Black History Month: the first on each team

One opportunity I would never pass up would be the chance to edit a baseball book on the Negro Leagues. Hope springs eternal. What talents, what characters, what baseball.

For now, let’s celebrate Black History Month by highlighting a part of the history not everyone understands: the ultimate integration. Until 1961, the white major leagues comprised sixteen teams, eight in each league. Their integration didn’t all happen at once just because Jackie Robinson showed up, kept his temper for a year, and excelled in the face of every form of disrespect anyone could send in his direction. It actually took twelve years, and some teams made themselves look pretty bad by the length of their dawdling.

Twelve years? Seriously. Yet it’s true. Children born the day Jackie Robinson first took the field for Brooklyn were near puberty by the time the Boston Red Sox finally caved.

I do not think that most baseball enthusiasts today stop to consider what it meant that, six years after Jackie Robinson and with talents like Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Larry Doby, and Roy Campanella sparkling on the field, only half the teams in the white major leagues had fielded a player of sub-Saharan African heritage.

(A note on terms. Many Cubans, Dominicans, etc. are of African heritage, but calling them African American is not correct unless we’re defining everyone on both continents as American. So if you would define a black Falkland Islander or Ecuadorean or Canadian as ‘African American,’ be my guest and replace every use of “black” with “African American” as you read. My point is that most people don’t think as they replace one term with another. I once heard Nelson Mandela described as “a brave African American.” Brave, no doubt–but Mandela was an African African, for pete’s sake, and the speaker’s mindlessness was unbecoming the subject.)

No disrespect to Moses Fleetwood Walker and the other black ballplayers of the late 1800s, who played and then were barred as the whole country tilted toward discriminatory practices. The subject matter here is the integration, or re-integration on some level, of the sixteen modern pre-expansion-era (1903-1960) AL/NL teams begun by Jackie Robinson.

Let’s pay tribute to those pioneers, some famous and some not, and talk a bit about their careers and outcomes. Some are familiar only to baseball buffs, but each was a groundbreaker and deserves our respectful memory. The question is not always straightforward because, well, define “black.” If it means a single drop of subsaharan African heritage, well, that’s a lot of really white-looking people including me–but had I lived then and been able to throw like Satchel Paige, I don’t think I’d have had any trouble getting a legit shot at making a 1930s AL/NL roster. As lots of Afro-Caribbean folks will tell you, it’s quite possible to be black and Cuban, black and Dominican, black and Bahamian, and so on. At times, some Afro-Caribbean players were able to sort of “pass” in the US baseball world. The entire distinction shows up the inherent silliness of stressing over people’s racial origin, degree of skin color, and so on. The main distinction, the one society tries not to draw because it brings into focus an uncomfortable truth, is that you’re considered black if you’re treated like you’re black. Makes me wonder what sort of hassles Rachel Dolezal endured before she came out as white.

Of these seventeen (we will get into why there are not sixteen), four are in the Baseball Hall of Fame: Robinson, Doby, Irvin, and Banks. I think one can make a great case for Miñoso; Howard, perhaps and perhaps not. Still, four out of seventeen is quite the haul–testimony to the level of talent of which the white major leagues had deprived their fans for decades. If you wanted to win ballgames, and knowing nothing else, you knew there was a one-in-fourish chance your new guy would become a legend, you’d give him a try yesterday. Of tens of thousands of big league ballplayers who have taken the field since the game went professional, some 300+ are Hall of Famers–maybe one in a hundred. Even if common sense told you that one out of four of those who might follow your rookie wasn’t going to be Ernie Banks, they would still have your fascinated attention. It doesn’t take very many great players to transform a baseball club.

In order of the date of first appearance, here are the first black players to take the field for each AL or NL team:

Brooklyn Dodgers (NL): Jackie Robinson, April 15, 1947. He is perhaps the player least needing introduction for the most obvious reasons, but the thing to realize is that he was 28 in 1947. He did everything well, enough to make one wonder what his .311 lifetime NL batting average might have been had it included seven more of his prime playing years. He did everything at an All-Star level except pitch. For many aspiring black American ballplayers, the Dodger jersey would become a revered symbol of everything Robinson and integration meant to them, and to grow up to wear that uniform onto a ballfield would be a motivational dream. I remember when Robinson passed away (1972, age 53), entirely too young, and one could feel the sense of loss throughout the game.

Cleveland Indians (AL): Larry Doby, July 5, 1947. As the first black player in the American League, Doby deserves more notice than he tends to receive. He deserves better. Breaking in at 23, his AL career lasted until 1959 and included seven All-Star selections. Hitting .283 with good power over that timeframe, he was an asset to three AL teams over his tenure. Not only was he the second black player in the AL/NL, but he later became the second black manager. Doby lived to be 79, standing his ground to the end of his days.

St. Louis Browns (AL; today, the Baltimore Orioles): Hank Thompson, July 17, 1947. A veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, Hank debuted at the age of 21. Thompson was a capable if unspectacular contributor to the New York Giants of the early 1950s, hitting .267 for his career and having a number of notable moments; for example, very few players have hit two inside-the-park homers in a single game. By 30 he was out of baseball, and he died of a seizure at the untimely age of 43. The Browns would be the last team of 1947 to begin integration, and the last until 1949.

New York Giants (NL; today, the San Francisco Giants): Hank Thompson (previously mentioned) and Monte Irvin, July 8, 1949. Yes, they both played on the same day, making Thompson the only player to be the first African American on two different teams. (The Giants were visiting Brooklyn, so they batted first, and Thompson hit leadoff; Irvin appeared as a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth). Monte Irvin, another former combat engineer veteran of the Bulge, was 30 that day he got his NL chance, but he made the most of his time with an NL career batting average of .293 and a frightening clip of .458 in the 1952 World Series. A famously pleasant man, Irvin remained close to the game for most of his very long life (96 years).

Boston Braves (NL; today, the Atlanta Braves): Sam Jethroe, April 18, 1950. “Jet” broke in at the age of 33 after a long and impressive Negro Leagues career. He played only three full seasons for the Braves, showing the logic behind his nickname by twice leading the NL in stolen bases. A better hitter and runner than he was a fielder, he was nonetheless a groundbreaker in Boston in that Boston’s other team, the Red Sox, would gain infamy by being the very last integrated AL team. Jet passed in 2001, living to be 84.

Chicago White Sox (AL): Minnie Miñoso, May 1, 1951. One of the steadiest ballplayers of the 1950s and 1960s, the Cuban-born Miñoso’s .298 lifetime batting average barely begins to tell the whole story of this remarkable ballplayer. He got his first taste of AL action at 23 with Cleveland, but became a regular with the Sox in 1951 (hitting .326, making Cleveland’s trading him look awful). He led the AL in hits once, doubles once, triples three times, stolen bases three times, and being hit by pitches ten times. Three Golden Gloves, an award that only began when he was 31. A fan and teammate favorite, he remained a steady hitter in the Mexican League as late as the age of 47. He lived to be 89, remaining close to the game and the White Sox for the rest of his days.

Pittsburgh Pirates (NL): Carlos Bernier, April 22, 1953. On this list, he was the first man I’d never heard of until I began this project. A career minor leaguer who played only one statistically unremarkable year in the NL, Bernier might be more famous for the controversy that came to attend his trip to the bigs, in that–in a classic case of “who decides who’s black?”–MLB doesn’t recognize the Puerto Rican-born Bernier as a black man. Evidently Bernier identified as black. If you want to go with MLB, the first black Pirate would be Curt Roberts (1954), but I mean no slight to Roberts or his accomplishment when I say that I’m not buying MLB’s arbiter-of-blackness authority. Bernier died at age 62, sadly by suicide.

Philadelphia Athletics (AL; today, the Oakland A’s): Bob Trice, September 13, 1953. By now, note well, it had been six years since Jackie Robinson who–like everyone else previously named on this list except Jethroe–was still active in 1953. At this point, even the most die-hard illusionist had to admit that keeping black players out of the NL/AL was not merely bigotry but self-sabotage. Trice was also the first first-timer on this list to enter as a pitcher, though he would turn out to be a better hitter (.288) than pitcher (9-9, 5.80) in a three-year AL career that began when he was 26. He didn’t set the league on fire, but neither did anyone else on the A’s staff (if one did, they farmed him up to the Yankees). A sore shoulder was a downer; not long after that, he actually asked to return to the minors. His mojo never really came back for keeps. Trice passed away at the age of 62.

Chicago Cubs (NL): Ernie Banks, September 17, 1953. Well, this one’s pretty easy. Everyone’s heard of Ernie Banks. His only detractor ever was Leo Durocher, who had a detractor or two of his own. In Chicago the churches relax their idolatry rules a little bit for Banks. Entering the National League at 22, he played until he was forty. A power-hitting shortstop (rare find, that), he rarely missed a game until his last couple of years. One Gold Glove, two NL home run crowns, two MVP awards, 512 career homers…well, it’s not hard to see why Chicago so loves this career Cub. Ernie’s talent is testimony to the kind of baseball the white major leagues could have enjoyed watching much sooner had they not been merely the white major leagues. He passed in 2015, aged 83.

St. Louis Cardinals (NL): Tom Alston, April 13, 1954. Seven years into integration, it was starting to get awkward for the holdouts. Those who owned breweries, like Gussie Busch, stood to lose a lot of business if black customers voted with their wallets. The result was the Cards signing 28-year-old Alston, a rangy first baseman. While he didn’t set the league on fire, he did play about half of 1954 and had brief returns to the Cardinals over the following three seasons. Alston lived to be 67, passing on in 1993.

Cincinnati Redlegs (NL; today, the Cincinnati Reds): Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon, April 17, 1954. I actually had to go back and dig up which entered the game first; both were pinch hitters, with Escalera hitting for catcher Andy Seminick (singled) and Harmon batting next for pitcher Corky Valentine (made an out). A 24-year-old Puerto Rican utility player (and a rare left-throwing shortstop), Escalera saw sparing action in what would be his only major league year. Hitting .159 probably explains that. He is still with us at age 91. Harmon, now, was already 30 by the time he stood in to hit for Valentine. His .238 lifetime average for three teams over four years was unspectacular but good enough to keep him ready for the call-up. He lived to be 94, passing on in 2019.

Washington Senators (AL; today, the Minnesota Twins): Carlos Paula, September 6, 1954. Breaking into the AL at 26, this Havana-born outfielder played parts of three years for the Senators. 1955 was his best, with part-time roles leading to a more than respectable .299 average. Not sure why he slipped to .183 the next year, but it was his last at the highest level. Seven years into integration, considering the demographics of the DC metro area and the team’s historic underperformance, I see only one reasonable explanation for that long delay and it’s not comforting–especially considering the later racist attitudes of then-owner Clark Griffith’s son Calvin. Paula passed on in 1983 at the untimely age of 55.

New York Yankees (AL): Elston Howard, April 14, 1955. He was 26 when the Yankees finally integrated, a catcher who did many things well–except run, which I mention here because of a horrible comment attributed to manager Casey Stengel about having finally ‘gotten’ a (person of color; you can guess the actual word that was used) and complaining that he wasn’t fast. While it’s true enough about Howard (nine stolen bases in a fourteen-year career), it testifies to the stereotypical thinking still with us today. Howard was a mainstay of the great Yankees teams of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and was with them as they declined into irrelevancy in the Vietnam years. Once the AL MVP, twice a Gold Glover, Howard’s best showing at the plate was his .348 monster year on that great 1961 team. Little-known fact: he is credited with inventing the batting donut. Howard died younger than he should have (51) in 1980.

Philadelphia Phillies (NL): John Kennedy, April 22, 1957. Ten years and one week before, when Jackie Robinson had broken in, the Phillies and arch-bigot manager Ben Chapman were the league’s coarsest bench jockeys. Now, finally, they would become the last NL club to integrate–if you want to call it that. Kennedy, a compact shortstop, participated in five games with two times at bat for the Phils, which is more opportunity than the Giants had given him after signing him in 1953. That ended Kennedy’s AL/NL career at 30. Never a tremendous star in the minors, the choice of a fairly unpromising player raises its own set of questions. Surely they had, or could have chosen to have, more promising prospects of color given what others had been accomplishing for the past decade. John Kennedy died in 1998, aged 71.

Detroit Tigers (AL): Ozzie Virgil, Sr., June 6, 1958. The first Dominican in the AL/NL, Virgil joined the Giants for the 1956 season at age 24, but he was not their first black player. When Detroit acquired him, he became the Tigers’ first. Anyone who can catch has a good shot at a career, and Virgil mainly caught and played third, so he would remain mostly in the majors until 1966 with a single appearance in 1969. A combined .231 career average tells us he was not the next Roy Campanella, but he was the one who brought down the second to last team’s wall, and he did spend another twentyish years as a coach. Virgil is still with us, 88 at this writing, and is no doubt proud of a son who became a two-time All-Star catcher.

Boston Red Sox (AL): Pumpsie Green, July 21, 1959. And then there was one, twelve years later. Robinson was actually retired by the time racist Boston owner Tom Yawkey gave a black ballplayer a chance. Green, who was 25 at the time, at least got a chance to show what he could do. A part-time middle infielder for five years (four with the Red Sox, the last one with the Mets), he finished with a career average of .246. Much later, his place in the game’s history received some recognition as the Red Sox inducted him into the team’s hall of fame. The last man to be the first black man on an AL or NL team had a long life, passing away in 2019 at the age of 85.

Some became legends. Some are forgotten today. Most are now gone. Not a one of them had it easy. It is simple justice for fans of the sport, which becomes more global each year even as African Americans seem to drift away from it, to stop and give respect to seventeen ambitious athletes who helped to make our national pastime much more national and inclusive.

2 thoughts on “Black History Month: the first on each team”

  1. Nice homage to some worthy pioneers, if you are ever in Kansas City, you must spend an afternoon at the Negro Leagues Museum. Wonderful collection and worth the time. (I believe Robinson got his start with the Kansas City Monarchs).

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    1. It is a definite bucket list item for one of these times when I’m back home and going through KCI (the usual way). I know there’s a field named for Paige there and he was held in fond esteem for the rest of his days. Thanks for checking on in!

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