This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com
In honor of Black History Month, BaseballDigest.com is celebrating the history of the Negro Leagues and the intertwining pathway of Negro League ballplayers to the Major Leagues. The final installment of the series puts the focus on the first seventeen Negro League players to reach the Major Leagues. Last week featured the teams of The West.
On April 15th, 1997 Major League Baseball officially retired the number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball fifty years earlier. At the time of honoring Robinson, only active players wearing the number were allowed to continue wearing it. Entering the 2011 season Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees is the only remaining player wearing 42. Beginning in 2007, MLB began honoring Robinson by allowing players to wear #42 on Jackie Robinson Day, which is on April 15th. By 2009, all uniformed players and coaches began wearing 42 on Jackie Robinson Day. The day recognizes not only a Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, and it recognizes more than just a Hall of Famer. It recognizes the first of many great black ballplayers that would enter the major leagues. Though April 15, 1947 is important, it was another 12 seasons before Major League Baseball was fully integrated. The final installment of the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues features seventeen players to reach the big leagues, representing the integration of each team.
Jackie Robinson endured a great deal of personal trials and tribulations and excelled on and off the field with his ability to succeed in becoming not only the first black player in the big leagues, but paved the way for other players, teams and fans to open up and embrace the future of integrated baseball. The future Hall of Famer established himself as a great player by winning the inaugural Rookie of The Year Award that was eventually named in his honor. In August of 1947, pitcher Dan Bankhead joined Robinson as a member of the Dodgers and they became the first pair of black players to play in a World Series.
In a July 1951 issue of Baseball Digest, Bill Dougherty wrote about “The Jackie Robinson of Today”. Click here to check it out!
Just eight weeks after Robinson’s debut, Larry Doby became the first black player in the American League when he appeared in a game with the Cleveland Indians. Unlike Robinson, Doby played sporadically in his first season and endured the same kind of torment that Robinson encountered in the senior circuit.
Doby and Robinson both quickly made their mark in postseason history. Robinson, capping off his Rookie of The Year debut, hit .259 in a losing effort against the New York Yankees in the 1947 World Series. Larry Doby played a huge role with the 1948 Cleveland Indians, hitting .301 on the season and helping the team to a 97 win season and a trip to the World Series. He became the first black player to homer in a World Series with a Game 4 home run off Boston Braves’ pitcher Johnny Sain. A seven time All-Star and 1998 Hall of Fame inductee, Doby’s career began with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. In that same series, Negro League legend Satchel Paige became the first black player to pitch in a World Series.
Less than two weeks after Larry Doby’s entrance into the American League, Hank Thompson became the second black player in the AL and the first of the St. Louis Browns organization. Two days later, Willard Brown was inserted into the lineup, the first time a lineup featured two black players at the same time. Brown had his own significant moment, becoming the first black player to homer in the American League; he cranked an inside the park home run off future Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser. Thompson and Brown both began their professional careers with the Kansas City Monarchs, the same team where Jackie Robinson started his career as well.
For the next two seasons, no other teams integrated their rosters. On July 8th, 1949, the New York Giants were next to break the color barrier, starting Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin on the same day. Hank Thompson is the only player in history to break the color barrier for two teams. Irvin, a Newark Eagles teammate of Larry Doby and five time Negro League All-Star, wasted little time before having an impact. He hit .312 in 1951 and led the Giants(along with Thompson and Willie Mays in the outfield) in the pennant race against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He hit .458 in a losing effort against the New York Yankees in the 1951 World Series. Irvin, Thompson and the Giants redeemed themselves as they defeated Irvin’s former Eagles teammate Larry Doby and the 1954 Cleveland Indians in the World Series. 1949 also featured the first time a black pitcher and hitter faced each other when Hank Thompson faced Don Newcombe. Newcombe(the 1949 NL ROY), Robinson, and Roy Campanella became the first black players to be named to the National League All-Star team.
Two years before Jackie Robinson debuted with the Dodgers, he participated in a tryout with the Boston Red Sox. A tryout that has long since been criticized as the team at the time were unlikely to integrate their roster, included two other players. One of these players was Sam Jethroe, who went on to sign with the Dodgers and eventually reached the majors as a member of the Boston Braves on April 18th, 1950. Hitting .273, slugging 18 homers and leading the league with 35 stolen bases led the right fielder to earn the American League Rookie of The Year Award.
A year after Sam Jethroe’s debut, the Chicago White Sox were the next to integrate their roster. Minnie Minoso played in a handful of games with the Cleveland Indians during the 1949 and 1951 seasons before being traded to the White Sox. He eventually became more well known for being the only player in history to play in a professional game in seven different decades.
In a July 1950 issue of Baseball Digest, Austen Lake wrote about the debut season of Sam Jethroe. Click here to read the full article!
More than two seasons passed before more teams began integrating. In one case, it was a franchise changing decision. On September 13th, 1953 the Oakland Athletics integrated their team with the addition of Bob Trice, who would go on to shut out the New York Yankees a year later. Four days after the Athletics, the Chicago Cubs integrated their team with a 22 year old shortstop by the name of Ernest Banks. 19 years, 2 NL MVP awards, 512 home runs, and eleven All-Star nods later, “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks ranks among the greatest to ever play the game.
With the start of Ernie Banks’ career, the proverbial flood gates opened as black players entered the league and teams began to integrate with a greater pace. Curt Roberts of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tom Alston of the St. Louis Cardinals became the first black players of their respective teams when they debuted on April 13th, 1954. They later played against each other in a game on April 29th of that year. Four days later the Cincinnati Reds integrated their team when Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon appeared in a game against the Atlanta Braves. Escalera and Harmon both went on to become scouts with major league teams following retirement.
In addition to the integration of more teams in 1954, the Brooklyn Dodgers became the first team to field a team with a majority of black players. The influx of integration for 1954 concluded when Carlos Paula debuted with the Washington Senators on September 6th. On April 14th, 1955, Elston Howard became the first African American to play for the New York Yankees. BaseballDigest.com Intern Simon Sharkey profiled Howard on his birthday, click here to read about the heralded rookie.
Though the Yankees were late to integration, there was a two year wait before the Philadelphia Phillies became the next team to integrate their roster. The overall career of John Kennedy was brief, but on April 22nd, 1957 he became the first black player in franchise history. A year later, Ozzie Virgil Sr. broke the color barrier for the Detroit Tigers, becoming the first player from the Dominican Republic to play in the major leagues. On July 21st, 1959 the Boston Red Sox finally integrated their team with the addition of Pumpsie Green. However, by 1966 the Red Sox roster included players such as Earl Wilson, George Scott, Felix Mantilla and Reggie Smith.
Since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Major League Baseball has made strides to increase the number of players from all backgrounds within the league. As recently as the 2010 season, 30% of the players that make up MLB were of a diverse background.