Monday, April 15, 2013


Before the March on Washington, before the integration of the University of Mississippi, before the Freedom Ride through the South, and the sit-in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, before Brown v. the Board of Education, and Executive Order 9981 which officially integrated public schools and the armed forces respectively -- before every great moment in the struggle for civil rights in the United States that anyone alive can remember, there was Jackie Robinson.

One does not usually hear Robinson's name spoken in the same breath with the likes of Thurgood Marshall, Medgar Evars, James Meredith, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and scores of other individuals who fought tirelessly and often gave up their freedom and even their lives for the cause of civil rights in this country. After all, Jackie Robinson was only a ballplayer and much of his legacy is wrapped around a game. But back in the day, baseball wasn't different from any other institution in the United States in regards to race, it was simply more public, and the integration of the game brought the issue of racial injustice in this country to the forefront. Because of that, Jackie Robinson's trailblazing career marks the beginning of the modern American civil rights movement.

Jackie Robinson
April 15th, is the anniversary of Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 which officially broke the Major Leagues' color barrier. It will be celebrated all over the big leagues as Jackie Robinson Day, the day where every Major League baseball player will wear on his back the number 42, a number that has officially been retired on every big league team, Jackie Robinson's number.

It is right and just that we celebrate Robinson this way. However, lost in all the attention we give to one man, are others who broke into the big leagues at the same time, who suffered exactly the same indignities and hardships, but got none of the accolades.

Most of the credit for integrating baseball has been given to Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey understood the lucrative potential of attracting the untapped reservoir of the African American community to his ballpark and began his pursuit of a black player for his team in 1945. However Bill Veeck, the most innovative of baseball owners, proposed integrating baseball back in 1943. Veeck's proposal was rejected by then Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

While Bill Veeck was serving in the Marine Corps in the South Pacific during WWII, (where he lost a leg), back home Landis died and was replaced by former Kentucky governor Happy Chandler. Chandler was amenable to the idea of integrating baseball and it was with his support that Rickey succeeded in putting Jackie Robinson in his opening day lineup for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, making him the first black major leaguer in over fifty years. Once the door was opened, if just by a crack, Bill Veeck who by then owned the Cleveland Indians, like Rickey knew he had to proceed cautiously. Not only would he need a stellar player, but someone who combined intelligence with an even temperament, courage, and enormous strength of character. In other words he needed someone who like Robinson, not only understood the significance of the position he would be thrust into, but also had the intestinal fortitude to withstand the abuse that would inevitably come his way. If that player failed the test, the cause would be set back twenty years.

Larry Doby
Veeck found his man in Larry Doby. Doby spent his childhood in Montclaire, NJ. Growing up there he didn't experience the same kind of up-front bigotry that many of his fellow Negro League players did. That all would change while he served in the Navy during WWII. From basic training on Doby was "stunned and embarrassed" by being segregated from the white inductees, some of whom were friends he played ball with as a kid. It was unfortunately a lesson that would prepare him for his future life in the major leagues.

After the War, the former all-state athlete in multiple sports returned to his position at second base with the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues where he got Veeck's attention. Unlike Rickey who prepared Jackie Robinson (and the baseball world), for integrated baseball by playing Robinson in the minors for one year, Doby played in a double-header for the Newark Eagles on the Fourth of July of 1947, and the next day found himself in an Indians uniform in Chicago playing against the White Sox.

Another difference: Veeck bought Doby's contract from Effa Manley, the owner of the Eagles, in marked contrast to Branch Rickey who reasoned that since there was no reserve clause in the Negro Leagues, he had no obligation to compensate in any way the Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson's former team.

Even though he had been in the majors only three months, Jackie Robinson took it upon himself to mentor Doby, teaching him the ropes of coping in a world where both men would be stars on the field, yet treated like dirt everywhere else. Another mentor was Veeck whom Doby viewed as a second father. Where Robinson was forced to play with teammates who did not accept him for his race, Veeck traded the Indians players who refused to shake Doby's hand when he was introduced to them. Other than that, Doby suffered exactly the same indignities as Robinson. Despite being the second African American ballplayer in the majors, it must be remembered that playing in a different league, Doby just like Robinson, was the first player of color to appear in ballparks with fans that had never seen black and white ballplayers together on the same field. Just like Jackie Robinson, Doby was taunted on and off the field by fans and other players, he wasn't able to stay at the same hotels as his teammates, he received death threats. Yet Doby never received the credit nor the adulation that Robinson did, especially later in life.

Doby like Robinson knew his responsibility as a pioneer was to keep quiet despite the indignities. Unlike Robinson who after a few years was allowed to (and did) let loose a bit, Doby continued to keep all his frustrations to himself. As a result many of his teammates considered him aloof and sullen. One can only imagine what must have been going on inside of him.

Larry Doby had a very respectable major league career. In thirteen complete seasons in the majors, he complied a .283 batting average, hit 253 home runs, and 970 RBI. Twice he led the league in home runs and in one year, 1952, he led the league in runs scored, home runs, slugging percentage and yes, also strikeouts. Other notables for Doby: he became the first black player in the majors to win a World Series title as the Indians became world champs in 1948. In 1949, Doby joined Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe (both players also from the Brooklyn Dodgers) as the first African American players chosen to play in a Major League All-Star Game. In 1978 Bill Veeck hired Doby to manage the Chicago White Sox, making him the second black manager to be hired, behind Frank Robinson. Doby was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.

Home Run Brown
Doby and Robinson were not the only black players who broke into the major leagues in 1947. Hank Thompson and Willard "Home Run" Brown were both signed by the St. Louis Browns that year. Unlike the Dodgers and Indians, two very successful clubs in cities that supported at least tacitly the idea of blacks and whites playing baseball together, the Browns were a terrible team in a city that was shall we say less than progressive on the subject of race. Some of the players on St. Louis's other team, the Cardinals, tried to organize a walkout rather than play against the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson. Thompson and Brown were not signed, in the words of Brown's general manager Bill DeWitt: "because they are Negros, but because we hope they can put more power in a club that has been last in the American League club batting most of the season." Unfortunately neither the city nor the ball club were as colorblind, and neither accepted them. Toward the end of the season, both players spent most of their time on the bench. In a game against Detroit, Brown was sent up to pinch hit. He had sat for so long he didn't even have his own bat to use, so he borrowed one from the team's one slugger, Jeff Heath. Brown swung at a Hal Newhouser pitch and sent it deep into center field of old Sportsmans Park, hitting the fence some 428 feet away. Brown was one of the fastest men in baseball at the time and when the dust settled, he had circled the bases for an inside the park home run. It would be the first home run hit by a black player in the American League. For his efforts, Brown returned to the dugout and was greeted with silence by his teammates, no one even looked his way. Heath picked up his bat that Brown used and smashed it against the wall. Both Brown and Thompson were cut from the Browns at the end of the year.

Dan Bankhead
The first black pitcher in the Major Leagues was Dan Bankhead who became Jackie Robinson's teammate on the Dodgers. His debut was on August 26, 1947 where he hit a home run in his first at bat. It would however be his only big league home run, for as great a pitcher as he was in the Negro Leagues, he had less success in the majors. No one is entirely sure why but it has been speculated that having grown up in the deep south, he was terrified at the prospect of hitting a white batter with a pitch and the consequences it would bring upon himself and others. As anyone who knows baseball can tell you, it's impossible to be an effective pitcher while fearing to pitch inside to a batter. Years later, Bankhead's son recalled his father telling him that he once had a no-hitter going deep into the game. He then intentionally tossed up a lollipop to the batter who obliged him with a base hit. "It wasn't time yet for a black man to throw a no-hitter" he told his son. Like Home Run Brown, Dan Bankhead's Major League career was short lived.

The old Negro Leagues began to fold shortly after 1947. Still it took a long time for the Majors to fully integrate. In the fifties, for black players who were not of superstar caliber like Willie Mays, Ernie Banks or Henry Aaron, options were drying up. The Yankees would not sign a black player until Elston Howard joined the team in 1955. The Phillies and the Tigers would wait a couple more years. It would take twelve full years after Jackie Robinson played his first game in Brooklyn before every team in the Major Leagues signed their first African American player. That happened when the immortal Pumpsie Green joined the Red Sox in 1959. Talk about a slow train coming.

In regards to Larry Doby, the sports writer Scoop Jackson said the following about the tradition of  every big league ballplayer wearing Jackie Robinson's number 42 jersey on the anniversary of his breaking into the big leagues:
Second place finishers in America are suckers. And so are those who make the story of history less simple than it needs to be. This happens sometimes in America. Those who don't come first or don't do things a certain way get lost. They disappear. 
In an age of historical amnesia where fewer and fewer of us consider history important, an era where many ballplayers, including African American ones barely know about Jackie Robinson, what he did for the game and what he did for them, fewer still know the names Larry Doby, Home Run Brown, Dan Bankhead and countless others.

That's a damned shame.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article, wonderful read, Jim. Thanks.