Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Back in 1947 Branch Rickey told Jackie Robinson, “Jackie, we’ve got no army. There’s virtually nobody on our side. No owners, no umpires, very few newspapermen. And I’m afraid that many fans will be hostile. We’ll be in a tough position. We can win only if we can convince the world that I’m doing this because you’re a great ballplayer, a fine gentleman.”
My friends, last week pitchers and catchers reported to their teams for the 2016 Baseball Spring Training, and it is time to reflect again on how Branch Rickey’s signing of Jackie Robinson helped advance the Civil Rights of Blacks in the United States. What Rickey did was a watershed, and though it took time for every team in the Major Leagues to integrate, the last being the Boston Red Sox in 1959, a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
Branch Rickey shook the foundations of America when he signed Jackie Robinson to a Major League deal in 1947, a year before President Truman desegregated the military and years before Jim Crow laws were overturned in many states.
Robinson and the early pioneers of the game did a service to the nation. They helped many white Americans see that Blacks were not only their equals as human beings, and as it was note about Ernie Banks and others that soon “little white boys wanted to grow up and be Ernie Banks.”
But for Rickey the crusade to integrate baseball began long before 1947. In 1903, Rickey, then a coach for the Ohio Wesleyan University baseball team had to console his star player, Charles Thomas when a hotel in South Bend Indiana refused him a room because he was black. Rickey found Thomas sobbing rubbing his hands together and repeating “Black skin. Black skin. If only I could make them white.” Rickey attempted to console his friend saying “Come on, Tommy, snap out of it, buck up! We’ll lick this one day, but we can’t if you feel sorry for yourself.”
Thomas, encouraged by Rickey was remembered by one alumnus who saw a game that Thomas played in noted that “the only unpleasant feature of the game was the coarse slurs cast at Mr. Thomas, the catcher.” However, the writer noted something else about Thomas that caught his eye: “But through it all, he showed himself far more the gentleman than his insolent tormentors though their skin is white.”
Baseball like most of America was not a place for the Black man. Rickey, a devout Christian later remarked “I vowed that I would always do whatever I could to see that other Americans did not have to face the bitter humiliation that was heaped upon Charles Thomas.”
In April 1947 Rickey, now the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers had one African-American ballplayer at the Dodgers’ Spring Training site in Daytona Beach Florida. The South was still a hotbed of racial prejudice, Jim Crow was the law of the land and Blacks had no place in White Man’s baseball. That player was Jackie Robinson.
The Dodgers had been coming to Florida for years. Rickey moved the Dodgers from Jacksonville to Daytona Beach in 1947 after Jacksonville had refused to alter its segregation laws to allow an exhibition game between the Dodgers International League affiliate the Montreal Royals, for whom Robinson starred.
That was the year that Rickey signed Robinson to a minor league contract with the Royals. When Rickey called up Robinson 6 days prior to the 1947 season, it was Robinson broke the color barrier for the Dodgers and Major League Baseball. However it would take another 12 years before all Major League teams had a black player on their roster.
It is hard to imagine now that even after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier that other teams did not immediately sign black players. However Rickey and Robinson broke the color barrier a year before Harry Truman had integrated the Armed Forces and seven years before the Supreme Court ruled the segregation of public schools illegal. But how could that be a surprise? The country was still rampant with unbridled racism. Outside of a few Blacks in the military and baseball most African Americans had few rights. In the North racism regulated most blacks to ghettos, while in the South, Jim Crow laws and public lynching of progressive or outspoken Blacks.
But Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey helped bring about change, and soon other teams were following suit.
The Cleveland Indians under their legendary owner Bill Veeck were not far behind the Dodgers in integrating their team. They signed Larry Doby on July 5th 1947. Doby would go on to the Hall of Fame and was a key player on the 1948 Indian team which won the 1948 World Series, the last that the storied franchise has won to this date.
The St. Louis Browns signed Third Baseman Hank Thompson 12 days after the Indians signed Doby. But Thompson, Robinson and Doby would be the only Blacks to play in that inaugural season of integration. They would be joined by others in 1948 including the immortal catcher Roy Campanella who signed with the Dodgers and the venerable Negro League pitcher, Satchel Paige who was signed by the Indians.
Willie Mays and Monte Ervin
It was not until 1949 when the New York Giants became the next team to integrate. They brought up Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson who they had acquired from the Browns. In 1951 these men would be joined by a young, rookie Willie Mays to become the first all African-American outfield in the Major Leagues. Both Mays and Irvin would enter the Hall of Fame and both are still a key part of the Giants’ story. Despite their age have continued to be active in with the Giants and Major League Baseball.
The Boston Braves were the next to desegregate calling up Samuel “the Jet” Jethroe to play Center Field. Jethroe was named the National League Rookie of the Year in 1950. In 1951 the Chicago White Sox signed Cuban born Minnie Minoso who had played for Cleveland in 1949 and 1951 before signing with the White Sox. Minoso would be elected to 9 All-Star teams and win 3 Golden Gloves awards during his illustrious career.
The Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Athletics integrated at the end of the 1953 season. The Cubs signed Shortstop Ernie Banks who would go on to be a 14 time All-Star, 2 time National League MVP and be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977 on the first ballot and sadly he died a year ago. The Athletics called up pitcher Bob Trice from their Ottawa Farm team where he had won 21 games. Trice only pitched in 27 Major League games over the course of three seasons with the Athletics.
Four teams integrated in 1954. The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Second Baseman Curt Roberts from Denver of the Western League as part of a minor league deal. He would play 171 games in the Majors. He was sent to the Columbus Jets of the International League in 1956 and though he played in both the Athletics and Yankees farm systems but never again reached the Majors. The St. Louis Cardinals, the team that had threatened to not play against the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson in 1947 traded for First Baseman Tom Alston of the Pacific Coast League San Diego Padres. Alston would only play in 91 Major League games with his career hindered by bouts with depression and anxiety. The Cincinnati Reds brought up Puerto Rican born First Baseman Nino Escalera and Third Baseman Chuck Harmon. Harmon had played in the Negro Leagues and had been a Professional Basketball player in the American Basketball League. Harmon who was almost 30 when called up played just 4 years in the Majors. Both he and Escalera would go on to be Major League scouts. Escalera is considered one of the best First Baseman from Puerto Rico and was elected to the Puerto Rican Baseball Hall of Fame. Harmon’s first game was recognized by the Reds in 2004 and a plaque hangs in his honor. The Washington Senators called up Cuban born Center Fielder Carlos Paula from their Charlotte Hornets’ farm team in September 1954. Paula played through the 1956 season with the Senators and his contract was sold to the Sacramento Salons of the Pacific Coast League. He hit .271 in 157 plate appearances with 9 home runs and 60 RBIs. He died at the age of 55 in Miami.
In April 1955 the New York Yankees finally integrated 8 years after the Dodgers and 6 years after the Giants. They signed Catcher/Left Fielder Elston Howard from their International League affiliate where he had been the League MVP in 1954. Howard would play 13 years in the Majors with the Yankees and later the Red Sox retiring in 1968. He would be a 12-time All Star and 6-time World Series Champion as a player and later as a coach for the Yankees. He died of heart disease in 1980. His number 32 was retired by the Yankees in 1984.
The Philadelphia Phillies purchased the contract of Shortstop John Kennedy from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League at the end of the 1956 season. Kennedy played in just 5 games in April and May of 1957.
In 1958 the Detroit Tigers obtained Dominican born Utility Player Ozzie Virgil Sr. who had played with the Giants in 1955 and 1956. Virgil would play 9 seasons in the Majors with the Giants, Tigers, Athletics and Pirates and retire from the Giants in 1969. He later coached for 19 years in the Majors with the Giants, Expos, Padres and Mariners.
The last team to integrate was the Boston Red Sox who signed Infielder Pumpsie Green. Green made his debut on 21 July 1959 during his three years with the Red Sox was primarily used as a pinch runner. He played his final season with the New York Mets in 1963. He was honored by the Red Sox in 2009 on the 50th anniversary of breaking the Red Sox color barrier.
It took 12 years for all the teams of the Major Leagues to integrate, part of the long struggle of African Americans to achieve equality not just in baseball but in all areas of public life. These men, few in number paved the way for African Americans in baseball and were part of the inspiration of the Civil Rights Movement itself. They should be remembered by baseball fans, and all Americans everywhere for their sacrifices and sheer determination to overcome the obstacles and hatreds that they faced. It would not be until August of 1963 that Martin Luther King Jr. would give his I Have a Dream speech and 1964 that African Americans received equal voting rights.
Spring training for the 2016 season is about to begin in Florida and Arizona, in what are called the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. It is hard to believe that only 68 years ago that only one team and one owner dared to break the color barrier that was, then, and often today is still a part of American life.
However in those 69 years despite opposition and lingering prejudice African Americans in baseball led the way in the Civil Rights Movement and are in large part responsible for many of the breakthroughs in race relations and the advancement of not only African Americans, but so many others.
We can thank men like Charles Thomas, Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey for this and pray that we who remain, Black and White, Asian, and Latin American, as well as all others who make up our great nation will never relinquish the gains that have been won at such a great cost.
Today we have a Black President who has the same kind of racial epitaphs thrown at him every day by whites who as they did to Charles Thomas, Jackie Robinson and so many other pioneers, Frankly such behavior can only be called what is it, unrepentant, unabashed, and evil racism. The fact is that such people don’t think that any Black man should hold such high an office, just as they did not think that Blacks should be allowed to play integrated baseball. It is anathema to them, and that is why their unabashed hatred for Obama runs so deep. They may disagree with his policies, but I guarantee if Obama was white, their opposition to him would be far more civil and respectful. But because he is half-black, and has a funny name they hate him with a passion, a passion that scares me, because words and hateful beliefs can easily become actions.
Racism still exists, but one day thanks to the efforts of the early ball-players as well as pioneers like President Obama, and the undying commitment of decent Americans to accept people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or even sexual orientation, we will see a new birth of freedom.