By Ken Reed
On April 15, 1947, The Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. It was a huge moment in baseball history and a landmark civil rights event for the United States.
Major League Baseball (MLB) celebrates the momentous occasion every April 15th. All MLB players wear the number 42, Robinson’s number, on the 15th to remember and honor the courageous actions of Robinson.
Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ president and general manager at the time, is also usually recognized on April 15th for his seminal work in setting the stage for Robinson’s entrance into Major League Baseball.
That’s all well and good. Robinson and Rickey both deserve to be honored every year for what they did for baseball and American society.
That said, there’s another key player in the story of baseball integration who doesn’t get nearly the attention he deserves: Wendell Smith.
Smith was a journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier, a popular and influential newspaper for African-Americans in the 1930’s and ’40’s. It was Smith who first suggested Jackie Robinson to Rickey. At the time, Smith had been pushing for the integration of baseball for more than a decade.
In addition to his newspaper reporting duties, Smith also took on the informal role of PR agent for Robinson, while continuing to write his columns for the Courier. Rickey hired Smith to travel with Robinson during the 1946 and 1947 seasons to help smooth Robinson’s transition to Major League Baseball. During that time, Smith served as a liaison between all stakeholders, white and black. And, since segregation was still the norm, Smith would often become Robinson’s dining companion, roommate and counselor on the road.
Smith worked to position Robinson as a good man who simply wanted to make a decent living to support his family. He ghostwrote a column for Robinson during the 1947 season. A key theme was that Robinson was a humble American baseball player who was simply trying to do his best to be a good teammate and help the Dodgers win. Smith didn’t want Robinson portrayed as a lightning rod in anyway for fear that it would slow down integration.
“I always tried to keep it from becoming a flamboyant, highly militant thing. And I think that’s why it succeeded,” Smith said.
Smith was not complacent about racial progress once Jackie Robinson had been accepted by the baseball world. As late as the 1960s, he wrote a series of influential articles on segregated spring training accommodations, successfully pressuring teams which trained in Jim Crow towns.
When Robinson passed away in October 1972 at age 53, due to a heart attack resulting from diabetes complications, Smith wrote Robinson’s obituary. Ironically, it would be the last article he ever wrote. Shortly thereafter, Smith would die at the age of 58, succumbing to cancer.
The integration of a major cultural institution like baseball was a big blow against institutional racism. It also positively impacted future civil rights actions. Wendell Smith’s shrewd public relations and journalistic abilities were a key reason the Jackie Robinson experiment succeeded.
As such, Smith’s role deserves to be recognized every April 15th, along with Robinson’s and Rickey’s.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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