While in Europe we heard much praise of Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand, etc., and quite reasonably so. But I'd like to add Jackie Robinson to the list. This is not to be taken as another Black History Month moment; I feel it's insulting that we declare any people to only be worth praising one month a year, and in this case Robinson's brethren were given the shortest month.
Now race can't be separated from the praise I'm going to give Robinson, because this story ties directly into his efforts to break down the walls of segregation in society. But my tale is as much about economics as it is race, in particular Robinson's keen understanding of economics, particularly the power of aggregation.
This story doesn't involve the contract he signed with Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. That was a significant economic moment for Robinson, but instead I'd like to take the reader back before that historic day. Jackie Robinson is a young man playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, the New York Yankees of the Negro Leagues, a team that many feel could have beat the Yankees straight up. But when the team traveled on the road, they had to sleep in the bus because hotels wouldn't take them. They had to carry their own food because restaurants wouldn't feed them. And they knew that when they pulled into a gas station, they shouldn't get off the bus to use the restroom because there would be a sign saying "Whites Only."
I recently heard an anecdote from one of Robinson's teammates on the Monarchs, John "Buck" O'Neill. He was interviewed on John Thompson's radio show on WTEM here in Washington. O'Neill, now 94, said Robinson was different from O'Neill and the others on the team. "We just accepted segregation as the way it was," O'Neill said, but to Robinson it didn't make any sense. O'Neill said it wasn't certain that Robinson was the most talented Negro League player, but he had the right mindset to break the color barrier.
O'Neill describes a day when the team bus pulled into a small-town gas station. The white owner of the station starts filling up one of the two large tanks on the bus. Robinson steps off the bus, with his teammates watching in shock through the open bus windows.
"Where you going, boy?" the station owner asks.
"Bathroom," Robinson replies.
"Get back on the bus, boy," Robinson is told.
"Then take out that pump," Robinson replies.
The man looked at the bus. It had a 50-gallon tank on one side, and another 50-gallon tank on the other side. It was more gas than the man was likely to sell all morning, or perhaps all day.
The two men stared at each other for a few moments. Then the station owner looked up at Robinson and his teammates and said, "Okay, boys, you can all use the bathroom, but be damned quick about it."
When the bus pulled out, everyone asked Robinson why he did that. "We live in a capitalist society," Robinson replied. "The man's gotta sell his gas."
After that, O'Neill said, the Monarchs traveled a little better than other Negro League teams. They always found a hotel that would take the kind of money that comes from booking rooms for an entire baseball team. And they always found a restaurant that would take the kind of money that comes from feeding an entire baseball team. And they always found a gas station that would let them use the bathroom.
We do live in a capitalist society. Sometimes that is derided as evil or base or amoral. But for Robinson and his teammates, his recognition of this fact brought them a bit of well-deserved human dignity.