From the Editor

Drescher: 1940s reporter pushed baseball to integrate

jdrescher@newsobserver.comJuly 12, 2013 

In the movie “42” about Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball, an irritated Robinson shows disdain for reporter Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, which was one of the leading black newspapers in the country.

Smith had been trailing Robinson, hunting exclusive stories but also helping Robinson navigate his way through the challenges of being a black pioneer in a white man’s league. Smith had had enough of Robinson’s petulance. “You, Mr. Robinson, are not the only one with something at stake here,” Smith says firmly.

To Arnold Rampersad, Robinson’s biographer, that’s one of his favorite moments in a movie that he says is historically accurate.

“That’s the moment Wendell Smith puts him in his place,” Rampersad told me this week. “He was a seasoned writer but was not allowed into the writers’ box because of his skin color. That was a powerful moment.”

Story of the century

Rampersad is professor emeritus in the English Department at Stanford University and the author of acclaimed biographies on Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. His Robinson biography, superbly researched and elegantly written, was published in 1997. He says the movie, which focuses on Robinson’s 1946 and ’47 seasons, accurately portrays the sometimes complicated relationship between Smith and Robinson.

Smith and Billy Rowe, Courier photographer and writer, were paid by Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to accompany Robinson and to be his protectors, advisers and links to the local black community. Smith had recommended Robinson to Rickey. Later, he broke the story that Robinson would be promoted to the Dodgers.

In the 1940s, the Courier was the largest black paper in the country with a circulation of about 350,000, said Ulish Carter, its current managing editor. The paper had a national edition that was distributed in North Carolina and throughout the South by Pullman porters who traveled the country by rail and left a stack of Couriers at every stop.

Major League Baseball in the 1940s was the dominant professional sport in the country and its integration was a civil rights milestone. Carter said in that era it was “the story of the century, the biggest breakthrough for Negroes since the Civil War.”

Smith, the Courier’s sports editor, was a leading advocate for the integration of baseball. But, Rampersad said, he wasn’t the only one. In the black press, he was joined by men like Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American and Frank Young of the Chicago Defender. They had allies in the mainstream press, including Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News and Dave Egan of the Boston Record.

Smith a pioneer too

Like Robinson, Smith, who died in 1972, was a trailblazer. He was the first sports reporter from the black press to be hired by a big-city daily (the Chicago American).

Some have objected that “42” doesn’t mention the role that Lacy played in baseball’s integration. Lacy persuaded the baseball owners in 1945 to create a committee to consider integration.

Rampersad agrees that Lacy played an important role but thinks the movie’s featuring Smith is appropriate. “Among the baseball writers, Wendell Smith was unique to the so-called Rickey experiment,” he said. “He was the one deputized by Rickey to escort Robinson and smooth the way. He deserves the No. 1 spot.”

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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