Number 42

With the release this week of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, we asked Bruce Adelson to contribute a few comments. Adelson’s Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor League Baseball in the American South documented many of the challenges that African American ball players faced, and overcame, in a society still practicing racial segregation.

The debut of the new movie 42 reminds us of a time when America was segregated, riven by racial differences, stereotypes, and violence. In 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers placed Jackie Robinson front and center for our country to debate a bold new step in race relations. His color-barrier-shattering achievements reached far beyond the baseball fields of New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. Robinson’s efforts opened a new chapter for Americans, bringing us closer to what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. later described as “the beloved community,” a community where integration and tolerance were the watchwords.

Jackie Robinson may have ended Major League Baseball’s color barrier, but in baseball’s minor-league towns throughout the South, both the law and rigid customs barred black men and white men from playing America’s national pastime together. And yet it was here—in places like Danville, Virginia, Hot Springs, Arkansas, Savannah, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama—that the next stage of America’s integration was to play out, in the years following Robinson’s ascendency.

“I tend to refer to us as Jackie’s disciples,” explained former big leaguer Ed Charles in Brushing Back Jim Crow. “We spent years and years trying to make breakthroughs down in the South. We were carrying his torch a little further. We all tried to emulate Jackie. All the guys patterned themselves after Jackie. They may have gotten to the point where they wanted to quit and they just thought about Jackie. I know I did.”

Ed Charles weathered many storms during his professional baseball tutelage in the South’s minor leagues where he played eight years in places like Corpus Christi, Louisville, and Jacksonville. Charles was often the first black man whom people had ever seen playing baseball on the same field with white ballplayers. Charles and his compatriots endured segregation, racial taunts, and almost ceaseless racial hostility, all while trying to learn their baseball crafts and follow in Jackie Robinson’s footsteps to the Major Leagues.

A teenaged Henry Aaron broke the color line in Jacksonville, Florida. Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Aaron was well-acquainted with the Jim Crow South. He understood what he must endure on the ballfields of Charleston, Savannah, and Columbia, South Carolina, while a visiting player for Jacksonville. Aaron, like so many of his fellow line breakers, used the racial invective and segregation he experienced and turned it around, like hitting a high fastball and sending it screaming into the bleachers.

“Believe it or not,” Aaron explained in his interview for Brushing Back Jim Crow, “at night, you laugh about it. That’s one thing that made you go out the next day and say, ‘I can’t believe that people are this ignorant.’ And go out and do better. It was a motivator.”

Aaron’s is only one of the remarkable stories from this dramatic time in sports history. Brushing Back Jim Crow also recounts the successes and disappointments of such greats as Billy Williams, Felipe Alou, Chuck Harmon, Nat Peeples, Al Israel, Willie Tasby, Ed Charles, Don Buford.

As we enjoy 42 and celebrate Jackie Robinson’s achievements, let us also tip our caps to Jackie’s disciples, the men who broke the color barrier down South. As Congressman John Lewis explains in Brushing Back Jim Crow, baseball integration “helped to open and liberate people from stereotypes and attitudes. It broke down walls. It ended those feelings that somehow people could not be together. It had a profound effect on southerners. It was more than race relations. It was just pure human relations.”