By DAVID MILLER News Sports EditorSClBWhen I saw that a cable TV channel was offering reruns of the 1977 miniseries “Roots” I was reminded that February is Black History Month.
I remember watching that series very faithfully when it first aired. It was before the times of VCR’s, or at least it was in my existence. So, to be sure and not miss an episode one had to schedule around the airing of this highly entertaining program.
I was told once by a good senior citizen friend, who just happened to be African-American, that it is important to have a Black History Month for many reasons. But for her it is especially important to preserve the heritage of what it means to be a member of her race.
In thinking further about Black History Month one has to remember the heroic figures who helped break down racial barriers as they once existed.
The sports world has such figures in a big way. We have been reminded many times of the contribution made by Jackie Robinson to break down the barrier that existed in Major League Baseball. Much abuse was heaped on Jackie, especially in his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. There were some fans in almost every city in which the Dodgers played who couldn’t wait to yell insults at him and otherwise treat him with contempt.
As much as he suffered, there were others who experienced some of the same things as they became the first players of their race in other Major League cities. Most of them didn’t receive the recognition that went in Robinson’s direction. But I am sure they also were the center of negative attention where they played.
Robinson broke into the majors in 1947. It wasn’t until 1959 when Pumpsie Green joined the Boston Red Sox that every one of the original 16 MLB franchises had suited up at least one African-American.
Here is a list of the players who broke the racial barrier for each Major League team:
Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers, April 15, 1947
Larry Doby, Cleveland Indians, July 5, 1947
Hank Thompson, St. Louis Browns, July 17, 1947
Hank Thompson, New York Giants, July 8, 1949
Monte Irvin, New York Giants, July 8, 1949
Sam Jethroe, Boston Braves, April 18, 1950
Minnie Minoso, Chicago White Sox, May 1, 1951
Bob Trice, Philadelphia Athletics, Sept. 13, 1953
Ernie Banks, Chicago Cubs, Sept. 17, 1953
Curt Roberts, Pittsburgh Pirates, April 13, 1954
Tom Alston, St. Louis Cardinals, April 13, 1954
Nino Escalara, Cincinnati Reds, April 17, 1954
Chuck Harmon, Cincinnati Reds, April 17 1954
Carlos Paulo, Washington Senators, Sept. 6, 1954
Elston Howard, New York Yankees, April 14, 1955
John Kennedy, Philadelphia Phillies, April 22, 1957
Ossie Virgil Sr., Detroit Tigers, June 6, 1958
Pumpsie Green, Boston Red Sox, July 12, 1959
Robinson was the first, but what stood out to me when I saw the list was that Larry Doby and Hank Thompson were not far behind, in fact only three months later.
Cleveland owner Bill Veeck was the instigator behind Doby breaking the racial barrier in the American League. Doby had proposed integrating the Big Leagues as far back as 1942, but he was shot down by Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Landis was no longer commissioner when Robinson broke into the Big Leagues and the new guy, Happy Chandler, was more amenable to integration. When Robinson joined the Dodgers, Veeck was determined to make his move and he signed Doby.
Looking for a suitable black player to join his team, he consulted, of course, with areporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper. The reporter suggested Doby, a player that Veeck had seen play as part of a military team at Great Lakes Naval Station. They did a background check on Doby to make sure he had the temperament to withstand the taunts and jeers that would come with being the first player of his color on the Indians and he passed with flying colors.
I remember Doby from his later years on the Indians. He was a genuine star, being named to the All-Star team seven times, leading the league in home runs in 1952 and 1954 and in RBIs in 1954. A number of years after his retirement, he was hired as manager of the Chicago White Sox, the second black manager in Major League history. Frank Robinson had been the first. Larry Doby was passed over for the Hall of Fame until 1998 when the Veterans Committee rightfully voted him in.
I also remember Hank Thompson from later years. Thompson has the distinction of having broken the racial barrier on two teams, the St. Louis Browns and the New York Giants. My memory of Thompson dates back to his tenure on the New York Giants, beginning with the 1951 season. I remember him as playing third base for the Giants on the team that miraculously defeated Brooklyn in a three-game playoff for the right to play in the World Series. What I didn’t know until just recently was that Thompson was born in Oklahoma City. Funny how many ball players have some kind of a connection with our state.
Thompson was a good player but not anywhere near the caliber of Doby. Another black player, Willard Brown, joined the St. Louis team two days after Thompson did, and on July 20, 1947, Thompson and Brown were in the Browns’ lineup marking the first time in Major League History two black players had played on the same team. On Aug. 9 that year the Browns played Cleveland and that day was the first time that both teams in a Major League game had a black player in the lineup.
Thompson was with St. Louis a little more than one month and was released Aug. 23. He finished the year out in Kansas City as a member of the Negro League Monarchs. He didn’t return to the big leagues until he joined the Giants where he stayed through 1956. He came to the Giants on the same day as another black player, Monte Irvin. Later he continued to participate in firsts. When he batted against the Dodgers’ Don Newcombe, it was the first time a black batter had faced a black pitcher, and toward the end of the 1951 season, Thompson, normally a third baseman, joined Irvin and Willie Mays in the outfield, making it the first time that a team put an entirely black outfield in a game at the same time. Thompson’s best year probably was in 1954, the year the Giants swept the Indians in four games in the World Series. That season Thompson hit 26 homers and drove 86 runs, belted three homers in one game, and in the World Series batted .364 and drew a four-game Series record of seven walks.
Sam Jethroe was one of my favorites for the same reason many players became a favorite of mine. I had his baseball card. Jethroe broke in with a bang,hitting a home run and a double in his first game. He was named the National League Rookie of the Year after the conclusion of that season. At the time, he was called an old rookie. Funny thing — he was called that when people thought he was 28. In later years it was revealed that he was actually four years older than his reported playing age, making him 32 when he won the rookie award.
The name of Bob Trice was vaguely familiar to me, probably because he played on the Athletics team that moved to Kansas City in 1955. I knew that team forwards and backwards, so it was a surprise that his name wasn’t more prominent in my memory. I saw his last game in the big leagues was May 2, 1955, less than a month into the season. I do remember other blacks who played in Kansas City in that first year —Vic Power, Harry Simpson, Hector Lopez.
I remember when Tom Alston joined the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals did a lot of promotion around the fact that Alston was joining the team. Owner Gussie Busch was a staunch supporter of integrated baseball and he ordered his manager, Eddie Stankey, to find a suitable black player to break the Cardinals’ barrier. I read somewhere later that a secondary motivation for Busch was economical in nature. Busch knew that more blacks drank Budweiser than any other beer and for his team to not employ a black player might not go down well with his customers.
Alston was a disappointment, being two years older than the Cardinals thought he was when they purchased his contract from the minor league San Diego Padres. He also wasn’t much force at bat or in the field and his career ended in 1957. St. Louis has been the home of many, many great black baseball players. The two who come immediately to mind are Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. Ozzie Smith wasn’t too shabby either.
The names of Ernie Banks with the Cubs and Elston Howard with the Yankees are familiar to most of us. But the lesser known Ossie Virgil and Pumpsie Green caught my eye.
I remember when Virgil broke in with the Giants in 1956. He was the first player with ties to the Dominican Republic to play Major League Baseball. He wasn’t a great player but he was destined for another first— the first black to play for the Detroit Tigers. He wasn’t a bad player, but probably his biggest contribution to the sport was his son Ossie Virgil Jr., who was an All-Star catcher in the 1980s.
Pumpsie Green was the first black to play for the Red Sox. Owner Tom Yawkey had openly resisted employing a non-white on his team, but in 1959 he yielded to public pressure and allowed Green to be invited for a Spring Training tryout.
Green did well in Spring Training, but wasn’t on the opening day roster. Playing for minor league Minneapolis, Green put up solid numbers and was called up to the parent team in July.
He had some good years with Boston and retired after the 1965 season, which he had spent with the New York Mets. By the way,
Green is a native Oklahoman, coming from the town of Boley. I had to look it up. Boley is somewhere between Shawnee and Henryetta.