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Four Black Baseball Players Who Followed Jackie Robinson's Lead in 1947

Four Black Baseball Players Who Followed Jackie Robinson's Lead in 1947

Jackie Robinson wasn’t the only Black baseball player to suit up in the big leagues in 1947. After he broke the color line and became the first Black baseball player to play in the American major leagues during the 20th century, four other players of color soon followed in his footsteps.

Like Robinson, these four men had to deal with unimaginable pressure. They had teammates who wouldn’t shake their hands, fans ridiculed and threatened them. None could stay in the same hotels as their teammates. And they all had to prove to the world that a Black man could be just as good as a white man, not just at baseball, but as members of society. Like #42, they were all pioneers.

Larry Doby

On July 5, 1947, less than three months after Robinson’s first appearance in the National League, Larry Doby pinch-hit in the seventh inning of the Cleveland Indians’ game against the Chicago White Sox, becoming the first Black player in the American League. Although his career started out on a low note with a strikeout, it ended triumphantly, with his bust in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Doby was born in Camden, South Carolina, but became a three-sport star in high school in Paterson, New Jersey. He was soon noticed by the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League, and signed to play professionally with them at age 17. Because he did not want to lose his amateur status—and his scholarship to Long Island University—Doby played under the pseudonym “Larry Walker.” He eventually took his name back, and played for the Eagles for two years before shipping off to the South Pacific in World War II.

Meanwhile, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck was trying hard to integrate the majors. Starting in 1942, Veeck began petitioning the league to let him bring in a Black player but was rejected by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. After Robinson signed with the Dodgers in 1946 (he spent a year in the minor leagues before his 1947 debut), the door was open for Veeck to sign a Black player, too. Because of Doby’s age and skills, as well as his sterling reputation off the field, the choice was an easy one for Veeck.

Unlike how the Dodgers brought in Robinson, the Indians did not send Doby off to the minor leagues first. Instead, they allowed him to stay in the Negro Leagues with the Eagles (where he’d returned after the war). Veeck waited to make the signing official, wading carefully through the waters of integration until he felt his fan base was ready. Once he felt the time was right, Veeck signed Doby and put him on the big league roster.

Doby got his first start the very next day, but played only sparingly for the rest of the 1947 season. As a regular player in 1948, Doby helped the Indians advance to a World Series championship, and became the first African American to hit a home run in the “Fall Classic.”

While playing with Cleveland, Doby made the All-Star team every year from 1949 until 1955, before being traded to the White Sox prior to the 1956 season. Although he was saddled with mounting injuries, Doby was productive for the White Sox, but returned to Cleveland for the 1958 season. He played part-time for the Detroit Tigers before returning to the White Sox. He retired in 1959 at the age of 35.

In 1978, Doby became the second Black manager in the big leagues, (after the Indians’ player-manager Frank Robinson in 1976), when he helmed the White Sox in the second half of the season. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998, and passed away in 2003.

Although he may have been second to Robinson in baseball, he was the first African American to play in the American Basketball League (a predecessor to the NBA), when he joined the Paterson Crescents in the winter of 1947.

Hank Thompson and Willard Brown

On July 16, 1947, Dan Daniel of The Sporting News wrote in his column, “In St. Louis they say the fans would never stand for Negroes on the Cardinals or the Browns. St. Louis, they insist, ‘is too much of a Southern City.’”

Just one day later, the St. Louis Browns put that bold prediction to the test, when they signed not just one African American player, but two: Hank Thompson and Willard “Home Run” Brown. Like Jackie Robinson, both Thompson and Brown came over from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League.

The 21-year-old Thompson made his debut at second base on July 17, finishing hitless in four at-bats. The Oklahoma native played again the next day, singling off of Red Sox pitcher Dave Ferriss for his first big league hit. The 32-year-old Brown, a Louisiana-born Negro League legend, made his debut in July 19, but went hitless.

On July 20, the two made history by becoming the first Black players in the same starting lineup of a big-league game. On August 17, Brown and Thompson were in the lineup together again as the Browns played Larry Doby’s Indians, marking the first time African American players had squared off against each other in a game.

Unlike with the signings of Robinson and Doby, Thompson and Brown were brought to the majors mainly to boost St. Louis’ sagging attendance. Owner Richard Muckerman saw the surging crowds in Brooklyn and Cleveland. Eager to sell tickets, he struck a deal with Kansas City to integrate his team. The Browns agreed to pay the Monarchs $5,000 up front, and then $5,000 for each man if the club decided to keep them after a period of time.

When the time came for the St. Louis to decide whether or not to keep the struggling sluggers, the team was not seeing results in the standings—or at the ticket office. Brown was sent back to the Monarchs. Thompson hung around but was released after the season. The Browns then unofficially re-segregated and did not allow another Black player on the roster until they signed Satchel Paige in 1951. Paige was signed (coincidentally or not) after the team was purchased by Bill Veeck, who had integrated the Indians.

Although Thompson’s stint with the Browns was short-lived, he has the distinction of being the only player to break the color barrier for two different franchises. On July 8, 1949, he and Monte Irvin became the first African Americans to start for the New York Giants.

Hank played for the Giants until 1956, and passed away in 1969, at the age of 43. Despite never playing again in the majors, Brown was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, 10 years after his death.

Dan Bankhead

There was one more pioneer to break the barrier in 1947. Unlike the others, 27-year-old Dan Bankhead did not earn his standing as a batter, but as a pitcher. Four months after Robinson's debut, owner Branch Rickey signed Bankhead and brought him up to Brooklyn, making the Alabama native the first African American pitcher in Major League Baseball.

Bankhead, who was often compared to Hall-of-Fame pitcher Bob Feller, seemingly had all the tools to succeed at the big league level. He also came from a strong baseball background, as he and four of his brothers all played in the Negro leagues. Bankhead had a solid career with the Birmingham Black Barons and the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League before signing with the Dodgers.

The former U.S. Marine made his debut as a reliever in the Dodgers’ August 26 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates had jumped all over Brooklyn’s starter, Hal Gregg, knocking him out of the game with nobody out in the top of the second inning. When Bankhead came in to try to clean up the mess, the Pirates tagged him for eight more runs in just over three innings.

The one silver lining of Bankhead’s outing did not come on the mound but in his first big league at-bat, when he smacked a Fritz Ostermueller pitch over the fence for a two-run home run. That made Bankhead, a pitcher, the first African American to hit a home run in his first Major League at-bat.

Unfortunately, things never improved on the mound for Bankhead. According to Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947-1959 by Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt, Bankhead was hampered by control problems, an old injury and an all-too-common disappointment. "Like many of baseball’s first Black players, he was thrown into white baseball with the physical tools to succeed but little or no emotional support,” write the authors.

After only a few more appearances that season, Bankhead was sent down to the minor leagues, and didn’t return to the Dodgers again until 1950. After a 1951 season, Bankhead left the game for good at age 31. He passed away in 1976.


Dan Bankhead - P

Bankhead was the first Black pitcher to appear in a Major League Baseball game, and was also Robinson’s first Black teammate when he made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in ‘47. Bankhead was known for having electric stuff that caught the eye of Branch Rickey. He could never quite harness it, however, due to the fact that he was afraid of the ramifications of hitting white batters.

After pitching for two years in the minors after his rookie campaign, Bankhead was back up in ‘50 and pitched 129.1 innings in 41 games. In his only year which he earned substantial time on the mound, he pitched to a respectable 5.50 ERA and 4.80 FIP. After the 1951 season, he would never get back to the Major Leagues, but continued his professional baseball career in Mexico, playing for various teams until 1966.

Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.


William Edward Whyte

William Edward Whyte (Photos courtesy of James Brunson/Public domain)

Whyte was born in October 1860 to slave owner Andrew Jackson White and a mixed-race woman enslaved by White. Legally, that made Whyte enslaved and a Black man with a very light complexion. 

According to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Whyte used his lighter skin to pass as a White man — a common practice for those wishing to evade the disadvantages of being Black.

While passing, Whyte suited up for the National League’s Providence Grays on June 21, 1879, becoming the first Black man to play in the majors 40 years before Robinson took his first breath and 68 years before the color barrier fell.

"The Grays discovered Whyte while playing against Brown University, where the young baseballist attended school," said baseball historian James Brunson, author of the book "The Negro Leagues Were Major Leagues: Historians Reappraise Black Baseball."

Researchers described his time in the majors as a cameo. He only appeared in one game after replacing regular first baseman Joe Start.

Even so, Whyte finished the game 1-for-4 and scored a run in the Grays’ 5-3 win. 

After the Grays, Brunson said Whyte played for three professional Black clubs: The St. Louis Black Stockings (1883), Trenton Cuban Giants (1885-1886) and New York Gorhams (1886).

Around that time, another Black man was making his way into the majors.


Hardball Crazy

I just finished watching the new trailer for the upcoming biopic on Jackie Robinson, 42. It stars Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey. More on this a bit later. It got me thinking of the other players who helped break the color barrier. Everyone knows that Robinson was the first overall and Larry Doby of Cleveland was the first in the American League later in 1947. But what about the players who followed these pioneers? They have largely been forgotten, but their experiences were not much easier than Robinson and Doby. So, I am going to name a few of them and their accomplishments in the majors in order to give them some recognition.

Satchel Paige: Signed with Cleveland in 1948 after a legendary career in the Negro Leagues at the presumed age of 42. He became the first Negro pitcher in the majors and helped lead Cleveland to the World Series title. He later pitched for St Louis Browns from 1951-53, making two All-Star games.

Willard Brown: Signed with St Louis Browns in 1947 along with Hank Thompson. Brown is considered widely as one the best home run hitters in Negro League history. Josh Gibson gave him the nickname, "Home Run" Brown. When Brown and Thompson debuted with the Browns, it was the first time black players played together in the majors. Brown was also the first black player to hit a home run in American League history. But after becoming frustrated with racial slurs and playing on a poor team, he returned to the Negro Leagues after just a month in the majors.

1954 Topps

Hank Thompson: Debuted with Willard Brown for St Louis in 1947. He also played only briefly with the Browns. He did, however, sign with New York Giants in 1949 along with Monte Irvin. By becoming a Giant, Thompson was the first player to integrate two different franchises and also the first black player to play in both the American and National Leagues. Couple of other firsts he is credited for is when he faced Brooklyn's Don Newcombe, it was the first time a black hitter faced a black pitcher in MLB history and in 1951, along with Irvin and Willie Mays, they became the first all black outfield.
1957 Topps

Don Newcombe: Debuted with Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949. Had a successful career with Dodgers which included Rookie of the Year, MVP and Cy Young awards. He along with Doby, Robinson and Roy Campanella were the first black All-Stars in 1949. Also in 1949, he was the first black player to start a World Series game.

Roy Campanella. Debuted with Brooklyn in 1948. Had a Hall of Fame career which included eight All-Star game appearances, three National League MVPs and a World Series championship. Unfortunately, his career ended after being paralyzed in a car accident during the 1958 season.

Joe Black: Also played for Brooklyn and debuted in 1952. Black was the NL Rookie of the Year and during the 1952 World Series, became the first black player to win a World Series game. He later played for Cincinnati and Washington before retiring 1957.

Sam "The Jet" Jethroe: After seeing Jackie Robinson success with Brooklyn, Branch Rickey signed Jethroe to play for the Brooklyn's minor league club, Montreal Royals in 1948. Didnt make his Major League debut until 1950 when he was traded to the Boston Braves. At the age of 32, Jethroe won the NL Rookie of the Year


Contents

Player Team League First game Last game
William Edward White Providence Grays NL June 21, 1879 June 21, 1879
Moses Fleetwood Walker Toledo Blue Stockings AA May 1, 1884 September 4, 1884
Weldy Walker Toledo Blue Stockings AA July 15, 1884 August 6, 1884

Overall Edit

Below is a list of the first 20 Black players in Major League Baseball since Moses Fleetwood Walker's last major league appearance.

  • Note:Johnny Wright was the second Black player signed to a contract by the Dodgers, and was on the roster of the 1946 Montreal Royals at the same time as Jackie Robinson, but never played in the Major Leagues.[1]

By team Edit

  • Teams are listed by franchise i.e., teams that relocated to a new city after already breaking the color line are not listed a second time.
  • Expansion teams that joined the National and American Leagues after 1961 have been integrated from their first game and are not listed.

* Major League Baseball recognizes Curt Roberts as the Pirates' first Black player however, Carlos Bernier of Puerto Rico, also a Black man, debuted on April 22, 1953. [5]
‡ Thompson and Irvin broke in with the Giants during the same game on July 8, 1949. Thompson was the starting third baseman, and Irvin pinch hit in the eighth. [1]


Barry Bonds

One of the greatest all-around players in history, Bonds was a seven-time MVP in his 22-year career spent with the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants. Bonds owns 17 different MLB all-time records, including career home runs (762), home runs in a season (73), and intentional walks in a season (120). As further testament to his comprehensive brilliance, he picked up eight Gold Glove Awards and is the only player in history to hit 500 home runs while also stealing 500 bases.


First Game Denotes First With Listed Team

Hank Thompson was the first black player to play for a different team in each Major League : American League in 1947 with the St. Louis Browns and National league in 1949 with the New York Giants.

Did you know that on May 12, 1955, Sam Jones became the first black pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the Major Leagues?

On April 30, 1961 Willie Mays became the first black player, and only the sixth player overall, in Major League history to hit four home runs during a single game.


Beyond Jackie, 9 achievements to celebrate

Jackie Robinson was the catalyst. More specifically, Major League Baseball began its meteoric rise as our national pastime after that pigeon-toed man of athleticism and courage took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, along the way to immortality.

So when Robinson died on Oct. 24, 1972, the public entered the type of mourning normally reserved for presidents. And Jackie's legacy still lives. I'm not just referring to the way he won Rookie of the Year honors for all of Major Leagues or grabbed the National League Most Valuable Player Award two seasons later.

Robinson also made six trips to the All-Star Game, and he did so despite not playing in the Major Leagues until three months after his 28th birthday due to the game's color barrier that he broke. He led the NL in batting in 1949, and he stole more bases than anybody in the league during two seasons. Plus, Robinson was a catalyst for the Dodgers ending their jinx against the Yankees, with a 1955 World Series championship over the pinstripe folks.

Robinson's legacy is even more impressive because he allowed many African-Americans who followed him into Major League Baseball to enhance the game in highly significant ways. How did they do that? Well, in honor of Black History Month, here are nine notable achievements or contributions by African-Americans to Major League Baseball behind Robinson's entry into the game.

Babe Ruth becomes No. 2 for career home runs

That's because Hank Aaron surged into the No. 1 spot, when he did the impossible on April 8, 1974, at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Nobody was supposed to even come close to Ruth's magic number of 714 blasts for a lifetime.

Legendary announcer Milo Hamilton delivered the rest of the story back then from the Braves' broadcast booth.

Henry Aaron, in the second inning, walked and scored.

Here's the pitch by [Al] Downing.

There's a drive into left-center field.

That ball is gonna be . Outta here! It's gone! It's 715!

There's a new home run champion of all time, and it's Henry Aaron!


Jackie Robinson breaks color barrier

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson, age 28, becomes the first African American player in Major League Baseball when he steps onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to compete for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson broke the color barrier in a sport that had been segregated for more than 50 years. Exactly 50 years later, on April 15, 1997, Robinson’s groundbreaking career was honored and his uniform number, 42, was retired from Major League Baseball by Commissioner Bud Selig in a ceremony attended by over 50,000 fans at New York City’s Shea Stadium. Robinson’s was the first-ever number retired by all teams in the league.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia, to a family of sharecroppers. Growing up, he excelled at sports and attended the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was the first athlete to letter in four varsity sports: baseball, basketball, football and track. After financial difficulties forced Robinson to drop out of UCLA, he joined the army in 1942 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. After protesting instances of racial discrimination during his military service, Robinson was court-martialed in 1944. Ultimately, though, he was honorably discharged.

After the army, Robinson played for a season in the Negro American League. In 1946, he spent one season with the Canadian minor league team the Montreal Royals. In 1947, Robinson was called up to the Majors and soon became a star infielder and outfielder for the Dodgers, as well as the National League’s Rookie of the Year. In 1949, the right-hander was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player and league batting champ. Robinson played on the National League All-Star team from 1949 through 1954 and led the Dodgers to six National League pennants and one World Series, in 1955. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility.


Baseball’s Erasure Of Black Managers And Executives Shows Who MLB Believes Is Worthy To Lead

In 2006, 17 people affiliated with the era of segregated baseball were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Their inclusion was greenlit by a special committee convened by the Hall to determine whether there were any from Black baseball (including the Negro Leagues and the previous, unorganized, period) who were deserving of baseball’s highest honor, but not yet recipients.

That the special election even occurred was momentous in itself. After all, it took Ted Williams advocating for Negro Leagues players during his own 1966 induction speech for the Hall to consider such a thing. “I hope that someday the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way could be added as a symbol of the great Negro players that are not here only because they were not given the chance,” he said.

Before Williams delivered his speech and even for a few years after, the careers of the men and women who worked in Black baseball before Jackie Robinson’s historic turn with the Dodgers—most of whom were Black themselves—had been discounted and disregarded.

But Paige, the ageless right-handed hurler with a historic arsenal of pitches, did make it into the Hall in 1971. In 1972, Gibson, who was perhaps Paige’s only equal in terms of cross-racial popularity, was inducted alongside defensive first baseman Buck Leonard, the Lou Gehrig to Gibson’s Babe Ruth. Cool Papa Bell was given his flowers in ’74, and Oscar Charleston, the man many baseball historians consider the best all-around player the game has ever seen, was inducted two years later.

All told, in the three-decade span from 1971 to 2001, 18 Black men from baseball’s segregated era, not including players like Robinson and Larry Doby who spent the primes of their careers in Major League Baseball, were invited to join baseball’s most exclusive and prestigious club. But while that group was certainly formidable and deserving, it was also incomplete.

Despite the induction of 40 white managers and executives during this same time period—men like Clark Griffith, Ban Johnson, and, of course, Branch Rickey—only one Black inductee held the same distinction. Rube Foster, who was easily one of the most talented pitchers of his era and also a staunch advocate for player’s rights, was admitted to the Hall in 1981 as a testament to his role in launching the first successful Black league, 1920’s Negro National League.

For Hall of Fame voters, Foster’s legacy loomed as large as his 6-foot-4 frame once did atop the mound. His achievements were undeniable and unassailable, despite Major League Baseball’s eagerness to both deny and assail the efforts of the thousands of men and women who found their own success on their own diamonds.

This is especially the case when talking about Black front-office personnel. Even now, it feels somehow silly to have to say that there could have been no Paige or Gibson, no Black teams or Black leagues, without Black managers and executives. But it does, in fact, need to be said. In baseball and, really, all of professional and collegiate sports, fans readily acknowledge the power of Black bodies, the strength and speed that becomes the foundation of their value to white executives. Much more rarely do we applaud, or even consider, Black intellectual capacity.

Case in point: When Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis was asked about the lack of Black managers and executives in Major League Baseball in April 1987—a question asked by Ted Koppel of ABC’s Nightline to shed light on the league’s (failed) integration efforts a full four decades after Robinson’s debut—Campanis was adamant that Black men belonged in pro sports. He was also clear about the exact positions in which they belonged. “I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager,” Campanis said.

Koppel pushed back against the racist assertion that Black people don’t have the mental capacity for certain roles. But when probed, Campanis only doubled down. “How many quarterbacks do you have how many pitchers do you have that are Black? The same thing applies.”

Perhaps it would have been helpful for Koppel to mention that, before Campanis and Robinson were teammates on the minor league Montreal Royals in 1946, Robinson spent a season in the Negro American League playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. It was there, under the tutelage of the Monarchs’ Black manager Frank Duncan, who led Kansas City to the 1942 Negro World Series title and the NAL pennant in 1946, that Robinson was able to develop into the player who would later be called on to cross Major League Baseball’s still-present color line. This history matters, and Robinson’s own history makes that apparent. While at UCLA, the four-sport athlete batted a paltry .097 in 1940. Easy as it is to marvel at Robinson’s achievements as MLB Rookie of the Year, six-time All-Star, World Series Champion, and, yes, civil rights icon, it seems entirely too easy to forget the role that the Negro Leagues played in kickstarting his ascent.

If Koppel had mentioned this critical detail—and even if Campanis had skirted it—the significance of Black managers and executives in both the Negro Leagues and Major League Baseball’s post-segregation era would have been made explicit. But he didn’t. And the omission of these facts, from Koppel’s interview as well as the wider discourse about baseball history, only illuminates the degree to which the efforts of these men and woman have been forgotten.

This is how baseball fails to acknowledge Gus Greenlee, the Black owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords who was largely responsible for the launch of the second Negro National League in 1933 and who built his own eponymous stadium in Pittsburgh in 1932. We don’t talk about Cum Posey, who, after logging a successful playing career, took ownership of the Homestead Grays, providing the roster and the salary that enabled Gibson and Leonard to heat up the middle of the Grays lineup and hit their way into history books. Neither do we consider Effa Manley, who served as co-owner and business manager of the 1946 Negro World Series champion Newark Eagles, the team that introduced a 22-year-old Larry Doby to an enterprising Bill Veeck and, indeed, the (white) world.

To be clear, this erasure goes beyond a surface-level disrespect of some of the greatest leaders to helm a ball club. When the accomplishments of Black managers and executives are overlooked, it reinforces an antiquated idea that hiring Black people in managerial and executive positions would be a reckless break from some necessarily established norm—that if Black people are to be “allowed” onto the hallowed grounds of Major League Baseball, they would surely be better suited for the field, the setting that best displays their “natural” abilities.

Although Rube Foster’s leadership achievements were recognized in 1981, the Hall continued to exclude his Black contemporaries and predecessors well into the new century, even as white managers and executives continued to collect their own plaques. From 1936 through 2001, a total of 40 white men were inducted not for their on-field prowess but for their in-office savvy among the Hall’s first four classes (1936-39), 10 of 26 inductees were managers or executives.

This is a history that speaks to the value of leadership, that reveals the reverence baseball reserves for the men who shape and shepherd this sport. And upon closer inspection of who is inducted and who is ignored, these numbers also provide an unmistakable blueprint for who will be allowed to lead baseball now and in the future.

The mantra that Black people are not a monolith is not just an election-cycle cliché it is a reality, one fully evidenced when news broke that Major League Baseball was officially elevating the Negro Leagues to major league status. For some, including Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick, the acknowledgment was long overdue and welcome, the necessary amends for a generations-long slight. For others it was too little too late, little more than a statement of the obvious rendered hollow by MLB’s still-pitiful record on race relations.

As a former employee of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and someone who has spent much of my adult life studying this important history, my thoughts fall somewhere in the middle. No, we didn’t need Commissioner Rob Manfred and his crew to tell us what we already know—that Paige, Gibson, Leonard, and so many others were the best of the best, turning Jim Crow’s barren fields into oases of swagger and skill. We also didn’t need Major League Baseball to tell us that their names should be remembered alongside their white counterparts because, even when the governing rule demanded that baseball remain segregated, Black players were known to take the field with white players and more than hold their own.

Nonetheless, the significance of Major League Baseball’s announcement cannot be overlooked, especially when considering the league’s past views of the Negro Leagues. In his rush to sign Black players from the fall of 1945 through the spring of 1946, Branch Rickey did not consider the Negro Leagues as major league equivalents. As a result, he moved like a plantation owner sweeping into the cabin of his enslaved mistress: covertly but brash, as if whatever he desired was simply his for the taking by right.

With the St. Louis Cardinals, Rickey’s reputation as a game-changing baseball executive was built, in part, on the development of the modern farm system—a system that allowed him to sign players as cheaply possible and then shop them if their talents didn’t fit the club’s needs. Ultimately, Rickey’s expert knowledge of the business of baseball renders his refusal to speak with/compensate Black teams before signing their players all the more egregious, even if Rickey had his own justifications for doing so.

“The Negro organizations in baseball are not leagues, nor, in my opinion, do they have even organization,” he told the New York Times in October of 1945, just days after Robinson’s signing was announced. “As at present administered they are in the nature of a racket.” This opinion directly led to the exploitation of Black baseball and, eventually, to its demise. And because this attack was a direct rebuke of the business and leadership skills of Black baseball executives, it also sullied their reputations and diminished their achievements in the eyes of the entire league.

It’s true that a number of Black owners of Black teams had built their fortunes running numbers operations, an activity deemed illegal until the government decided to get in on the game—and profits—through state-run lotteries. But Rickey never acknowledged the systemic barriers Black men and women faced he never considered how challenging it was for Black owners to secure cash and keep it flowing while so much of their revenue was funneled to white team owners via stadium rental fees. Instead, Rickey criticized their character in deriding their lack of bootstraps, he ignored their bootless feet.

So, yes, Major League Baseball’s announcement matters, if for no other reason beyond the fact that it establishes a public denouncement of Rickey’s racist, elitist sentiment. The announcement also declares that, yes, the Negro Leagues were of “major league” status, and that Rickey was wrong for not treating them as such, for not compensating Black teams for their talent, and—perhaps more importantly—for indirectly saying what had always been assumed about Black executives: that their teams, and their efforts, were second-rate.

And these assumptions didn’t just keep deserving Black executives and managers out of the Hall of Fame while their white counterparts were ushered in freely. They created mile-high fences that have kept the would-be successors of Greenlee, Posey, and Manley out of the game altogether.

Of the 17 Black baseball inductees of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2006 class, only five were counted as executives. There were no Black managers from the era inducted—as of this writing, there has never been a Black manager inducted in the Hall—but the occasion was momentous all the same. Finally, more of the people responsible for building the stages on which Black players shined—including Manley, the first woman inducted in the Hall’s history—received overdue recognition. It was an important first step that establishes the capability and credibility of Black executives, a step now solidified by Major League Baseball’s announcement.

It is, however, too early to say whether the “elevation” of the Negro Leagues will amount to anything more than performative lip service.

There have been Black GMs in Major League Baseball since Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947, re-integrating the majors. But with only five total hires at the GM position since Bill Lucas was tasked with running the Atlanta Braves in 1972, the league’s hiring record for Black executives stands in stark contradiction with its declared commitment to diversity.

And while Kim Ng’s hiring as the general manager of the Miami Marlins fails to move the needle for Black executives in Major League Baseball, her status as the first woman to hold the position could lead to more sweeping measures of inclusivity. Or … it could not. Kenny Williams, who was named GM of the Chicago White Sox in 2000 before being promoted to executive vice president in 2012, has enjoyed a long and successful front-office career. Still, his achievements have thus far failed to open the floodgates for other Black executives. This past offseason, not a single Black candidate was hired to fill one of the eight open GM or President of Baseball Operations positions throughout the league.

Similarly, a celebration of Bianca Smith’s hiring as a coach in the Boston Red Sox’s minor league system—making her the first Black female coach in MLB history—is relatively incomplete without a discussion of Gary Jones and others who saw their careers peak, and stall, in the minors.

These are issues that MLB’s hiring of Ken Griffey Jr., however promising it may be, can’t fix. Even if The Kid is successful in getting more Black kids into the game, as Major League Baseball hopes he will be, those young athletes will still be tasked with navigating a system that has closed its doors to the very people who would be best positioned to nurture and develop them.

The good news is that the act of hiring more Black people in managerial and executive positions isn’t the risk it’s often perceived to be. The history of Black front office success in baseball is as long as Josh Gibson’s tape-measure home runs and as deep as the roster of Effa Manley’s 1946 Newark Eagles—a team that also featured Hall of Famers Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and Leon Day, and was able to wrest the Negro World Series title from the mighty Kansas City Monarchs.

The history is there the precedent is there. The only question is whether Major League Baseball will acknowledge it, and whether it will finally give credit—and jobs—where they are most certainly due.


Watch the video: Jackie Robinson Steals Home (January 2022).