Excerpt: Beyond Baseball’s Color Barrier
In a New York Times article on April 11, 1947, four days before Robinson’s debut, a headline spanned the top of the entire sports page announcing, “Dodgers Purchase Robinson, First Negro in Modern Major League Baseball.” The inclusion of the qualifier “modern” might seem suspicious to today’s fan, but the article provides insight. The Times gives quick background on a player named Moses Fleetwood Walker, identified in the article as “the last Negro to play in the Majors.” Walker played one season for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884 where he was joined by his brother Weldy before the color line was drawn, not to be crossed by anyone again until that day in 1947.
In 2004, research from Peter Morris, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) shed light on William White, who is now recognized as the earliest known
“legal” African American Major League Baseball player. White played one game as a fill-in for the Providence Greys on June 21, 1879. White’s story is complex though. He has been confirmed as being the son of a white slave owner from Milner, Georgia named Andrew White. William’s mother was Hannah White, who has been listed on census reports as “mulatto,” thus making William one-quarter African American, which by laws in most states at the time, meant that a person was “legally” Black. This meant he would have had to abide by the separatist laws of the time. The issue around White is that he identified his race as “white” in the 1900 and 1910 census. Whether you can consider White the first African American ballplayer is up for interpretation. Legally, yes, White is the earliest known African American Major League Baseball player. Socially though, White probably shouldn’t be classified in that way.
The day Robinson debuted was covered as a historic event but was not held in the same esteem as it is today. The Times article by Louis Effrat carried a bold headline and painted a picture of support, stating that “I’m for Robinson” buttons were sold outside Ebbets Field during that day’s exhibition game. It mentioned that the Dodgers Dixie Walker, someone who two years earlier said he would not play with Robinson and who was the most outspoken teammate against him during Spring Training, was roundly booed during batting practice and the game. However, the article also hinted at the vitriol Robinson could face. Effrat wrote,
He may run into antipathy from Southerners who form about 60 percent of the league’s playing strength. In fact, it is rumored that a number of Dodgers expressed themselves as unhappy at the possibility of having to play with Jackie.
After Robinson debuted during the 1947 season with four other African American players, the league slowly began to integrate. After no additional teams integrated in 1948, Monte Irvin debuted for the Giants in 1949 and as each year passed, the rest of the 16 teams slowly integrated. The Detroit Tigers (1958) and Boston Red Sox (1959) were the last two teams to integrate.
In the 1959 season, the first year of full integration, 8.8% of players were African American according to research by SABR. Through the course of the initial integration process, multiple African American players were making baseball history. The 1955 season was a monumental season that may well have catapulted Major League Baseball from the slow integration era into the boom in diversity of the 1960’s and ‘70’s. In 1955, a 24-year-old Willie Mays followed up his MVP season from the year before by blasting 51 home runs and playing the flashiest centerfield anyone had seen. Over in Brooklyn, the Dodgers were led by a trio of African American legends as they captured an improbable World Series title. That year, Roy Campanella won the third of his Most Valuable Player Awards, Don Newcombe became the first African American pitcher to win 20 games and Jackie Robinson, then 36 years old, was still productive as the team’s third baseman.
In Chicago, Ernie Banks emerged as one of the great young superstars of the game. In his second season in 1955, Banks made his first All-Star Game, belted 44 home runs and drove in 117 runs while finishing third in MVP voting. Also making waves in the Midwest was a young Hank Aaron, who was a first-time All Star at age 21 for the Milwaukee Braves that year. Frank Robinson debuted the next season for the Cincinnati Reds, winning the Rookie of the Year Award. For the first time, baseball fans had an influx of young African American superstars as many of the African American players who starred the eight years prior were older veterans or part-timers.
From 1960-1975 the percentage of African American baseball players rose steadily to its peak in 1975 at 18.5%. The career of Mays ended in 1973 and Robinson and Aaron said goodbye in 1976. The torch was passed along to a succession of African American superstars like Bob Gibson, Willie Stargell, Reggie Jackson, Billy Williams and Joe Morgan. Just as the presence of African American stars remained consistent, the overall percentage of African American players in Major League Baseball was stable as well.
From 1975-1994, the percentage of African American players never swayed more than one percentage point of 17%. The success and popularity of African American ballplayers from the 1950s through the 1970s buoyed the interest of young African American baseball fans. They had someone to emulate in the streets while they played stickball; they had role models in Major League Baseball. Players who looked like them were not just among the best in the Majors but were being talked of with the best who ever played the game. In 1974, when Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth to claim the career home run title, the time had come for an African American player to hold perhaps the most revered record in sports. The transition from Aaron and Mays to Reggie and Gibson coincided with the childhoods of players like Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson and Tony Gwynn.
As fans can point to the 1955 season as a defining season in the path of African American Major League Baseball history, data can point to the 1994 season as another watershed season.
That season, the percentage of African American baseball players was at 17.2%, its highest total since 1988. The league was rife with young African American stars again like Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas and Barry Larkin. Albert Belle was widely considered the game’s most feared hitter and Ken Griffey, Jr. was a modern-day Willie Mays in centerfield.
On August 11, 1994, Major League Baseball shut down for a 232-day players’ strike, the longest and most damaging strike in Major League history. Play resumed in late April of 1995 and after a slightly abbreviated 1995 season concluded, 16.1% of the players who played that season were African American. It was the first time since Jackie Robinson’s debut that the percentage of African American players in the Major Leagues dropped by over 1% from one year to the next. From that point, the percentage of African American players decreased every season through 2010 where it stabilized around 7%. Three of the four seasons between 2013 and 2016, that percentage dropped to 6.7%, the lowest number since 1957. In 1957, there were still two teams that had yet to integrate.
1884 Toledo Blue Stockings team photo. Fleet Walker is sitting on the left. His brother Weldy Walker is standing on the right.
The topic of the slow decline of African American baseball players has been well- publicized and well-theorized over the past two decades. There is plenty of valid circumstantial evidence as to why this has happened. Theories include the rise in percentage of Hispanic players (as high as 27.9% in 2006), the rise in popularity of the NFL and NBA, the rising costs of playing the sport as a youth and a generational culture shift. Even the expansion of roster spots taken up by pitchers plays a role. Traditionally, the percentage of African American pitchers is much lower than that of position players, so as pitchers took up more real estate on Major League rosters, one can surmise that may have influenced the participation drop as well.
Throughout all the peaks and valleys of the past seven decades of integrated Major League Baseball, there has been no shortage of role models and icons among African American ballplayers. Jackie Robinson transcends the sport as a cultural giant in American history. Hank Aaron and Willie Mays do as well. Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson are the top two base stealers in the sport’s history. Bob Gibson is one of the fiercest competitors to ever wear a Major League uniform and very few in the game’s history could wield a bat like Tony Gwynn. Ken Griffey Jr. is among the most beautifully graceful ballplayers to play the sport and few players or managers ever commanded respect the way Frank Robinson did.
While the accomplishments of those inner-circle Hall of Famers speak for themselves, there is also a litany of other African American players who have had fantastic seasons, accomplishments and careers. Vida Blue had one of the great pitching seasons in baseball history as a 21-year-old in 1971. The baseball world didn’t see another season like that until Dwight Gooden’s historic 1985 season. When Cecil Fielder cracked 51 home runs in 1990, he broke a streak of 13 seasons without a 50-homer player, the longest such drought in Major League history. The beloved Roy Campanella is known for his three MVP seasons, but also still holds the highest career caught stealing percentage of any catcher in Major League history at 57%.
Curt Flood was a Gold Glove centerfielder but his bigger impact came when he sacrificed his career to challenge the Reserve Clause in 1969.
Major League Baseball has been around for over 150 years and as the sport expands globally, the impact African American ballplayers have had stretches far and wide. It’s not just the names in the record books that blazed a trail though. It’s Pumpsie Green finally integrating the Red Sox, Joe Morgan’s elbow flap and Billy Williams’ sweet swing in Chicago. It’s Dave Stewart glaring at the batter who dared to stand in the box and Vada Pinson gliding around the outfield at Crosley Field. It’s Oscar Gamble’s Afro, Dave Parker’s cannon, Bo Jackson breaking a bat over his knee and Dick Allen blasting obscene home runs and lighting up cigarettes in the dugout. It’s Mookie Wilson’s ground ball in the 1986 World Series and Mookie Betts’ heroics in the 2018 Series. Its Blue Moon, Mudcat, Oil Can, Bo Knows and The Big Hurt.
Baseball may have been widely popular in the first half of the 20th century, but it truly gained its flair in the post-World War II era. Think Jackie Robinson dancing off third base, ready to steal home, Satchel Paige bringing his “Trouble Ball” to the Indians, Willie Stargell whirling his bat and Reggie Jackson stirring the drink. The flair is Gary Sheffield menacingly waving his bat, Darryl Strawberry’s moonshot home runs and Josh Harrison wiggling out of another rundown. If you are someone who remembers those images, chances are you’re smiling as big as Curtis Granderson. While the percentage of African American ballplayers may have steadily decreased over the past 20 years, the impact they have made on the game has not. But before all of that was possible, there was Will White, Moses Fleetwood Walker and the subsequent rift that divided baseball down the color line for over sixty years.
Stan Musial with Don Schwall at the 1961 All Star Game at Fenway Park, Boston.
This passage is an excerpt from Rocco Constantino’s book, Beyond Baseball’s Color Barrier (Rowman & Littlefield, May 2021). In Beyond Baseball’s Color Barrier: The Story of African Americans in Major League Baseball, Past, Present, and Future, Rocco Constantino chronicles the history of generations of ballplayers, showing how African Americans have influenced baseball from the 1800s to the present. He details how the color line was drawn, efforts made to erode it, and the progress towards Jackie Robinson’s debut–including a pre-integration survey in which players unanimously promoted integration years before it actually happened. Personal accounts and colorful stories trace the exponential growth of diversity in the sport since integration, from a boom in participation in the 1970s to peak participation in the early 1990s, but also reveal the current downward trend in the number of African American players to percentages not seen since the 1960s.
Beyond Baseball’s Color Barrier is out now and available through all major online locations and through roccoconstantino.com.