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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

BASEBALL'S LEGACY: SEGREGATION, THEN DIVERSITY

Even many with no interest in professional sports probably know that tonight is Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. It’s a tradition dating back to 1933 when it was established to attract fans during the Great Depression.


Back then every major leaguer on the field shared at least one thing in common. They were all white. Barred by the so-called “gentleman’s agreement” on the “color line,” the ban on Black players continued until 1947 when Jackie Robinson was brought up to play for Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers. Before that, even as the Negro Leagues featured players vastly superior to many white major leaguers, the owners and commissioner would simply not budge.


Things look very different in 2023. Last night’s All-Star festivities and Homerun Derby revealed broadly diverse Major League Baseball rosters with players from several continents and many racial and ethnic identities. I got a big kick out of watching Mets pitcher Kodai Senga and Angels all-around player Shohei Ohtani bowing to each other as they met in the middle of the field. It was also fun to see Black Dominican-Canadian All-Star Vladimir Guerrero Jr. win the Derby just as his father had back in 2007. And all of this was taking place in “The House that Griffey Built,” the nickname for Seattle’s ballpark which gained support for construction thanks to the heroics of Black Hall-of-Famer Ken Griffey Jr.


I recently read a wonderful book by architectural critic Paul Goldberger called “Ballpark: Baseball in the American City.” It presents a unique type of baseball and American history told through the evolution of baseball stadiums. When it comes to the history of baseball’s bigotry, his take on Detroit’s own Tiger Stadium is particularly revealing.


I never saw Tiger Stadium. It was long gone before I moved to Michigan. But I am a huge fan of another historic midwestern field and its team. And perhaps because of my love affair with that place, Tigers fans have regaled me with their own love stories about Tiger Stadium, along with their sometimes bitter disappointment over its demolition.


There was good reason to expect that it might dodge the wrecking ball. Goldberger, a big fan of the stadium, notes that it was not unreasonable “to think that Tiger Stadium, having escaped the fate of replacement … that affected so many early twentieth-century ballparks, was all but certain to join Wrigley [Field] and Fenway [Park] as a permanent fixture of major league baseball.”


That it did not was for numerous political and financial issues. But there was a contributing factor directly related to decades of Black exclusion in the sport. Even as preservationist interests were prevailing in architectural battles of all kinds everywhere, many Black Detroiters felt little attachment to their own city’s historic stadium. Most of those arguing to save it were white. 


Goldberger notes:


While Detroit was a heavily African American city, the fan base of the Tigers had not evolved to reflect the city’s population. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the Tigers’ own difficult history of racial relations: when Walter Briggs owned the team, he refused to sign any African American players, and the team did not integrate until 1958…eleven years after Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. For many African Americans in Detroit, Tiger Stadium…was a symbol of racial exclusion. They saw the preservation effort not as an attempt to honor one of baseball’s greatest early venues but rather as a misdirected effort to perpetuate a site they associated more with humiliation than local pride.


I admit to being surprised. I did not expect to learn that the Tigers, who famously fielded legendary Jewish player Hank Greenberg, failed to integrate for so many years. Knowing this, it's unsurprising that many in Detroit's Black community had few positive feelings for that legendary stadium.


Throughout its rigidly segregated past, baseball was known as “America’s Pastime.” Tonight's All-Star Game, with its incredibly diverse array of players, offers a good opportunity to remember the days when so many were excluded, even as we appreciate just how far we’ve come.


And remind ourselves just how far we have left to go.

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