I saw the movie “42” yesterday. It tells with gusto the remarkable story of Jackie Robinson, and how he integrated Major League Baseball in 1947. The title refers to the number on Robinson’s uniform.
Sometimes lost in the details, however, are two key points about Jackie Robinson and individual liberty. First, this triumph of civil rights only happened when blacks and whites worked together. Branch Rickey, the white general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had a vision for integrated baseball, and he chose Robinson carefully as the man who could work with him to break down the barriers of segregation. Each man needed the other.
One hundred years earlier, we see the same pattern. Harriet Tubman was using the Underground Railroad to free her fellow slaves and break down the institution of slavery. But she, too, had dramatic help from a white man–Thomas Garrett. Garrett was eventually jailed for helping runaway slaves reach freedom in Philadelphia. Advances in civil rights have often required both races to work together to fulfill the goals of the Declaration of Independence.
Slavery and racism are despicable, but the crucial lesson to teach our students is that the obstacle of racism has been broken most effectively when blacks and whites have worked together.
My second point is that in a market economy, racists are losers. They fail because they shun people who can add value. The Brooklyn Dodgers integrated in 1947, and that same year they won the National League pennant. The Dodgers were also pennant contenders for many years afterward. The St. Louis Cardinals had won the pennant in 1944 and 1946, but refused to integrate and never won another pennant until they did.
In the American League, the Cleveland Indians integrated first, and they won a pennant and World Series quickly in 1948. Detroit and Boston, two strong contenders and pennant winners in the 1940s, became two of the worst teams in baseball in the 1950s because they refused to sign black players.
Finally, in desperation, Boston and Detroit became the last teams to integrate by 1959, and both teams returned to their pennant-winning ways in the 1960s. Market economics, not government intervention, integrated every major league team in only 12 years.
This fascinating story began with Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson in the 1940s, but it still inspires audiences today. When I was in the audience yesterday, the crowd clapped at the end of the movie in strong appreciation for what these men accomplished.