Home Book Reviews Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and his Legacy by Jules Tygiel

Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and his Legacy by Jules Tygiel

by Matt Smith

Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and his Legacy by Jules Tygiel (Oxford University Press, 2008) 415 pages.

Baseball is rightly proud of the Jackie Robinson story.  When he ‘broke the colour line’ on 15 April 1947, he didn’t just set in motion the desegregation of baseball, he helped to pave the way for seismic changes throughout American society. 

Jules Tygiel’s book has been widely regarded as one of the seminal texts on this subject since it was first published in 1983.  It is therefore an important addition to any baseball fan’s collection. 

The legacy of Jackie Robinson has always been well-publicised during my eleven year (and counting) fascination with the sport.  The large memorial to him at the new Citi Field is the latest example of MLB’s efforts to make sure his struggles are never forgotten.  However, Tygiel reveals in his Afterword for the 2008 edition that this wasn’t always the case.  He initially found it hard to find a publisher for the book until Oxford University Press stepped in and he also cites some distinctly ambivalent attitudes from MLB players in the 1980s towards what Robinson did. 

MLB should be commended for their efforts in changing this, but in doing so they have put all the emphasis on Robinson and greatly simplified the story. In this context, Baseball’s Great Experiment is all the more important as it is about much more than the part Robinson alone played.  As Tygiel explains in the Afterword, it is a:

“broad social history of the integration process in baseball.  Robinson naturally played a central role.  But Baseball’s Great Experiment encompassed the history of the Negro Leagues, the campaign to end segregation in baseball, the experiences of other early African American and non-white Hispanic players in both the major and minor leagues, the dynamics of a newly integrated industry, and the broader social significance of these events”.

None of this is to diminish the crucial first step taken by Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey.  Tygiel devotes a considerable section of the book to the ‘great experiment’.  Perhaps most importantly, he offers a strong overview of the wider social landscape in which it took place.  The so-called Jim Crow laws dominated the agenda and few in baseball showed any desire to challenge them. 

The sport did not officially forbid African-Americans from playing in the Majors, but the unofficial segregation was a more devious way to maintain the status quo.  Baseball would sit back and smugly state to anyone who challenged them that blacks were not barred from the game, while concocting various stories (mainly the lie that no players in the Negro Leagues were good enough to make the Major League grade) to justify their exclusion.

Two things were necessary for this to be challenged: 1) a team willing to break from the pack and 2) an African-American who had the talent to be successful in the Majors and an unflinching character that could withstand the unrelenting pressures that they would face.  Branch Rickey’s Dodgers and Jackie Robinson met the criteria.

Tygiel looks at some of the fundamental questions behind the involvement of the two main protagonists (why did Rickey do it? Could another player have taken Robinson’s place? etc) while giving an excellent account of what actually happened.  It’s fascinating to read about the secretive and tentative way in which Rickey planned and instigated his act of rebellion.  The detailed chapters on Robinson’s time in the minors with the Montreal Royals and his first year in the Majors are also enlightening; particularly in regards to the way he had to conduct himself and the reaction he received from his teammates. 

However, Tygiel states that he was particularly proud of the rest of the book and that feeling is fully justified. 

MLB’s 15 April celebrations can almost make you think that Robinson broke the colour line in April 1947 and everything was right in the world from then onwards.  There was a great deal of resistance to the end of segregation in baseball at the time and this continued for many years.  Teams were deliberately slow to follow the Dodgers’ lead, with the Boston Red Sox holding out until 1959.  Even with teams that called-up African-Americans, for years there remained an unofficial quota on the ‘acceptable’ number for one roster.  There also remained a belief (backed up by compelling evidence) that a black player had to be considerably better than his white counterpart to get a job and that he could be sent packing at the first sign of a slump in performance.

The spectre of the Jim Crow laws still hung over America and the ballplayers were in no way immune from them.  Robinson and Roy Campanella may have earned the respect of teammates, opposing players and millions of baseball fans, but they still suffered from degrading treatment away from the ballpark.  “Nothing humiliated veteran stars like Robinson and Campanella more than waiting on a bus while their teammates ate in a restaurant”, Tygiel notes solemnly while recalling the ‘no blacks’ policy of many establishments (not least at hotels).  

Barriers were slowly broken down, but the young ballplayers that lived through the change as reluctant pioneers (reluctant in the sense that they simply wanted to play ball) had to endure terrible treatment.  To read of Bob Gibson’s introduction to a Major League training camp in Florida, where he was turned away from the hotel and sent instead to the ‘Negro district’, is but one of a long line of stories that drive home just what segregation and racial prejudice meant. 

The Twenty-First century is clearly not a world free of prejudice, but the acceptance of institutionalized racism seems a thing of the past.  Baseball undoubtedly played a crucial role in challenging prejudice and the likes of Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and many others that followed were a genuine force for change.  As Tygiel states: “No other agency in the 1950s destroyed as many racial barriers without the aid of mass protests and federal intervention”. 

For that reason, it is of fundamental importance that the wider story of ‘baseball’s great experiment’ is remembered and appreciated.  Jules Tygiel’s excellent book, alongside other titles written since it was first released that the author helpfully provides a guide to in the Afterword to this edition, helps to ensure this will be the case.

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Ron May 27, 2009 - 10:55 am

Guys, sorry to leave this here, but I don’t know how to contact any of you.

I was wondering if any or all of you would be interested in doing an interview for my blog.

Nothing too hard, 20 questions or so. Very friendly, and no hatchet jobs allowed.

If anyone is, please contact me at this e-mail or the one on the blog.



Joe Cooter May 27, 2009 - 11:59 am

So let me get this straight? No American publishing company wanted this book so they had to go with a British publishing company?

Matt Smith May 27, 2009 - 7:06 pm

Joe, it looks like it was the New York based office of Oxford Uni Press that picked it up (which would make sense).

Ron – I’m happy to contribute. I’ll send you an e-mail.


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