David R. Henderson  

42: Becker's Economics of Discrimination in a Movie

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Last week, my wife and I saw the movie, "42." It's about Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, hiring Jackie Robinson to play baseball for him in the mid to late 1940s. I recommend the movie.

Besides being a good movie, it's a beautiful illustration of what Gary Becker writes about in his seminal book, The Economics of Discrimination. My wife is not an economist, but she has lived with one for 31 years. About half an hour in to the movie, she said, "Wow. You would really have to be paying no attention to miss the message about how the profit motive undercuts [racial] discrimination."


I say "slight" because I'm guessing that even people who have never seen the movie would not be surprised that Branch Rickey saw that a way to have his team do better was to use undervalued players that other teams were ignoring. A clearcut pool of undervalued players was black players.

A few times in the first half hour, Rickey explains one of his main motives. He wants to win and to make money doing so. If black players can help him do that, then great. At one point, it does come out that he feels an ethical obligation to tear down racial barriers and this is probably what gave him the courage to do so. So it was really a combination of ethics and profit-making.

It worked, by the way. During his time as general manager of the Dodgers while Robinson was there, the Dodgers won the National League pennant 2 out of 5 seasons.

Here's a segment from the Wikipedia entry on Robinson that illustrates Becker's point:

Some Dodger players insinuated they would sit out rather than play alongside Robinson. The brewing mutiny [among many of the players] ended when Dodgers management took a stand for Robinson. Manager Leo Durocher informed the team, "I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a f**kin' zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded."

Incidentally, there's a very similar scene in the movie.

One other aspect of the movie I liked, and it rang true, is how fellow players warmed up to Robinson and supported him when they came to see past his color. In a small way, this aspect of the movie reminded me of how Oskar Schindler, in Schindler's List, warmed up to his Jewish employees after he came to see them as normal humans.

One thing I was left wondering about: how did Robinson's pay compare to that of white players of similar caliber? I would expect it to have been somewhat lower. Why? Because it's that differential in pay that motivates employers to hire members of the discriminated-against group in the first place.

A friend on Facebook writes, "Little known fact: Becker was an economic consultant for the movie. It's right there in the credits, but you have to look closely." He adds, "More and more, producers are going with economics consultants to make sure the movie plots are economically accurate." To which I replied, "Interesting. Imagine what a different movie 'The Fugitive' would have been had they done that."

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CATEGORIES: Labor Market

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Phil writes:

Since teams had a monopoly on the services of players, would Robinson's pay need to have been lower?

Suppose every car is sold at 99.9% off to whoever finds it first, but there's a taboo on owning a Toyota. Whoever decides to break the taboo gains not because Toyotas are cheaper than other cars, but because you get to own a Toyota for $30 or so.

Delphin writes:

Robinson's salary was mentioned in the movie. It sounded like league minimum.

David R. Henderson writes:

I think you mean "monopsony." It is true that the teams had monopsony power, but it wasn't total power. Otherwise, players would have earned a lot less. Robinson was paid $600 a month to be on the Montreal farm team. The test of monopsony power is: how much are players paid above their opportunity cost outside that monopsony. $600--remember it was 1945 $-- was well above that opportunity cost.
But, that point aside, I think your Toyota analogy is a good one. And in that analogy, if other cars were going for $30, the Toyota would have gone for, say, $25. It's an "on the margin" thing.
Robinson's salary was mentioned in the movie
True. See my comment above. But, remember, that was for playing on the farm team.
It sounded like league minimum.
How so?

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

It's not clear why this post emphasizes the manager and players--the key decider to me would be the fans--they're the ones buying merchandise and attending the game. I haven't seen the movie yet--can you talk about how the fans reacted and how that fits into your economic analysis?

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

Or to put it another way, the goal of a baseball team is not (primarily) to win. The goal is to fill seats and sell jerseys (for which winning helps, a lot). If you're winning because you can get better players at lower cost, but the fans won't come to your game or buy a 42 jersey, then you've still failed. So fan attitudes have to be factored in somehow--which seems more complicated than Phil's purchasing a car analogy.

mobile writes:

Salary data available at baseball-reference.com. Here's Jackie Robinson's salary history:


Robinson made ~$36,000 in 1950, the year after he won the National League MVP, and $30,000-$40,000 per year for the rest of his career. That's not Ted Williams (1949 AL MVP, $90,000) or Stan Musial (2nd in 1949 NL MVP, $50,000) money, but it is comparable to Robinson's other distinguished teammates:

Gil Hodges: $35,000-$38,000
Roy Campanella: $18,000-$42,000
Pee Wee Resse: $35,000
Duke Snider: $12,000-$44,000

(salary data may not be accurate, yada yada)

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks very much.
@F. Lynx Pardinus,
It's not clear why this post emphasizes the manager and players--the key decider to me would be the fans--they're the ones buying merchandise and attending the game.
Very good point. Thanks for noting my oversight.
can you talk about how the fans reacted and how that fits into your economic analysis?
Yes. Remember that it's a movie and so I don't know how faithful it was on this. But, of course, many fans reacted negatively. On the other hand, there was suddenly a substantial group of black fans. I would bet--and this supports your and Becker's idea--that New York was one of the least racist cities in America. Interestingly, and in support of your point, the last team to hire a black player was a team in one of the most racist major league baseball cities in America: Boston.

Ken From Ohio writes:


This excellent post on "42" is why I (a non-economist) regularly tune in to EconLog

NZ writes:

The best way to break down negative stereotypes is to violate those stereotypes yourself, and make sure lots of people see you do it.

Tom E. Snyder writes:
NZ writes:

The best way to break down negative stereotypes is to violate those stereotypes yourself, and make sure lots of people see you do it.

E.g., Peewee Reese. (see movie, it's a true story)

Enjoyable movie! Thank you for the recommendation.

mike davis writes:

I also enjoyed the movie both as a baseball fan and an economist and I really appreciate your reminding us something about markets and discrimination that is often neglected.

Becker correctly points out that that allowing free markets to flourish makes discrimination (racial and otherwise) more expensive. This is true and hence an important component of the ethical case for free markets.

But, as you discuss in your blog, the movie shows that there is another and, I think, equally important reason why market economies are deeply moral. Market transactions often require fairly personal interaction. Sure, there are some transactions that require no personal contact—driving through a tool booth, for example—but more often than not, we interact with our counterparties. When pecuniary motives force us to interact, biases are challenged. Rickey’s desire to make money certainly helped Robinson make the team. But once there, Pee Wee and the others were forced to deal with a black guy as a teammate and, for obvious reasons, liked what they discovered. The real teaching moment for me comes when the racist Red’s fans see the Kentuckian Reese embrace Jackie.

(BTW, the Bastiat/baseball blog was also cool. I’m not a Giants fan but they have clearly had a civilizing influence on you :)

James McGill writes:

I think Becker's argument is one of the best ever formulated by the dismal science. Who said economists are insensitive and promote the lack of the human factor in the economic marketplace? It certainly gives a strong argument for everyone to look for value in under appreciated human beings.

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