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To kickoff Black History Month, Inside the Phillies is taking a look back at the first Black player to appear in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform.

His name? John Kennedy.

Kennedy made his debut for the Phillies in 1957 after an impressive spring training that drew comparisons to Chicago Cubs star Ernie Banks by Philadelphia scout Bill Yancey. But in the regular season, Kennedy played in only five games, struck out once in two plate appearances according to Baseball-Reference, then was never seen in a Phillies—or MLB—uniform again.

While this story sounds a bit too familiar regarding Philadelphia's present luck with prospects, Chris Threston, author of The Integration of Baseball in Philadelphia, has a different take on the fate of Kennedy's baseball career.

Threston told Billy Penn in 2017, "I would not say they made a huge commitment to the development of John Kennedy; They just wanted to get it over with."

The Phillies were the last team to integrate in the National League. It took 10 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier to see a Black player in a Phillies uniform.

Kennedy went to high school in Jacksonville, Fl. and involved himself in football and basketball. It wasn't until after he graduated when he tried his hand at baseball. He quickly became a force on the diamond. 

Kennedy joined a semi-pro league in Jacksonville, and there, he met teammate Harold Hair. Hair played in the Negro Leagues, and remembers Kennedy's intensity on the field. 

"He was quiet until he put that uniform on," Hair said. "Then he turned into a demon."

Kennedy then made his way to the Negro Leagues, he was recorded hitting .385 with 17 home runs for the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1950s, before receiving an invitation to Phillies spring training as their first Black player. Kennedy had no idea he was breaking the Phillies color barrier. 

He struggled at first, but Yancey assured the Phillies that the shortstop was better than his initial showing. He was right.

Kennedy quickly became one of the best players on Philadelphia's roster, batting .333 in spring training, the second highest on the team. His defense at shortstop was likewise impressive. He made only one error and turned smooth double-plays.

And as for his Phillies teammates, they all treated him well. Kennedy said they were "wonderful. They encourage me, and they kid me. Everybody has been fine."

Philadelphia signed Kennedy to a contract 10 days before Opening Day 1957, but the money was soon traded for Cuban shortstop Chico Fernandez. 

When Opening Day rolled around, Fernandez was at shortstop in place of Kennedy, and Phillies fans were at a loss. 

On April 13, 1957, Claude Harrison wrote in the Philadelphia Tribune, “What we would like to know is what does [Kennedy] have to do in order to prove he’s Major League material? At the beginning of the season word came out of Clearwater that he couldn’t field. Yet he has made only one blunder. While on the other hand the player they paid $75,000 for makes two in one day. What more can the Phils ask?”

Apparently, Kennedy had lied about his age—he claimed he was 22, but was actually 30. This is rumored to be the reason why the Phillies traded for the 25-year-old Fernandez from the Dodgers for $75,000.

Back then, it was common for baseball players to lie about their ages. 

“They used to tease each other about your real age and your baseball age,” Kennedy said. “It wasn’t a thing. You did that. It was sort of an in-house joke.”

Kennedy's daughter, Tazena, wrote to Billy Penn in 2018 saying that claiming her father lied about his age was defamation to his character. 

"My father was the type of person who would allow you to guess his age, but never confirming or denying the guess. He did it with his children all the time. We would guess a number and he would say with a pleasant smile, 'if that’s how old you think I am,'" she wrote. "However, for legal purposes he would disclose the truth. My dad was an honorable man. So, to say my father lied about his age without FACTUAL evidence is defamation of his character."

Kennedy didn't make his Phillies debut until April 22 as a pinch runner. Philadelphia demoted him only two weeks later. Even legendary manager Casey Stengel wondered why the Phillies didn't give Kennedy more of a shot. 

"[The Phillies] are always running around trading for this fellow and that fellow," Stengel told the Tribune. "Why don’t they look under their noses? They’ve got a pretty good shortstop in that fellow."

Tazena speculates whether her father's on-field passion at a time of racial tension was the reason for the Phillies moving on. 

"Maybe the Phillies didn’t take the time to develop my father. Or, maybe it was the passion he showed on the field, especially during the era of racial tension that kept him from going further with the Phillies," she wrote to Billy Penn in 2018. "Who knows, especially when those who were involved are no longer here to give their account? One thing about my dad, is WHATEVER he did, he did with the uttermost of his ability, as his batting averages during his Negro and Canadian Leagues are proof of such."

Kennedy played in the minor leagues for a few more seasons before retiring and returning to Jacksonville. He died in 1998 at age 71.

In his last interview, Kennedy claimed he was disappointed, but not bitter by how things went with the Phillies. But he wondered if he had come up on a team with an already established Black player if things would've been different.

Kennedy remained in baseball until the very end, continuing to play in a recreational adult league against former college and high school players who were 30 or 40 years younger. 

"He played in a 40 and over league until his death, playing with men 3-4 times younger then himself and was able to still hit home runs, catch grounders, make double plays, steal bases, and slide into home with NO PROBLEMS," Tazena wrote.

She continued, "For my father to have achieved the level he did walking off the Eastside of Jacksonville, Florida with not having played any baseball, he surpassed those who did and made it in several baseball arenas, despite racial tensions during that era, and amazed onlookers that gave him the opportunity to showcase his talents and be accepted."

So, let's not forget the name John Kennedy, the first Black man to break the color barrier in Phillies baseball, who ultimately paved the way for all-time Phillies greats such as Dick Allen, Garry Maddox, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, and more.

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