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The Cold War and the Politics of Race in American Sport

This is an excerpt from History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Activity 2nd Edition With HKPropel Access by R. Scott Kretchmar,Mark Dyreson,Matt Llewellyn & John Gleaves.

During the second half of the 20th century, powerful movements developed in the United States not only to advocate for the equality of women but also to champion equal treatment of nonwhites. The rallying cries for Americans to sacrifice during World War II had included the contention that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan promoted racist ideologies while the U.S.-led allies championed racial and ethnic equality. The rhetoric did not match reality. Even at the end of the war, the U.S. military remained a racially segregated fighting force, and, in many parts of the United States, minority groups were denied—either by law or by custom—basic rights such as the ability to vote. In the American South, a myriad of laws provided legal cover for racial discrimination, and in other regions various traditions and habits excluded many people, especially African Americans, from the full promises of citizenship. From the war emerged a powerful civil rights movement that pushed to end segregation against blacks and other minority groups and challenged racism in every facet of American life.

Important opportunities to advance the cause of civil rights arose during the Cold War. In the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for the allegiance of the developing world, American racism offered a powerful opening for Soviet propaganda efforts. When African, Asian, and Latin American diplomats found themselves excluded from many hotels in the U.S. capital, it became even more difficult to defend the claim that the United States stood for democracy and equality around the world.

In response, the U.S. government devised initiatives to defuse the global criticism of racism in the United States. In this propaganda counteroffensive, sport played a prominent role. In particular, the U.S. State Department regularly recruited leading black athletes as cultural ambassadors and sent them on goodwill tours around the globe. Among the most prominent figures were internationally famous Olympians such as Jesse Owens and Wilma Rudolph, as well as tennis champion Arthur Ashe and the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. Federal bureaucrats calculated that the recruitment of black athletes would enable them to transmit images of a democratic and equalitarian America to global audiences and thus help counter the supposedly fallacious propaganda espoused by the communists.

Despite the U.S. government’s carefully scripted version of the United States as a land of democracy, the realities of inequality and racial discrimination remained. Segregation and racism pervaded postwar American sport. In college football, for example, with the exception of Negro colleges and a handful of universities outside of the legally segregated South, black players were few and far between. The National Football League also remained a whites-only enterprise until Kenny Washington and Woody Strode broke the long-standing color barrier during the 1946 season.

The quest to erase color lines in American sport took place most prominently in what was then the nation’s most popular pastime: baseball. For decades, Major League Baseball (MLB) had maintained and enforced a rigid policy of racial segregation that traced back to the mid-1880s and the implementation of a gentleman’s agreement among team owners not to hire African American players. Several tentative plans to integrate MLB had earlier faltered under the weight of racist sentiment, but the changing racial climate of the early Cold War era provided an opportunity for significant change. In this context, Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, aspired to succeed where others had failed. He devised a plan, a “great experiment” of sorts, in which he would cast one pioneering black player in the role of racial integrator. He sought a player with the temperament and maturity to withstand the racial venom that the integration of baseball would surely unleash.

Rickey found his man in 26-year-old Jackie Robinson, a multisport star at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and a military officer during World War II. Rickey promptly signed Robinson to a professional contract and sent the California native on a year’s stint with Minor League Baseball’s Montreal Royals during the 1946 season. Robinson’s impressive .349 season batting average earned him a call-up to the majors for the following year. Robinson’s entry into the major leagues led rather than reflected the civil rights movement that began to gather steam in the aftermath of World War II. When Robinson took his position in the infield for the Dodgers, all of the other monumental achievements of the civil rights struggle remained in the future—the desegregation of the U.S. military, the dismantling of legalized discrimination, the integration of most public arenas of American life, and the Congressional acts that would shore up voting rights and other legal guarantees for all citizens regardless of race. Thus, baseball, the American national pastime, provided a crucial site in the struggle to change hearts and minds both at home and abroad.

Jackie Robinson embodied a rare blend of athletic ability, versatility, intelligence, maturity, youthful promise, and fierce tenacity. He needed to call on these attributes on April 15, 1947, when he broke the unofficial color barrier in professional baseball. Despite Robinson’s ability to perform exceptionally in the face of a torrent of racial abuse, physical intimidation, and threats to his life from rival fans and opposing players, the role of racial pioneer was a heavy burden. Robinson experienced loneliness, isolation, anger, and resentment. Segregated from his teammates on the road, in the team hotel, and in restaurants—and stirred by rumors that opposing players were mobilizing to strike in protest of the appearance of an African American in the majors—Robinson fought off despair in order to shine between the chalk-white lines of the baseball diamond.

Transcending the barriers placed in his path, Robinson’s equanimity and calmness under pressure inspired a legend. His on-field intelligence, competitive flair, and combination of base-stealing and bunting skills both intimidated and demoralized opposing players and fans. Robinson’s league-leading batting average and Rookie of the Year honors in the 1947 season revealed to all but the most recalcitrant observers that he belonged in the majors. During his 10-year professional career, Robinson helped win six National League pennants and compiled a .311 lifetime batting average, earning him a place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Through his professionalism, poise, and talent, Robinson blazed a trail for other young black athletes to follow. By the time he retired in 1956, major league rosters included a considerable number of black players, including Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. In other sports, the Cleveland Browns’ Jim Brown was about to transform the NFL with his repertoire of powerful running and unprecedented speed, and basketball player Bill Russell was beginning the Hall of Fame career during which he would lead the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA titles.

Even with these successes, the road to full racial equality—both in sport and in wider society—was long, difficult, and strewn with obstacles. Baseball’s great experiment proved difficult to implement not only in the larger American society but also in the arena of sport. Although the landmark 1954 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka prohibited the enforced segregation of schools, racism persisted. On the field, black athletes faced the harsh realities of racial bias and systematic racism. They were tracked, or “stacked,” into less central positions with fewer decision-making responsibilities (e.g., running back and wide receiver in football), received considerably smaller professional salaries than their white counterparts, and were denied opportunities to hold leadership positions both on and off the field (e.g., team captain, coach, administrator). Slowly, over decades, some of these barriers began to erode, but racial conflicts persist even in the 21st century in both sport and society.

More Excerpts From History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Activity 2nd Edition With HKPropel Access