Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Fits And Starts Of Baseball Integration

By now even the most casual baseball fan is familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson and his breaking of the "color line" in organized baseball. Robinson's fearlessness, temperament, grace, not to mention pure baseball ability and exciting style of play, made him the perfect symbol of the changing of the guard in the fusty world of professional baseball from the Old to the New. In Branch Rickey, we have the perfect benevolent and wise father figure, who ushered in the new age of enlightenment in the face of resistance from his less reasonable brethren - his fellow owners. Like many mythologies, the story, although over-simplified, has the power over us that it does because it is basically true. But integration in baseball did bot begin with Robinson, nor sadly, did the floodgates of goodwill and fairness toward African-American players open immediately after Robinson's heroic first seasons.

Left: Charlie Grant, or "Charlie Tokohama".

As far back as 1901, the very first year of what is considered the "modern era" of major league baseball, efforts were made to challenge - or at least circumvent - the so-called "gentleman's agreement" which barred only black players from the game. In that season John McGraw of the Baltimore Orioles (forerunners of the franchise we know today as the New York Yankees) hired one Charlie Grant, and tried to pass him off as Native American "Charlie Tokohama". When many of Grant's suspiciously non-Indian looking friends came out to the ballpark to see "Tokohama" play, McGraw's ruse was exposed, and the experiment quickly ended.

In 1916 Canadian Jimmy Claxton was briefly signed by the Oakland club of the Pacific Coast League, again using the Native American ruse, and Claxton's time with the Oaks ended as suddenly as it began. It would be 30 year before the PCL would see another black player.

The great baseball owner and raconteur Bill Veeck often stated that he tried to buy the hapless Phillies in 1943 and stock them with top Negro league stars. Although it is very easy to believe that Veeck's lively mind came up with this idea, there is scant evidence beyond Veeck's own claims to suggest he ever tried to go through with it.

The big bats of the Washington Homestead Grays.

Another story has to do with Senators owner Clark Griffith watching the Homestead Grays (who played home games in Washington) take batting practice. It didn't take much more than seeing Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard crush ball after ball out of Griffith Stadium for him to realize what kind of team the lowly Senators would be if he could sign these sluggers. But alas it was not to be.

Then there is the story told to me by Cuban baseball historian Edel Casas in Havana many years ago: Branch Rickey had been looking for that special player for some time before he eventually set his sites on Robinson. The Dodgers used to play exhibition games in Cuba and the great slugging shortstop and pitcher, the dark-skinned Cuban player Silvio Garcia went 8 for 21 against the Brooklyn club in a 1942 exhibition series. Rickey supposedly asked the Cuban the same question he would later pose to Robinson: "What will you do the first time a white player slaps your face?" Garcia's answer? "I will kill him". Needless to say, Garcia was not chosen to fulfill the role Rickey had in mind.

It should also be noted that the minor leagues - as part of organized baseball - followed the same rigid code of segregation as the majors, but there were pockets of resistance. The Provincial League of Quebec was a haven for black ballplayers during the years when the league was "independent", and therefore not subject to the strictures of organized ball. But when the league joined organized ball as a Class C circuit, the ban on black players was strictly enforced. In the South - with Jim Crow laws very much still on the books - the story was predictable. The most important loop - the Southern Association - never did integrate, a fact that partly explained its demise in 1960. When the Hot Springs Bathers tried to field two black pitchers in 1953, the club was initially ousted from the league, and a major crisis ensued for minor league baseball.

Left: Elston Howard as a Kansas City Monarch

Let's look at the majors post-1947, when one might think that after having seen Robinson succeed in the majors, and knowing full well the depth of talent available in the Negro leagues, that there would have been a rush from all sides to scoop up the best players. Yet this didn't happen. Teams like the Dodgers and Giants were very aggressive in signing black (and later Hispanic) players, and clearly benefited from the infusion of talent and excitement stars like Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron brought to their new clubs. At the other extreme, the Boston Red Sox simply found it quite impossible to find the "right" black player for over a decade. It was not until 1959 that the Bosox grudgingly brought up the frankly mediocre Pumpsie Green to "integrate" the club as its sole African-American member. The great and mighty Yankees looked far and wide before settling on Elston Howard. "The Yankees will bring up a Negro as soon as one that fits the high Yankee Standards is found", sniffed GM George Weiss. It was not until 1955 that Howard was finally found fit for pinstripes. This event was greeted by a comment from Casey Stengel too vulgar to post here, but it should be noted that Howard always said he was made to feel welcome by his Yankee teammates.

Two pioneers: Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson

Nor was each league equal in the pace of integration. Until at least the mid-1960s, the National League far outpaced the American in signings of African-American players. Cleveland (with Bill Veeck in charge) took the lead in the junior circuit by signing Newark Eagles star Larry Doby (who had to go through the same tribulations in 1947 as Robinson, with far less fanfare and without the benefit of seasoning in the minor leagues that Robinson had). The Indians also have the honor of fielding the first black manager - Frank Robinson - in 1975.

So, as we rightly celebrate Robinson and Rickey, it is appropriate to also be cognizant of the struggles before that triumphal year of 1947, and the ones that continued for too long a time after.