A Different Jackie Robinson Story

Breaking the color line was just the start to integration in baseball

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson walked out to first base at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, crossing the color line and changing the game forever. On the same date 50 years later, Major League Baseball universally retired Robinson’s number, and now every April 15, players wear number 42 to honor Robinson’s courage and legacy. Yet, as Editor-in-Chief Adrian Burgos recounts, the process of integration in the major leagues was complex, affecting how a young Latino who grew up in South Florida viewed the game. For Burgos, Jackie Robinson did not signal the end of a struggle, but a starting point in the history of baseball’s greater social change.

I never saw him play in person.

His story was not yet a standard part of Black History Month curriculum, at least not in South Florida, where I grew up.

In fact, I didn’t really get to know Jackie Robinson and his story of integrating baseball until I was in college. And that fact is telling of a generation that grew up prior to 1987, when Major League Baseball’s commemoration of the anniversary of Robinson’s breaking the color line — 40 years after the fact — started a more concerted effort to educate the baseball public about the sport’s integration story.

In my family, we were baseball fans. My abuelitas shared their baseball fandom with me, even taught me through their example how to root, how to be a Latino baseball fan.

But Jackie Robinson? He wasn’t part of our story. Or was he? In ways that I had yet to learn; in ways that were hidden in plain sight. What I learned complicated how I understand the legacy of Major League integration; how Jackie Robinson is a starting point to the history, but not the end.

Baseball Is Life

Growing up, I loved baseball. Money I earned working for a landscaping company was spent on collecting baseball cards — which ironically helped me learn about the Latin American origins of a growing number of major leaguers. My neighbor and I played our own version of the game for hours in the Florida heat and humidity. Whenever I wasn’t outside playing the game, I watched games on the superstations and over-the-air TV channels.

Everyone in the family basically knew about my obsession with baseball, including its history. One of my uncles (Toño) would quiz me on who the Latino players were on each big-league team and tell me about the first Latinos for each franchise as we played catch in the yard.

Yet, I scarcely understood how the game’s history of Latinos, of the color line and of the effects of Robinson’s courage were already present, in my family, even at my high school.

Connections Revealed

Relatives are not surprised that I tied together two of my passions — baseball and history — while becoming a university professor whose research focuses on the history of Latino baseball players. Surprises, however, came my way in the course of research and writing, revealing my connections to baseball history, to the presence of Latinos in the Negro Leagues, and to those who played with and against Robinson.

Upon completing my first book, Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line, in 2007, I visited my parents to celebrate. My uncle Toño drove up from Florida to join in the celebration. As we sat talking, I asked him: Did you know there was a Puerto Rican who played shortstop in the Negro Leagues and Puerto Rican Winter League by the name of José Antonio Burgos? He responded, knowingly, smiling: Did you know your grandmother named me after him?

There it was: baseball history already encoded in a relative’s name. My paternal grandmother had named her youngest son after her favorite shortstop. That shortstop would join other Latinos in performing in the Negro Leagues in the 1940s, a decade in which Jim Crow still affected which professional leagues in the United States a non-white player could play.

That revelation came several years after another that revealed a different personal link to the history of baseball’s color line and the man who began to demolish it: Jackie Robinson.

Although I came from a family that for generations had been baseball fans, it was in college I truly learned about Robinson’s historical role of pioneering integration in baseball and its importance to the Civil Rights Movement.

Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy educated me about Robinson’s valor and the everyday racial challenges he overcame with the strength of his wife Rachel. Notably, his book also discussed the generation of African-American and Latino players who followed Robinson and integrated minor-league and major-league teams, and how many of these pioneering players started in the Negro Leagues.

Researching the Negro Leagues once I was in graduate school was truly revelatory. These men paved the path for Robinson and his generation of integration pioneers. Reading James A. Riley’s The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues brought a particularly big surprise when I came to the entry of Felix “Chin” Evans.

A Negro League pitcher from 1934 through 1948, Evans participated in several East-West Games — the Negro League all-star game — and even played against Jackie Robinson in the black circuit. Reading about his post-playing career floored me, however. Evans became a high school physical education teacher and a football coach in south Florida. I stopped reading when the realization hit me.

This was my Coach Evans, one of the P.E. teachers at Ely High School where I played varsity baseball. Surprisingly, I recalled, Coach Evans had nothing to do with the varsity baseball team, but rather was one of the assistant coaches with the school’s football team.

Integration’s Other Legacy

The story of Felix Evans, a Negro League ace who left baseball behind and became a football coach, illuminates an unfortunate legacy of how Major League Baseball pursued integration, specifically and one of its unintended consequences.

The opening of MLB to black players meant that talented African-Americans like Robinson, as well as black Latinos like the Cuban Orestes Miñoso, could have the chance to sign with major-league teams. The practice of major-league officials, including the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Branch Rickey, on lowballing Negro League owners in terms of compensation for acquiring their players to become the first wave of pioneering players would profoundly impact the financial viability of the Negro Leagues. This would hasten the end of the Negro Leagues, but there was more.

Years, even decades, passed between when Robinson retired (1957) and major-league teams hired blacks to non-playing roles as team managers, coaches or scouting officials. Notably, even Robinson’s managerial aspirations were dashed.

This meant a generation of pioneering players really did not have options in organized baseball after their playing days ended. This reality reverberated throughout the black baseball infrastructure in the U.S. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, especially after the collapse of the formal Negro Leagues, there were fewer and fewer jobs as coaches, managers or scouts.

Perhaps this helps explain why Evans looked elsewhere, to football, as a place where his athletic acumen and years of experience could aid the development of black teenagers and potentially result help them obtain a college football scholarship.

What I do know for certain is that my learning about Jackie Robinson and baseball integration forced me to reconsider what I know about the game’s history. It has forced me to look at what was familiar and to ask new questions, for the story is much more complicated than just Jackie suiting up one April day in 1947. It’s about how he got to that moment that recast how we can understand the impact of baseball’s great experiment, in the United States and across the Americas.

 Featured Image: Afro Newspaper/Gado / Getty Images Sport