This year, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, we're reminded not only of his heroic role as the first black player in the major leagues, but also of how hard he struggled to reach that milestone. Robinson changed forever the face of professional sports and, with it, the social fabric of American life. Today, virtually every sports fan knows his story.
Few, however, have heard of Eddie Klep, a ballplayer whose trials in some ways oddly mirrored those of Robinson. Klep was a white man who tried to play in the Negro American League in 1946, the same year Robinson played for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' farm team in the International League. Klep was a 25-year-old lefthanded pitcher from Erie, Pa., the only white player with the Erie Pontiacs, a black team in the semipro Glenwood League in Pennsylvania. He was one of the league's top pitchers and during the 1945 season worked in an exhibition game between a Glenwood League All-Star team and the Negro American League's Cleveland Buckeyes, who would go on to defeat the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League in four straight games in the '45 Negro World Series.
A few months later, inspired no doubt by Branch Rickey's signing of Robinson, Klep contacted Buckeye owner Ernest Wright, a black Erie businessman, and asked for a tryout. Seeing an opportunity for some good p.r., as well as the chance to score a victory for civil rights, Wright readily agreed.
Quincy Trouppe was the Buckeyes' manager that year, and he remembers the signing. "I think Ernie more or less hired him just to show that he would hire a white boy if he could get the caliber player that we could use," says Trouppe. "He said that he wanted to show that it didn't make any difference to him whether a player was white or black on his ball club. I told him that as far as I was concerned it was the same way, but I asked him, 'Can this boy play? That's all I care about.' It was hard to get a first-class white player because if a guy could really play, he would go into the major leagues."
June 7, 1987
In early April Klep headed south with the Buckeyes, who began their training in Oklahoma before swinging east for the exhibition season. Meanwhile, Robinson and John Wright, the second black player signed by Rickey, were working out with the Montreal Royals at their spring training headquarters in Daytona Beach.
As the exhibition season got under way, both teams had to contend with racism. On March 23 the Royals were scheduled to play the Jersey City Giants in Jacksonville, but the city's parks commission canceled the game. A local ordinance prohibited blacks and whites from playing together. The Royals returned to Jacksonville later in the week for another game with the Giants, only to find the ballpark gate padlocked.
A week later the Buckeyes arrived in Birmingham for a game against the Black Barons. As was customary, the players donned their flannels at the hotel and then rode the bus to Rickwood Park. "When we came to the park," recalls Trouppe, "we were getting ready to go out on the field to warm up. The police came to me and said, 'Who's the manager of this ball club?' I told them I was, and they said, 'We were told that you have a white boy on the team.' I said, 'Yeah, we do.' They said, 'Well, he can't play.' "
Jimmie Jones, the Buckeyes' press agent, asked whether Klep could sit in the dugout, and, according to Trouppe, the police said, "He can't even dress out. He can only sit in the stands."
Klep went back to the hotel, changed into street clothes and returned to the ballpark. He took a seat behind the Buckeyes' dugout, whereupon the police said he would have to move to the white section if he wanted to stay.
The April 6 edition of The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper, carried side-by-side front-page articles about the travails of Robinson and Klep, and included a photo of the latter. WHITE BALL PLAYER BARRED BY BIRMINGHAM and ROBINSON is BARRED AGAIN proclaimed the headlines.
Soon after the Birmingham flap, Klep left the Buckeyes and returned to Erie. According to the April 13 edition of the Courier, he rejoined the club there. Wright was quoted as saying, "If Branch Rickey and others of organized baseball can choose material of their liking to produce a winning ball club and without question of race or color despite the Southern 'Jim-Crow' tradition, then why can't I do the same?"
The Buckeyes' next game was in Atlanta, and Klep was scheduled to pitch. "He was warming up before the game." says Trouppe, "and these police officers were standing and watching him throw. I said to one of them, 'Look, are you going to say he can't play here in Atlanta either?' The officer said, 'No, no, we don't have anything to do with that. As far as I'm concerned, he's all right.' He pitched a few innings. There wasn't anything to it."
But Klep had other problems in Atlanta. "We all went to Peachtree Street, in the black section, to eat," says Trouppe. "We went into this restaurant, and a couple of ladies who looked just as white as anybody were there, so I thought, Well, we'll just eat here. The fellow came over, and he was kind of embarrassed. He said, 'I'm sorry, he can't eat here. We don't serve whites. He can go uptown and eat in any restaurant.' I said, 'What do you mean? What about those two ladies sitting over there?' He started giggling and said, 'Oh, they're not white.' So I told Klep to go uptown and get himself something to eat and meet us back at the hotel."
Klep lasted with the Buckeyes through spring training but was released early in the regular season. "He didn't really toe the mark," recalls Trouppe. "He just wasn't a good enough ballplayer. We had a tough schedule, and we played some real tough teams in our league. And he didn't show me that much as a pitcher—he was just average, that's all. I told Ernie that we couldn't really use him."
So Klep's brief career in the Negro leagues came to an end. According to Klep's brother, Joseph, who still lives in Erie, Eddie was always something of a loner. After supporting himself with odd jobs for a number of years, he moved to Southern California in the early '60s. He died in Los Angeles in 1981, leaving as his legacy a footnote to the story of integration in professional baseball.
Free-lance writer Jay Feldman has been a frequent contributor to this magazine.