BY JOHN ROSSI
The travails of the early years of baseball’s efforts to integrate have been well documented. Professional baseball executives and players had known since the early years of the sport that African Americans could play the game at a high level of sophistication. Yet, all efforts to integrate professional baseball failed before the racial prejudice that remained powerful in the nation until World War II. Various excuses were given for why baseball could not integrate even when the Negro Leagues of the 1930s and early 1940s demonstrated great skill at the game. Branch Rickey, who would later play the key role in integrating baseball, took a dim view of the Negro Leagues (before raiding them) labeling them a “booking agent’s racket” and even suggesting that African American players lacked a sense of discipline, though some possessed skills that matched those of major leaguers. That mindset changed dramatically, however, as World War II came to an end.
Professional baseball rightly has been criticized for its failure to integrate earlier, but I believe a case can be made that baseball achieved a degree of integration that was superior to most other branches of American society. The record of African American integration in baseball in the generation after World War II compares favorably with that achieved in education, politics, the church, business, or any other sport. Between Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier and the 1962 season, baseball’s pace of integration was impressive. According to the Sporting News Guide for the 1962 season, there were approximately sixty-four players on Major League rosters that were either African American or Latin Blacks – or 14.5%, a figure that compared favorably to the nation’s 11% African American population at the time.
When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a professional contract in October 1945, he ended six decades of baseball segregation. His motives were mixed, a blend of idealism and opportunism. He was sincere in wanting to end segregation, whose evils he had witnessed as a college coach; but he also recognized that what it would mean to his Dodger organization when he tapped into America’s last great reservoir of baseball talent. The Dodger record over the next twenty years validated his choice: ten pennants and four World Series titles.
Rickey’s signing of Robinson and his success first in the minors, where he led Montreal to a pennant while winning a batting title, and then during his rookie season, which saw him lead the league in stolen bases and named Rookie of the Year, insured that integration would come. During Robinson’s first season, 1947, other owners took tentative steps to integrate African American players. The St. Louis Browns, desperate to shore up a weak franchise that could not compete with the popular Cardinals team, signed two talented Negro League players: Willard Brown and Hank Thompson.
Brown, a power hitter, could not adjust to the pressure of playing in the majors – although he hit the first homer by an African American player in the American League, an inside the park blast against Hal Newhouser, one of baseball’s most talented pitchers. Thompson played in twenty-six games at second and hit a respectable .256 for the Browns; but he returned to the Negro Leagues for further seasoning. He joined the New York Giants in 1949 and had a respectable career as an infielder, hitting .300 in 1953 and crushing 26 homers the next season when the Giants won the World Series.
Nineteen forty-seven also saw Bill Veeck of the Cleveland Indians make his first effort at integration, an idea about which he had long talked. He signed Larry Doby, one of the Negro Leagues’ best outfielders, to a contract (but played him in only a handful of games that season). Doby would make his impact the next season, hitting .300 for the first time and helping Cleveland win the World Series. Doby hit the first home run by an African American in World Series history.
The successes of Robinson and Doby slowly broke the ice. Sensing the talent available, Major League owners began to follow in Rickey’s footsteps and raid the Negro Leagues. Between 1947 and 1953, 35 Negro Leaguers entered the Majors. The quality was high. Thirteen would be named to All-Star teams while eight reached the Hall of Fame: Robinson, Doby, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, Satchel Paige, and Minnie Minoso. The pace of integration was slow but steady.
Cleveland's Larry Doby (Getty)
In 1950, just three years after Robinson broke the color barrier, there were nine African Americans in the Majors, 20 in 1953, 36 by 1957, and 64 in 1961. The figure would have been higher, but as the Negro Leagues died out a form of tokenism prevailed. There was an unwritten agreement among Major League owners to limit the number of African Americans on any team. Doby remembers first becoming aware of the quota during spring training 1951. The Indians had four African American players capable of making the team: Doby, Luke Easter, a power hitting first baseman, Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, a talented outfielder, and a multi-skilled 27-year-old rookie, Minnie Minoso.
Before the season began, Cleveland GM, Hank Greenberg, traded Minoso in a complicated three-way deal to the Chicago White Sox and got washed-up left-handed pitcher, Lou Brissie, in return. Greenberg justified the deal on the grounds that he preferred the long ball hitting Simpson to Minoso; but that, of course, generates the question: why not keep both?
Moreover, those African Americans who did reach the Majors had to be superior to their White counterparts. There were few benchwarmers among them. Don Newcombe, when pitching for the Dodgers, noted that you did not “see too many black substitutes, either you were a regular or you didn’t get on the team.” Aaron Rosenblatt analyzed the record of African American players in the mid-50s and found they hit anywhere from .012 to .031 higher than White players. He noted there were not enough African American pitchers, however, at that time for a pitching analysis, which he believed reflected another prejudice of the time – i.e., African Americans did poorly at positions that required analytical thought: pitcher, catcher, or shortstop. They were better at the instinctive side of baseball, hitting and base running.
The pace of integration was slow until 1954 (interestingly the year of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. the Board of Education decision), reflecting the emerging national consensus that segregation was wrong morally and practically. Five teams integrated that year: the Pirates, Cardinals, and Reds in the National League and the Yankees and Washington in the American League. Most of these players were journeymen. Elston Howard, however, who joined the Yankees as a backup to Yogi Berra, would prove to be a top catcher and would be the first African American to win a MVP award in 1963.
(Original Caption) Yogi Berra is hugged by teammate Elston Howard following Berra's ninth-inning walk-off home run against the Boston Red Sox, defeating them at Yankee Stadium, 5-4. Berra's homer, which followed Hank Bauer's tying run, was his second in the game.
Only three teams after 1954 were not integrated: the Phillies, Detroit, and the Red Sox. All three teams were in cities with a large African American population but also with reputations for hostility to integration. The Athletics, who left Philadelphia after the 1954 campaign, had added African American players before the Phillies but without much success. Pitcher Bob Trice had a “cup of coffee” in September 1953 and pitched in 1954 without success. The A’s traded for Vic Power in 1954 but he made little impression, hitting just .255, before becoming a star the year after with the A’s in Kansas City.
According to some sources, the A’s reluctance to sign African American players was costly. William “Judy” Johnson, who was an African American scout for the A’s, claims that at one time or another Connie Mack was offered the services of Doby and Minoso. Johnson also claims that the A’s could have bought Hank Aaron’s contract from the Negro Leagues for $3500. If Mack had signed these players, said Johnson, “the A’s would still be in Philadelphia.”
The final integration of baseball in the City of Brotherly Love smacked of tokenism. Responding to pressure from political figures and from the local chapter of the NAACP, who accused the team of harboring “anti-Negro feelings,” the Phillies signed a minor league infielder, John Kennedy, as their first African American player. He played exactly five games and got two at-bats in 1957.
Detroit’s and Boston’s record was not much better than that of the Phillies. Detroit, despite having a large African American population, had dragged its feet integrating the team. They added reserve infielder Ozzie Virgil to their roster in 1958 and he played in sixty-two games, hitting a respectable .272. The Red Sox had the distinction of being the last team to integrate and their action was the purest of tokenism, Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Green, who was little more than a bench warmer.
Baseball’s integration was complete by the end of the 1950s but a closer look at those African American and Latino players signed shows the disparity in talent between the two leagues. The best players were in the National League, including Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Curt Flood, and Orlando Cepeda, to mention just a few. The best African American players who joined the American League were Elston Howard, Earl Battey, Vic Power, and Jim “Mudcat” Grant. Talented players all, but both literally and figuratively not in the same league as the National Leaguers.
(Original Caption) Actress Doris Day munches hot dog as Jim ``Mudcat`` Grant looks on during World Series game.
Another way of looking at the imbalance between the two leagues is to check out the records of the World Series and All-Star games during the period 1947-1961. After winning three consecutive victories, 1946-48, the American League teams lost ten of the next fourteen games. (There were two All-Star Games from 1959 through 1962). Similar results can be found in the records of the World Series. The American League, really the New York Yankees, won seven consecutive World Series titles between 1949 and 1953.
Beginning in 1954, the National League won five of the next eight series with African American and Latin players like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente playing a significant role. This dominance of the National League would continue into the 1970s when the American League began developing talent such as Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, Willie Horton, and Luis Tiant, among others.
By any measure, the record of African American players was a major factor in the superior quality of play in Major League Baseball in the first generation after integration. By one admittedly imprecise count there were 64 Black players, or 14.5% of the total on Major League rosters in 1961. This at a time when the African American population of the United States was 11%. Also, that year saw Gene Baker named as the first African American named to manage a minor league team, Pittsburgh’s Batavia Pirates.
Baseball, with all its history of racism, was still ahead of other major sports in integration with the possible exception of professional boxing. Pro football and pro basketball were both slower to integrate than baseball. Football would not produce its first great African American player until the early 50s when Cleveland signed the running back Marion Motley, while basketball signed its first African American, Nate Clinton, in 1950, three years after Robinson’s signing. In a significant way, baseball, the nation’s historic and popular major sport, played a vital role in reconciling the races in the years after World War II. The on-field performances of Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and others gave Americans of all races a new group of heroes to cheer. Not a bad epitaph for any sport.