Book Review: Conspiracy of Silence

Whenever the University of Nebraska Press catalog comes, I immediately search out all the baseball books in there, check them off, and request them.  I enjoy building my baseball library with various insights on different times in baseball history.

A significant part of that history is the breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball.  We know about Branch Rickey (I have another book on him in my review pile I need to get to) and Jackie Robinson and there’s been a lot made about them in that struggle, especially recently with the movie 42.  That’s right and just, but there are other portions of that story that haven’t been told quite as often.

Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign To Desegregate Baseball takes a look at how sportswriters–on both sides of the issues–played roles in that time in history.  Chris Lamb does an excellent job of laying out all the players, showing them for their faults and credits, and pointing out how their work laid–or fought–the groundwork for Robinson’s debut.

Unsurprisingly, it was mainly black sportswriters, writing for black newspapers, that were doing the most agitating for a man of their race to play in the game.  They did some significant work, even going so far as to arrange workouts for players such as Robinson and Roy Campanella and other black stars, trying to force the issue.

At the heart of the book was the fact that the commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, had said that there was no league-wide ban on black players, that teams were free to sign them if they wanted.  Of course, that was far from the truth, as any team that had tried to do this would have likely faced severe repercussions from Landis.  The owners tended to blame the players, saying they’d never want to share a team with black men.  However, the sportswriters polled some players and found that wasn’t a concern.  Yet baseball remained purely white.

Part of that was due to the major sportswriters of the day sweeping the issue under the rug.  Few white writers–who had a larger readership and therefore more power to wield–would take up this cause, instead parroting the line that if a black player was good enough, he’d make the team.  While there were exceptions, the power of the press was typically not used to right this wrong.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this book, things that probably aren’t known by the casual fan of that era.  I was not aware of the strong Communist tendencies in most of the black newspapers, which did not help them in their cause as most people could write it off as a Red plot.

If you are interested in how the stage was set for Robinson or even just baseball history in general, you owe it to yourself to check out this one.  I don’t want to say it’ll open your eyes, as you are already probably aware of what it was like then, but it definitely will give you some new perspective and a better understanding of that time period.

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