Over at SportsWorld, I have a piece up about one of baseball’s most overlooked legends, Luscious Luke Easter, who brought some of the Negro Leagues legends to life for white audiences. Go over and read that if you can; it’s one of my favorite pieces of late.
But the point here is this: Luscious Luke Easter was the 11th black player in Major League Baseball’s modern era. And, as I touch on in the piece, he’s a good reminder that the great integration story of baseball is often oversimplified.
In June of 1949, Luke Easter was called back from San Diego to Cleveland in order to have a knee operation. Now, think of it — June of 1949 is more than two years after Jackie Robinson “integrated” baseball; and I think you’ll see in a minute why I put “integrated” in quotations marks. The Robinson story cannot be told enough; it’s a story of courage and conviction and how hard it is to overturn injustice. But it isn’t the only story.
Two months after Jackie Robinson debuted with the Dodgers, Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the American League. Unlike Robinson, though, he was not an instant success and he only started one game all season. Here’s a trivia answer for you: Everyone knows Larry Doby was the second African American in modern baseball, but did you know he was actually the FOURTH to hit a home run, after Robinson, Willard Brown and Dan Bankhead.
Two weeks after Doby, two African American players — Hank Thompson (who would go on to become a superb player for the New York Giants) and the aforementioned Brown (who would be elected to the Hall of Fame as a Negro Leaguer) — were called up to the St. Louis Browns in what was mostly a publicity stunt. It was a disaster on all fronts. The players each lasted barely three weeks.
In August of that year, a fine Negro Leaguer named Dan Bankhead became the first African American to pitch in the big leagues. Bankhead was from Alabama and, his son once told me, he was absolutely scared to death that he was going to hit a white player with a pitch and spark a riot. Had he come up a decade later, it is possible that he would have been an excellent big league pitcher. But he did not have the soul of a pioneer. His first game, Bankhead entered in the second inning with two runners on and his Dodgers already trailing 4-0 to the Pirates. He gave up a double, a sac fiy, a single and another double to allow four runs to score.
After a 1-2-3 inning in the third, the nightmare happened in the fourth: He plunked Wally Westlake. He seemed utterly frozen by this and the next inning he gave up a triple, a single to opposing pitcher Fritz Ostermueller and a home run to Billy Cox. He was banged around a little bit more and was yanked before the end of the inning — the total damage was 10 hits and 8 runs in 3 1/3 innings. Bankhead did become just the third pitcher in the modern era to homer in his first at-bat. But I suspect that provided little comfort. He did have a nice outing in September against the Giants — four innings without allowing a run — but he was sent back to the minors. He reemerged with limited success in 1950 and 1951.
The larger point is this: After the 1947 season, the question of whether black players could handle the pressures and quality of Major League Baseball was still very much an open one. Robinson’s brilliance was irrefutable but the other four had failed in varying degrees. Doby hit just .156 in 29 games. Thompson and Brown were released. Bankhead was overmatched. There was no great rush by other teams to sign black players. In 1948, the Red Sox were supposedly alerted about an extraordinary 17-year-old outfielder playing for the Birmingham Black Barons and decided to pass on Willie Mays. The Yankees did show some interest in Birmingham’s brilliant shortstop Artie Wilson but did not follow through. The Negro Leagues was loaded with young talent, players who would yet make an impact on the big leagues like Elston Howard and Connie Johnson and Toothpick Sam Jones and Junior Gilliam and Joe Black and so on. It would be a while before they would get the call.
In fact, only two black players made the big leagues in 1948 — one was already a legend, Satchel Paige, and the other was a promising catcher named Roy Campanella.
One black player — Minnie Minoso — was called up at the beginning of the 1949 season. And he was promptly sent back down.
So, back to Easter: When he was called back to Cleveland there were FOUR black players in Major League baseball. That’s all: Robinson and Campanella on the Dodgers; Doby and Paige on the Indians. Those were the only two integrated teams. The Giants, who would play a big role in baseball’s integration story, had not yet called up Monte Irvin. The White Sox, who would also play a major role, would not have its first black player for another two years. The Cardinals would not have a black player for five more years; the Yankees waited a year after that. It would be a decade before the Red Sox finally played a black player.
It is compelling to look at the list year by year. I list off the first 12 black players in modern day baseball, which takes us all the way through the 1951 season. Yep: Four years, 12 players. That’s the trickle of baseball integration. After 1951, things began to pick up speed and I only list off select players. You will note, though, that Pumpsie Green — the first black player on the Red Sox — was the 115th black player in the Majors, and he came after all-time greats Robinson, Campanella, Mays, Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson and Bob Gibson.
The fact that Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey — who tried to singlehandedly hold back progress and justice while his team fell apart on the field — is in the Baseball Hall of Fame is a disgrace that makes all this talk about Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens seem laughable.
1947 (5 players)
1. Jackie Robinson (Brooklyn, April 15)
2. Larry Doby (Cleveland, July 5)
3. Hank Thompson (St. Louis Browns, July 17)
4. Willard Brown (St. Louis Browns, July 19)
5. Dan Bankhead (Brooklyn, August 26, 1947)
1948 (2 players)
6. Roy Campanella (Brooklyn, April 20)
7. Satchel Paige (Cleveland, July 8)
1949 (4 players)
8. Minnie Minoso (Cleveland, April 19)
9. Don Newcombe (Brooklyn, May 20)
10. Monte Irvin (New York Giants, July 8)
11. Luke Easter (Cleveland, August 11)
1950 (1 player)
12. Sam Jethroe (Boston Braves, April 18)
1951 (8 players)
— White Sox integrate with Minoso, who had already debuted with Cleveland.
17. Willie Mays (New York Giants)
1952 (7 players)
22. George Crowe (Boston Braves)
23. Buster Clarkson (Boston Braves)
— I mention these two because the Braves were among the early teams embracing change and fair play and it was in the same town of Yawkey and the Red Sox. The idea that Boston at the time would not have accepted black players is something you something hear and it’s a copout. Boston would have happily embraced Willie Mays.
25. Joe Black (Brooklyn)
1953 (10 players)
31. Connie Johnson (White Sox)
34. Carlos Bernier (Pittsburgh)
— Bernier was a dark-skinned player from Puerto Rico but for some reason Major League Baseball recognizes Curt Roberts (who debuted in 1954) as the first black player in Pirates history. Bernier played in the Canadian Negro Leagues for a time and it is unclear why baseball does not recognize him as the man who broke the color barrier in Pittsburgh.
36. Bob Trice (Athletics)
37. Ernie Banks (Chicago Cubs)
— It was at the end of the 1953 and the beginning of the 1954 season that most teams around baseball finally started to integrated. Trice and Banks were pioneers for their teams and cities.
1954 (14 players)
39. Henry Aaron (Braves)
40. Tom Alston (St. Louis Cardinals)
— First for the Cardinals.
42. Curt Roberts (Pittsburgh)
— Acknowledged by MLB as first for Pirates.
43. Nino Escalara (Cincinnati)
44. Chuck Harmon (Cincinnati)
— Escalara and Harmon broke through for Reds in the same game.
47. Jehosie Heard (Baltimore)
— Technically, Hank Thompson was the first black player in the organization when he joined the St. Louis Browns but Heard was the first black player in Baltimore.
51. Carlos Paula (Washington)
— First for the Senators. It would be seven years before the Washington Football Club would have its first black player. Of course, Washington owner and self-avowed racist George Preston Marshall is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame but there’s a difference there; the Pro Football Hall of Fame doesn’t pretend to be about something larger than football. Marshall’s teams won championships and he played a big role in the growth of football. Yawkey’s team won nothing and his Hall of Fame plaque lamely credits him only with being “rated one of the sport’s finest benefactors,” whatever that means, and being the first in the American League to have his team travel by plane. You are really grasping when you are crediting a baseball owner for plane travel.
1955 (13 players)
54. Elston Howard (New York Yankees)
— First for the Yankees.
56. Roberto Clemente (Pittsburgh)
1956 (13 players)
68. Frank Robinson (Cincinnati)
71. Bill White (New York Giants)
75. Curt Flood (Cincinnati)
1957 (9 players)
83. John Kennedy (Philadelphia)
— First for Phillies
1958 (17 players)
— Ozzie Virgil, who had debuted earlier, became the first black player for Detroit.
88. Orlando Cepeda (Giants)
91. Vada Pinson (Cincinnati)
94. Mudcat Grant (Cleveland)
96. Felipe Alou (Giants)
1959 (17 players)
106. Bob Gibson (St. Louis)
107. Mike Cuellar (Cincinnati)
111. Maury Wills (Dodgers)
115. Pumpsie Green (Boston Red Sox)
117. Willie McCovey (Giants)
119. Billy Williams (Cubs)
121. Tommy Davis (Dodgers)