On Sunday, Major League Baseball celebrated the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s historic first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. All players wore the number 42 in the honor of Robinson breaking the color barrier by the first black player to play in the league. Robinson’s story is a triumph of civil rights and integration, but what is generally lost in Robinson’s legacy is the power that the voluntary market, not government legislation, has in reducing discrimination and injustice.
While Robinson bravely faced insults and jeers from many fans wherever the Dodgers went, the harsh reaction to his presence began to slowly fade. Robinson won the Rookie of the Year award in 1947, a National League batting title two years later in 1949 as well as the Most Valuable Player award, went to six straight All-Star games, and helped the Dodgers go to five World Series (while beating the hated New York Yankees in 1955). Not only did Robinson have courage, but he had immense talent that helped the Dodgers win, increase fan base, and revenue for the team.
It wasn’t white guilt, affirmative action, or anti-discrimination laws that withered racial animosity in baseball, but the incentives of the market. The Brooklyn Dodgers essentially had a monopoly on the huge pool of black baseball talent in the Negro leagues when they finally made their decision to let Robinson play in the league. Other teams saw this strategy, and even the most racist regions of the country witnessed a flood of black players. After Robinson, fellow Dodger Roy Campanella began a streak of seven straight black NL MVPs, including Hall of Famers like Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and Ernie Banks. The merit of these players and the competitive aspects of the market, not the force of government law, changed minds and the quality of the game forever.
It is very interesting to contrast the market processes that allowed blacks into the league with how they were originally banned. In the 1880s, when baseball was first becoming organized, a few black players were allowed to play. Led by the likes of white players like Cap Anson — not the club owners themselves — they began to threaten violence and riots if their often statistically superior black co-players weren’t banned. Eventually, the owners caved, and as baseball began centralizing into an MLB conglomerate, they used “gentlemen’s agreements” to keep blacks out of the game as well as avoid the competitive pressure of the market.
It’s easy to see why they instituted bans too; it was the only way to preserve their artificial labor monopoly from incredibly talented and popular competition. The supply of black players after World War I exploded, which resulted in the Negro Leagues, where their All-Star games had larger audiences than the white version. Much of college sports was already integrated (Robinson starred in baseball, football, basketball, track, golf, and swimming at UCLA). The Caribbean Winter leagues featured stars of both the MLB and the Negro Leagues.
What Robinson’s eventual breaking of this barrier reveals is how competitive markets make irrational bigotry expensive — not impossible, but very costly. In 1957, University of Chicago economist Gary Becker (and later Nobel Prize winner) argued that people tend to find ways to avoid market competition, as the ugly history of baseball shows. But Becker also noted that when forced by competition, people will hire whoever will make them the most money.
The integration of baseball isn’t the only example of competitive markets punishing discrimination. In apartheid South Africa, blacks were kept out of the labor force with laws that required the hiring of only whites in certain industries as well as minimum-wage laws. White contractors began illegally hiring blacks not because of a sudden change of heart, but because they were less expensive than the government-mandated white labor. The Davis-Bacon Act, lauded by many “pro-labor” factions in America, was signed to protect to white labor from the market competition of blacks and other minorities.
Although government laws intended to prevent discrimination and promote fairness are obviously passed with the best intentions, more often than not is basic economics, competition, and the drive for profits in the marketplace that help eliminate or reduce social ills. Robinson’s bravery in smashing the MLB’s labor cartel is one of the most heroic examples.