Review of A Calculus of Color: The Integration of Baseball’s American League

McGregor, Robert Kuhn. A Calculus of Color: The Integration of Baseball’s American League. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2015. Pp. 224. 19 Photos, notes, bibliography, and index. $29.95 softback.

Reviewed by Lindsay Parks Pieper

As a means of ice-breaking at the beginning of each semester, I ask my sport history students who they would meet if they could meet anyone from sport history. The rules are simple; students can select any person, alive or dead, who impacted sport before 1985. Although a relatively straightforward activity, after years of asking students this question I did add one caveat: the number of students allowed to pick Jackie Robinson is now limited to three. Without this qualification, almost half of the class inevitably selects the iconic ballplayer. This additional stipulation has nothing to do with Robison’s impact or importance; rather, when several students offer vague utterances about his significance in baseball I learn nothing about the undergraduates in my class.

Only once did a student (who was from Cleveland) pick Larry Doby, the athlete who integrated the American League the same year Robinson took the field.

Just like the students in my class, when people discuss the desegregation of Major League Baseball most celebrate Robinson, Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the National League—and usually in that order. Similarly, MLB retired Robinson’s no. 42 on April 15, 1997, fifty years after he broke the color line, and annually holds “Jackie Robinson Day,” during which all coaches, players, managers, and umpires wear no. 42 on their jerseys. Doby receives no such league-wide acknowledgment.

Calculus of Color Cover

McFarland & Co., 2015

Historian Robert Kuhn McGregor wrote A Calculus of Color: The Integration of Baseball’s American League to not only correct this specific oversight, but to also fill the “awkward gap in the scholarship of baseball and race” that prioritizes Robinson and Rickey over other black players and the Negro leagues (p. 1). The book unites information on black baseball and organized baseball through an analysis of the American League. McGregor argues that the American League, cast as the “stepchild” in most historical accounts of desegregation (p. 15), resisted social change and only made efforts to include black players when teams’ performances and/or ticket sales struggled. In other words, he writes, while the National League “grasped the opportunity” and paved the way for progress, the American League only begrudgingly “acquiesced” (p. 185).

McGregor divides A Calculus of Color into an introduction, interlude, and eight chapters. The introduction establishes both the early history of baseball and the context of desegregation. While baseball originally aligned with Victorian era amateur values, professionalism and a win-at-all cost mentality supplanted the gentlemanly ideals after the Civil War. McGregor explains that it was against this “weird backdrop of ugly, self-defined self-pride and galloping insecurity that modern baseball took shape, for both black and white” ballplayers (p. 14). Black athletes first competed sporadically in organized baseball before being shut out entirely. Once barred, leaders created their own leagues, which McGregor describes in chapter one, “The Negro Leagues: Baseball by and for Black People.” He notes that black baseball initially mirrored white baseball, complete with “supreme athleticism, petty greed, calculated entertainment, personal tragedy, and competitive triumph” (p. 17).

A Calculus of Color next turns to the American League. In chapter two, “The American League: The Trials of a Major League,” and chapter 3, “The Masks of Separation: Why Integration was Unlikely to Happen,” McGregor describes the composition and temperament of Major League Baseball’s younger division. The American League emerged from World War II in a stronger position than the National League, which allowed AL owners to resist desegregation. Furthermore, the AL’s “layered system of haves and have-nots”— with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Cleveland Indians at the top; the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox in the middle; and the Philadelphia Athletics; Washington Nationals, and St. Louis/Baltimore Browns at the bottom—also limited the opportunities for black players as owners often recycled white players through the three-tiered system (p. 47). Thus, argues McGregor, it was the desire for better on-field performances or increased ticket sales that eventually encouraged owners to add black players. Revenue concerns tellingly underscored both calculations.

After discussing the obstacles to and reasons for desegregation, McGregor next highlights the different approaches taken by the AL owners when integrating. In chapter four, “A More Honest Face: How Integration Happened,” he explains that mixed teams first appeared in rural outlaw leagues, Mexico, and barnstorming tours. These moments, coupled with the push from black newspapers, eventually encouraged AL owners to add black talent to their rosters. Chapter five, “The American League Tries: The Pioneer Experiments,” describes the desegregation of the first two AL teams, the Indians and Browns. Although Cleveland owner Bill Veeck signed Doby shortly after Rickey signed Robinson, the two men handled the same situation very differently. Foremost, Veeck (somewhat) recognized the legitimacy of the Negro National League and paid $15,000 for Doby’s contract; Rickey disparaged black baseball and refused to pay for signing Robinson. Unfortunately, many other NL owners followed Rickey’s lead and simply plucked black players from the Negro National League without compensation, helping ensure the league’s demise.

Secondly, while Rickey paved a slow path for Robinson, starting him first in a minor league team in Canada, Veeck signed Doby and within three hours had him on the field. Veeck’s strategy that “one day the Indians would take the field, and one of the players would be black” proved ill-conceived as Doby succumbed to pressure, likely not helped by the presence of two plainclothes police officers who flanked him in the dugout (p. 106). Unlike Robinson, Doby’s first season left little impression; the integrator of the AL was hampered, McGregor argues, by the poor preparedness of the team and the pressures of his pioneering role in the league.

St. Louis stepped up to the plate next. However, McGregor notes that the Brown’s efforts were merely a publicity stunt enacted to raise revenues. The team signed Willard Brown, an “aging star with a questionable work ethic,” and Hank Thompson, a “promising prospect with some personal demons,” alcoholism (p. 113). When ticket sales failed to rise, St. Louis released the two players after five weeks.

At this point in A Calculus of Color, McGregor offers an interlude, “The End of the Road: The Negro Leagues Wither.” As many baseball historians have argued, the desegregation of organized baseball ended the Negro leagues. Put simply, “Major league owners wanted black players, not black enterprises” (p. 130). McGregor brings nuance to this conversation by noting that black fans also accepted the bargain: black players in organized baseball at the expense of the black institution.

The last three chapters of A Calculus of Color discuss the remaining American League teams to desegregate. In chapter six, “Reluctant Realists: A Change Gathers Momentum,” McGregor explores the various paths reluctantly taken by the Athletics, the Nationals, and the Yankees. The Athletics played Bob Trice in 1953, becoming the fourth AL team to desegregate. Because Philadelphia was a “racially nervous town,” Trice and later addition Vic Power faced ugly resistance, which convinced the team to temporarily halt desegregation. McGregor therefore describes the Athletics’ attempt as “a wobbly, half-hearted, grudging, cynical, self-serving approach to integration” (p. 143). Washington, on the other hand, both ignored the color line by regularly adding Latino players and steadfastly defended segregation by refusing to add black players until the addition of Joe Black in 1957. Finally, the Yankees refused to desegregate until 1955 because the owners saw no need. New York’s all-white squads regularly won the pennant and World Series.

In chapter seven, “Ungracious Surrender: The Ongoing Resistance of the Final Two,” McGregor examines the final holdouts: the Tigers and the Red Sox. He explains that Detroit’s racial history proved insurmountable for the organization. Tellingly, it was light-skinned black player Ozzie Virgil who desegregated the team in 1958. Boston thereby ended up as the lone all-white organization in MLB. Because the Red Sox fan base was overwhelmingly white, owner Tom Yawkey initially saw no reason to integrate. Thus it was prevailing “attitudes, not economics” that eventually forced his hand in 1959 with the signing of Elijah Green, over a decade after Robinson and Doby first took the field (p. 172). As McGregor argues in chapter eight, “Looking Back–and Looking Ahead,” the American League lagged behind the National League primarily because of the owners. Shaped by prejudiced views, the AL leaders clung to discriminatory practices and only reluctantly desegregated for financial gain.

A Calculus of Color stands out amongst the extensive list of scholarship that covers early baseball, the Negro leagues, and desegregation. McGregor adds to the canon by exploring the oft-overlooked American League and showcasing how the economic motivations of the AL owners largely outweighed their concerns with social progress. In addition, the work provides an interesting analysis of the relationships between black baseball owners and the white leaders in organized baseball. For example, McGregor contrasts Rickey’s and Veeck’s tactics, applauding the former for his foresight to slowly introduce Robinson to the league, and crediting the latter for his willingness to pay the Negro National League for Doby’s contract. Finally, McGregor writes accessibly and with humor. For instance, he labels Veeck “P.T. Barnum in a ball park” for his efforts to incorporate entertainment in the sport (p. 103), and describes Satchel Paige as “older than God” when describing the aging star’s debut in MLB after a successful career in the Negro leagues (p. 101). The tremendous detail, critical analysis, and humorous accessibility make A Calculus of Color a must read for any sport historian interested in early twentieth century baseball.

And, A Calculus of Color is also a must read for anyone trying to get students to think beyond Robinson and Rickey.

Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College and the Book Review Editor of Sport in American History. She can be reached at pieper.l@lynchburg.edu and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. Check out her website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.

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