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Have students look at the chart below that shows the racial distribution of Black and white players in the Major Leagues between 1947 and 1975. Ask the questions that follow.
Questions for Students:
- Looking at the graph, what do you notice about the increase in the number of Black players after Robinson enters the Major Leagues?
- Is the increase in players of color immediate or gradual?
- How do you imagine Robinson’s entry into the Major Leagues affected the Negro Leagues?
To the teacher: The integration of Major League Baseball ultimately brought about the end of the Negro Leagues.
- Do you imagine it was easy for the African American players who joined the Major Leagues in the years that followed Robinson’s breaking the color barrier?
- For the Black baseball fans who often saw their favorite Negro League teams playing in stadiums otherwise reserved for white teams and largely white audiences, Negro League baseball games were a celebration of Black life, an experience of collective empowerment. In what ways might the end of the Negro Leagues have been a loss for the Black community, even as Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier was seen to be a gain?
To the teacher: The Negro Leagues offered entrepreneurial opportunities and work opportunities for Black Americans that were exceptional for the time, not just as players but as managers, coaches, team owners and more. Additionally, Negro League events afforded the Black population an opportunity to see and celebrate themselves as a diverse community of many thousands. With the end of the Negro Leagues, no such opportunity remained in baseball.
Ask your students if they have heard of Babe Ruth. If they have, ask them to share what they know about him. Write their responses on the board, much as you did in the Motivational Activity in relation to Jackie Robinson.
After the students have had a chance to respond, share the following images of Babe Ruth on the screen and ask the class the questions that follow.
Questions for Students:
- Why was Ruth called the “Home Run King”?
To the teacher: In his time, Ruth set the all-time record with 714 home runs.
- How is Ruth represented in these images and in the text that describes him?
- On the cover of the Babe Ruth book above, baseball is referred to as “our national game.” In the earlier Ken Burns’s clip, Gerald Early says, “Baseball was tied to the nation’s mission and destiny.” In light of this connection between baseball and the national identity, Babe Ruth was not just a symbol of baseball, but a symbol of America. With this in mind, do you think some people might be protective of Ruth’s status as the “Home Run King”?
- Do you know who would eventually break Ruth’s home run record?
To the teacher: Hank Aaron
Ask your students if they are familiar with Hank Aaron. Ask them to share what they know about Aaron and write their reflections on the board, just as you did for Babe Ruth. Then show the following images on the screen for all students to see.
Explain to students that this is a 1954 picture of twenty-year-old Hank Aaron, taken when Aaron was playing for the Negro League Indianapolis Clowns.
Share the following facts, asking students to write down what they feel are the most significant details:
- At fifteen, Hank Aaron tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers, just two years after Jackie Robinson joined the team. He failed to make the team.
- In his junior year of high school, Aaron joined the Mobile Black Bears, a semi-pro Negro League team.
- In 1952 Hank Aaron joined the Negro League Indianapolis Clowns. He was eighteen. He helped the Clowns win the Negro League World Series, achieving a league batting average record of .467.
- Aaron played two seasons for the Clowns before being signed by the Major League Milwaukee Braves in 1954, seven years after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first African American player in the Major Leagues.
- Aaron went on to play twenty-two seasons in Major League Baseball. By the end of his career, he was the last remaining player in the MLB who had spent time playing in the Negro Leagues.
Explain that throughout the 1973 and 1974 seasons Hank Aaron was approaching Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs. On April 8th, 1974, Aaron broke that record. Ask the following questions:
- What type of thoughts do you imagine were going through Aaron’s head as he approached Ruth’s record?
- What do you guess were his emotions in the seconds after finally setting a new record, twenty-seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier?
- Having played in the Negro Leagues in the early 1950s, how might Hank Aaron have had a unique perspective on life as a Black professional baseball player in the Major Leagues?
- Looking back at the graph that shows the distribution of Black and white baseball players in the Major Leagues, how do you think experiences changed for African American players from 1947, Jackie Robinson’s Major League debut, to Hank Aaron’s record-breaking moment in 1974.
Show students the third clip from Ken Burns’ Baseball series. Ask the question that follows:
Question for Students:
- What do you find most surprising about Hank Aaron’s experience of breaking the home run record?
To the teacher: Allow students a chance to share their reactions to Aaron’s challenges.
Pass out Handout #4. [These documents require preview and approval by the teacher.] Explain to the students that Handout #4 contains disturbing and racist language. Refer back to the Ground Rules you and your students established earlier, and be sure to provide a safe environment when discussing this sensitive material.
After giving your students a few minutes to process this hate mail, ask the following questions:
- Why do you think these fans were so outraged by the fact that a Black man would hold the home run record?
- What would you say now about the process of integrating Major League Baseball? What does Aaron’s experience tell us about racism after Jackie Robinson’s experience?
- How do you think racism affected Aaron’s personal experience of his career victory?
To the teacher: Encourage the class to process the strong feelings that may arise after reading the hate and threat mail. Follow this link for a video that fleshes out Hank Aaron’s experience in the Negro Leagues, his subsequent success in the majors and the racism that followed. [INSERT LINK HERE]
Explain to students that today over half of MLB players are Black or Latino. Using a chalkboard or whiteboard, have the class list what they think are the most significant factors behind this change.
Show your class the image below of Jackie Robinson standing beside Martin Luther King, Jr. Ask your students to describe in their own words how these two men are connected in history. Do you think Jackie Robinson’s story influenced future civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King?
Make Your Own Museum:
As a recap to the sections above, have students watch the following clip, which features sports writer and commentator Kavitha Davidson. Ask students to take notes so that they can consider Davidson’s ideas in relation to the concluding activity.
Have students form small groups. In this activity students will take the images and quotes below and assemble them, with “wall text,” as a virtual museum focused on race and American baseball. The wall text should help museum “visitors” grasp the significance of each image and the story as a whole. The word count for each image should not be more than sixty words. Once each group has created its museum, have students visit the museums created by the other groups. Conclude with a discussion about the different choices the groups made in telling this important story from American life.
“If Jackie fails, the deal is closed. No other owner in baseball will pick it up.”
“[Jackie Robinson] was a man who was educated…He knew what to do about pressure. He knew how to handle pressure. He had it happen to him while he was in the military as a second lieutenant, how he was treated because of the blackness of his skin.”
—Don Newcombe, Negro Leagues player and future teammate of Robinson
Reflection Question for Key Terms
Write a paragraph or two about Major League baseball and the race politics that have marked its history, making use of all the Key Terms from the pre-lesson activity.
- The story of race relations in America is a complicated, evolving story. As the examples of Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron suggest, there have been moments when baseball has led America in bringing about change. Still, racial inequities persist. For this activity, research the history of the “take a knee” story in American sports. How does this movement reflect what is going on with race in America today, and how does it bring new awareness to ongoing issues of racial inequity? What roles can athletes play in using their visibility to affect change? Write a two-page essay about this recent story, relating it to the earlier stories of Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron.
- Before Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the Major Leagues, Olympic track hero Jesse Owens became a major public figure through his successful participation in the 1936 Summer Olympic Games. Those games, often referred to as “Hitler’s Olympics,” made issues of race, ethnicity and religious freedom the focus of public discourse. Research Owens’s story and make a comparison of Owens and Robinson as athletes who made a difference in the political arena.
- Have students read Martha Ackmann’s Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, The First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League. After reading the book, students should find a partner and create a presentation for the class that considers how the struggle to racially integrate Major League Baseball dealt with the question of gender and the role of female athletes.