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The Gentleman's Agreement

The Gentleman's Agreement

The Gentleman's Agreement, How this agreement stole what could of been the biggest stars the game ever seen.

Generations of people came and went between the time when Fleetwood Walker played his final Pro baseball game in 1885, and Jackie Robinson crossed the caulk on Ebbets Field, April 15, 1947, to play his first Major League Baseball game. Both men were Negro or Colored, in today's world they are called African American.

The focus of this research is not to document the breaking of the color barrier by Jackie Robinson. It is the time between 1883 and 1947. Who started the Gentleman's agreement? Why keep the ban in place when a majority did not want to? Who were the central figures in getting Robinson to the major leagues? The media has told their story, now here is the real story. 

Major League or Professional Baseball started play in 1871. At that time it was evolving from a pickup game into a professional league. In 1871, the game was different from the game you now see. The man who instilled many of the changes was Cap Anson, born Andrian Constantine Anson, on April 17, 1852. He was the first white born child in Marshalltown, Iowa. Anson may have the most distinguished lineage of any major league player - he was a descendant of Admiral George Anson, who was known as "The Father of the British Navy". Marshalltown was a slave town, founded by Anson's father a decade before the Civil War. Anson’s attitudes toward race were formed here.

Anson was a player and manager from 1871-1897. He was a great player, leading his league in runs batted in eight times, batting average twice, and his 120 RBI’s at age 39 are a record that stands to this day. His 97 career home runs ranked in the top five when he retired, and his fielding percentage at first base led the league several times.

He was the first baseball player to achieve 3,000 hits. The hit total is in question by some because in 1887 walks were counted as base hits. As of today, Major League Baseball considers his hit total to be 3,042. His record as a manager left him with an impressive .578 winning percentage. His 19 seasons as manager of the White Stockings was at the time a record.

Anson, by all regards, was a true pioneer of the game. He was one of the main players who took the league from a sandlot and pasture game to a business and formally run league. He's credited with the following innovations: spring training, pitching rotations, the hit and run play, organized relay throws, first and third base coaches, and hand signals. Anson and Al Spaulding got a ruled passed allowing the use of one type of baseball. Previously, teams would use various types of balls to change the outcome of a game. Pitchers could bring their own baseballs to the game doctored to the pitchers liking. The use of a uniform baseball was a monumental advance that changed the game and gave it balance. Although documentation could not be found to verify this, in all articles published at the time of Anson’s death, the writers gave Anson credit for keeping the formalized leagues together. 

In 1883, Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings were set to play an exhibition game versus Newark in New Jersey. Anson observed a black battery warming up for Newark - George Stovey pitching and a catcher named Moses Fleetwood Walker. Anson announced that he would not take the field with colored players on the other team. He protested intensely; however it landed him with no joy, as Newark demanded that Anson play or go home. Not wanting to lose his part of the gate, Anson played.

The following year in Toledo, Ohio, Anson had a similar experience as the same catcher Fleet Walker was warming up a pitcher. Again, Anson protested and said he would not play the game. This time however, the team agreed and Walker was not allowed to play. "Anson will never pit the Chicago White Stockings versus a team containing colored players," the papers reported.

Cap Anson’s circle of influence at the time was large. His name was attached to brands of candy, cigars and bats. Anson was also the first player to charge for an autograph. As a man effecting players' wallets, not many would stand up to Anson. Thus it became the "unwritten rule" or Gentleman’s Agreement, that no Negro player may play Baseball on this level.

Anson was an equal opportunity bigot - he would not play with Irish or Jewish players either. Hugh Duffy, an Irishman who has the record for single season batting average at .438, played one season for Anson until Anson found out he was Irish. Duffy said, "Captain Anson of the Chicago Club has no use for players with Irish blood in their veins and he never loses an opportunity to insult those men who have it" (<i>The Sporting News</i>).

Anson's narrow-minded views were in line with his time. Negros had less opportunity in the 20th century than directly after slavery. The world was also divided greatly by religion and culture; progressive thinkers were a minority.

Moses Fleetwood "Fleet" Walker was born in 1856 and died on May 11, 1924 in Cleveland. The man who caused so much grief for Cap Anson was buried in an unmarked grave. Walker, not Jackie Robinson was the first Negro to play Major League Baseball, for Toledo in 1883. He played in 42 games, batted, .263, and had the worst fielding average in the league. Despite Anson's lamentations, Walker continued to play for various professional teams until 1885. Walker was the last obvious negro player until Robinson in 1947. In the interim, a few light-skinned African Americans slipped in and out of the big leagues. 

Walker's impact was not limited to baseball. He became a political activist following his retirement from the game. In 1908, he edited a daily newspaper named the <i>Equator</i>, and opened a Steubenville, Ohio, office for Liberian emigration. Walker wrote, <i>Our Home Colony</i>, a bitter, oversimplified history of the Negro race. In the book, Walker urged African Americans to return to Africa. Walker was an entrepreneur, at various times he owned hotels, newspapers, and a theater. By all accounts he was both sophisticated and articulate. In 1990, the Heisman Club of Oberlin College marked Walker's grave with a proper headstone.

Wendell Smith was inducted into the writer's wing of the Hall of Fame in 1972, the first man of color to be so honored. He started his career as a writer for the <i>Pittsburgh Courier</i> in 1937. Smith was determined to find out why blacks had not been allowed to play in the majors between the 1880s and 1947. In 1938, Smith took a poll to find that 75% of players and managers had no issue with Negro players and felt they were both good enough to play in Baseball and should be allowed to play. Only 20% opposed such a move. In 1939, Smith and <i>Courier</i> publisher Paul Robeson appeared at the annual meeting of Major League Baseball owners and presented these facts. No action was taken by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis nor the owners.

Smith continued his efforts with articles that received national exposure as they were picked up by most of the major newspapers through the wire service. Smith made his first major inroads with Boston politician Isadore Muchnick. Smith advised that Muchnick vote against Sunday baseball unless Negro players were allowed to try out for the Boston Red Sox and Boston Braves. Today, Sunday is just another day; in 1945 the Blue Laws were in effect. The Blue Laws disallowed most businesses to open on Sundays. This was an important vote for Baseball, as losing a Sunday gate would be devastating.

The teams agreed to Muchnick's demands, and the first players to try out were Sam Jethroe, Jackie Robinson and Marvin Williams. Smith made his biggest mistake in not bringing famous Negro League legends Satchel Paige. Josh Gibson, known as "The Black Babe Ruth", was not allowed to travel to Boston because his Negro League team, the Homestead Grays, would not release him. Gibson was much too big of a drawing card. Paige later played in the majors and pitched well for five seasons, and again pitched at age 58 for one game. Red Sox traveling secretary Duffy Lewis conducted the hour-long try out. Some press was there, however the event gained little publicity. Neither Boston team offered a contract to any of the players.

Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager and president, was planning to start a third Negro League to legitimize its stars. This league would act as a bridge to integrate them into MLB. Rickey was a Baseball innovator who created the farm system, which we now call the minor leagues. Rickey also forced hotels to accept his Negro players. Rickey had a tremendous eye for talent and he knew the Negro League was loaded with talent. So much so, that in 1945 he had his top scouts secretly scouting the Negro Leagues.

Smith knew this information, and on his way back from Boston, Smith went to see Rickey. It was then that Rickey fixed his sites on Robinson, whom he referred to as "the man from the west". Robinson appealed to Rickey because he had played integrated sports in college and was a national football star at the University of Southern California. Rickey was ready to integrate blacks into Major League Baseball and he was determined to add several players at once. Brooklyn owner Walter O’Malley disagreed. He approved a slow integration to make sure it was going to work. Rickey and Smith talked frequently about "the man from the west" - to make sure he had the correct demeanor for the task.

In a secret meeting with Rickey, Robinson signed a contract with the Dodgers in December of 1945, to play for the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn’s top farm team. He played one season for Montreal and made his Major League debut on April 15, 1947.  Starting in spring training in 1947, Smith became Robinson’s traveling secretary, traveling with Jackie to serve as support as he dodged the racism, harsh treatment, and prejudices that would serve as obstacles to history. Years later it was Smith who wrote Robinson’s autobiography. Smith was credited with helping Robinson remain poised through his career. 

The last figure in this story is the man who had the power to change history, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Landis became the Commissioner of Baseball in 1920, after the infamous Black Sox scandal. A stern man who had spent several undistinguished years as a judge, where many of his most controversial decisions were later overturned, Landis found the perfect job as Commisioner. He was an autocratic ruler who was answered to no one, not even the owners who appointed him. In his ruling that banned the eight players involved in the Black Sox scandal, he was credited with saving baseball's reputation in the eyes of the fans.

1942, Leo Durocher, the outspoken Brooklyn Dodger manager, claimed Landis was against using Negro players. Landis quickly replayed, "One or twenty-five Negro’s may play on a team, it is up to the owners." Landis played pass the buck after a 21-year silence on the subject. There is little question the owners were just as opposed to integration as well.

The following year, Landis changed his tune. "Any Negro can play in our league, except none of them are good enough," the commissioner claimed.

It should be noted that after nearly every season in the 1930s and early 1940s, Major Leaguers played on barnstorming teams against the Negro League teams. Most records show that Negro League teams competed favorably in these games, often beating the MLB stars. Yet, none were deemed good enough by the Commissioner. 

In 1943, the Pittsburgh Pirates tried to sign Josh Gibson, a move that Landis blocked. "The colored’s have their own league, let them stay there," he said.

In 1941, Bill Veeck tried to buy the Philadelphia Phillies, his sole purpose to stock the team with Negro League players. Landis put an end to that; the National League bought the team blocking Veeck. 

Why would Landis uphold the "Gentelman's Agreement"? As Commissioner, he had a chance to put his mark on the game and American History. Landis stubbornly refused to budge, and it was shortly after his death in 1943 that Smith and Rickey made their moves and Robinson broke the barrier, in 1947.

"I knew I had to wait for Landis to be out of Baseball," Rickey said.

Imagine if Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and Joe DiMaggio had the opportunity to play against or with Cool Papa Bell, Willie Wells, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. The "Gentleman's Agreement" blocked  that from happening. Started in the years following the Civil War and Reconstruction, and institutionalized in the 20th Century when even dark skinned whites or Native Americans were shunned from the Game, the Agreement was a dirty secret in baseball. As a result, some of the best baseball players in history were denied the opportunity to compete in the Majors.

Since 1947, seven of the top ten all-time home run hitters are either black or Hispanic. In a few short years, Ruth will become the only white man in the top ten all time for home runs. Baseball is a game of nummbers. Just what would those numbers be had Anson, Landis, and others not adhered to the "Gentleman's Agreement"?

The saddest words ever spoken are "What could have been."    

By Tom Hannon

 

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