The Next Page / Wendell Smith: The Pittsburgh journalist who made Jackie Robinson mainstream
His secret weapon? Exerting soft power over public opinion. Andrew Schall tells the story of the writer whose careful coverage of Jackie Robinson created the media strategy for the Civil Rights Movement
June 5, 2011 3:45 PM
Wendell Smith: reporter on, and sometimes voice of, Jackie Robinson
By Andrew Schall
Wendell Smith is not a well-known name in the Civil Rights Movement. He did not possess the oratory of Martin Luther King Jr. or the legal acumen of Thurgood Marshall. He was not among the front-and-center leaders laying the foundation for change in a society that was rampant with racism.
Wendell Smith's contribution was his journalistic skill. He used his writing to make it possible for Jackie Robinson to join the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the first black player in Major League Baseball.
The integration of a hallowed cultural institution like baseball was one of the first steps taken after World War II to end institutionalized racism in the United States, and it had an effect on future civil rights actions. Wendell Smith's shrewd public relations and journalistic abilities turned him into a critical figure in baseball's most significant moment.
He used the pages of the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential national newspaper for black Americans, to convince all Americans that they should integrate more important institutions than the baseball diamond.
As a sportswriter for the Courier in the 1930s and '40s, Smith was a longtime advocate for the integration of professional baseball. His advocacy did result in blurred lines: He was the ghostwriter of Jackie Robinson's weekly newspaper column in 1947. And because segregation was alive and well on the road, Smith became Robinson's dining companion and roommate by necessity.
With the entire nation watching closely, Smith worked effectively to ensure Robinson's rookie season of 1947 would be a success. He acted as a liaison between all stakeholders, white or black.
Jackie Robinson did his part, fitting in perfectly and helping the Dodgers on the field.
Because this took place during the early years of the post-war Civil Rights Movement, the duo wittingly and unwittingly became models and leaders in mapping one of the most successful strategies for creating political and cultural change.
The work of these important and skilled actors helped Robinson succeed on the field and in the court of public opinion. Most significantly in history, it created a formula and tone for future civil rights actions.
This approach both emulated and provided more proof in favor of an emerging strategy in the civil rights movement: the nonviolent, all-American campaign for respect and human dignity that was the hallmark of civil rights advocacy for the next decade and a half.
The 'Double V' campaign
Smith was intimately familiar with the downside of segregated baseball. As a teenager in Detroit in the 1930s, he threw a shutout in an American Legion game with a scout in attendance. The scout instead signed the opposing pitcher, saying, "I wish I could sign you, but I can't." The incident served to motivate Smith. "That's when I decided that if I ever got into a position to do anything, I'd dedicate my life to getting Negro players into the big leagues," he said later.
His position would not be on the field, but in the pages of the Pittsburgh Courier. Smith took a sports reporter's job after graduating from West Virginia State College in 1937. The legendary black weekly was the ideal newspaper for someone as passionate as Smith. The paper had a national focus and did not hesitate to use its editorial pages for anti-lynching crusades or to oppose stereotyping and segregation in any form.
But the newspaper's most successful campaign is the one most relevant to the integration of baseball. The Courier's "Double V" campaign, started in 1942 during World War II, advocated two victories for the United States: for democracy abroad and for democracy at home. If all Americans were asked to participate in the war, without regard to race or class, then they were entitled to reap the benefits of a democratic society.
In wartime, America's diversity became an easy mark of moral superiority to Nazi Germany. Baseball, a melting pot for European immigrants in the past, was the ideal forum to test how important this diversity truly was.
Jackie Robinson: just 'a normal baseball player who was trying his best to win'
A successful debut season for Major League Baseball's first black player was far from guaranteed. One potential path to failure was to sign a player who would have trouble in the spotlight.
General Manager Branch Rickey's oft-repeated desire to sign a man who could turn the other cheek may have made Robinson seem like a perplexing choice. In 1944, when Robinson was stationed at a Texas army base, he boarded a bus and refused to move to the back when ordered by the driver. Lt. Robinson was found not guilty in a military trial, but evidence had certainly been established that the Californian was not willing to take discrimination quietly.
Still, Robinson's military tenure may have been beneficial in the end. Robinson, married with an infant son, was hard to attack. He had served his country and attended college at UCLA. Integration of the major leagues could, as a result, be debated on its merits, not irrelevant technicalities or character assassinations. Robinson was certainly not the most famous or talented black ballplayer, but he was the least likely to fail for reasons within his own control.
This strategy was also at work in the Montgomery bus boycott. Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat nine months before Rosa Parks -- but she was an unmarried, pregnant 15-year-old.
"I had to be sure I had somebody I could win with," E.D. Nixon, a leader, said afterwards. Nixon refused to let ad hominem attacks or personal baggage inject any unnecessary subjectivity into the public discourse, and Montgomery waited to rally around the less assailable Parks.
Another potential stumbling block for Robinson would be with his teammates. Alabamans Fred "Dixie" Walker and Bobby Bragan tried to organize a petition to keep the Dodgers all-white. Their efforts were shot down by teammates, Rickey and Manager Leo Durocher.
But this was not reported in the Pittsburgh Courier. Wendell Smith intentionally did not want to portray Robinson as a lightning rod or anyone other than a normal baseball player who was trying his best to win and be a good teammate.
"I always tried to keep it from becoming a flamboyant, highly militant thing. And I think that's why it succeeded," he said.
A Jackie Robinson column ghostwritten by Smith shortly before the season simply mentions "trouble" that may occur. Consistent with the "Double V," the column responded with a humble patriotic observation. "I spent 31 months in the United States Army for the Four Freedoms and then when I try to make an honest living playing baseball I must first be submitted to a 'racial test.' "
The statement also appealed to people a decade removed from the Great Depression: Robinson simply wanted to earn a decent living to support his family. Many civil rights actions focused on fulfilling basic needs -- getting service at a drugstore or restaurant or going to school -- because it showed that black Americans did not live mysterious, out-of-the-ordinary lives.
Coverage of rallies like the 1963 March on Washington would eventually echo this. "[I]nstead of the emotional horde of angry militants that many had feared, what Washington saw was a vast army of quiet, middle-class Americans," Russell Baker of The New York Times wrote, subsequently describing families who picnicked, took tourist photos at the Washington Monument, and otherwise acted in ways that would not be alien to readers.
'All is well' (even when it wasn't)
When Jackie Robinson left for his first game at Ebbets Field April 15, 1947, he reminded his wife that "in case you have trouble picking me out, I'll be wearing number 42."
The Pittsburgh Courier, however, was not in such a jovial mood.
Mindful of the importance of the moment, the Courier was cautiously excited. Managing editor William Nunn urged fans "to conduct ourselves at these ball games in the recognized American way!" Suggestions from Nunn and Smith ranged from simple matters of appearance -- sobriety and proper dress -- to encouraging fans to cheer all players, not just Robinson.
Wendell Smith spent the rest of the season doing his best to ensure that Jackie Robinson raised no controversy.
Each road trip into a new city was an opportunity to observe how opposing players were friendly and supportive, and many indeed were. In the era before television was the main medium for following baseball and fans could judge a player's body language from camera close-ups, newspapers were the main conduit for shaping popular perceptions of the players.
If Smith wrote that all was well, then it became the established truth, particularly since the influential Dick Young of the New York Daily News regularly conferred with Smith for the scoop on his road roommate. This stance was maintained even when the truth was to the contrary.
In one early game, Robinson was heckled mercilessly by the Philadelphia Phillies' manager, Ben Chapman. Despite the ugliness of this incident, Smith tried his best to defuse the conflict in Jackie Robinson's ghostwritten column. "The things the Phillies shouted at me from their bench have been shouted at me from other benches and I am not worried about it," he wrote.
By midseason, Smith got into a routine of simply covering a professional baseball team in the midst of a pennant race. One exception was whenever he mentioned attendance. Smith may have written about the Dodgers' increased home and road attendance to note that welcoming black customers, instead of discriminating against them, was good for business.
Smith was not complacent about racial progress once Jackie Robinson had been accepted by the baseball world. In the 1960s, he wrote a series of influential articles on segregated spring training accommodations, successfully pressuring teams which trained in Jim Crow towns.
The Courier was not complacent, either, and used Robinson to discuss other topics. When television stations received angry letters about both blacks and whites dancing together on the show "Look Upon a Star," the Courier editorial noted in passing that "the station met no such objection" when Robinson played in the World Series.
The rise of television would prove to be a mixed blessing for civil rights. News clips of police dogs attacking children could sway public opinion, but so could counterproductive visuals like cities destroyed in race riots.
A blueprint for civil-rights success
Despite the success of Robinson in his debut season, the story of race and baseball did not end after 1947. The term "integration" is misleading, since the industry was not thoroughly integrated at all levels. A handful of elite black players were signed. But coaches, scouts and executives were left out for a long time.
One man who bucked the trend regarding integration of previously white institutions was Wendell Smith.
Hearst hired him in 1948 to work at the Chicago Herald-American, a paper with no black sports reporters.
"When he came to Chicago to write, he told the Hearst people, 'I will not be your black writer,' " said Smith's wife Wyonella. " 'I'm not going to just write about blacks in sports. If you want me to be a sportswriter here I'm going to write about all sports, and I'm going to do it fairly.' " Smith became known in Chicago as a baseball and boxing expert in print and on television until his death just a week after Jackie Robinson's in 1972.
The formula that had worked for Jackie Robinson was not completely applicable by that point, as the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 shifted the focus to more complex social and economic issues with no clearly defined right answer.
But for almost 20 years, Wendell Smith's blueprint was how civil rights activists achieved success. He was able to forge consensus by downplaying controversy in order to appeal to a broad swath of Americans.
In the end, he hoped to prove that aside from an obvious visual difference, Jackie Robinson could have been any American attempting to participate in American life.
Smith's strategy was accepted not just by those who rallied for the mere privilege of voting and attending school, but by the millions of Americans who were indirectly influenced by this understated, effective approach.
Andrew Schall(firstname.lastname@example.org) graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in May 2011 with a degree in urban studies and political science and a minor in history.