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Was Jackie good for business?

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Curt Gunther

Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson because it was good for business. The Dodgers' business. Well, also because Rickey believed it was moral. But before Rickey could do anything, he needed the Dodgers' Board of Directors to sign off on everything. And so the Board did, after Rickey convinced them that featuring a great black player (or players) would be good for business. That featuring a great black player would result in more wins and more fans in Ebbets Field.

And of course that's exactly what happened.

Oh, except it wasn't.

One thing nobody ever mentions is the Dodgers' actual attendance in the late '40s. Except Craig Wright has, in his newsletter (subscription info here). And it turns out that while attendance by African-American fans went way up, that was more than balanced by a decrease in European-American attendance. It seems that a lot of white fans were not won over by Jackie Robinson, even as the Dodgers continued to thrive on the field.

By season's end, the larger black crowds at Ebbets Field seemed to make up for the segment of white Dodger fans who never came back - but barely. The pennant-winning Dodgers with the historic novelty of Jackie Robinson on their team averaged only 428 more fans per home game.

And really that could be seen as a negative gain relative to the times. Attendance in general was still in a climbing trend since the end of the war. Attendance at NL games that did not involve anintegrated team (Brooklyn) was up almost 2400 fans a game, or over 5 times better than the gain the Dodgers had in their home games.

--snip--

The financial cost of the stigma of being the first to cross the color line appeared to haunt the Dodgers for years. In 1948, when the Dodgers slipped to third place and the novelty appeal of Dodger games began to wane, attendance plummeted 23%. The last time that Brooklyn's attendance was worse relative to the league was in 1937, when fans had good reason to stay away from a crummy team with the fewest wins by a Dodger team since 1912. They rebounded to close to 1947 levels when the won the pennant again in 1949, but they dropped way down again when they finished 2nd in 1950, which was Rickey's last year with Brooklyn.

Granted, Robinson did have a measurable and positive impact on attendance ... in the Dodgers' road games, especially in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. But that didn't do much for the Dodgers' bottom line, as they picked up a small percentage of the gate receipts in road games. Overall, the Dodgers' ticket revenues did increase in those years ... but the increase was relatively small compared to the rest of the National League.

As Craig Wright concludes, "The breaking of the color line was good for baseball, good for the soul, and good for the winning percentage of the Dodgers. Contrary to common belief, it was not good for the pocketbook of Rickey and the Dodgers."