Jackie Robinson, Baseball Hero, Liberal or Conservative? A tale of the man who hated lowered standards

Jackie Robinson with the Negro League team Kansas City Monarchs before a game, circa 1945. (Library of Congress)

1. The Black Republican seeks a home

Jackie Robinson (1920-1972) was a Republican. People who know this seem reluctant to acknowledge it, as if it must be some mistake, an indication on their part that this man who was so insistent on Blacks having their civil rights, the man who was such an energetic fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), could not have belonged to what amounts to America’s conservative party, or America’s “White” party. This line of thinking goes that Robinson was a garden variety Black liberal, was in fact a race man. As Robinson wrote, “I admit freely that I think, live, and breathe black first and foremost.” (I Never Had It Made, Ecco Press, 1995, 168). So, it was a mistake, an error in judgement, that he was a Republican, and he knew it was a mistake. There is a flaw in this thinking. He was quite self-aware about his politics. “…I have always felt that blacks must be represented in both parties. I was fighting a last-ditch battle to keep the Republicans from becoming completely white.” (I Never Had It Made, 140)

Sometimes Robinson is called a “liberal Republican,” at a time when such a characterization was not considered a contradiction, when the Republicans had senators like Hugh Scott, Jacob Javits, Charles Percy, and governors like George Romney, William Scranton, and Nelson Rockefeller, good ole liberals of the Cold War era. Robinson was a Rockefeller Republican. And Rockefeller might be called a patrician Republican, a breed of a different time, which might have compromised Robinson more than he realized.

Robinson’s support of Nixon was costly for the ex-big leaguer. His relationship with the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins deteriorated as Wilkins was appalled that Robinson could have supported Nixon over John Kennedy.

Robinson was wary of Rockefeller in 1960. By 1964, things were different. Robinson worked as deputy director for New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s 1964 Republican presidential nomination campaign. His hatred of Arizona senator, and Rockefeller’s GOP presidential challenger, Barry Goldwater was palpable. He saw Goldwater’s strict constructionist interpretation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which Goldwater did not support, Goldwater’s blandishments for the John Birchers, his sympathy for disaffected Southerners and their brand of conservativism, his popular ghostwritten book, The Conscience of a Conservative (1960), with utter alarm.

Only Rockefeller could save the GOP from becoming the party of the White Citizens Council, as Robinson saw it. Robinson wrote this about the 1964 Republican convention at Cow Palace: “As I watched this steamroller operation in San Francisco, I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be Jew in Hitler’s Germany.” (I Never Had It Made, 169) Richard Nixon, whom Robinson supported in 1960, had been a disappointment with his lukewarm support of civil rights. Robinson’s support of Nixon was costly for the ex-big leaguer. His relationship with the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins deteriorated as Wilkins was appalled that Robinson could have supported Nixon over John Kennedy. Wilkins also thought Robinson a bit naïve to think that the NAACP would in any way be supportive of Rockefeller’s desire to have Republicans control New York City.

In February 1966, Rockefeller hired Robinson to be a member of his Executive Chamber as Special Assistant to the Governor on Community Affairs, which sounded more like an idea for a job rather than an actual job.  Rockefeller liked collecting people. Some accused Robinson of having supported Rockefeller in order to get a political job. Robinson certainly needed the job, but he had too much integrity and pride to have supported Rockefeller simply to curry favor. Robinson sincerely believed in his causes. In the end, Robinson did not support Goldwater in 1964; he did not support Nixon in 1968 and he was disappointed with Rockefeller in 1971 over the Attica Prison Rebellion, although he did not write Rockefeller off.

Robinson was a registered Independent. He was pointedly and purposefully not a Democrat, even after friends and his wife tried to persuade him to become one. So, he wanted to keep his options open. “But Robinson was a Republican at heart,” his biographer, Arnold Rampersad wrote, “He liked the Republicans’ association with capitalism and business.” As Robinson himself wrote, “I believed blacks ought to become producers, manufacturers, developers, and creators of businesses, providers of jobs…. We talked about not having capital, but we needed to learn to take a chance, to be daring, to pool capital, to organize our buying power so that the millions we spent did not leave our communities to be stacked up in downtown banks.”  (I Never Had It Made, 166) Shades of Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and the Nation of Islam!

Robinson’s Republicanism, coupled with the fact that he was a high-performance athlete who believed in objective measures of merit and the validity of competition, explain why he hated the idea of lowering standards for Blacks. In this regard, he is not different from Wynton Marsalis, Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, and the late Stanley Crouch. Let me provide two examples about Robinson and standards that may make us understand why hatred of the lowering of standards is not an outlier belief among Blacks but, for many, a core value of their politics and a pillar of their pride. And why I think Robinson’s Republicanism is important in understanding his Blackness.



2. “Respect Yourself,”  or Standards, Volume 2

Robinson (in)famously and harshly criticized the Negro Leagues in the June 1948 issue of Ebony, one year after his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He had played the 1945 season, five months, with J. L. Wilkinson’s Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, a storied franchise of Black baseball. (Pitcher Satchel Paige was also on this team but did not interact with Robinson.)  His time with the club “convinced me that the game needs a housekeeping from top to bottom. … The bad points range all the way from the low salaries paid players and sloppy umpiring to the questionable business connections of many of the team owners.” (“What’s Wrong with Negro League Baseball,” Ebony, June 1948, 16) He said that he would not have returned to the Monarchs even if the Dodgers had not signed him.

Robinson pointed out that the Negro Leagues did not offer the best quality baseball because players played too much and were tired; there was no spring training to prepare the players for the season; “umpiring is unsupervised and quite prejudiced in many cases” with many umps “untrained.” Hotel rooms were “dingy and dirty,” and restrooms were frequently unusable. (Satchel Paige wrote, “Our hotel in St. Louis was a dump, like all the hotels we had to stay in.” Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, First Summer Game Book Edition, 2018, 50) Rules governing the behavior of players went unenforced “[hurting] the caliber of baseball.” He berated “the indifference of the owners towards the players’ welfare.” At the end of his diatribe, Robinson expressed his hope that his jump to the Dodgers would improve Negro League baseball, not end it, that “it would make the fellows in the league I just left play harder, train harder, and give the fans much better baseball.” Robinson thought that the players and the owners did not have enough pride in the Negro Leagues.

Effa Manley, co-owner with her husband, Abe, of the Newark Eagles of the second Negro National League, was the most vociferous of Robinson’s critics, accusing him of justifying Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey’s attitude toward the Negro Leagues as a business structure no major league team was bound to respect, taking players without compensating Negro League teams for them. She also said Robinson was “ungrateful” for what the Negro Leagues had done for him and “stupid.” (“Negro Baseball Isn’t Dead! Our World, August 1948, 26-28)

Robinson pointed out that the Negro Leagues did not offer the best quality baseball because players played too much and were tired; there was no spring training to prepare the players for the season; “umpiring is unsupervised and quite prejudiced in many cases” with many umps “untrained.” Hotel rooms were “dingy and dirty,” and restrooms were frequently unusable.

But Robinson’s critique cannot simply be dismissed as the utterances of a race traitor, still one can understand why a furious Manley would do so. Although tactless, ad hominem attacks were a poor way to counter. Longtime Negro League star pitcher Satchel Paige’s observations about the arduous life of playing in the Black leagues substantiate much of what Robinson complained about, although Paige did not necessarily voice them as complaints but as the life of the Negro League player. When Paige finally made the major leagues in 1948 with the Cleveland Indians, he was informed by league officials that he could no longer use his hesitation pitch or any other trick pitch that unfairly fooled hitters. He offered this biting response in his autobiography:



I didn’t mind, though. It was pretty tough on those boys [major league players] having to play against somebody like me.  They hadn’t had to get by like I’d had to. They’d had expensive coaches and guys like that to teach them how to throw. They didn’t have to figure things out for themselves.

They had those trainers to rub them down all the time. And they’d gotten plenty of rest between games. They hadn’t had to come up with those trick pitches just to rest their arms and work out the tiredness. They never to pitch every day for a month at a time of play the whole year round. (Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, 203)



More tellingly, Dave Malarcher, who played under the first Negro League founder, the legendary and tragic Rube Foster in the 1920s and managed Foster’s American Giants when Foster was institutionalized with a nervous breakdown in 1926, echoes Robinson’s views. He felt that the new Negro Leagues owners who emerged in the 1930s ruined Black baseball: “The new owners that came after Rube’s time did not know the value of having high-class athletes and treating them as such.” Robinson decried the long uncomfortable bus rides and Malarcher did also: “They were riding them all night in those buses to break them down…. [they] drove all night, didn’t eat, didn’t sleep at all.”  Malarcher thought all of this diminished the quality of the Black game. In fact, Malarcher says straight out what Robinson intimates, “The standards were being lowered.”1

The point is that Robinson felt that segregation, American apartheid, if you will, lowered Black people’s standards of excellence because: first, Blacks were surrounded by inferior conditions that were demoralizing and unchanging, de-incentivizing a pursuit of high standards. Second, as Blacks could not hope to penetrate the White world, the rewards for high standards were meager, as the White world possessed all the significant rewards. Third, as Black businesses operated in a segregated market, they did not have to strive to please either their employees or their customer base to the same extent as Whites would have to do with their markets. Where else were Black customers and employees of a Black business going to go? Before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball, where else were Black players going to go in the United States where they would be employed as players but the Negro Leagues? And where else could Black customers go where they would be welcome, but to Negro League games?  Black sportswriter Wendell Smith made this observation about the self-satisfaction of Black baseball team owners: “they made as high as $50,000 a year profit from their segregated baby … without too much effort, incidentally. They rented the big ball parks, formed makeshift leagues with irregular schedules, elected puppet presidents and put on shows at excessive prices.”2 American apartheid did exactly what it was supposed to do:  it made Blacks accept less of themselves because the racist system was designed to wreck one’s self-respect. High standards for Blacks were necessary in their psychological fight against Whites, so someone like Jackie Robinson thought. And Whites did not want us to have high standards.


•  •  •


How much more effective our demands for a piece of the action would be if we were negotiating from the strength of our own self-reliance rather than stating our case in the role of a beggar or someone crying out for charity.

—Jackie Robinson, I Never Had It Made, (167)



After retirement, Robinson’s interest in creating Black business led him to chair the board of Harlem’s Freedom National Bank in 1964, the year the bank was founded.  The bank was meant to provide banking services, from checking accounts to loans to notary public, that Blacks found hard to obtain at White-owned banks. Robinson writes that since the bank’s founding, “[it] had really become a source of pride for black people. It had grown in status to the largest of the black banks in the nation.” But Robinson began to fret about the number of bad loans that the bank was writing off.  While it was understood that the bank would take on higher-risk loans because of the population it served, many of the loans were unwisely issued, even with that understanding.  Moreover, people in the community did not quite appreciate that the bank had to make money; it was not a non-profit and could not survive as one.

Robinson expressed his concerns to representatives from the Comptroller of Currency in New York who came periodically to examine the bank’s books but was told things were fine, nothing to worry about. Finally, one day he took an examiner aside and told him he had “a growing suspicion that the Comptroller’s office was patting us on the back when they should be hitting us over the head with a club.” Robinson continued, “I told him that I thought we were not being judged by the same standards that would have been applied if ours were a white bank. I said that they were doing us no favor if they were telling us everything was all right when things were not right.” (I Never Had It Made, page 192) Robinson found the response “amazing.” In essence, the examiner told him the bank was being handled gently because White officials did not want to be “accused or suspected of persecuting a black institution.” (I Never Had It Made, page 193)

Black players going to go in the United States where they would be employed as players but the Negro Leagues? And where else could Black customers go where they would be welcome, but to Negro League games?

Here we have the paternalistic, benign, benevolent, somewhat intimidated Whites who erode high standards for Blacks by saying, in effect, “They’re Blacks, and this is the best they can do.” But how was the bank supposed to survive if it was being subsidized to never truly have functioned as a bank normally does? How are Blacks supposed to become institutionally rich if their institutions are never meant to function as they are supposed to? This was the equivalent of treating Blacks as if they were disabled and needed special compensation. From Robinson’s perspective, to do this would only make Blacks dependent on the special compensation. The disability is not cured or overcome, it is institutionalized and internalized. In other words, it becomes, to use a popular word, systemic.  We might remember that one of the analogies made about affirmative action for Blacks was that it was like providing parking spaces for the disabled.

I am not trying to persuade the reader to agree with Robinson’s views but to understand their logic and why a Black person would strongly believe them, particularly a Black person who would be attracted to certain aspects of the Republican Party but would wind up voting for Democrats. And why these views—call them optimistically neoliberal or quixotically bourgeois Black nationalist—are not at all foreign to many Black folk. Robinson remains a grand Black hero for a reason as he poses a dilemma about what inclusion means. Calling him a race traitor, as Effa Manley basically did, misses the point. He did not betray anyone. He hardly had the power to do so. He did not wreck the Negro Leagues.  Black folks chose to support them no longer. And it was not because we are such lemmings that Black sportswriters of the day could make us major league fans simply by writing about Robinson all the time. People need to think about integration and Black institution-building as more complex issues than perhaps they thought it was. “Respect Yourself,” as the Staple Singers sang some years ago in their hit song. Robinson felt that the old system of American apartheid and the new liberal American racial patronage to keep the Blacks quiet made it difficult for Blacks to do just that.

1 John Holway, Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues, revised edition, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992), 55, italics mine.

2 Quoted in Neil Lanctot, Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 331.