Baseball and Politics – Part I

Like many people, two of my primary interests are politics and sports.  They both lend themselves to statistical analysis; they have “seasons” (in both cases too long); and winners are sometimes the wealthy front-runners (George W. Bush or the New York Yankees); other times they are among those with the least resources (Dennis Kucinich or the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays).  It is no accident that Nate Silver, the publisher of what is considered to be the most reliable political forecaster ( developed his skills handicapping baseball players through a method called baseball sabermetrics.

Thursday we will turn a statistical eye at the history of African-American players on the Cardinals.   For now, let us just say that yesterday, for the first time in 56 years, the Cardinals opened the season with no African-American players on its roster.

The current team is a very good one; reigning National League Central Division champions and odds-on favorite to repeat this year.  It’s a likable team; there are some great hustlers like Brendan Ryan, Skip Schumaker, and Ryan Ludwick.  Albert Pujols may be the finest player to ever don a Cardinal uniform; Matt Holiday is productive, Colby Rasmus is developing into a future star and Yadier Molina may be the game’s most exciting catcher.

The historian Ken Burns produced a wonderful series on PBS called “Baseball.”  He focuses on the evolution of the game, featuring its superstars (far too little attention paid to Stan Musial).  But as a historian, he weaves the history of baseball into the social and economic trends of this country’s legacy.  He has an “inning” (chapter) called “Shadow Ball” about the Negro Leagues that provided separate and unequal opportunities for African-Americans, primarily in the 1920s through the 1940s.  As America changed, so did baseball.  In September, 1945, five months after assuming office, President Harry S Truman began the process of integrating the army.  Only a month later, Brooklyn Dodger general manager Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a professional contract.  After a year in the minor leagues, Jackie Robinson was on the Dodger opening day roster in 1947 (I feel lucky to have been born the next day and to have always lived in an integrated baseball era).  Eleven weeks later Cleveland Indians general manager Bill Veeck signed Larry Doby who took the field for the team that July 5.  Baseball was integrated; the trend was inexorable.  The first African-American to play for the Cardinals was Tom Alston in 1952.  The last team to integrate was the Boston Red Sox in 1959.

As the country struggled with integration, so did baseball.  Most of the early great African-American players endured treatment in the south ranging from separate and unequal to outright harassment including death threats.  Spring training in Florida was not much better; finally in 1964 a group of African-Americans on the Cardinals convinced owner Gussie Busch to insist on housing the team under one roof in an integrated hotel in St. Petersburg.

The 1964 Cardinal team gelled into a winning team with a special bond between African- American, Hispanic and white players.  But with two weeks remaining in the season they were six and a half games behind the Philadelphia Phillies with a dozen games to play.  What ensued thereafter was remarkable; the Cardinals became a winning juggernaut and the Phillies “pholded.”  Their demise is generally attributed to manager Gene Mauch’s decision to repeatedly use pitchers Chris Short and Jim Bunning on only two days rest.  If you’ve been watching the U.S. Senate lately, you may have noticed that Bunning, now a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, may have suffered permanent damage from the debacle.  The Cardinals, under the cool guidance of manager Johnny Keane, kept winning and when the season was over; their record of 93-69 was one game better than the Phillies and Cincinnati Reds.

The Cardinals entered the World Series as decided underdogs to the vaunted New York Yankees.  As mentioned previously, the Cardinals won the series four games to three and thirty-one years later the seven-games were chronicled by historian David Halberstam in his book October 1964.  A review from states:

The 1964 World Series between the Yankees and Cardinals was coated in myth from the get-go. The Yankees represented the establishment: white, powerful, and seemingly invincible. The victorious Cards, on the other hand, were baseball’s rebellious future: angry and defiant, black, and challenging. Their seven-game barnburner, played out against a backdrop of an America emerging from the Kennedy assassination, escalating the war in Vietnam, and struggling with civil rights, marked a turning point–neither the nation, nor baseball, would ever be quite so innocent again.

On July 2, midway through the season, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the public.  It prohibited discrimination in public facilities, in government, and in employment.

If you lived in St. Louis, there was a synergy of events as the country moved towards tearing down racial barriers and the Cardinals won the World Series with a truly integrated team.  It was a year when black and white St. Louisans joined the freedom riders, traveling south to face the angry voices in opposition to integration.  It was also a year in which the Cardinals played in a stadium at Grand and Dodier Avenues in north St. Louis.  No one could attend a game without walking through a sea of poverty and seeing faces that bore the stress of years of racial discrimination.

The country was in a period of racial transition; one that we would learn later would have many triumphs and moments of despair.  That continues today.  The 1964 Cardinals showed that baseball was right in the middle of the struggle.  If you were working and hoping for more racial equality and justice, it was a wonderful time to be a Cardinal fan, but the future of the team’s play on the field and unique composition of the roster were always unpredictable variables.  And so it is still today.

Freedom Rider Routes

Link to Part II
Link to Part III