What can the history of professional baseball tell us about race relations in 20th-century America?
In this lesson students will learn about American baseball in the years before and after Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the Major Leagues. Considered one of the most important moments in the history of American race relations, Robinson’s first Major League game, in 1947 at Ebbet’s Field in Brooklyn, has long been celebrated as the centerpiece in a long story about desegregation that found baseball ultimately leading the country into a new era. But the story is as complicated as it is long. Here students will explore the rich history of the Negro Leagues, where Robinson and so many other African American athletes played before Jackie’s ground-breaking rookie year with the Dodgers. In addition, students will consider the ways in which prejudice affected baseball well after Robinson’s desegregation of the sport.
Students will learn about the demographic shifts of the Great Migration and the forces that both pushed and pulled African American populations out of the American South. They will consider the ways in which the Negro Leagues presented both a special opportunity for black Americans and a limiting structure. First person accounts from affected players and quantitative graphs comparing player salaries in the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues will expose the inequities of segregated baseball. Other support materials will illustrate ways that Negro League baseball afforded African Americans a degree of empowerment that was rare in American life. A classroom debate will give students the opportunity to explore all sides of the Negro Leagues story.
Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the Major Leagues will be considered at length, primarily through clips from Ken Burns’s iconic documentary, Baseball. Students will investigate the role played by Branch Rickey, the man who signed Robinson to a Major League contract, just as they’ll reflect on the challenges Robinson faced on his journey.
Jackie Robinson desegregated baseball, but the challenges for African American players were far from over. The lesson ends with an exploration of the moment Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. Racist reactions to Aaron’s achievement tainted his moment of glory. Students will emerge with an understanding of how baseball led the way into a new American era of racial relations, what was lost with the demise of the Negro Leagues and the ways in which the struggle for racial justice persists in the world of sports as elsewhere.
Students will be able to:
- Analyze maps and graphs relating to the Great Migration.
- Evaluate primary source materials.
- Compare racial attitudes in different periods of American baseball history.
- Identify ways in which the history of the Negro Leagues complicates the story of race relations in American baseball.
- Make inferences from graphs and historical documents regarding the role of the Negro Leagues.
- Analyze challenging historical documents that illustrate racist responses to Hank Aaron’s home run record.
- Take a debate position, supporting arguments with reference to historical materials, graphs and documentary film clips.
- Analyze the cultural, social and political significance of Jackie Robinson’s career in Major League Baseball.
- Identify ways in which sports can influence and guide changes within a broader culture.
- Organize a range of historical materials into a classroom “exhibition” that includes explanatory wall text.
1. Race & Movements Across the Map
2. Life in the North/Baseball in the North
3. Race & Baseball After Jackie Robinson
Fiction dealing with issues of race and identity:
Curtis, Christopher Paul. The Watsons Go to Birmingham. New York: Yearling, 1995.
Latham, Jennifer. Dreamland Burning. New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2017.
Levine, Kristin. The Lions of Little Rock. New York: Puffin, 2012.
Thomas, Angie. The Hate You Give. New York: Balzer and Bray, 2017
Walker, Brian F.. Black Boy White School. New York: Harper Teen, 2012.
Nonfiction dealing with historical race issues:
Beals, Melba Pattillo. Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High. New York: Pocket Books, 1994.
Hoose, Phillip. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. New York: Square Fish, 2009.
Lewis, John and Andrew Aydin. March. Marietta: Top Shelf, 2013.
Partridge, Elizabeth. Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary. New York: Penguin, 2004.
Nonfiction dealing with baseball and integration:
Robinson, Jackie. I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson. New York: Putnam, 1972.
In the Museum
For educators who would like to build on their classroom experiences with a visit to the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, below are lesson-related images from the Museum’s collections. See the Museum’s Groups & Tours page for group visit details.