While Jackie Robinson used a baseball glove and bat to battle racial injustice on the diamond, black sportswriters like Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, fought the good fight with the power of the press. Smith was paid by the Courier and Brooklyn Dodgers’ boss Branch Rickey to accompany Robinson as he traveled with Brooklyn’s Montreal farm club and then with the Dodgers. Smith chronicled Robinson’s exploits on the field and helped him navigate the frustrations and dangers that came with challenging Major League Baseball’s racist color line. Smith also waged his own war with bigotry while writing about Robinson.
Portraying Wendell Smith in the film “42” filled actor Andre Holland (TV’s 1600 Penn) with admiration. “He wasn’t allowed in the press box, so he sat out in the stands with his typewriter on his knees,” Holland says of Smith. “He had a difficult time but he was very much in service of Jackie Robinson and this endeavor.”
As one of the most widely-read writers in the black press, Smith urged black folks to be at their best when they went to the games to support Jackie. In his nationally-syndicated Courier column, Smith admonished African-Americans to dress appropriately, to avoid heavy drinking and to cheer for the entire Dodgers team, not just Robinson. “He said, ‘You’re representing yourself, you’re representing Jackie, you’re representing the African-American community and it’s important that we show ourselves in the right way,’” Holland explains.
Wendell Smith started campaigning to integrate Major League Baseball 10 years before Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson. Smith organized tryouts for top Negro Leagues players and he personally recommended that Rickey recruit Robinson. But the influential journalist felt conflicted. He had a deep love for the Negro Leagues and he knew that the Majors’ opening up to African-Americans would mark the beginning of the end for black baseball.
“You can tell from the way he wrote about (Negro League greats) Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson that these were his heroes. And at that time the Negro Leagues was the biggest, most profitable black enterprise in the country,” observes Holland. “Wendell knew that if Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier that there probably wouldn’t be any more Negro Leagues.”
So, if the Negro Leagues stood to suffer, why did African-American sportswriters like Wendell Smith urge Major League Baseball to erase the color line? Because they knew that Jim Crow segregation was morally wrong, not to mention un-American. According to Holland: “(Wendell) had to know that if America was to be the place that it had the potential to be, then there had to be equality in America’s pastime.”