Breaking the Color Line: Major League Baseball Integration Began 74 Years Ago This Month
By Dr. Jim Palermo, Editor-in Chief // April 7, 2021
Even before the Armed Forces or the public schools, Major League baseball led the way for America into an integrated society
EDITOR’S NOTE: In 2005, my brother Tom and I created a web legacy, WhenItWasAGame.net, to our late father, Vincent “Jimmy” Palermo, which is based on his life in baseball and a very rare game-used major league bat collection that has been in our family almost 60 years.
In our research of the player’s represented by the Booming Bats of the 50s we encountered numerous associated themes, the most compelling of which is the evolution of the game’s desegregation.
As a student of the game since 1954 at age five, my focus was always on the box scores, the standings and the comparative performance of the stars such as Musial, Mathews, Mays, Snider, Aaron, Banks, et. al. Living in St. Louis through childhood and into my teenage years in the mid-60s I was oblivious to the underlying struggles of black Major Leaguers.
The discovery of the Booming Bats of the 50s Commemorative Collection rekindled my interest in that era of baseball and resulted in an in-depth examination of the history of baseball’s “Color Line” and “The Great Experiment,” as Branch Rickey’s insistence on integrating baseball was called in the mid-40s.
Baseball was one of the first areas of American society to integrate. The Armed Forces were not integrated until 1948, and Public Schools did not begin integration until 1954.
Slowly, through the vehicle of baseball, courageous men like Jackie Robinson, Lary Doby, Hank Thompson, Sam Jethroe, Monte Irvin, Ernie Banks and Gene Baker, just to name a few, shattered Jim Crow restrictions and met the backlash against Brown v. Board of Education while simultaneously challenging long-held perceptions of racial inadequacy by performing on the field.
However, the story of baseball integration begins rather than ends with Robinson taking the field for the Dodgers 65 years ago this month in 1947.
The breaking of baseball’s color line was not simply an act of individual heroism on Robinson’s part. It took an inter-racial protest movement among liberal and progressive activists, as well as the Negro press, who had agitated for years to integrate major league baseball, before Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey signed Robinson to a contract in 1945, then brought him up to the majors two years later.
Rickey, aware of the many great black ballplayers in the Negro Leagues, believed that the integration of baseball would improve the overall level of play. He also believed—correctly, it turned out—that black baseball fans would flock to Ebbets Field to watch black athletes play on the same field as whites. Branch Rickey was not only a visionary but also a very practical businessman when it came to his quest to integrate the Dodgers.
The Integration of Professional Baseball
American mores, values, and beliefs are reflected by baseball’s myths, realities and rituals.
The stateside impact of World War II on the game of baseball created first economic challenges and ultimately unavoidable issues of conscience that eventually led to integration.
Black athletes represented a large untapped source of sorely needed Major League talent during the war years. Gabby Hartnett, manager of the Cubs in 1940, remarked: “If managers were given permission, there’d be a mad rush to sign up Negroes.”
Other managers concurred. In 1944, Cleveland owner Bill Veeck suggested to other baseball owners that they recruit blacks from the Negro Leagues to make up for the shortage of white players during the war.
He went so far as to take his proposal to Commissioner Landis, who had been a staunch opponent of desegregating baseball throughout his tenure and stood fast against the idea. Landis’ death in November of 1944 changed the political landscape of baseball governance. Happy Chandler brought a pragmatic view of baseball integration to the office of the Commissioner.
Albert “Happy” Chandler, a Kentucky governor and senator, succeeded Landis and brought a much more receptive attitude to the idea of blacks in major league baseball to the Office of the Commissioner. According to legend, Chandler said to Branch Rickey, “Someday I’m going to meet my maker. If he had to ask me why I wouldn’t let a black man play, what could I tell him? Because of his color? That might not be a good enough answer.”
Referring to the heroics of men of color fighting side by side with whites in the Armed Forces, Chandler is quoted as saying: “If they (Negroes) can fight and die on Okinawa, Guadalcanal, in the South Pacific, hell, they can play baseball in America.” At the end of World War II, professional baseball was a conspicuous feature of America’s separate and unequal racial landscape.
The decade of the 50s saw a progressive transformation of both baseball and the country, as racism was finally confronted by all institutions and regional cultures. The National League, led by the Giants and Dodgers, was on the forefront of integration with the impact illustrated by black winners of the National League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Awards in nine of the first 13 years from 1947 through 1959.
In contrast, the first black man to be awarded the American League Rookie of the Year (ROY) by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) was Tony Olivo in 1964 (White Sox centerfielder Minnie Minoso won the Sporting News ROY in 1951, but the BWAA award was given to Gil McDougal), and the first black to win the AL MVP was Elston Howard in 1963.
The true impact of baseball’s desegregation in the ’50s is best summed up by the quintessential baseball fan and pundit, George Will, who states in a commentary on ’50s baseball: “But the best and most profound mark made on baseball by the fifties was the inclusion of black players, without whose subsequent participation baseball would have been a pale, anemic shadow of itself.”
If Jackie Robinson had not been selected to play the role he performed so well, no doubt other superb black athletes would have soon stepped onto the stage. The skills of Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Sam Jethroe, Ray Dandridge, Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, Ernie Banks and an aging Satchel Paige were too great not to tempt major league clubs who were searching for new sources of talent.
Many people think that when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 the floodgates opened for African-American players. This is simply not the fact. While the Cleveland Indians followed almost immediately, and the St. Louis Browns toyed with integration, it was two full years before the Giants joined the Dodgers in the National League when they played Hank Thompson.
At age 28, Robinson debuted as the Dodger first-baseman on April 15, 1947 and set the league on fire. His .297 average, 175 hits, 12 homers, 48 RBIs and electrifying league leading 29 stolen bases earned him the Rookie of the Year Award and the respect, albeit sometime grudgingly, of baseball and its fans.
Rickey also signed Negro League pitching star Dan Bankhead in August of 1947 after seeing him strike out 11 for the Memphis Red Sox in a game earlier that year. He pitched three seasons for the Dodgers in 1947, 1950 and 1951, posting a life-time record of 9-5 in 62 career appearances.
Veeck Signs Doby To Break American League Color Barrier
In early July of 1947, three months after Robinson had broken the National League’s color line, Larry Doby was signed for the Indians by Bill Veeck (whom he affectionately called his “godfather”) and was the first black ballplayer in the American League.
Doby, who would also be the first black player named to the American League All-Star team in 1949, did not perceive himself as a pioneer.
“You didn’t hear much about what I was going through because the media didn’t want to repeat the same story (as Robinson).” He later said that he never thought of himself as being second or anything other than a baseball player. “On the field,” Doby noted, “I couldn’t react to (prejudicial) situations from a physical standpoint. My reaction was to hit the ball as far as I could.”
Born in South Carolina, Doby grew up in New Jersey. He attended Long Island University and played in the Negro National League. Unlike Robinson, who spent a season with the Dodger’s minor league team in Montreal before coming to the majors, after signing with Cleveland, Doby went directly from the Newark Eagles where he was hitting .458 with 13 homers, to the Indians in mid-season.
A seven-time All-Star who batted .283 with 253 home runs and 970 RBIs in 13 Major League seasons, the power-hitting Hall of Fame center fielder paced the A.L. in home runs twice and collected 100 RBIs five times, while leading the Indians to pennants in 1948 and 1954. He was appointed manager of the White Sox in 1978, the second African-American to lead a Major League club.
Thompson and Brown First Black Teammates in Major Leagues
Twelve days after Doby appeared in the Tribe lineup, Kansas City Monarch team mates, Hank Thompson and Willard Brown were signed by the St. Louis Browns. Thompson started at second base for the Browns on July 17 and Brown joined him in the lineup in right field on the 20th to mark the first time that two black players appeared in the same Major League lineup.
Brown, age 32 when signed, played only 21 games with the Browns, but was the first black player to hit a home run in the American League. He returned to the Monarchs in 1948 and finished a brilliant Negro League career in 1952. Brown admitted that he could not tolerate the racism that he encountered during his brief stint with St. Louis and was of the opinion that the lowly Brownies were simply not as good as the Monarchs.
Thompson, age 21, played only 27 games with St. Louis and was picked up by the Giants. In July of 1949, Thompson and Monte Irvin were brought up from the Giants farm team in Jersey City.
On July 8th (the day I was born) Thompson, starting at second base, became the first black to play for the Giants, and Irvin appeared in the eighth inning as a pinch-hitter. When Hank batted against the Dodgers’ Don Newcombe later in the 1949 season, it was the first time in ML history a black batter faced a black pitcher.
Thompson, Irvin and Giant rookie sensation Willie Mays made up the first all-black outfield when they appeared in the starting New York line-up in the 1951 World Series against the Yankees. Thompson had a very respectable nine-year Major League career. Hall of Famer Irvin, an established star in the Negro League when he became a 30 year old Giant rookie in 1949, went on to hit .293 lifetime over 8 seasons and .394 in two World Series.
The attitude of most of the owners late in the 1947 season was characterized by a quote in the July 30, 1947 Sporting News by Cleveland Indian owner Bill Veeck: “With the exception of the men already under contract to Major League employers there are fewer than half a dozen Negroes in the country currently capable of playing in the game’s fastest company.”
The eccentric, but innovative Veeck explained, “For several months our scouts have been watching players in all parts of the country and without regard to color. Those scouts report that with Doby, Robinson, Willard Brown and Hank Thompson already under big league contract the cream of the colored crop has been taken. They say that fewer than six players worthy of consideration remain in the Negro League.”
In 1948 Roy Campanella and 41 Year-Old Pitcher Satchel Paige Break Into the Majors
Satchel Paige—The remarkable Paige, a Negro League legend, pitched for the Indians and Browns from 1948 to 1953 and made an appearance for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965 at the age of 58 in which he pitched 3 scoreless innings allowing one hit, striking out one and earning a save. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971 based primarily on his brilliant Negro League career.
Roy Campanella–Hall of Famer Campanella was the foundation of the great Dodger teams of the late 40s and the decade of the 50s. Playing on five Dodger pennant winning teams, Roy was the NL MVP in ’51, ’53 and ’54, and an eight-time all-star before his career was tragically cut short by a spinal cord injury suffered in an auto accident.
Don Newcombe Debuts with the Dodgers in 1949
Don Newcombe–At age 23, Don Newcombe took the league by storm and immediately helped the Dodgers to a pennant. He shut out the Reds 3-0 in his May 22 debut and finished 17-8, 3.17, with a league-leading five shutouts.
In the heat of the pennant race, which the Dodgers won by a single game over the Cardinals, Newcombe pitched 32 consecutive scoreless innings. He anchored the pitching rotation for the “Boys of Summer” and was one of baseball’s dominant forces from 1949 to 1956.
The first outstanding black pitcher in Major League history, Newcombe is the only player to have won the Rookie of the Year (ROY), MVP, and Cy Young Awards. His Rookie of the Year performance was the first of five consecutive National League ROY awards earned by black players.
This propensity of blacks, most of whom had professional experience in the Negro Leagues, to outperform white rookies stirred controversy regarding the ROY selections.
Braves Only Team To Intergrate In 1950 As Jethroe Debuts With Boston
Sam Jethroe–Ironically, Sam Jethroe, one of the participants in the Red Sox sham try-out in 1945, returned in 1950 as a Braves rookie and the first black player on a Boston team.
In 1950 Sam Jethroe debuted with the Boston Braves and became the oldest player, at age 32, to ever win the Rookie of the Year Award.
The Braves were the only team to integrate in 1950 bringing to a grand total of only five out of 16 teams to break the color line in the first four years of Major League integration.
Giants Play Mays, White Sox Obtain Minoso In 1951
Minnie Minoso— Star third baseman for the New York Cubans from 1945 to 1948, Minoso appeared in nine games for the Cleveland Indians in 1949, but he was still officially a rookie when obtained by the White Sox in a three-team deal involving the Indians and A’s on April 30, 1951.
On May 1, in a game against the Yankees in Comiskey Park, the young Cuban speedster became the first black player to don a White Sox uniform. In the very first inning, Minoso homered off Vic Raschi. (Mickey Mantle hit his first Major League home run in the sixth inning of the same game).
Minoso finished his rookie year as the American League leader in stolen bases (31) and triples (14); his .326 batting average was second only to Philadelphia’s Ferris Fain’s .344, and his 112 runs fell one short of Dom DiMaggio’s league-leading 113. Though the Yankees’ Gil McDougald won the Baseball Writers’ Rookie of the Year honors, Minoso was The Sporting News Rookie of the Year.
Willie Mays— Joining the Birmingham Barons of the Negro National League at age 17, May’s contract was purchased by the New York Giants in 1950, and he played for Trenton of the Interstate League, then joined the Triple-A Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in 1951. In his 35-game stay at Minneapolis, he hit a sizzling .477, and the Giants called him up in late May 1951.
Willie was one of the sparks that ignited the Giants in their classic, come-from-behind pennant chase, climaxed by Bobby Thomson’s dramatic ninth-inning playoff home run that beat Brooklyn for the National League pennant. His heroics earned him the Rookie of the Year Award. Mays, of course, went on to distinguish himself as one of the greatest players of all time.
No Additional Integration in 1952; Trice Breaks Line for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1953
No additional Major League teams integrated in 1952, however Negro League vet and new Dodger Joe Black was named National League Rookie of the Year at the age of 28 when he won 15 games and had 15 saves with a sparkling ERA of 2.15.
He started and won the first game of the 1952 World Series against the Yankees becoming the first black pitcher to win a World Series game.
Bob Trice—In 1953 Bob Trice, a pitcher and outfielder for the Homestead Grays from 1948 to 1950, was brought up to the Philadelphia Athletics in September after winning 21 games at Ottawa in the International League. He played three years with the Athletics posting a career 9-9 record.
Cubs Break Line With Banks and Baker
Gene Baker and Ernie Banks were signed by the Cubs out of the Negro League and both appeared in the Chicago line-up late in the 1953 season.
Baker, thought to be the best fielding shortstop in the minor leagues, was expected by many to be with the club on opening day. However, he did not make the spring training cut and spent most of the season in the minors.
Baker’s demotion drew cries of outrage and charges of discrimination leveled against the Chicago hierarchy. Baker, by virtue of his absence became the most controversial figure in Chicago baseball circles.
In 1954 Baker was moved from shortstop to second base, and, with future Hall of Famer and “Mr. Cub” Banks at shortstop, the Cubbies had one of the best keystone combos of the 50s.
The 1953 season saw another former Negro League standout cop the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Dodger second baseman Jim Gilliam set a league rookie record with 100 walks, led the National League with 17 triples, scored a career-high 125 runs, had 168 hits and averaged .278.
Pirates, Cards, Reds, Senators Break Line In 1954
Curt Roberts–Four teams integrated in 1954. Curt Roberts took the field on opening day as the Pirates starting second baseman and first black to play for Pittsburgh.
He had been a shortstop with the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs before playing three years at Denver (Western League), where manager Andy Cohen made him a defensive star at second base. He played only three years in the Major Leagues.
Tom Alston–On April 13, 1954, 34 days before Brown v. Board of Education was decided, Tom Alston became the first African-American to play for the St. Louis Cardinals. By the end of the next decade, St. Louis was something of a model franchise for race relations, but in the early ’50s, the Redbirds had been lily-white.
Under owner Fred Saigh, the Cards made little progress toward integration, but that changed when Gussie Busch and the Anheuser-Busch brewery took over the ball club. Busch made it a priority to integrate his team, and Alston was the man.
Alston made his debut 14 months after the sale of the Cardinals to Busch was completed. The 28 year-old slick fielding first baseman appeared in 66 games his rookie season and played only sparingly in three more seasons with St. Louis.
Nino Escalera–Dark-skinned Puerto Rican Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon broke the color-line for the Cincinnati Reds in 1954 when they both pinch-hit in an April game at Milwaukee. Escalera appeared in only 73 major league games, mostly as a pinch-hitter.
Chuck Harmon – Harmon had been signed by the St. Louis Browns organization in the summer of 1947, less than two years after Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers, and estimated that he was among the first 10 blacks to receive professional contracts. After being picked up by the Reds from the Browns organization Harmon played four years in the major leagues with the Reds, Cardinals and Phillies.
Carlos Paula-Cuban outfielder Carlos Paula broke into the Senator line-up late in the 1954 season to become the first black player for the Washington franchise. He played only three seasons, all with the Senators, hitting his best .299 in 1955.
Hank Aaron debuted with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954 and was hitting .280 with 13 homers and 69 RBIs as the regular right fielder when an ankle fracture cut his rookie season short. That year Cardinal Wally Moon won the Rookie of the Year Award, the first time in five years that the National League ROY was not a black player.
Yanks Put Howard In Pinstripes In 1955
Elston Howard–The venerable New York Yankees had apparently not integrated because they were looking for not only a talented ball player, but a model citizen.
Kansas City Monarch catcher, first baseman and outfielder Elston Howard was touted by his Monarch manager, Buck O’Neil, as “a fine young man” and one of the best prospects in the Negro League in 1950.
He was signed by the Yanks in 1950, was the International League MVP in 1954 and was in pin stripes in April 1955, the first black to play for the Bronx Bombers.
He went on to star for nine pennant winning Yankee teams and was the first African American to win the American League MVP in 1963.
The 1956 National League Rookie of the Year Award was again won by a black player, Cincinnati Red Frank Robinson, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career and become the first player to ever win the MVP award in both leagues – and the first black Major League manager.
John Kennedy, a former shortstop for the Birmingham Black Barons and Kansas City Monarchs, became the Philadelphia Phillies’ first African American player on April 22, 1957. The day before the first games of the 1957 season, the Phillies traded for Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Chico Fernandez. The move left Kennedy without a position and he played in only five games for the Phillies.
Shortly after his historic appearance in Phillie pinstripes he was sent down to the minors where he played until he retired from professional baseball in 1961.
Virgil First Dominican In Major Leagues
Ozzie Virgil, the first Dominican to play in the Major Leagues, debuted with the New York Giants in 1956. He was traded to the Detroit Tigers in January of 1958 and on June 6, 1958 became the first black player to appear in a Tiger game. A utility player most of his career, he played every position except pitcher during his nine year Major League tenure.
The Giants, recent transplants from New York to San Francisco in 1958, again fielded the National League Rookie of the Year, Puerto Rican and future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda.
Red Sox Last To Intergrate, 14 Years After Sham Tryout
On July 21, 1959, in a 2–1 loss to the White Sox, Pumpsie Green, pinch ran for the Red Sox who have the dubious distinction of being the last Major League team to play a black player. Green, a utility infielder, played four seasons with the Sox and one with the Mets.
Twelve years after the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson broke the disgraceful color barrier, 14 years after the Boston “sham” tryout of three black players, two of whom became Major League ROYs, and in a year in which the National League Rookie of the Year, future Hall of Famer Willie McCovey, was one of the last Major Leaguers to have played in the rapidly fading Negro League, the Boston Red Sox finally integrated.
Despite the fact that by 1959 all Major League franchises had fielded a black player, integration and equal rights issues in baseball continued to mirror the struggles in American society.
Martin Luther King once told pitcher Don Newcombe—who along with Roy Campanella followed Robinson from the Negro Leagues to the Brooklyn Dodgers— “You’ll never know what you and Jackie and Roy did to make it possible for me to do my job.”
Robinson Paved Way For The Civil Rights Movement Of The ’60s
Jackie Robinson did more than integrate major league baseball. The dignity with which he handled his encounters with racism among fellow players and fans—on the diamond as well as in hotels, restaurants, trains, and other public places—drew public attention to the issue, stirred the consciences of many whites and gave black Americans a tremendous boost of pride, paving the way for the civil rights movement a decade later.
Although Robinson retired from baseball in 1956 when there was still three teams that had not integrated, he continued to be an outspoken ambassador for civil rights and engaged many of his colleagues, both black and white, in the national civil rights movement.