In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, the National League annually toyed with the sad excuses for teams the American League fielded for Major League Baseball’s All-Star game. At one point, the NL won 19 out of 20 midsummer classics, including 11 in a row from 1972-82. But few at the time cared to recognize the primary reason for that dominance: The owners of NL teams had been quicker to add dark-skinned and/or foreign-born players to their teams than their equally wealthy AL counterparts were.

But any attempt to romanticize the National League’s integration efforts as solely an act of social conscience should be taken with a grain of salt. The motivation for ending organized baseball’s ban on players of color that had tacitly existed since 1884 was first and foremost financial. Then as now, innovative and successful entrepreneurs recognized maintaining profitability required periodic (and occasionally seismic) change. Perhaps part of Branch Rickey’s rationale for integrating the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 involved conscience, but the most significant color involved with ending baseball’s racial purity wasn’t white, brown or black ”“ it was green.

Post-World War II baseball teams filled ballparks by fielding winning squads, and prior to the advent of television (and multi-billion dollar broadcast rights) ticket sales represented the bulk of an organization’s income. Efficiently-run teams could perpetuate their success by sending scouts to identify young talent and sign it for a pittance. The rules of the day allowed teams to maintain the rights to their players in perpetuity thereafter. Once Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Willie Mays and their contemporaries became property of a big league team, their choice each off-season was to agree to the terms they were offered or go back to the mines, cotton fields, docks, or wherever they had come from and attempt to make a living there.

The 1947 Dodgers weren’t just the 20th century’s first racially integrated team: They won the National League pennant, although they fell to the lordly New York Yankees in the World Series. The same thing happened two years later. But what occurred in the 15 subsequent seasons established a clear pattern regarding the integration of what was then unquestionably America’s foremost spectator sport.

In the years from 1949-64, seven of the National League’s eight non-expansion teams appeared in the World Series. Given that, competitive balance signing the best available talent (regardless of skin tone) was imperative. It’s unlikely the Dodgers would have won four pennants between 1952 and 1956 without Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Joe Black and Junior Gilliam, who were all black. The same is true of the 1957-58 Milwaukee Braves had they not included Hank Aaron and Bill Bruton; the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates minus Roberto Clemente; the 1961 Cincinnati Reds without Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson; the 1962 San Francisco Giants bereft of Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, and the Alou brothers; and the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals without the services of Bob Gibson, Curt Flood and Lou Brock.

During that same 16-year stretch, the New York Yankees won 14 American League pennants, and did so with little to no minority presence. But the foolish and often haughty attitude of their competition was, “If the Yankees can win without them (black players) every year, why can’t we?”

A pattern had been established, and it took nearly two decades for the junior circuit to catch up. The proof came when 12 members of the 1964 National League All-Star team ended up enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame and eight were men of color: Clemente, Cepeda, Mays, Aaron, Marichal, McCovey, Willie Stargell and Billy Williams. Not only that, but there wasn’t room on the team that year for future Hall-of-Famers Gibson, Brock, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks.

Tony Oliva, Elston Howard, Chuck Hinton and Johnnie Wyatt, the American League’s quartet of minority all-stars in 1964, were all good, but nowhere near great. Somehow it’s fitting the best pitcher in the American League during much of the period from 1949-64 was Yankee ace “Whitey” Ford.

Times have changed since 1947. Every player appearing in tonight’s All-Star game will make more money this season than the total Jackie Robinson earned in his 10-year career. And since that’s based solely on talent and improved bargaining power rather than race or ethnicity, it’s probably a good thing.

But general interest in the nominal National Pastime’s Midsummer Classic continues to wane, and for a variety of reasons. Never mind that the game generally drags on until well after most working Americans in the Eastern Time Zone are asleep; the bigger problem is an inevitable but understandable decline in interest. The pace of the game and the march of time have taken their toll. Baseball has long since ceded its once-lofty position as America’s most popular spectator sport.

— Andy Young teaches English at a York County high school. For those who absolutely have to know, the four white future Hall-of-Famers on the 1964 National League All-stars were Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Bill Mazeroski and Jim Bunning.



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