Why The Red Sox Gave Jackie Robinson A 'Tryout' Before He Joined The Dodgers

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The new movie "42," which opened Friday, celebrates Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946.

But a less celebratory piece of Robinson's history involves the Boston Red Sox a year earlier, when he and two other players from what were then called the Negro Leagues tried out at Fenway Park but never made the team.

WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with sportswriter Glenn Stout about why that was.

Brooklyn Dodger infielder Jackie Robinson poses in May 1952. (AP)
Brooklyn Dodger infielder Jackie Robinson poses in May 1952. (AP)

Glenn, years after that tryout, Jackie Robinson said, "We knew we were wasting our time." What was he talking about?

He knew even several days before the tryout took place that it was going to be a sham. He knew that there was absolutely no chance that either he or the other two players who tried out were going to be signed by the Red Sox. But Robinson was savvy enough to realize that a tryout, even if it was a sham, was important to the ongoing cause. He, in fact, had had a tryout with the [Chicago] White Sox back in 1942 that was similarly a sham.

If the Red Sox management at the time wasn't serious about signing black players, why did they bother going through the motions of the tryout?

They bothered going through the motions of the tryout because Isadore Muchnick, who was a Boston city councilor, put pressure on them. Muchnick was a man who was very much concerned with social justice, and as a Boston city councilor you had some influence on the Red Sox because they needed a variance to be able to play baseball on Sundays, and Muchnick was able to use that pressure to publicly back Red Sox general manager Eddie Collins into a corner, asking him why the Red Sox had never given a tryout to a black player.

You've written a lengthy and detailed historical recount of this episode, and you identify Tom Yawkey, who owned the Red Sox for decades, as a major reason why the team remained all-white for so long. Did he ever address the lack of black Red Sox players for so much of the team's history?

He tried to dodge ever saying anything too definitive about the subject, except to say that he didn't have any feelings against African-American players himself and, in fact, he employed many of them on his estate in South Carolina.

However, in 1965 he did give an interview where he said that, basically, after the tryout blacks heard about the Red Sox and didn't even really want to play for them. And that's how he tried to make up for the fact that even after baseball was integrated, the Red Sox waited until 1959.

In this July 22, 1959, file photo, Elijah Pumpsie Green makes his first major league start for the Red Sox. Green was the team's first black player. (Harry L. Hall/AP)
In this July 22, 1959, file photo, Elijah Pumpsie Green makes his first major league start for the Red Sox. Green was the team's first black player. (Harry L. Hall/AP)

That was Pumpsie Green?

That was Pumpsie Green, who finally broke the color barrier for the Red Sox. But, you know, at any organization the buck stops at the top.

Jackie Robinson, of course, went on to have an exceptional career in the Major Leagues — six National League pennants, six All-Star Games. He was named the National League's Most Valuable Player. Did the Sox ever acknowledge making a mistake by not hiring him?

Not during his lifetime. Absolutely not.

You can make the argument that when Jackie Robinson finally joined the Dodgers, for the first four or five years of his career he was probably the best player in baseball. The Red Sox in the late 1940s and early 1950s just narrowly missed winning several pennants and world championships; they lost the only World Series they played in at that time. Had you had Jackie Robinson on the field with players like Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr, I think you would have had a lot more pennants hanging over Fenway Park.

Note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Jackie Robinson's career included six World Series titles.

- Here's the trailer for "42":

This program aired on April 12, 2013.

Headshot of Sacha Pfeiffer

Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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