What Segregation Did to the Detroit Tigers

Fifty years ago this month, formerly all-white major league baseball finally began to integrate. In that fateful year, 1947, the famous black player Jackie Robinson endured racial insults and went on to win the Rookie-of-the-Year award as he led Brooklyn to the National League pennant. What is not so well remembered is the story of the Detroit Tigers during that controversial era.

While other major league teams were signing Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and other black stars, the Detroit Tigers, under owner Walter Briggs, refused to hire any blacks. Wendell Smith, a black athlete and sportswriter, called Briggs "very prejudiced. He’s the major league combination of Simon Legree and Adolf Hitler." Smith was no doubt exaggerating. But the Tigers were indeed the next to last team in the major leagues to integrate (in 1958)—and only did so after Briggs had died.

Let’s look at the results of Detroit’s decision to avoid hiring blacks. Before baseball integrated, Detroit was one of the top teams in the major leagues. Led by ace pitcher Hal Newhouser and sluggers Hank Greenberg and Rudy York, the Tigers won the American League pennant in 1945. During each of the next two years, they finished in second place, clearly among the best teams in baseball.

The next year, 1948, the Cleveland Indians signed two outstanding black players: Larry Doby, a power-hitting outfielder, and Satchel Paige, possibly the greatest pitcher of his generation. The result was that Cleveland won the pennant by one game, and then, with seven key hits from Doby, they won the World Series. What’s more, Cleveland set a major league record for attendance—2.7 million fans bought tickets to watch the integrated team play.

The examples of Brooklyn and Cleveland gave all other baseball teams something to ponder. They could continue to ignore black talent, but there would be a cost: fewer wins and fewer fans.

The Detroit Tigers learned this lesson the hard way. In 1948, the Tigers dropped from second to fifth place in the American League—and during the next ten years they would finish among the top three teams only once. In 1952, they wound up in last place in the American League, winning only 50 games and losing 104. No batter on the team hit higher than .284.

From 1945 to 1952 the Tigers had plunged from world champions to cellar dwellers, yet Walter Briggs still refused to sign a black player or develop any blacks in Detroit’s minor league system. The Tigers did bring up Al Kaline and Harvey Kuenn, two excellent white players, who both won batting titles in the 1950s. But their talents were wasted without a quality supporting cast that included talented blacks.

In the 1960s, when Detroit finally changed its policy, the Tigers made a comeback. They signed Willie Horton, a power-hitting outfielder, and Earl Wilson, a veteran pitcher who won 22 games in his first season as a Tiger. In 1968, Wilson, along with Denny McClain, was a mainstay of the Tiger pitching staff. Horton hit 36 home runs and was fourth in the league in batting average. The Tigers, after a long drought, won the pennant that year and the World Series as well.

What lessons can we learn from Detroit’s sad experience? First, as baseball expert Steve Sailer has noted, "competitive markets make irrational bigotry expensive—not impossible, but costly." In the 1950s, Detroit could continue to field segregated teams, but only at a price. Joseph Bibb, a black sportswriter, said it well: "The white man wants money and color pays off."

Other lessons are important, too. The integration of baseball was a triumph of the free market. No government mandate forced Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ general manager, to sign Jackie Robinson. Self-interest was the key to integrating not just one team, but, within twelve years, all teams in the major leagues. Quotas and affirmative action were unnecessary and would have been counterproductive. When the baseball commissioner finally allowed open competition, some owners quickly wanted to hire black players—and soon after they did so, all teams followed suit.

One final point is that free markets in baseball provided black heroes to all Americans during the 1940s and 1950s. Whites all over Brooklyn cheered mightily for Jackie Robinson to clobber white pitchers, and for his black teammate, Don Newcombe, to strike out white hitters. After winning the 1948 World Series, Cleveland teammates Larry Doby and Steve Gromek, one black and the other white, were photographed in a spontaneous embrace. Racial barriers receded and, as Steve Sailer reminds us, sports became the entering wedge that made the civil rights revolution possible.