Branch Rickey knew breaking baseball’s color barrier would require more kinds of players than African-American ballplayers who could excel in the major leagues. There were off-the-field considerations, and that included working with the Black community of New York to assist in the transition from an all-White institution to an integrated one.
“It is clear now, but wasn’t back then, that each step the Dodgers took involved hard work by numerous individuals on the team and in the city; and no step was taken without careful consideration and debate,” wrote Thomas Oliphant in Praying for Gil Hodges: A Memoir of the 1955 World Series and One Family’s Love of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
One person with whom Rickey collaborated was Rev. Gardner Calvin Taylor of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ.
In 2005, Oliphant interviewed Taylor who said, “Each time someone was added, there was discussion of whether there would be a backlash, whether the Dodgers were moving too quickly ahead of their time. This was not entirely a matter of older leaders trying to restrain younger leaders: we all worried about this. Remember, we wanted this to work; we were not just seeking to make a statement. And yet, each time the issue of race arose, the consensus was that while there might be a need for care, there was certainly room on the team for one more Black player.”
After Robinson’s debut in 1947, the Dodgers added Roy Campanella in 1948 and Don Newcombe the following year. They were key in helping the Dodgers win five pennants between 1949 and 1956. But as Rev.Taylor believed, there was room for more.
Starting in the early 1950s, there were games in which the Dodgers had five Blacks in their starting lineup.
At that time there were many teams that didn’t have one Black player on their rosters. Why were the Dodgers so far out in front in integrating baseball?
“It says a lot for Branch Rickey,” says Peter Golenbock, the author of several baseball books, including Bums: An Oral History of The Brooklyn’s Dodgers. “It says he was color blind, he just wanted the best players, he found half a dozen.”
Brooklyn added second baseman Junior Gilliam (Rookie of the Year in 1953), outfielder Sandy Amoros, catcher John Roseboro, and pitchers Dan Bankhead and Joe Black (Rookie of the Year in 1952).
“Every one of those other players played roles in the success of the Brooklyn Dodgers,” said Golenbock. “Amoros of course made that catch on Yogi Berra’s fly ball to left field that resulted in a double play that helped the Dodgers win the 1955 World Series. And Roseboro was a fine catcher for years, and Junior Gilliam of course was a fine infielder also for a lot of years.”
It helped that Brooklyn was a good place to promote integration.
“The distinction between desegregation and integration… desegregation is getting rid of the color line, and having Jackie Robinson come up, and one or two others. What the Dodgers helped you understand is what integration means, and that’s not breaking the color line or having Jackie Robinson and Newcombe, it’s having all these players,” said Oliphant.
“What the Dodgers did was a sense of real amazement, and (you) shouldn’t generalize too much about Brooklyn, but it was something that was noted, and for a lot of people a source of pride, and around New York to my knowledge,” said Oliphant recently. “There was no real opposition, except how far to take this.”
Bankhead was the second Black player the Dodgers added to its roster. The team was fighting for the pennant in 1947 and needed pitching help. On August 24, the team purchased him from the Memphis club of the American Negro League. Two days later, he made his major league debut, against Pittsburgh, becoming the first Black player to pitch in the majors.
Brooklyn starter Hal Gregg gave up four runs to the Pirates in the first inning. He started the second by giving up a single and a walk. Bankhead was brought in to face Jim Russell, who promptly doubled, driving in two runs, and taking third on an error. He scored on a sacrifice fly. Bankhead surrendered another double before getting the next two hitters out.
From left to right, a portrait of Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Dan Bankhead, and Jackie Robinson, four of the 1950 Brooklyn Dodgers at spring training in Florida.
He pitched a scoreless third and fourth inning, but in the fifth the Bucko opened the inning with three straight hits: a triple, a single, and a homerun. Bankhead struck out the next batter, but gave up a single and the runner stole second and scored when the next batter singled. Bankhead was replaced by Rex Barney, who yielded a double – scoring two runs charged to Bankhead. His final line: 3.1 innings, 10 hits, and eight runs.
He appeared in four games that season, earning one save; but he had an ERA of 7.20.
He won 20 games for Brooklyn’s AAA in 1948, and in spring training the following year was one of two finalists for the last spot in the team’s starting rotation. His competition was Carl Erskine, now 96, and the last living member of Brooklyn’s “Boys of Summer.”
Bankhead, said Erskine, “was the pitcher I had to beat out to make the squad,” in 1949. “They told me that directly, ‘We got a spot for one right-handed pitcher, and we got two candidates, you and Bankhead,’ so they just laid it on me right up front, ‘you got to beat him out or you’re not going to make it.’ That was my charge and I accepted it, had to do my best to make it work. Bankhead was a good hitter as well as his skills in pitching; I was not an out man, but I was not the hitter he was, he came with the whole package.”
Erskine made the team, and Bankhead went back to Montreal, where he again won 20 games.
In 1950, Bankhead made the team and went 9-4, appearing in 41 games with 12 starts and three saves. But his ERA was 5.50. The following season, he was 0-1 in seven games with an ERA of 15.43. He appeared in five games with Montreal in 1952, and was released.
“Dan Bankhead should have made it, (he) was a very fine pitcher in the Negro Leagues. I never interviewed him (Bankhead died in 1976 at the age of 55). It would have been interesting to talk to him to see whether the pressure was too much for him. My guess is that it was. He didn’t last very long, which was too bad,” said Golenbock.
Jim Gilliam #19 of the Brooklyn Dodgers waits in the batters box as the umpire puts a new ball in play during an MLB Spring Training game against the Boston Red Sox circa March, 1956 in Florida. (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images) (SetNumber: X3619)
According to a biography of Bankhead by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), “Though Bankhead was clearly talented — he drew Bob Feller comparisons — he was hindered by control problems and an old injury. Authors Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt also pinpointed a crucial problem: ‘Like many of baseball’s first Black players, he was thrown into White baseball with the physical tools to succeed but little or no emotional support. Jackie Robinson was Dan’s roommate when the pitcher first joined the Dodgers.’”
Arnold Rampersad in his biography of Robinson put it bluntly: “Some observers, including Black [people], thought that [Bankhead] choked in facing White hitters.”
Author Joe Posnanski (in his book, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America) was there for a conversation between Buck and Satchel Paige’s son Robert: “See, here’s what I always heard. Dan was scared to death that he was going to hit a White boy with a pitch. He thought there might be some sort of riot if he did it,” O’Neill said. (Bankhead hit Wally Westlake of the Pirates in his debut.)
“Dan was from Alabama just like your father. But Satchel became a man of the world. Dan was always from Alabama, you know what I mean? He heard all those people calling him names, making those threats, and he was scared. He’d seen Black men get lynched,’” O’Neill was quoted as saying in the book.
Bankhead pitched for a team in a Canadian League, then in 1954 began playing for teams in the Mexican League, for a dozen years, where he was a pitcher and first baseman, hitting above .300 for five teams.
Before the 1951 season, the Dodgers purchased pitcher Joe Black and infielder Jim “Junior” Gilliam from Baltimore of the Negro American League.
Black spent a year in Montreal, going 11-12 with an ERA of 3.28, making 20 starts and completing nine games. In 1952, he made a big splash with the Dodgers, going 15-4 with 15 saves and an ERA of 2.15. He was voted Rookie of the Year and finished third in the Most Valuable Player category.
“One of the very first true relief pitchers. He had a blazing fastball, a superstar in the making. I don’t understand what happened in the immediate period after Rickey’s departure, but he was at least, for a year or two, a superstar,” said Oliphant.
According to the Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, “In the spring of 1953, while trying to expand his repertory of pitches, (Black) lost a measure of the control that he had demonstrated the year before and, although he pitched for five more years with Brooklyn, Cincinnati and Washington, he was never able to regain the dominance from his rookie season.”
(Original caption) Former Negro League and current National League players stand together before a spring training game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves in 1952. From left are Jackie Robinson, George Crowe, Joe Black, Sam Jethroe, Roy Campanella, and Bill Bruton.
After two fine seasons with Montreal, Gilliam joined the Dodgers, playing second base, allowing Robinson to move to third base.
He batted .278, with 21 steals and led the league with 17 triples. He was voted Rookie of the Year and was a fixture in the Dodgers’ lineup.
“He brought the defense (to) the infield. He was skillful at getting on base; he was excellent in the early lineup because he got on base a lot,” said Erskine.
Edmundo “Sandy” Amoros was signed by the Dodgers in 1952. He had excellent seasons in the minors, and made his debut with Brooklyn on August 22, batting .250 in 20 games. He played in 79 games in 1954, then became the team’s primary left-fielder in 1955. He batted .247 in 455 at-bats that season, but is forever enshrined in Dodgers’ history for his game-saving catch in the seventh inning of game seven of the 1955 World Series, the one time the Brooklyn team won the World Championship.
Ironically, the left-handed Amoros did not start the game, but was inserted for defense by manager Walter Alston. With two men on and no outs, Yankees catcher Yogi Berra hit a drive to left field, not far from the foul line. Amoros, playing well off the line as Berra, a left-handed batter, was facing Dodgers’ lefty pitcher Johnny Podres, ran full tilt and stabbed at the ball with his glove on his right hand; he then threw back to the infield to double up one of the Yankee runners. Had a right-handed fielder been in the outfield, he most likely would not have caught the drive.
In 1978, Amoros was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame. He was an excellent player in the Negro Leagues, the Dominican Republic, and Triple-A. In the majors, however, he remained a role player, spending just three full summers there along with fractions of four others. In Bums, Golenbock wrote that the language barrier hindered his career.
“Amoros had been one of the greatest players ever to come out of pre-Castro Cuba. If he had spoken English, he certainly would have played more, because in Cuba he was a .300 hitter in a fast league, was fleet in the field, was excellent at stealing bases, and was a good bunter. But he didn’t learn the language, and it was a handicap that kept him from becoming a star. A manager just doesn’t trust employing a player when he isn’t sure whether the guy understands him or not,” Golenbock wrote.
Back in those days, teams didn’t have interpreters in the dugout.
Brooklyn Dodgers Sandy Amoros and Duke Snider pose for a portrait on September 30, 1956. (Photo by William Greene/Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images)
Roy Campanella started playing baseball in the Negro Leagues when he was 15. For several seasons he played in a handful of games for teams in Philadelphia, Washington, and New York, then won two batting titles in short-season NL teams in 1944-45.
He became an everyday catcher for three seasons with the Dodgers AAA team, then made his debut with Brooklyn in April, 1948 at the age of 26. He went on to win three MVP awards, but by 1957, the Dodgers’ last season in Brooklyn, catching all those years was taking a toll on him; but he was slated to be the everyday catcher when the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958.
On January 28, 1958, Campanella was paralyzed after suffering a broken neck and a damaged spinal cord when his rented 1957 Chevrolet sedan skidded on an icy road and hit a telephone pole in an early morning auto accident not far from his home on Long Island. His injury opened up a huge hole in the Dodgers’ lineup.
John Roseboro was signed as a catcher, but played several positions in the team’s minor league system. He made his major league debut on June, 14, 1957, appearing in 35 games, batting only .145; but Campanella and backup catcher Rube Walker tutored him on the finer points of catching.
The Dodgers carried three catchers when the 1958 season opened: Walker, Roseboro, and Joe Pignatano, who had played in only eight big-league games.
Walker started on Opening Day at San Francisco in the first major-league game in California. According to SABR’s biography of Roseboro, he “replaced Walker as a pinch-runner in the seventh and finished up. He got the start in the second road game and in the home opener two days later.”
“Within a month, Roseboro won the everyday job, and Walker soon retired to join the coaching staff. The 25-year-old had been a full-time catcher for only two years in the minors and had caught just 138 big-league innings before that season. ‘I was thrown in and it was sink or swim,’ he said.”
Erskine recently said “Roseboro, he was a good pitch caller, of course he was very young. Pitching to Campanella…we used to refer to Campy like he caught in a rocking chair, he was just so easy going with returning the ball softly, never made the pitcher jump around catching return throws.” After pitching to Roseboro for a few games, Erskine called him out halfway to the mound.
(Original caption) John Roseboro of the L. A. Dodgers is shown here during spring training.
“I said to him, ‘The catcher is not supposed to throw harder than the pitcher.’ He was throwing the ball back so hard it just about pulled me off the mound, because he was just keyed up. The first pitch he returned to me almost hit me in the face. He had to get used to the challenge, which he did, and he became a very good receiver,” said Erskine.
Roseboro acquitted himself offensively in 1958, batting .271 with 14 homeruns and making the All-Star team. His numbers dropped in 1959, but he guided the Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitching staff that helped win a World Series.
He is mostly remembered for getting into a fight with San Francisco pitcher Juan Marichal, who, while at bat, hit Roseboro three times in the head.
While there obviously were players and fans who were against integrating baseball, the Dodgers’ players, according to Erskine, did not make a big deal out of having Black teammates (this was after some Dodgers started a petition drive to keep Robinson off the 1947 club, a drive that Rickey and manager Leo Durocher quickly quashed).
“I don’t think we had that as a heavy part of our relations, players would come and go quite a bit. The Dodgers had such a big farm system, and it was not unusual for players to be coming and going. The Black players (were) introduced into the mix and I didn’t think it had a big impact on me,” said Erskine. “I played with Black athletes in my hometown (Anderson, IN, where he still lives), and so it wasn’t big on the list to me personally. I can’t speak for other players or (what) the fans felt like, it was a non-event for me.”
When Erskine was 10, he started playing with a Black boy named Jimmy Wilson. “We started playing in the lower grades, playing basketball,” he said. So, having Black teammates he said, again, “wasn’t much of an event for me.”
The acquisition of Black players did have one significant consequence for Brooklyn.
Golenbock said, “O’Malley didn’t mind Black players, he let Branch Rickey do his thing, until he finally bought out the third team owner, (John L.) Smith, and took over the team and got rid of Rickey. What he couldn’t abide was in the 1950s that there was White flight from Brooklyn. A lot of Whites were moving to Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey and replacing them were lots of African-Americans and Latinos. He was in his limo, with his pr guy (Irving Rudd)…I interviewed the pr guy. He (Rudd) said to me, when he saw for instance at the race track, they were driving past it, and all he (O’Malley) could see were Black faces, he was not happy about that, and so, in his (Rudd’s) opinion, the reason the Dodgers moved out of Brooklyn were the Whites moving out and Blacks moving in. So on the one hand he didn’t mind having Black players who could win pennants, but he certainly did mind having a team in a borough that was predominately Black.”
In addition to Roseboro and Gilliam, other Black players signed by the Dodgers while they were still in Brooklyn helped the team win pennants and championships into the 1960s: Maury Wills, Tommy Davis, and Charlie Neal.
But the legacy of the Brooklyn Dodgers remains.