Author Jules Tygiel describes "Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy," as "Not a biography of Jackie Robinson, but rather a broad social history of the integration process in baseball." Naturally, Robinson plays a central role in the story.
In the afterword of the 25th anniversary edition of the classic work, Tygiel stresses that the book is also the history of the Negro Leagues, the campaign to end segregation in baseball, the experiences of other African Americans and non-White Hispanic players in both the minor and major leagues.
The segregation of baseball is a sad chapter in its history. In 1942, Baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis said there was no rule of any kind prohibiting Negroes from playing in the major leagues. Baseball blamed other parties and circumstances beyond their control for the absence of Negroes in the majors. Baseball executive Larry MacPhail blamed the absence of Blacks on ignorant protesters, inadequate black athletes and the greedy Negro Leagues.
Unbelievably, in 1945 The Sporting News stated there was "not a single Negro player with major league possibilities." Around the same time, Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller said he could not see any future in major league baseball for Jackie Robinson.
World War II and the integration of the armed forces was the watershed in the struggle for civil rights, according to Tygiel. The efforts of black sportswriters, the Communist Party and a handful of white sportswriters helped open the door to integration.
Robinson was the right man to integrate baseball because he was "tough, intelligent and proud." Under terrific pressure while playing for Montreal in the International League in 1946, Robinson passed the test with a superb performance. He led the league in batting average and runs and was second in stolen bases.
Robinson faced many challenges during his rookie season with the Dodgers in 1947, but he met them on and off the field. By the end of the year, he was voted Rookie of the Year and the second most popular man in America (only behind Bing Crosby) in a national poll.
Robinson opened the doors for players such as Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Luke Easter, Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson. Many black players such as Piper Davis and Ray Danridge, however, were denied the full means of fame they deserved.
Even after Robinson broke the color barrier, black players had to endure discrimination and despicable behavior through the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in the minor leagues. As Tygiel notes, "most teams headed down the begrudging path to integration."
Every serious baseball fan should read this book.