J.G. Taylor Spink’s racist baseball legacy lasted decades, but in the end, truth won

During the summer of 1942, the conspiracy of silence protecting segregated baseball had broken and the national pastime’s color barrier itself was weakening. Pittsburgh Pirates owner William Benswanger had agreed to give a tryout to Negro league players Sammy Hughes, Dave Barnhill and Roy Campanella. Benswanger reneged but the story gave publicity to those calling for the end of the color line.

The New York Daily News reported, falsely as it turned out, that the Philadelphia Phillies had given a tryout to Campanella, the 20-year-old catcher of the Baltimore Elites.

Baseball’s segregationist commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis told a sportswriter with the Daily Worker, a communist newspaper published in New York City that campaigned for the integration of baseball, that the decision to sign Black players was solely up to the team owners. There was no rule against hiring Black players, Landis told reporters between games of a doubleheader at Wrigley Field.

J.G. Taylor Spink, editor of the Sporting News, knew he needed to do something to keep baseball from becoming integrated.

The story of Spink shows how the fight to integrate baseball wasn't solely about the teams and players. Integration, and the opposition to it, was also about the power of Spink, and how he was able to single-handedly slow integration for years. In many ways, Spink's anti-integration impact could be felt decades after Jackie Robinson crossed the color line.

In fact, Spink's tentacles reached into the modern history of baseball. Shortly after Spink died, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America awarded Spink the first recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink award for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing.” The winner has since received his or her name in the writers’ and broadcasters’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Spink's influence would eventually wane but it was never stronger than on August 6, 1942, nearly five years before Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Spink wrote an editorial, “No Good from Raising Race Issue,” that said Black players did not want to play in the major leagues.  He said that the campaign to integrate baseball was a front to spread communism throughout the country. He said that integration would lead to race riots in the bleachers.

“It is not difficult to imagine what would happen if a player on a mixed team, performing before a crowd of the opposite color, should throw a bean ball, strike out with the bases loaded or spike a rival,” Spink said. “Clear-minded men of tolerance of both races realize the tragic possibilities and have steered clear of such complications.”

Neither of Spink’s arguments were factual; yet he accomplished what he wanted. Spink later bragged that his editorial had ended discussions about integration.

Spink, who published the Sporting News from 1914 until his death in 1962, had more influence on baseball than anyone other than Landis. He saw his publication as the “Bible of Baseball” and it covered seemingly every part of major and minor league baseball. He saw himself as the game’s conscious, promoter, and defender – and nothing he defended nothing more vociferously than he did the color line. He loved white baseball and black-faced minstrel shows.

In early February, recognizing Spink's hateful influence, the BBWAA removed Spink’s name from the award that had his moniker for decades. It's now called the BBWAA Career Excellence Award. "This action was not taken lightly," read an official statement released by the organization’s president C. Trent Rosecrans. "It was put to a vote after substantial research and conversation with and among members.

The Sporting News supported the decision. Ryan Fagan, a staff writer with the magazine, wrote that Spink ignored the Negro leagues and its players and used his publication to perpetuate cynical and false stereotypes of Black ballplayers, denigrating their talents and character when not ignoring them.

The decision to remove Spink’s name from the BBWAA follows a similar one from October 2020 to remove the name of Landis, the longtime baseball commissioner, from the award given to the most valuable player in the National and American leagues.

Both decisions were met with overwhelming praise. But they were long overdue.

Baseball historians and authors, including Jules Tygiel in his seminal 1983 work, Baseball’s Great Experiment, have long vilified Landis and Spink as bigoted obstructionists who kept baseball segregated for decades. Spink used his considerable influence to keep the game white. Mark Ribowsky, author of A Complete History of the Negro Leagues, 1884-1955, said Spink “constructed the platform for the big league reactionaries. . . to rest their case, at least as long as they could get away with it.”

Other white sportswriters, too, participated in what one Black sportswriter Joe Bostic called “a conspiracy of silence” to keep talented Blacks out of baseball. White sportswriters watched exhibition games between Black and White players and, in many cases, saw Negro league games. They knew many Black players were good enough to play in the major leagues but said nothing.

Brothers Al and Charles Spink created the Sporting News in 1886 in St. Louis, Missouri. Upon their deaths, Charles’s son, Taylor Spink inherited the publication and transformed it into the most dominant voice in sports. “It had undue influence on the game,” MLB historian John Thorn said. “The Sporting News really held sway for half a century.”

In 1933, Heywood Broun, the nationally syndicated columnist of the New York World-Telegram, gave a speech at the annual meeting of the New York Baseball Writers’ Association calling for the end of the color line in baseball. “If baseball is really the national pastime,” Broun said, “let the club owners go out and prove it.” The Sporting News reported several stories about the meeting, including one article that praised a minstrel show by sportswriters, but said nothing about Broun’s speech.

The Sporting News also ignored a series of articles written in 1939 by Wendell Smith, the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, the highest-circulated black newspaper, who interviewed dozens of major leaguers and found that few objected to Blacks in baseball.

A year earlier, the Sporting News responded sympathetically to New York Yankees’ outfielder Jake Powell, who had been suspended for telling a radio interviewer that he worked as a police officer during the offseason and stayed in shape by hitting “n—ers” over the head with his nightstick. Spink characterized Powell’s language as “careless.”

When Landis died in December 1944, he was succeeded by Albert “Happy” Chandler, a segregationist politician who had once been a U.S. senator and governor of Kentucky. Spink sent Chandler a copy of his 1942 editorial with a note that said it “had taken care of the situation.”

On October 23,1945, the Brooklyn Dodgers organization announced its president Branch Rickey had signed Jackie Robinson for its triple-A team, the Montreal Royals. The news electrified Black newspapers and Black America, who recognized that the signing of Robinson meant that racial equality was possible not just in baseball but in all of society.

The Sporting News wondered what all the fuss was about. It ran several articles on Robinson’s signing in its next issue, including this description of Robinson: “Robinson is definitely dark. His color is the hue of ebony. By no means can he be called a brown bomber or a chocolate soldier.”

Spink wrote in an editorial that “the attention which the signing of Robinson elicited in the press around the country was out of proportion to the actual vitality of the story.” In addition, Spink denigrated Robinson’s abilities even though he had probably never seen him play. If Robinson was white, the 26-year-old might be assigned to the Brooklyn organizations’ double-A team, he wrote, “if he were six years younger.”

A few weeks before spring training, Spink participated in a skit with other sportswriters at the annual meeting of the New York Baseball Writers’ Association that mocked Rickey’s signing of Robinson, who was portrayed in black face and spoke in dialect.

Robinson led the International League in hitting in 1946 and then integrated the major leagues the following April. His talents impressed Spink who named the ballplayer the National League rookie of the year. But this doesn’t suggest a softening of Spink’s racial attitudes. He continued to disparage the talents of Black major leaguers.

In 1948, Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, signed veteran Negro league pitcher Satchell Paige, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history who was in his early 40s. “To sign a hurler at Paige’s age is to demean the standards of baseball,” Spink said. “Further complicating the situation is the suspicion that if Satchel were white, he would not have drawn a second thought from Veeck.”

Paige went 6-1 with 2.48 earned run average and contributed to the team winning the American League pennant and the world series.  He was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1971.

Chris Lamb, chair of journalism and public relations department at Indiana University-Indianapolis, is author of Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball and Sports Journalism: A History of Glory, Fame, and Technology.

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