Breaking the barrier: Integrating the major leagues one team at a time 1947-1959

Public domain

by Steven GoldmanThanks to Branch Rickey’s determination, baseball began to do away with America’s long-enshrined doctrine that the races could be separate and yet equal years before the government began to chip away at Jim Crow. Jackie Robinson shattered baseball’s 58-year-old "gentleman’s agreement" to exclude black players more than a year before President Harry Truman ordered the army be desegregated, seven years before the Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, and 17 years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination.

As that timeline suggests, the country’s path to a fully integrated society was halting and difficult. When the Supreme Court’s unanimously decided in Brown v. Board of Ed that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," Mississippi’s Senator James Eastland declared, "On May 17, 1954, the Constitution of the United States was destroyed because of the Supreme Court's decision. You are not obliged to obey the decisions of any court which are plainly fraudulent sociological considerations." For a long time thereafter, despite the Court’s subsequent order that desegregation occur "with all deliberate speed," many parts of the country did everything they could, including resort to violence, to show they shared Eastland’s contempt for the decision and the concept of equal rights in general.

Baseball was the same way. Some teams quickly embraced integration, be it for moral reasons, competitive advantage, or box office potential, but others, particularly the American League’s old guard, had to be subjected to relentless public pressure before they would give their fans teams comprised of the best athletes available, rather than only those acceptable to the most base prejudices of the community. The color line was not shattered once, but over and over again, and the process continues to this day. The 17 players listed below, the first black players on each of their respective teams, should not be seen as the end result of desegregation, but rather it’s beginning.

By putting on their team’s uniforms, these men brought a touch of truth to a lie -- that the only measure of a man in baseball was not where his parents were born, what God he prayed to, or what he looked like, but how well he played.

Jackie Robinson

Second Base | Brooklyn Dodgers | April 15

In breaking the color line, Robinson didn’t liberate one race, but two, and his total has been going up ever since. African Americans and non-white Latinos were obviously injured by the game’s institutional racism, but white players, even those like Ted Williams, who railed against segregation, were demeaned by it as well: There is an invisible asterisk next to the names of all the participants in lilywhite baseball, with a legend that says, "Played against not the best competition, but the best white competition." We mourn that we will never know how many home runs Josh Gibson would have hit playing 154 games a year against the best players of his times, but we will also never know the same about Babe Ruth. That’s only one of Robinson’s many legacies, the best of which may be that each time a race or nationality clamors to play, it’s seen as a welcome novelty, not a crisis or a threat. Robinson himself put it best: "The way I figured it, I was even with baseball and baseball with me. The game had done much for me, and I had done much for it."

Larry Doby

Outfield | Cleveland Indians | July 5

Effa Manley, the owner of the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles, told Indians owner Bill Veeck, "If Doby were white and a free agent, you’d give him $100,000 to sign." She might have been selling him short, even if few others saw it that way at first. "Doby is being exploited" wrote a white Cleveland sportswriter in 1947, "not because he is a rookie with a chance to make good, but because he is a Negro." The next year, Doby hit .301/.384/.490 during the regular season and hit a home run in the World Series.

Though second, his road was no less difficult than Robinson’s and in some ways might have been harder: the impulsive Veeck had spent less time building support within his organization for his pioneering player than Rickey had for his, making Doby, at least at first, a man without a country. That was nothing new: "There was nobody for me to identify with," Doby said of his childhood. "You couldn’t say, ‘I’m going to be a major league ballplayer like these people,’ because… you never thought black people would ever play baseball in the major leagues."

Hank Thompson

Third base | St. Louis Browns | July 17

The St. Louis-based Sporting News, a cheerleader for racism at the time, ripped the Browns for signing Thompson and Willard Brown (who made his debut later), accusing them of "promotional gimmickry." Browns ownership admitted it hoped "these colored boys will help us at the gate," but as with so many things, the self-proclaimed "Bible of Baseball" was wrong -- Thompson wasn’t a star, but he was a strong hitter at third base, averaging .267/.372/.453 for his career. Alcoholism and a penchant for violence meant a quick decline and a rough aftermath to his career, but he was good enough to integrate two teams and start in two World Series.

Hank Thompson

Third Base | New York Giants | July 8

Although primarily a third baseman, Thompson was athletic enough to spot around the diamond. When Willie Mays went into the army in 1952, manager Leo Durocher felt comfortable putting Thompson in center for 51 games. In 1953, with Mays still in khaki, Thompson hit .302/.400/.567 in 114 games. Thompson clearly had the physical skill to be great, but other things got in the way. "Nothing was ever more serious than baseball," he said, then corrected himself: "Yes, one thing. Drink."

Sam Jethroe

Outfield | Boston Braves | April 18

"It looks as if we have come up with the speediest player since Tyrus Raymond Cobb hung up the spikes," said Braves GM John Quinn upon acquiring Jethroe from the Dodgers. Already 33 (and rumored to be older) in his rookie year, Jethroe played only three full seasons in the majors and led the NL in steals in two of them. In his career he was successful in 98 of 120 stolen base attempts. "The bases aren’t any farther apart in the majors," Jethroe said, explaining his success.

An all-around threat who had power and patience as well as speed, fans tended to focus on his poor defensive instincts, weak throwing arm, and a perceived lack of hustle, missing the abundant positives -- and his isolation: Branch Rickey told Quinn that Jethroe, "needed a companion," but the Braves didn’t listen, and loneliness played as much a part as age and injury in driving Jethroe back to the minors. Robinson may have preceded him, Jethroe said, but integrating the Braves, "was still a hard thing to go through."

Minnie Minoso

Outfield | Chicago White Sox | May 1

You could be from Cuba and play in the majors prior to 1947 provided you were light-skinned enough. The Washington Senators heavily scouted the island and brought up many players, including Bobby Estallella (grandfather of the backstop who played in the majors from 1996-2004), who may very well have qualified as black according to the definitions of the time -- Estallela was understandably noncommittal on the subject. Minoso was the first black Latino to break the color line. One of the most versatile players of his day, Minoso could do it all -- hit for average and power, take a walk, fly around the bases, and was a Gold Glove defender in left field. His approach was to crowd the plate and dare opposing pitchers to throw inside and risk hitting him, and hit him they did -- 192 times. "That don’t scare Minnie," lamented Yankees manager Casey Stengel. Minoso hit .298/.389/.459 in the majors and, thanks to cameos in 1976 and 1980, was the only player to appear in five decades.

Sam Hairston

Catcher | Chicago White Sox | July 21

Because Minoso was Cuban, some reserve the breaking of the White Sox color line to Mississippian Sam Hairston, father and grandfather of major leaguers, including Jerry Hairston of the Dodgers and Scott Hairston of the Cubs. Hairston was ahead of Minoso at breaking the color line within the White Sox organization; Minoso was subsequently acquired from the Indians. A catcher for the Indianapolis Clowns, he won the Negro American League’s triple crown in 1950 hitting .424 with 17 home runs and 71 RBI in a 70-game season. His stats in the integrated minors, where he played for the White Sox until he was 40, look more like those of your prototypical catch-and-throw backstop. Receiving a only a cup of coffee in the majors, he went on to a long career as a scout. In that role, he had the pleasure of signing his son Jerry.

Bob Trice

Pitcher | Philadelphia A's | September 13

By the time Trice made his debut with the dregs of Connie Mack’s once-great A’s, Jackie Robinson was a week away from completing his seventh season in the majors and teams that had been in the vanguard of egalitarian baseball had already gone back for seconds and thirds, with players such as Satchel Paige, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Luke Easter hard at work winning games for their teams; we’re deep in no-excuse territory with still more than half the majors to go. Mack’s concession to integration was to hire Negro Leagues great Judy Johnson as a scout. Johnson took his job seriously and brought the A’s Doby and Minoso. Mack refused to sign them. If he had, Johnson said later, "the A’s would still be in Philadelphia." "I have been advised there are not many Negro boys playing baseball," Mack said limply in 1949.

Trice pitched two seasons for the Homestead Grays before joining the A’s organization, earning a call-up by winning both the International League’s Pitcher of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards for Ottawa in 1953. Nevertheless, Trice could never get established in the majors, at one point asking to be sent back to Ottawa. "Since I cannot seem to win in my present frame of mind," he said, "the team shouldn’t miss me." Vic Power would become the team’s first black regular in 1954.

Ernie Banks

Shortstop | Chicago Cubs | September 17

It was Gene Baker’s Kansas City Monarchs teammate Satchel Paige who said, "Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you." In Baker’s case, it was Banks in the rearview mirror. Baker preceded Banks as the Monarchs’ shortstop and signed with the Cubs first. He made his way to the Pacific Coast League, and there he stayed, though the Cubs were desperate for a shortstop. Baker appeared to have won a job during spring training in 1953, but was sent down anyway. "They are a year away," Sam Lacey wrote in the Baltimore Afro-American. "Banks will be a year away when he is 60." Cracks liked that helped pressure the Cubs into making a change, and the 22-year-old future "Mr. Cub" was signed to give Baker someone to talk to. "Gee whiz," Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley complained, "we are bringing up one Negro player. Why go out and get another one?" Briefly injured Baker watched from the bench as Banks became the first African American Cub. Later, the two would team as the first all-black double-play combination.

Wrigley had defended forcing Negro Leaguers to stay on the farm. "You don’t start at the top in any business," he said. Banks went right from the Monarchs to the majors, revealing that Wrigley’s position wasn’t meritocratic, but in fact its exact opposite.

Curt Roberts

Second Base | Pittsburgh Pirates | April 13

It took Branch Rickey becoming the Pirates’ GM for the club to integrate. Roberts began in the Negro Leagues with the Monarchs. When he debuted in the white minors with Denver of the Western League, pitchers tried to turn him into the baseball equivalent of a pin-cushion, hitting him as many as four times in one game. To their credit, major league pitchers hit him only twice. Roberts operated under different handicaps in the majors: First, in his haste to rebuild the miserable Pirates, Rickey rushed Roberts up from A-Ball, and he wasn’t ready. Second, he couldn’t see what he was doing. Roberts hit .219/.280/.285 in the first half, then put cheaters on and improved to .248/.341/.324 the rest of the way. It wasn’t enough for him to keep his job, or maybe it was the 24 errors he made at second base that was his undoing. He spent most of the next nine years in the minors, where he would compile a .293 career average.

Tom Alston

First Base | St. Louis Cardinals | April 13

St. Louis was still a segregated city when Tom Alston broke in with the Cardinals. All credit then to owner Gussie Busch, who purchased a lilywhite club ("We were… a team for the South," said former owner Fred Saigh), announced "a new policy with regard to Negro ballplayers," and bought Alston from San Diego of the Pacific Coast League for a reported $125,000.

The intention was noble, but the execution was poor -- though a strapping 6’5" first baseman, Alston was more of a glove man than a slugger. "Three-T-Tom" ("Tall, tan, and terrific") was also already 28, older than his listed age. That was two strikes on Alston, the third being his isolation on a team not known for its progressive attitude. "I think we have a real player in this colored boy," said manager Eddie Stanky. Comments like that, however well-intentioned, probably didn’t help. The Cards brought up pitcher Brooks Ulysses "Bull" Lawrence in June, in part to keep Alston company. Lawrence reported that Alston would go to the plate pleading with himself, repeating, "I can hit, I can hit, I can hit." Some sources say he had psychological problems, others a thyroid disease. Whatever the cause his stay in the majors was brief and unhappy.

Nino Escalera

Utility | Cincinnati Reds | April 17

Santurnino Escalera of Puerto Rico was the first black player in Reds history, though because he was Latino rather than African American, those that like to parse these things sometimes identify the barrier-breaking player as Chuck Harmon. Both players made their major league debuts in the top of the 7th inning of the same game, both as pinch-hitters, one right after the other -- Escalera went first. A .271/.348/.380 career hitter at Triple-A, the outfielder got only a brief trial with the Reds and hit .159 in a reserve role. Though he remained in the minors through 1962, he never received another call.

Chuck Harmon

Utility | Cincinnati Reds | April 17

Harmon got more of a trial than Escalera, playing semi-regularly in a utility role in both 1954 and 1955. The two rose through the Reds chain together, and in Tulsa shared the experience of being evicted from a "white’s only" cab by a policeman -- Rickey thought ahead enough to give Robinson his minor league trial in Montreal instead of forcing him on the team’s Double-A team at Mobile, Alabama, but most of the other teams didn’t care about the effect that coping not just with baseball but the Jim Crow South might have had on their players. Thus was Hank Aaron sent to Jacksonville, Dick Allen to Little Rock, and so on. The resultant scars were real and lasting. Still, the Reds and their fans were welcoming. "I can’t remember anyone saying anything offensive to me," Harmon told Jules Tygiel. Added outfielder Bob Thurman, who joined the team the next year, "You talk about a family. That’s the greatest set of guys you ever wanted to be around. They didn’t think nothing about any color."

Carlos Paula

Outfield | Washington Senators | September 6

The Senators are remembered as a perennial second-division team, but in the early years of Clark Griffith’s ownership they won three pennants. After that it was mostly downhill, at first because of the club’s resistance to the first of Rickey’s innovations, the farm system, then because they refused to embrace the second, integration. They were, however, ahead of the curve in one area, scouting Cuba. That didn’t profit them nearly as much as it could have because of ownership’s bigotry. Calvin Griffith explained his decision to relocate the team to Minneapolis-St. Paul: Washington had become a majority black city. "I'll tell you why we came to Minnesota. It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here," he said. "Black people don't go to ballgames… We came here because you've got good, hardworking white people here."

Paula was the team’s half-hearted concession to new realities. Observed Shirley Povich of the Washington Post: "Mr. Griffith would give Washington fans dark players from other lands, but never an American Negro." Paula played regularly in 1955, hitting .299/.332/.447 (.335/.361/.513 away from the team’s tough home park), but as a butcher in the field and a sucker for off-speed pitches, was soon back in the minors for good.

Elston Howard

Catcher/Outfield | New York Yankees | April 15

The Yankees’ elderly manager used racist language but wasn’t a racist (admittedly a thin distinction), general manager George Weiss spoke more politely, at least in public, but was one. All the while, the Yankees insisted that it was a lack of qualified candidates, not racism, that kept the team purely white. When the outspoken Vic Power (told by a restaurant manager that he didn’t serve black people, Power responded, "That’s okay -- I don’t eat black people") put up dominant hitting performances in the high minors, it seemed that the Yankees would either have to promote him or admit their intolerance. They traded him instead, and the claim that it was a pure baseball move fooled no one. "But, but, but" the Yankees stuttered, "we still have Ellie Howard!" At that point, the integration of the Yankees became assured, but taking no chances, Howard won the International League MVP award in 1954.

Strong but soft-spoken, Howard had to overcome a position change from the outfield to catcher, which allowed the club to use Yogi Berra as an excuse to keep him on the bench, and the way Yankee Stadium’s dimensions killed right-handed hitters – in his career he hit 53 home runs in the Bronx, 114 in other parks. Nonetheless, he made the All-Star team in nine seasons and was voted the 1963 AL MVP. The Yankees would not add a second African American player until after Weiss’s forced retirement in 1960.

John Kennedy

Shortstop| Philadelphia Phillies | April 22

Jackie Robinson had completed his major-league career and retired by the time the Phillies broke the color line. The club that made itself infamous for its vocal harassment of Robinson in his rookie season stayed true to segregation, owner Bob Carpenter using the same tired excuses as the other hold-outs, bemoaning the lack of qualified candidates and insisting they would not "exploit" black players by adding them, "merely for the sake of doing so." Instead, he sent the NAACP a list of 43 minority employees of the club; all of them were in menial positions.

When Robinson announced his retirement, he took a parting shot at the Phillies, Tigers, and Red Sox: "If 13 major league teams can come up with colored players, why can’t the other three?" The Phillies responded by signing Kennedy, a 30-year-old non prospect, giving him five games and two at-bats before kicking him off the roster. The tokenism was obvious: almost all of the early black players were stars because undeniable ability was the only way to force their teams to promote them. As Yankees GM Weiss said, the first black Yankee must be "worth waiting for." By that standard, a team could sign all the black players it wanted and wait forever. Cubans Chico Fernandez, Pancho Herrera, and Tony Taylor were subsequently given more sincere trials with the Phillies.

Ossie Virgil

Utility| Detroit Tigers | June 6

Sportswriter Wendell Smith described Tigers owner Walter Briggs as, "Oh so very prejudiced. He’s the major league combination of Simon Legree and Adolf Hitler." Briggs would die without integrating the Tigers. Six years on, it took a threatened boycott of the team to bring Dominican utility infielder Virgil, father of 1980s Phillies catcher Ozzie Virgil, to the majors. A .231/.263/.331 career hitter Virgil spent parts of three seasons with the team. Larry Doby, who briefly joined the Tigers in 1959, was the club’s first African American. Second baseman Jake Woods became the team’s first African American regular in 1961, but it wasn’t until the emergence of Willie Horton in 1965 that the team had its first black star. Aside from two second place finishes, the Tigers were not competitive from 1948 through 1965.

Pumpsie Green

Infield | Boston Red Sox | July 21

Tom Yawkey’s Red Sox were the last team to integrate. Eddie Collins, Yawkey’s vice-president from 1933 through his death in 1951, wrote in 1945 that, "I have been connected with the Red Sox for twelve years and during that time I we have never had a single request for a tryout by a colored applicant. It is beyond my understanding how anyone can insinuate that all ballplayers, regardless of race, color, or creed, have not been treated in the American way as far as having an equal opportunity to play with the Red Sox." Calling Collins’ bluff, Wendell Smith arranged to bring Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams to Fenway to try out. As the coaches put the players through drills, someone -- it might have been Yawkey, Collins, or manager Joe Cronin, none of whom were participating -- shouted, "Get those niggers off the field!" The Sox never followed up with the players, and later passed on Willie Mays as well.

Carl Yastrzemski remembered Yawkey whining, "Don’t you think I’d rather have signed a Willie Mays instead of a Gary Geiger?" This was a self-justifying lie. While Yawkey was too smart to say much else about the club’s racial attitude, his drinking buddy/manager/general manager Pinky Higgins was unashamed to make his position clear, saying, "There’ll be no niggers on this ballclub as long as I have anything to say about it." He tried to derail even utility infielder Green’s promotion, but by then the voices of protest were too loud -- and Yawkey needed civic leaders on his side for a new ballpark.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox suffered on the field for lack of talent. There was no Curse of the Bambino, just the Curse of Yawkey’s Bigotry. Green was ill-suited to break it, being a player of modest abilities and temperament. The club would be without African American stars until the arrival of George Scott and Reggie Smith in 1966 -- it was no coincidence that the Red Sox went to the World Series for the first time in 21 years the next season.

The struggle for freedom belongs to no one generation, but continues for all time. As we have seen, Jackie Robinson caused institutionalized racism in baseball to bend, but it was many years before it would break. For years there was an unwritten rule that a team could not field a majority black lineup, and then that it could not field an all-black lineup (the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first team to do this in 1971). Thirty years after Robinson broke the color line, Dodgers executive Al Campanis declared on national television that blacks, "may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager." There has been great progress since, and baseball can point with pride to minority managers and general managers holding World Series trophies in recent years. Still, Jackie Robinson Day is a living holiday, not a remembrance of some long-ago event, but a notification that these ghosts rest uneasily, and the work they began will never be finished.

Sources: Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston (Howard Bryant); The Cardinals Encyclopedia (Mike Eisenbath); Mind Game (Steven Goldman, ed.); Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964 (Peter Golenbock); Wrigleyville (Peter Golenbock); To Everything a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia (Bruce Kuklick); The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball (Jonathan Fraser Light); Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947-1959 (Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt); The Biographical Encyclopedia of Negro Leagues Baseball (James A. Riley); I Never Had It Made (Jackie Robinson); Get That Nigger Off the Field (Art Rust, Jr.); Beyond the Shadow of the Senators (Brad Snyder); The Cubs: The Complete Story of Chicago Cubs Baseball (Glenn Stout); The Integration of Baseball in Philadelphia (Christopher Threston); Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (Jules Tygiel).

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