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“Haven of Tolerance”

“Haven of Tolerance”: Dodgertown and the Integration of Major League Baseball Spring Training

By Jerald Podair

(L-R) Roy Campanella; Don Newcombe; Dan Bankhead; Jackie Robinson. Four record setting African-American Dodgers are at Dodgertown in the early 1950s. Roy Campanella won three National League Most Valuable Player Awards and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1969. Don Newcombe was the only player in major league history to win the Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young Award and the National League Most Valuable Player Award. Dan Bankhead was the first African-American pitcher to appear in a major league game and hit a home run in his first at bat. Jackie Robinson won the first National League Rookie of the Year in 1947, the Most Valuable Player Award in 1949 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.

 

If you were an African American and lived in most parts of the American South in 1948, you could not do the following things with whites: Go to school with them. Eat in restaurants with them. Stay in hotels with them. Sit next to them in theatres and on buses. Drink out of water fountains with them. Go to the bathroom with them. Play golf with them. Live in the same neighborhood with them. The reason, of course, was the entrenched system of racial separation known as "Jim Crow," which had defined social and political life in the South for three-quarters of a century. But things were about to change in one part of the region, thanks to a Major League Baseball team that had already made civil rights history by bringing Jackie Robinson to the big leagues: the Brooklyn Dodgers. Seeking a permanent spring training home, the team leased an abandoned World War II Naval Air Station from the east coast Florida town of Vero Beach, and rechristened it "Dodgertown." Beginning in 1948, and for six decades thereafter, Dodgertown would serve as a "college of baseball" for the entire organization, imparting what became known as the "Dodger Way" to generations of young prospects, some of whom would go on to populate All-Star teams, capture pennants and World Championships, and in a few instances enter the Baseball Hall of Fame.

1948 Dodgertown employees raise a welcoming banner to everyone who is staying on the Dodgertown base in Vero Beach, Florida for Spring Training. The banner concept remained a Dodgertown tradition for players for the next 60 seasons. In 1948, it marked the first integrated Spring Training Camp for baseball in the South where all players, regardless of color, shared the same dining and living accommodations.

 

But Dodgertown was more than just an incubator of talent. Its significance extends beyond the playing field into the social and racial history of Florida, the South, and America as a whole. By offering an integrated and egalitarian workplace, one in which players were judged not by who they were but what they did, Dodgertown was unique not just among Southern spring training facilities, but among Southern institutions generally. Between 1948 and the early 1960s, one of the most virulent phases of the Jim Crow era, it stood, in the words of historian Jules Tygiel, as a "haven of tolerance," one of the very few racially integrated institutions of any kind in the state and region.[1] At a time when African Americans could put their lives in danger by attempting to eat, drink, play, travel, or live with or among whites, Dodgertown stood as an example of interracialism that rebuked those who counseled caution, patience, and delay. Legendary sports columnist Sam Lacy wrote in the Baltimore Afro-American in 1974, "It was, without doubt, the first crack in the wall of prejudice that continued to plague baseball for the next 15 years." [2] Like the story of Jackie Robinson to which it connects, Dodgertown represents a milestone in American civil rights history.

(L-R) Jackie Robinson; Roy Campanella. Jackie Robinson offers a congratulatory handshake to catcher Roy Campanella, March 31, 1948. The Brooklyn Dodgers have acquired Campanella from their Montreal AAA minor league team to add him to the Dodgers’ major league roster. On this date, the game is the first to be played by the Brooklyn Dodgers in Vero Beach at Dodgertown, the first racially integrated Spring Training camp in the South.

 

As has often been the case in our national history, Dodgertown's advances toward racial justice were the products of both pragmatism and principle. Dodger management wished to build a team-controlled complex in which player development would be free from outside interference. It also needed to buffer the team's growing complement of African American players - which in 1948 included Robinson, pitcher Dan Bankhead and prospects Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe - against a hostile Southern racial environment. The lease of the former Naval Air Station from Vero Beach and the creation of a town-within-a-town permitted the team to realize both goals.[3] Dodgertown's decidedly downscale facilities worked to foster camaraderie, friendship, and cohesion among the Dodger players who, regardless of race, lived in barracks left over from the war that lacked heat and air conditioning and featured primitive sanitary facilities. They ate communally, chow-line style, with stars and scrubs sitting side by side. [4] The shared inconveniences bonded black and white players, molding individuals into a team for the demanding regular season that lay ahead. "It brought the team together, there's no question about that," recalled former Dodger President Peter O'Malley, "and at the most important time of the year."[5]

[1] Jules Tygiel, Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy: (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 317.

[2] Sam Lacy, Baltimore Afro-American, Week of April 23-27, 1974.

[3] See Jonathan I. Leib, "Major League Baseball's Spring Training in Florida, 1901-2001," The Florida Geographer, 32 (2001), 15.

[4] See Thomas C. Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior (New York: Norton, 2006), 143.

[5] See Charles Fountain, "Dodgertown Sits Eerily Quiet, " February 24, 2009 www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/extras/extra_bases/2009/02/oh_the_metaphor.html