For what is history but a myth agreed upon?
Ken Burns and Jackie
Most of Burns’ Jackie biography was sensational. Terrific images.
Not a single word about KC Monarchs owner JL Wilkinson, who could have stopped the whole Integration story if he had fought Branch Rickey for stealing Jackie.
I do not believe that Burns, who otherwise did a magnificent job of research, never heard of the name Wilkinson! It would not have changed the Robinson story if Ken had tipped his cap to Wilkie. But he didn’t. I think that’s because he had deified both Robinson and Rickey in his earlier TV magnus opus, “Baseball,” and he still can’t bring himself to tell the true story.
Ken was brought up in Brooklyn, learning the Rickey Myth at his mother’s knee. Of course it must be true! And now as an adult he cannot admit that his lifelong belief is untrue. I can understand that. But I can’t forgive him for not allowing you, his viewers, to learn the truth. He is one of the nation’s great journalists, but he deliberately chose not to tell you the honest facts.
That’s how half-truths become myths. I call them “tryths.” A half-fact/half-truth would be a “fyth.”
Another myth that should be unmasked is Happy Chandler’s roll. He never insisted that Rickey or Veeck pay the owners for the black players they stole. In fact, he approved the rapes. But when Mexico raided MLB players, Happy hit the roof and banned anyone who jumped.
However, I did learn something I hadn’t known. While Robinson was beating his court martial for refusing to sit in back of the bus, his tank unit was in Germany fighting bravely. But, instead of rushing to join them, Jackie asked for a discharge! And the Army brass granted it! Perhaps they were glad to get rid of a trouble maker. But it diminishes Jack in my eyes.
When Hitler struck in the Bulge, Eisenhower put out an emergency call for rear area troops to volunteer for front-line duty. (He called it “offering them the privilege.”) However, if they were black, they would have to give up their sergeant stripes – and pay – so that a black man could not command white privates. Thousands volunteered anyway. One received a Medal of Honor. Another was Hank Thompson of the Monarchs, who manned a machine gun and later played for the Giants against Robinson.
If Jackie had gone to Europe and faced combat, a) he might have been killed, and b) he would not have played with the Monarchs and would not have been scouted by the Dodgers.
Rickey would probably have picked Roy Campanella of the Baltimore Elites. Roy had been eyed by his hometown Phillies in 1941, and the great Oscar Charleston had put him #1 on a list of prospects he gave Rickey. Roy was 23, and I’ve never learned how he escaped military service.
Would Campy have taken the abuse that Jackie took? I believe Roy himself frankly admitted he wouldn’t. How long would that have set Integration back?
Ask Questions. Question Answers
In 1987 Andre Dawson won an MVP for the last-place Cubs. (Dave Paulson)
The Rickey Myth
Monte Irvin was indeed affected by World War II. He told me that, and everybody else who interviewed him. He had an inner ear problem and overall suffered from about two years in the European theater. He came home, played late in the ’45 Negro League season, then went to Puerto Rico and slowly brought his game back. He did have a great 1946 in the NNL- although he did not hit .411, as you stated – he hit in the high .300s – the Elias Bureau reported it at .389, I believe, and Baseball-Reference .com has now adjusted it to .375. (Duke Goldman)
(Monte was not a happy soldier. He told everyone that. But he was not a wounded warrior. He went 5-for-13 at the end of ’45. That winter he led the Puerto Rican league in homers and batting (.368). In ’46 I have him at .356, not .411 – my goof – I was thinking of his teammate, Larry Doby.
My data comes from 15-plus years of people, volunteer and paid, tediously counting every box score we could find, 1888-1946. In 1928 the eastern league published its own statistics, and they agreed almost completely with mine. That’s gratifying. In the early ’40s the Washington Afro-American published its own home stats for the Homestead Grays, and again, we agreed very, very closely.
Elias compiled Negro league statistics from 1944 on, based on boxes sent to them by the teams. That led to problems. They had more at bats and hits than I did, but I had more extra base hits. How do you account for that? The Elias work sheets or day-by-days no longer exist, so there’s no way to reconcile the differences. Since I could confirm my statistics and didn’t know theirs, I decided to use mine.
The Hall of Fame did a study covering 1923-43. They did a great job, but they had only 2 1/2 years to complete it. Thus in almost all cases my data are larger than theirs. For example, they have 100 victories for Paige, I have 160; they have 107 homers by Josh Gibson, I have 252. Baseball Reference used theirs. I pointed out the huge discrepancy to Sean Forman of BBD, but he decided not to make a change. For some reason they have dropped Monte’s stats, though they still seem to include other Negro leaguers.
I am not sure you are telling the complete story. For such a short snippet, and one so critical, I would have expected more substance and references to other authors.
Furthermore, you are trampling on a thread of history. The general outlook on the black race getting to the major leagues has been settled. Much of your story reminds me of Ruth’s called shot in Chicago; more accept it than deny it. It think the same goes for Jackie and Branch. (John Bushman)
(I have a chapter on Wilkie in my book Blackball Stars. If you’d like to read more, I’ll send one to you. No, I didn’t quote other authors; I don’t think there are any. And yes, the general outlook was “settled” – but not any more. Burns is doing his best to keep it “settled.” But history is never settled, it’s always changing as scholars uncover new research. So now you have a choice – to accept what Burns tells you, or consider what he has hidden from you, which is very unsettling to those who know the truth. And exactly what is “settled?” That Rickey paid for Jackie? Or that he didn’t? If you believe he did, I hope you’ll consider the evidence that he did not. If you agree that he did not, I hope you will find that very unsettling.)
Why would Branch Rickey or any other major league owner have to pay other people money for the men they were hiring? Was it because Negro League owners had enslaved their players with a reserve clause just like the “major league” owners? Anybody who claims the right to sell or buy another is covered in the stench of slavery that includes Negro league owners if they enslaved their players thru a reserve system. Branch Rickey is no more reprehensible than any other owners in any league claiming to own players. (Ray E McMillen)
(The Negro league players signed annual contracts. There were no reserve clauses. Rickey merely said, “I don’t recognize any Negro league contract.”)
Well done! Thank you! (Tim Fodge)
Just listened to Satchel Paige’s book and he, too, references Wilkinson as someone always willing to lend a hand to another. (Thea Travis)
The HoF lists Wilkie’s date of death as 1964, which would have made him 86 at the time. Thanks for the well-researched and well-told essay. (Steven Barnes)
Great piece. While I knew of the over-rated hype around Rickey, I wasn’t aware of Wilkinson – talk about a guy who cared and walked the walk. Seems heroic! (Tim Joyce)
Outstanding, John! Thank you for telling this story. I have known/read only fragments of what happened and am grateful to have the entire mosaic in an orderly retelling. Thank you . . . and God bless Wilkie. (Stephen Barnes)
Good stuff. Thanks very much. Had no idea – as I’m sure neither have bazillions of other fans of the game and its history. (Loren Woodson)
I may have seen Jackie in May 1945 when the Monarchs played the Grays. But there was no box score, and if the announcer said, “Shortstop, Robinson,” it wouldn’t have meant anything to me anyway.
The list of villains in the history of Integration is sadly long. But I am very happy to sweep my hat off and bow to several white men who belong on the Honor Roll of guys who saw a chance to do the right thing and did it.
Pee Wee Reese
Martin roomed with and befriended Artie Wilson in the PCL.
As for Ted, one story will suffice. When Larry Doby first came into the American League, the two passed each other between innings. Ted slapped Larry on the rump with his glove. “You looked good up there, kid,” he said. “You’ll do fine.”
Three years later Ted broke his elbow at the All Star Game and had to undergo surgery. When the ether wore off, and he blinked his eyes open, the first face he saw was Larry, sitting by the bedside.