If you’re a baseball fan—or simply a foe of injustice—you no doubt observed the 75th anniversary on April 15 of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier.
Years ago, the league retired Robinson’s No. 42, except on the anniversary of his first MLB game, when every player on every team wears that number. Beyond that, individual teams stage their own celebrations and, of course, the sports media devoted vast bandwidth, airtime, and column inches to the subject.
The tribute is well-deserved, and it’s difficult to imagine any sane person questioning the man’s fortitude or denying the stain on the game left by the “gentlemen’s agreement” under which the baseball owners for generations barred persons of color from the National Pastime.
But in their coverage of both the original episode and the league-wide observance last month, the pundits characteristically focused too much attention on why, but little or none on how baseball was finally integrated.
In fact, Robinson found his way into the Brooklyn Dodgers’ lineup on April 15, 1947, not because of a government edict but because of free markets and the irresistible morality of capitalism.
As has been well-chronicled, from the time of its founding in 1876, Major League Baseball had remained an entirely white enterprise. There are legends about light-skinned blacks making occasional appearances in uniform. There are even persistent rumors the game’s most iconic player, Babe Ruth, had African-Americans in his family tree.
But even if true, these stories would be only a footnote in history because Robinson was, by all accounts, the first MLB player to openly identify as non-white—and face the consequences of it.
To be sure, nothing ever found its way into the league’s bylaws spelling out the specifics of the rule or promising retribution against any who violated it, but the conspiracy couldn’t have been more obvious, and there was much being written about the travesty.
But while the lawmakers dithered, the market acted.
To be more precise, Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey took a good look at the wealth of talent toiling away in the Negro Leagues and concluded the benefits of winning games outweighed whatever informal sanctions might accompany his decision to violate the game’s unwritten rule.
And when his actions forced the other owners to follow suit, however timid or racist they may have been, the whole calculus changed.
Legendary economist Thomas Sowell, in “The Thomas Sowell Reader,” avoided the temptation to rhapsodize and, instead, expressed the development in unsparing economic terms:
“Because Major League Baseball has operated as a cartel, exempted from anti-trust laws, it … had low costs of discrimination and was able to keep black players out. But this situation changed in 1947, when the Brooklyn Dodgers hired Jackie Robinson as the first black Major League ballplayer. Because there was competition within the cartel among various teams, once the color barrier was broken by just one team hiring just one black player, the cost to other teams of keeping out other black players rose sharply. The net result was that, in a matter of a relatively few years, large numbers of black players flooded into the major leagues … The cost was obviously much too high for the competing teams to pay for continuing racial exclusion in Major League Baseball. Their racial attitudes may not have changed, but the cost of translating those attitudes into discriminatory exclusions had changed drastically.”
Again, the question isn’t whether discrimination is a bad thing, or the integration of baseball was a good thing. Those conclusions are self-evident. But the Jackie Robinson experience unequivocally proves that, in the absence of monopoly-enabled collusion, the market will force individuals to do the right thing.
More to the point, it proves that market-driven societal changes tend to be more readily accepted than those imposed by government. Either Roosevelt or Truman could have intervened and integrated baseball by force. Perhaps they even wanted to. But would doing so have driven home the point to owners, teammates, and baseball fans that it was not only the right thing but the only thing they could do?
Did the integration of schools go smoothly? How about busing or minority hiring quotas?
Unlike those top-down solutions, which yielded questionable results and engendered resentments we still grapple with to this day, Branch Rickey’s bold stroke was quickly embraced by those forced to choose between accepting the truth or consigning their team to mediocrity.
As a footnote, within two years Rickey’s Dodgers had three more black players, including Don Newcombe and Hall of Famer Roy Campanella. Not coincidentally, their crosstown rivals, the New York Giants, responded in 1949 by making Monte Irvin the 10th black to play in the major leagues.
By 1951, the Giants had more black players—including Willie Mays—than Brooklyn, not because they were forced by government fiat, but because they would have been at a significant competitive disadvantage to choose any other course.
Arbitrary quotas and the clumsy application of force allow preening politicians to assert they were the instrument of change. But if the objective is smooth transition, wide acceptance, and enduring success, nothing beats competition and the open market.
It takes nothing away from Jackie Robinson’s talent and courage to recognize they were finally put on display only after the market was allowed to work as intended.
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