfairly criticizes sportswriters of the time who ridiculed the integration of black players for they were merely reflecting prevailing American attitudes regarding such a practice (59). This is little more than an example of 20/20 hindsight.
In Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, author Jules Tygiel plainly states his case and argues it well. He reveals Jackie Robinson’s donning of a Brooklyn Dodger uniform to be a defining moment not only for baseball but also for America. For the rest of his life, Robinson would remain an icon to white America as the “integration incarnate” (Tygiel 321). Would there have been a Brown v. Board of Education ruling in the 1950s or the civil rights movement of the 1960s had Branch Rickey not taken such a bold step when he did? Obviously, no one will ever know for certain. But Tygiel’s comparison between what was going on in baseball and in American society at that time provides convincing evidence that the signing of Jackie Robinson was exactly the push the civil rights movement needed. History is comprised of moments and of people seizing those moments to make a difference. Jules Tygiel pays due tribute to both in a comprehensive and thoroughly researched text that combines the best attributes of scholarly and popular history.
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