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“Haven of Tolerance”

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

By Jerald Podair

An aerial view of the Dodgertown barracks in Vero Beach, Florida. The integrated barracks and dining room of Dodgertown are located in the buildings toward the center of the photos and Dodgertown Field No. 1 is located just west of the buildings.

 

In 1948, Dodgertown inaugurated an experiment in interracial living that was almost unique in the South. Dodgertown's barracks which under U.S. military policy, had been segregated during World War II, were now open to blacks and whites for the first time. This was made possible by the unique terms of the Dodgers' deal with Vero Beach officials. It was brokered by local auto dealer Bud Holman, who had helped build the Vero Beach airport; under his auspices the town of 3,600 had become Eastern Airlines' smallest regularly scheduled point of service.[6] Holman hoped that the potential "Vero Beach" bylines for stories filed by New York sportswriters from a Dodger training camp would raise the town's profile, and lobbied strenuously for it to become the team's new spring home.[7] His efforts paid off. The Dodgers and Vero Beach reached an agreement under which the team would control activities within the complex's gates. This meant that while the facility would be in Vero Beach, it would not be of it, and Jim Crow restrictions on black activity would not apply within its boundaries. Local ordinances prohibiting integrated housing would be tacitly ignored, in a bit of civil disobedience that benefited both team and town.

This part of the Dodgertown agreement was not put into writing. It was more in the way of an unstated understanding that since the Dodgers would administer their own facility, they would enforce their own rules on the property.[8] The Vero Beach authorities would adopt a "live and let live" policy toward Dodgertown activities, entering only at the team's request, with one exception: if exhibition games were played at Dodgertown for which admission was charged, separate accommodations for white and black spectators would be provided. This meant designated bathrooms, water fountains, entrances, and seating areas for black fans.[9] Even this requirement was not as onerous as some enforced in other Florida towns, which prohibited interracial athletic contests altogether; in 1946, police in Sanford had entered the field during an exhibition contest involving Jackie Robinson and ejected him and another black player from the ballpark.[10]

But while Vero Beach did not abide by such drastic policies, it was still a place where the racial mores of the Jim Crow South were observed. Encounters between black Dodger players and white Vero Beach residents were bound to be fraught with tension at best and at worst invoke the weight of the Southern justice system. It was thus all the more imperative to offer African American players not only equal accommodations at Dodgertown, but also a sense of inclusion and respect.

(L-R) Dodgertown Director Spencer Harris; Vero Beach business leader Bud Holman; Branch Rickey. A Dodgertown tradition is to name a street after a Dodger player or person has been named to the Hall of Fame. Here, Bud Holman, prominent Vero Beach business leader for whom Holman Stadium was later named, adds the final touches to a street sign “Branch Rickey Boulevard” for the current Dodger President in 1948, the first season for Dodgertown. Rickey was later elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967.

 

This is what Dodgertown provided, first under co-owner and general manager Branch Rickey between 1948 and 1950, and thereafter Walter and his son Peter O'Malley, who owned the team from 1950 to 1998. The 220 acres of Dodgertown, in fact, may have been the largest fully integrated area in Florida during the late 1940s and 1950s. With every other Florida spring training camp residentially segregated - African Americans were customarily barred from whites-only "headquarters" hotels and often forced to find lodging in black-owned private homes - Dodgertown was ahead of its time. [11] It represented the first step toward integrating baseball's preseason, a move that was as significant as the integration of the game's regular season in 1947.

It did not always go smoothly. In 1948, Dodgertown's very first year, an argument erupted between African American pitcher Don Newcombe and a white Philadelphia Athletics catcher after an exhibition game, prompting spectators to threaten the Dodger prospect; one fan brandished a plank from a picket fence as a weapon.[12] Branch Rickey, fearing further trouble, had the team's black players remain inside Dodgertown for the duration of spring training. From that time forward, Rickey and then the O'Malleys sought to offer African American Dodgers as many services as possible at Dodgertown itself, both in the spirit of fostering racial equality and as a practical matter, so as to conduct spring training productively and without distractions. The claims of justice and commerce thus intersected to move history forward.

The Dodgertown dining room at the Spring Training base in Vero Beach, Florida. From the first season in 1948, the Dodgertown dining room and their living quarters were desegregated for all players and personnel, an important and vital aspect of Dodgertown.

 

Until 1972, Dodgertown featured open, army-style barracks that were by their very nature desegregated. All other Dodgertown facilities with the exception of the team's locally-regulated playing field - which beginning in 1953 was Holman Stadium - were integrated. These included the dining hall, where the custom was for players to take open chairs at tables after getting their food, insuring integrated meal seating through random selection. There was no segregation on the playing field itself, of course, and the Dodgers became pioneers in the development of African American players. Robinson and even Campanella and Newcombe were only the leading edges of a flow of talent that would culminate on the major league level when in 1954 they became the first team to field a majority-minority starting lineup (including Robinson, Newcombe, Campanella, second baseman Jim Gilliam, and left fielder Sandy Amoros).

Walter O'Malley tried to blunt the impact of segregation in Vero Beach by providing recreational facilities at Dodgertown, including a swimming pool built in 1949. He installed a movie theatre, a game room, and stocked a pond with bass for fishing.[13] In the 1950s, Dodger management sought to persuade Vero Beach businesses to accept black patronage, with mixed results. [14] As a way of emphasizing the team's impact on the local economy, it had 20,000 $2 bills stamped with the words, "Brooklyn Dodgers" and given to players to spend in town.[15] Since Vero Beach merchants would undoubtedly see how the loss of the Dodgers would affect their bottom lines, Walter O'Malley hoped they would respond more positively to African American customers. O'Malley coupled this indirect pressure with a more explicit demand for equal treatment in Vero Beach's business district. [16]

[6] Wayne Brew, "Boom and Bust: Landscapes of Economic and Cultural Tradition," PAST Journal, 34 (2011).

[7] Ibid, 8-9, William Nack, "Dodgertown," Sports Illustrated, March 14, 1983.

[8] Sam Lacy, "A Fellow-Scribe Triggers Flashback," Baltimore Afro-American, April 23-27, 1974, 9.

[9] Larry Still, "Militant New Stars Attempting to Bat Bias Out of Ball Parks," Jet, 19 (1961), 54-55.

[10] Jules Tygiel, Baseball's Great Experiment, 109-10.

[11] See "Spring Camp Segregation: Baseball's Festering Sore," New York Times, February 19, 1961, 1, 3.

[12] Nack, "Dodgertown."

[13] Ibid.

[14] Timothy M. Gay, "Dodgertown's Integrated Field of Dreams," Boston Globe, March 17, 2008.

[15] Mark Langill, Dodgertown (Charles, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004), 8; See also Rep. Bill Posey, "Florida's 15th District."

[16] Gay, "Dodgertown's Integrated Field of Dreams."