Review of Integrating the Orioles

Luke, Bob. Integrating the Orioles: Baseball and Race in Baltimore. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2016. Pp. 216. Notes and index. $29.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Chuck Westmoreland

Frank Robinson, the 1961 National League (NL) Most Valuable Player, arrived in Baltimore after the Cincinnati Reds made one of the most baffling trades in baseball history. From the Baltimore Orioles, the Reds received Milt Pappas, a moderately successful pitcher, reliever Jack Baldschun, and Dick Simpson, a minor-league outfielder. The Reds struggled mightily that year and finished seventh in the NL. Pappas compiled a mediocre 12-11 record on the mound. The Orioles, meanwhile, got its first black superstar and the first of three World Series titles. Robinson was an easy choice for the 1966 American League (AL) MVP as he dominated the league in all major batting categories. No wonder Cincinnati fans began calling General Manager Bill DeWitt, the architect of the Robinson-Pappas trade, “Dim Witt” (p. 85-101).

Oriels Cover

McFarland and Co., 2015

Robinson’s story is a pivotal and powerful one in Bob Luke’s Integrating the Orioles: Baseball and Race in Baltimore. Author of several books on the Negro Leagues, Luke delivers a compelling, balanced narrative of how the Oriole organization and the city of Baltimore confronted race and segregation during the height of the modern black freedom struggle. Luke begins his examination of the history of baseball and race in Baltimore with a brief, contextual chapter on the era from the late nineteenth century through the early 1950s. This chapter includes discussions of the first Baltimore Orioles franchise that moved to New York in 1903 and became the present-day Yankees. Luke also addresses the Baltimore Elite Giants, a Negro League team, and Jackie Robinson’s experiences in the city while facing the minor-league Baltimore team of the 1940s, also named the Orioles.

The current incarnation of the Baltimore Orioles franchise, which had previously been the St. Louis Browns, began play in 1954. That same year, the Supreme Court issued its historic ruling on school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education. By the time Baltimore acquired a new major league franchise in the 1950s, baseball’s color line had been broken. From 1954 until Robinson donned the Oriole uniform, O’s management failed to sign many black players. African-American players who did join the squad often found themselves in the minors. Local civil rights groups and the black press kept up the pressure on the organization to acquire more black players, especially those who possessed star power and could help increase black attendance at ballgames. Sportswriters such as the Baltimore Afro-American’s Sam Lacy took on Orioles management for its slow pace of integration. Lacy and others attributed the Orioles’ on-field struggles (six losing seasons in their first nine years in Baltimore) to the organization’s weak pursuit of African American players. Luke argues persuasively that, prior to the Robinson trade, “A rocky journey strewn with empty promises, a tin ear toward African Americans’ (players’ as well as city residents’) concerns, and revolving cameo appearances by black players…marked the Orioles’ early years” (p. 4). To make matters worse, Baltimore’s small cadre of black players faced the indignity and injustice of segregation in local housing, hotels, restaurants, and other public accommodations.

The Robinson-Pappas trade paved the way for a new era in the history of the Orioles. As the civil rights legislation of the 1960s broke down legalized segregation in Baltimore and around the country, the Orioles finally began to embrace black players and became a different team in terms of success and demographics. From 1966 to 1985, the Orioles won three World Series championships and had only one losing season. The link between an increasing presence of high-quality black players and on-field accomplishment was obvious. With diamond greats such as Robinson, Al Bumbry, and Eddie Murray in the lineup, Baltimore was a perennial contender for the AL pennant. Furthermore, after many years, Baltimore’s black community had reason to embrace the hometown team and start piling into 33rd Street’s Memorial Stadium.

Integrating the Orioles is more than a story of racial progress and the defeat of segregation, however. When it came to buying a house in Baltimore in 1966, for example, Frank Robinson was just another black man. White renters and sellers treated Robinson not as a baseball legend and a hero to the city, but as someone who was undesirable in white neighborhoods. After several years, Robinson and his wife finally found a house to their satisfaction. Their new home was located in a white neighborhood. Near the book’s end, Luke addresses persistent divisions within Baltimore over residential segregation, failing inner-city schools, diminished job opportunities for black residents, and the most recent turmoil over police brutality following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray. On the baseball side, Luke analyzes the continuing struggle to hire more black managers and conveys how far baseball still has to travel in matters of racial equality. For this section, Luke frames his discussion of the slim black presence in baseball front offices around Frank Robinson’s rocky managerial career and Los Angeles Dodger Vice President Al Campanis’s 1987 remark that African Americans were not in leadership positions because “they may not have the necessities to be a field manager or perhaps a general manager” (p. 128-9). He also touches on blacks’ declining interest and participation in baseball over the past several decades.

Integrating the Orioles does contain several factual errors that scholars of race and civil rights will find glaring. Luke refers to the Mississippi NAACP leader who fell victim to an assassin’s bullet as Charles Evers rather than Medgar Evers. When addressing civil rights campaigns and violence in the South during the early 1960s, Luke points out that Alabama Klansmen bombed Birmingham’s Tenth Street Baptist Church instead of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. In addition, Baltimore native Calvin Hill is noted as a Yale quarterback when, in fact, Hill played running back at Yale and then for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.

Disappointingly, Luke does not paint a full picture of the great Baltimore sportswriter and champion of civil rights, Sam Lacy. Throughout the book, Luke refers to Lacy and quotes him on many occasions, but readers get very little on Lacy’s background and ideology. Such an important figure to the wider history of this subject needs more thorough attention and analysis.

As Luke states in his preface, books about the desegregation of individual teams are rare. With Integrating the Orioles, he has done a great service for general and scholarly audiences. Luke has impressive research in newspapers, archival collections, and secondary sources. He also conducted a wide array of interviews with former Orioles that prove invaluable to his story. Luke is especially skillful at weaving together the racial history of the Orioles and the wider civil rights struggle in Baltimore. Those interested in the history of sport, race, and civil rights will benefit from Luke and those who follow his example.

Chuck Westmoreland is Assistant Professor of History at Delta State University where he teaches a variety of courses in modern U.S. and southern history, including a course on sport and the American experience. He is currently completing a book manuscript on religion and politics in the South from the era of the modern civil rights movement through the rise of the New Christian Right. You can contact him at cwestmoreland@deltastate.edu or follow him on Twitter @chwestmo7.

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