Sons of Jackie Robinson: Remembering the players who broke the color line for the other 15 teams of that era
Tuesday marks the 67th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first major league game. Robinson broke major league's color line when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, but the actual process of integrating the two major leagues was long and regrettably slow. It wasn't until 12 years after Robinson's debut, and three years after his retirement, that the last of baseball's 16 original franchises in the modern era was finally integrated.
In acknowledgement of Robinson's anniversary, and to illustrate the notable debuts made by players who are often lost to history, here is look back at the players who followed in his footsteps by integrating the other 15 major league teams that were around when Robinson debuted.
Larry Doby, Cleveland Indians, July 5, 1947
At a time when there was no interaction between the leagues outside of the All-Star Game and World Series, Doby broke the American League's color line just 81 days after Robinson debuted in the National League. Doby's importance to the success of integration has been unfairly overshadowed by the deserving celebration of Robinson. However, it is fair to say that Doby's impact on the field wasn't truly felt until the following season. Whereas Robinson took the field as part of the Dodgers' starting lineup on Opening Day and in all but three games thereafter that season for the NL champions, Doby debuted as a seventh-inning pinch-hitter in a midseason game, striking out in place of Cleveland pitcher Bryan Stephens, and drew just one start on the season, that coming on July 6. Primarily a pinch-hitter, Doby hit a mere .156 in 29 games, appearing in the field in just six of them.
In 1948, however, he was Cleveland's Opening Day rightfielder and hit .301/.384/.490 in 121 games for a pennant-winning Indians team. He would make the All-Star team in each of the next seven seasons and ultimately join Robinson in the Hall of Fame.
Hank Thompson, St. Louis Browns, July 17, 1947; New York Giants, July 8, 1949
The Browns signed the 21-year-old Thompson and his 32-year-old teammate on the Negro American League's Kansas City Monarchs, Willard Brown, on the same day in mid-July 1947. The two would eventually debut in the bigs two days apart, making the Browns the first major league team to field multiple black players. Thompson debuted as St. Louis' starting second baseman on July 17 and became the first black American Leaguer to make multiple starts the next day. On July 19, Brown started in centerfield, and in the first game of a doubleheader on July 20, the Browns became the first team in the major leagues to play two black men in the same game, starting Thompson at second base and Brown in rightfield. Brown later became the first black American Leaguer to hit a home run (a pinch-hit inside-the-parker off future Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser, no less), but his entire major league career lasted just 21 games. Thompson and Brown were both released on Aug. 23, with St. Louis manager Muddy Ruel alleging that they lacked major league talent. Brown countered by questioning the lowly Browns' status as a major league team. Thompson would ultimately prove Brown right, as his major league career outlasted St. Louis, which moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles.
Thompson spent the 1948 season back with the Monarchs while the Browns failed to employ a single player of color. He got a second chance at the majors with the Giants in 1949, however, and this time he stuck. In doing so, Thompson became the only player to integrate two different teams, but as with the Browns, he didn't do it alone. This time it took just eight innings for Thompson to be joined on the field by a black teammate. In Ebbets Field on July 8, 1949, Thompson started at second base and led off for the Giants, just the second National League team to integrate, in a game in which a full third of the Dodgers' lineup -- Robinson, catcher Roy Campanella and pitcher Don Newcombe -- was black. In the top of the eighth inning of that game, 30-year-old Monte Irvin pinch-hit for pitcher Clint Hartung and drew a walk. Irvin was then followed at the plate by Thompson (who hit into a fielder's choice).
Thompson remained a regular part of the Giants' lineup until 1956. He was joined by Irvin on a full-time basis in 1950, and in Game 1 of the 1951 World Series, Thompson (in right), Irvin (in left) and rookie Willie Mays (in center) formed the first all-black outfield in major league history. The three would win two pennants and the 1954 World Series together. Mays and Irvin would go on to the Hall of Fame, but it was Thompson, who hit .267/.372/.453 (118 OPS+) over parts of nine major league seasons, who got to the majors first.
Sam Jethroe, Boston Braves, April 18, 1950
When Boston city counselor Isadore Muchnick pressed the Red Sox to hold a tryout for black players at Fenway Park in April 1945, Jethroe was one of the three Negro Leaguers, along with Jackie Robinson and Marvin Williams, who took part. The Red Sox, though, had no intention of integrating, and would in fact be the last of the 16 teams to do so. It’s ironic, then, that Jethroe ultimately did become Boston’s first black major leaguer five years later at the age of 33, albeit for the Old Towne team in the other league.
In addition to being the first black National Leaguer to play for a team outside of New York, the Negro League veteran, nicknamed "The Jet," led the majors with 35 stolen bases and won the National League Rookie of the Year award as the Braves' centerfielder. In 1951, he again led the majors with 35 steals and improved his overall production at the plate, but his hitting dropped off in 1952, his age-35 season. He played just two more games in the majors, for the Pirates in 1954.
Minnie Miñoso, Chicago White Sox, May 1, 1951
The White Sox acquired the Cuban Miñoso from Cleveland on April 30, 1951 in a three-team, seven-player trade that sent slugger Gus Zernial, who would lead the AL in home runs and the majors in RBI that year, to the Philadelphia Athletics. Having struggled to crack the talented Cleveland lineup, Miñoso was immediately inserted at third base for the White Sox and hit a two-run home run off the Yankees' Vic Raschi in his first White Sox at-bat. Miñoso went on to lead the majors in triples (14) and the AL in steals (31), make the All-Star team and finish second in the Rookie of the Year voting and fourth in the MVP voting. From 1951 through 1957, he hit .307/.405/.475 for Chicago, averaging 10 triples, 14 home runs and 21 steals a season, making five All-Star teams and winning a Gold Glove in the award's inaugural season of '57.
Miñoso continued to star despite being traded back to Cleveland after the 1957 season and then back to the White Sox after the 1959 season. He started three of the four All-Star Games held in 1959 and 1960 (and being a reserve in the fourth), won two more Gold Gloves and led the AL in hits in 1960. His production didn't start to slip until 1961, which was officially his age-35 season, though he may actually have been 38 that year. Miñoso's proper major league career ended after a third stint with the White Sox in 1964, but during his tenure as a White Sox coach, he was activated by the team, first in 1976 and then in 1980, to become just the second player in major league history to play in five decades. He later took a single at-bat with the independent St. Paul Saints in 1993, grounding out in his early 70s.
Those stunt appearances were initiated by Bill Veeck, who first signed Miñoso for Cleveland back in 1949, and completed by Veeck's son, Mike, who was the founding owner of the Saints. They have since overshadowed Miñoso greatness as a player and his importance to the game as a pioneer for both black and Latino players. With his JAWS score exceeding those of Jim Rice and Lou Brock and not far behind that of the late Ralph Kiner, a strong argument can be made that Miñoso, who is now somewhere around 90 years old, belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Bob Trice, Philadelphia Athletics, Sept. 13, 1953
By the time the Philadelphia Athletics became just the eighth of the major league's 16 teams to integrate, Jackie Robinson had played nearly seven full major league seasons. Trice, a 27-year-old righthander, made his debut for the A's with a start against a St. Louis Browns team that included just one black player, a 47-year-old relief pitcher named Satchel Paige. Trice's career peaked the following April when he shut out the unintegrated defending champion Yankees (the 1953 Yankees would be the last unintegrated team to win a World Series). In total, he threw 152 innings in the major leagues, posting a 5.80 ERA. The A's first minority star would be Puerto Rican first baseman Vic Power, who debuted in 1954.
Ernie Banks, Chicago Cubs, Sept. 17, 1953
Banks was arguably the greatest player to break his team's color barrier. He was an 11-time All-Star, won back-to-back NL MVPs in 1958 and '59 and hit 512 career home runs. He also went from being the first black player on an all-white Cubs team in September 1953 to being the franchise's most beloved player and a Hall of Famer known universally as "Mr. Cub." In his fifth game, the first of a doubleheader in Cincinnati, he was joined in Chicago's lineup by African-American second baseman Gene Baker, who had been added to the team alongside Banks but arrived with a pulled muscle in his side. Banks and Baker gave the Cubs an all-black double-play combination that would remain in place until Baker was traded early in the 1957 season. In 1955, both Banks and Baker made their first All-Star team.
Tom Alston, St. Louis Cardinals, April 13, 1954
Alston's acquisition from the Pacific Coast League was reportedly prompted by Anheuser-Busch's purchase of the Cardinals prior to the 1954 season and chairman August A. Busch's dismay at learning that his new ballclub had no black players (though the official date of Alston's acquisition predates the official date of the sale of the team by roughly three weeks). The Cardinals' Opening Day first baseman in 1954, Alston hit his way off the team by the end of June and compiled just 29 more plate appearances for St. Louis over the following three seasons. Despite the presence of Alston and, for 20 plate appearances split between 1956 and '57, Chuck Harmon, the Cardinals wouldn't integrate successfully until Curt Flood's first full season in 1958.
Curt Roberts, Pittsburgh Pirates, April 13, 1954
Roberts, a Texas-born second baseman, is officially recognized as the Pirates' first black player, but Carlos Bernier, who debuted almost exactly a year earlier, on April 22, 1953, was a dark-skinned Puerto Rican who should be remembered as the man who broke the franchise's color line. The 26-year-old Bernier started 77 games in the outfield for the Pirates in 1953, his only major league season, and led the NL in times caught stealing with 14. That's not a particularly distinguished career, but Roberts wasn't much better, playing just 37 major league games after serving as Pittsburgh's starting second baseman in 1954 and posting a 62 OPS+. The confusion over which player actually broke Pittsburgh's color line is a reminder of just how absurd and arbitrary that line was. Nonetheless, Roberts was inarguably the team's first African-American player.
Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon, Cincinnati Reds, April 17, 1954
The first two players of color in Reds history debuted in consecutive pinch-hitting appearances in the top of the seventh inning of Cincinnati's 5-1 loss to the Braves on April 17, 1954. The Puerto Rican Escalera lead off that inning with a single, pinch-hitting for catcher Andy Seminick, and University of Toledo product Harmon followed with a pop-out in place of pitcher Corky Valentine. Escalera spent that, his only big-league season, primarily as a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner and managed just 10 more hits in 76 more plate appearances. Harmon, meanwhile, got 61 starts at third base, but didn't hit much either. After another season coming off the bench in 1955, Harmon was traded to the Cardinals in May 1956, the debut season of the Reds first black superstar, Frank Robinson.
Carlos Paula, Washington Senators, Sept. 6, 1954
Paula, a 26-year-old outfielder from Cuba, went 2-for-4 with a double and two RBIs in his Senators debut in September 1954 and was the team's regular rightfielder by the middle of 1955, his age-27 season. However, he played in just 33 more games in 1956 and never returned to the major leagues thereafter. Black players didn't play a prominent role on the Senators until 1960, when catcher Earl Battey, acquired from the White Sox that April, and outfielder Lenny Green, acquired from Baltimore the previous year, established themselves as everyday players.
Elston Howard, New York Yankees, April, 14, 1955
The Yankees acquired Howard and pitcher Frank Barnes from from the Kansas City Monarchs in July 1950 and added Vic Power to the organization the following winter. Barnes was traded in 1951, and Power would later allege that the Yankees traded him in December 1953 because of his predilections for interracial dating and on-field fisticuffs. Howard, meanwhile, spent 1951 and 1952 in the military and had an underwhelming season at Triple A in 1953. In 1954, Cleveland snapped the Yankees' streak of five straight pennants with 111 wins thanks in part to an outfield that included African-Americans Larry Doby and Al Smith. That same season, the 25-year-old Howard tore up the International League. The Yankees couldn't hold out any longer.
Howard made his major league debut in leftfield at Fenway Park in the sixth inning of the second game of the 1955 season after starter Irv Noren was ejected for arguing a play at home plate. In his first at-bat two innings later, he delivered an RBI single that scored Mickey Mantle. A slow-footed outfielder who had been converted to catching in the minors, Howard struggled to nail down a full-time spot in the talented Yankees lineup in his late 20s, but nonetheless made the first of nine straight All-Star teams in 1957 and eventually succeeded Yogi Berra as the Yankees' primary catcher. In 1963 Howard won the American League MVP after hitting .287/.342/.528 with 28 home runs and 85 RBIs as the Gold Glove catcher of that year's AL champs. From 1958 to 1964, his age-29 to -35 seasons, he hit .296/.341/.478 (124 OPS+).
Howard's production fell off sharply in 1965, the year he turned 36 and the Yankees famously all got old at once. Two years later, in August 1967, he was traded to the Red Sox, where he won the 10th pennant of his career. After one more season with the Red Sox, he retired. In 1969, he joined the Yankees as a coach and would remain on their staff until illness forced him off the field. Howard died of myocarditis in December 1980. The Yankees retired his number 32 in 1984.
John Kennedy, Philadelphia Phillies, April 22, 1957
The Phillies' 1950 Whiz Kids were the last all-white pennant-winning team in the National League. The success of that young, unintegrated team emboldened the organization, the NL club that was most abusive to Robinson upon his arrival in 1947, to resist integration until the 10th anniversary of Robinson's debut. The Phillies didn't even scout black players until 1954 and became the last National League team to integrate when John Kennedy pinch-ran for second baseman Solly Hemus in the eighth inning of the sixth game of the 1957 season. The 30-year-old Kennedy appeared in just five games for Philadelphia, however, making just two plate appearances and never entering a game before the sixth inning. Hemus, meanwhile, is best remembered for his tenure as the Cardinals' manager from 1959 to 1961, during which he allegedly made life very difficult for the team's black players, including a young Curt Flood and Bob Gibson.
Chuck Harmon, acquired from the Cardinals in May 1957, would be the first black man to start a game for the Phillies, doing so at first base on June 16 of that year. However, it wouldn't be until 1960, under rookie manager Gene Mauch, that minorities, all of them Latino, would make significant contributions to the team.
Ossie Virgil, Detroit Tigers, June 6, 1958
Perhaps even more significant than having been the first minority Tiger, third baseman Ossie Virgil was the first major league player born in the Dominican Republic. He achieved that distinction with the New York Giants on Sept. 23, 1956, his first of three starts at third base for the team in the season's final five games. In January 1958, he was traded to Detroit and integrated the Tigers with a start at third base on June 6. Virgil spent most of June and July of that season as the team's starting third baseman, but he didn't hit much, and his major league career consisted of just 342 more plate appearances. Virgil's son, Ozzie, had more success as a two-time All-Star catcher for the Phillies and Braves in the 1980s.
The first African-American player in Tigers history, a distinction that was important to Detroit's black community at the time, was Larry Doby, who was traded to the Tigers in March 1959 nearly a dozen years after becoming the American League's first black player. Doby, who was in his final season, lasted just 18 games with the Tigers before being sold to the White Sox. Detroit's first full-time black player was second baseman Jake Wood, who led the majors with 14 triples as a rookie in 1961.
Pumpsie Green, Boston Red Sox, July 21, 1959
Arriving in the major leagues more than 12 years after Robinson's debut and 14 years after the infamous tryout at Fenway Park, Elijah Jerry "Pumpsie" Green is remembered as a symbol of the Red Sox' institutionalized racism. He's also remembered as a second-rate player with a silly nickname that the team eventually settled for after having squandered numerous chances to sign far more talented black players such as Robinson, Mays and Jethroe. That's unfair to Green, who, as a part-time middle infielder over four seasons with the Red Sox, was a player of roughly average value. It's more than fair to the Red Sox, however.
The Red Sox opened the 1959 season with a manager, former All-Star third baseman Michael "Pinky" Higgins, who was openly racist. Higgins, who had skippered the team since 1955, repeatedly asserted to the press that no team he managed would ever field a black player, and it wasn't until after new general manager Bucky Harris fired Higgins in early July that Green was added to the roster.
Green made his debut as a pinch-runner in the eighth inning of Boston's 2-1 loss to the White Sox in Chicago on July 21. He then started at second base the next day. On July 28, Earl Wilson, an African-American who threw a no-hitter for the Red Sox in 1962 and would later star in the Tigers' rotation, joined Green by making his debut in relief. Given the Red Sox' history, it doesn't seem like a coincidence that Green made his debut in the first game of a 13-game road trip. It wasn't until Aug. 4 that a black player suited up for the Red Sox at Fenway Park, with Green starting at second base in both games of that day's doubleheader against the Athletics.