Misericordia Profs Say Economics Helped Baseball Integrate

by Timothy F. Kearney and David Gargone, Misericordia University

The important movie “42” opened recently, reminding us of the historical significance of how Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers finally integrated America’s national pastime.

It’s hard to imagine now, but even after that special day in 1947, baseball retained segregated teams until 1959 when the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate.  Baseball’s story is a crucial reminder that throughout our nation’s history, large pools of talent have been ignored or undervalued – often due only to racial, religious, gender or other irrational prejudices.

Of the 205 players in the Hall of Fame today, 18 spent at least some of their playing days in segregated baseball. Teams that integrated quickly were rewarded with better performances on the field and at the turnstiles, according to our research. The story of Jackie Robinson and the integration of the national pastime is a timely reminder about the cost of ignoring or undervaluing the talents of our fellow citizens.

It is important to note that baseball was a late integrator among the major sports.  Though largely forgotten today, George Poage won two bronze medals at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, Mo. Boxing began to be fitfully integrated in the early 20th century. By 1908, Jack Johnson (himself immortalized by James Earl Jones in the 1970 film, “The Great White Hope”) won the heavyweight boxing championship. NCAA football began to be integrated in 1918, and Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshal integrated the NFL in 1920. Jackie Robinson himself was a four-sport letterman at UCLA and was an officer in the U.S. Army. But since Major League Baseball was, and still remains, protected by federal anti-trust legislation, it was able to deny blacks the right to compete on the playing field.

By intentionally discriminating against black ball players, Major League Baseball chose an inferior labor force and fielded a lesser product. This approach eventually affected the bottom line for many of the teams’ owners. When World War II took 13 million able-bodied men into the armed forces, baseball had an opportunity to tap into a broader talent pool. Like many businesses, the economic losses of baseball from the Great Depression in the 1930s to World War II in the 1940s put pressure on ownership to end segregation. The exploits of blacks in the war reinforced the trend to desegregate. The obstinate owners, though, insisted on keeping the game segregated, which led to war-time appearances by players who had failed to qualify for military service. These inconsistences intersected with the sacrifices made by black troops. President Truman’s ultimate decision to integrate the military made it impossible to keep segregation in baseball.

The seeds were sprouting even before Jackie Robinson’s historic breakthrough.  In the war years, the Phillies foundered, especially when compared with the Philadelphia Athletics of Connie Mack fame. According to baseball lore, baseball impresario Bill Veeck made a strong bid to buy the Phils, but also made the mistake of informing the National League that he intended to integrate the team. Veeck’s bid was rejected, but he went on to purchase the Cleveland Indians and broke the American League color barrier just a few months after Jackie Robinson did in 1947 when Larry Doby pinch hit.

We are not discounting the importance of the moral imperative towards integration.  However, Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey himself famously said that the greatest font of untapped talent was in the Negro Leagues. “The Negroes will make us winners for years to come. And for that I will bear being called a bleeding heart and do-gooder …,” he once said.

Consider the results we found during our research into what led to desegregation. The teams that integrated first tended to be organizations that had long periods of poor attendance and poor performance on the field, according to our research. Discrimination is a costly way to do business. The obvious answer was to integrate, which proved to be profitable as economics predicts.

The Dodgers only had one postseason appearance in the decade before integration. They integrated quickly and in turn won four of the next seven National League pennants. Similarly in Cleveland, the Indians were in the bottom half of the league in attendance for nearly a decade before signing Doby. Shortly after he joined the Tribe, the team shot up the standings and more than doubled attendance to 2.6 million in 1948 when they won the World Series.

Economics and free competition oftentimes push broader change in business and in society. We believe that this impulse – the need to win and attract fans – made a valuable contribution in this case. It’s an important lesson to keep in mind as we remember Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck, and what they accomplished in 1947.

Timothy F. Kearney, Ph.D., an avid New York Mets fan, is the chair of the Department of Business at Misericordia University, and David Gargone, Ed.D., an ardent New York Yankees fan, is the director of the Sport Management Program at Misericordia University.

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