... Yet, beyond the obvious platitudes, baseball's long struggle over race can yield some surprising perspectives on our national predicament. The Robinson epic is generally lumped in with the 1954 Brown decision against segregated public schools and the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing job discrimination. Yet two crucial differences stand out. 1) The integration of organized baseball preceded the civil-rights revolution, and in reality baseball helped make later reforms politically feasible by giving white Americans black heroes with whom to identify. 2) Government had almost nothing to do with this triumph of the competitive market. Baseball owners finally realized that the more they cared about the color of people's money, the less they could afford to care about the color of their skin.
It's ironic that the hallowed civil-rights revolution owed so much to something as seemingly trivial as pro sports. Yet, without this business of producing heroes for public consumption, whites might never have cared enough about blacks to be bothered by racial injustice. It's not the most noble trait of human nature, but we tend to be more outraged by minor slights to winners (note the endlessly recounted tales of the indignities Robinson endured) than by mass atrocities against downtrodden losers.
That competitive markets make irrational bigotry expensive -- not impossible, but costly -- was first formally demonstrated in 1957 by University of Chicago economist Gary Becker (the 1992 Nobel Laureate), and in the four decades since has barely gained a toehold in conventional thinking. Let me be clear: this idea does not pollyannaishly presume that white people (or any other people) are motivated by disinterested good will. It merely assumes that if forced to by competition, people will hire whoever makes them the most money. Don't forget, though, that we humans are always conniving to exempt ourselves from competition. The more we can insulate ourselves from the open market, the more painlessly we can then discriminate for kin and countrymen and against people we don't like. Baseball's often ugly history shows this clearly.