The Most Dominant Home Run Season Ever

Buck Freeman, Boston, 1903

Buck Freeman, Boston, 1903

Old friend Bill Felber is the author of many baseball books–most recently Under Pallor, Under Shadow: The 1920 American League Pennant Race That Rattled and Rebuilt Baseball (University of Nebraska Press, 2011). He penned this for SABR’s Nineteenth Century Research Committee’s quarterly newsletter, issued last week. I reprint it here with his gracious permission. It seems to me that this little study is a perfect illustration of how sabermetric methods applied to feats of long ago may yield a superior understanding. When advanced fans think of power hitters before Babe Ruth they tend to recall Roger Connor or Dan Brouthers or Sam Thompson. When it comes to single-season home-run exploits, the name that springs to the lips is that of Ned Williamson, whose tainted total of 27 came in 1884 because of a new accounting of balls hit over short fences in left and right that had been ground-rule doubles the year before. Yet when Ruth hit his 26th home run for the Boston Red Sox in 1919 the press called it a new home-run record, topping Buck Freeman’s 25 in 1899. Fortunately, Ruth went to hit 29, rendering the question moot.

What player enjoyed the most dominant home run season in baseball history?

Measured by a widely accepted mathematical tool for measuring exceptionality, it wasn’t Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron or any of the other famed all-time home run leaders. Rather, the champion is an obscure turn-of-the-century figure who hit only 82 home runs in his entire 11-year career.

Buck Freeman wasn’t known as a power hitter, yet in 1899, his first full season as an outfielder with the Washington Senators, Freeman smashed 25 home runs, a total that would not be eclipsed in the majors for two decades.

Freeman’s home run accomplishment is statistically remarkable. It measures 4.25 standard deviations above the norm for the top two dozen home run hitters that season. Since the National League began play in 1876, that is the largest standard deviation performance by any player when measured against the most prolific home run hitters in the same season. And it isn’t close. The gap between Freeman and the second greatest standard deviation in history is as great as the gap between No. 2 and No. 12 on the historical list.

Ned Williamson

Ned Williamson

Standard deviation is a measure of exceptionality. In 1899, Freeman was nothing if not exceptional. His 25 home runs were more than twice as many as any other National League player; Bobby Wallace, who was second, hit 12 home runs for St. Louis. Freeman’s total did not set a single-season record because Chicago’s Ned Williamson had hit 27 in 1884. But Williamson’s total was a freakish result of an unusual one-season ground rule that counted balls hit over the fence at Lake Front Grounds—less than 200 feet distant down the lines—as home runs. Before 1884, they had been counted as ground rule doubles. In fact Williamson’s teammates Fred Pfeffer, Abner Dalrymple and Cap Anson all also surpassed 20 home runs that season. That leaves Williamson’s total of 27 a relatively modest 2.00 standard deviations above the norm for 1884 power hitters, less than half as exceptional as Freeman’s 1899 showing.

Measured by standard deviation, Babe Ruth’s best season was 1920 when he hit 54 homers. But even that total only separated him by 3.72 standard deviations from the league’s 17 top home run hitters. Although Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001, he stood only 3.17 standard deviations above the average for the NL’s top 29 home run hitters that season.

FelberFreeman was a 28-year-old journeyman when the Senators, destined for an 11th place finish in 1898 and extinction at the end of 1899, signed him to a big league contract. To that point, his major league experience consisted of a handful of games with Washington’s American Association team as a teenager in 1891. He spent his prime playing years with Troy, Wilkes-Barre, Haverhill, Toronto, Detroit and Albany in various minor leagues. But when Freeman slugged 20 home runs for the Toronto Canucks in 1897, and followed by hitting 20 more in 1898, the Senators took a chance on the 27-year-old.

Freeman hit only three homers over the final month of the 1898 season, but he did bat .364 in 29 games, good enough to ensure an invitation to spring camp. His first four-bagger of 1899 came April 24 off Boston’s Fred Klobendanz, but it was small consolation to the Senators, who lost 10-1 in a game halted after eight innings so the Beaneaters could catch a train out of town. The defeat, Washington’s fifth in succession, dropped their record to 1-8, good at the time for last place.

Home runs were no big deal in those days, so even when Freeman followed with a second blast off New York’s Tom Colcolough in a 9-8 victory the next day, it went unnoticed outside the agate type. Freeman had three home runs by the end of April, 13 by the end of July, and his Sept. 20 home run off Louisville’s Rube Waddell made him the first player since Sam Thompson, a decade earlier, to amass 20 in one season.

Even at that point, 20 games remained to be played and Freeman was still finding his groove. He homered two days later off Louisville’s Walt Woods, and hit his 22nd—his fifth in eight days—a day after that against Brickyard Kennedy in Brooklyn. [See page 5 for more on Kennedy]. Kennedy was a particular Freeman favorite, providing three of his gopher balls, the first in April and the third in October.

The media hardly knew what to make of Freeman’s power surge, writing little about it at the time. That’s probably an indicator of how lightly the home run was viewed as a strategic force at the time compared to the more scientific approach. It was not until the following February that the Sporting News acknowledged Freeman’s accomplishment with a feature article. When it finally did, the slugger offered a very manly explanation for his surge, which he said amounted to giving in to overpowering urges.

“Often time I have it blocked out to go for a base on balls,” Freeman told writer H.G. Merrill, sounding almost apologetic about his breach of etiquette. “Yet when in position, I suddenly see a fashion of ball coming that I think … in a flash … that I can kill. I follow that inclination and go after it.”

When the Senators were contracted out of existence in 1900, Freeman caught on with the Boston Nationals as an outfielder, then moved on in 1901 to the new Boston Americans, settling in as their first baseman and cleanup hitter. He enjoyed several good seasons in Boston, but never again approached his remarkable 1899 power surge, topping out at 13 home runs in 1903. While that was enough to lead the league, it remained only 2.27 standard deviations ahead of the average of power hitters that season. But then from a statistical standpoint, nobody has ever come close to dominating the home run stats like Freeman did in 1899.

* Measured by standard deviation above the average for the most prolific home run hitters each sea-son. The number of home run hitters used in the calculation was equal to twice the number of teams; thus, in a 12-team league approximately the top two dozen constituted the sample.

Baseball Reporting

Jack Lang

Jack Lang

When Total Baseball made its debut in 1989, the critical response was universally and lavishly favorable. One dissenting voice was that of Jack Lang, recently retired from the press box after 42 years of covering the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, and the Mets. He continued, however, in the role he cherished, that of paterfamilias of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. He served as secretary-treasurer from 1966-88, and then in 1989 he was named executive secretary, a job created for him. How, he asked me somewhat belligerently, could you compile a baseball book of that size with no mention of the role of the press? I countered by saying that even though the book ran to 2294 pages, some worthy topics had to be left for future editions, and I invited him to tackle this one himself.

Below, from the second edition of Total Baseball, is Jack’s contribution. Because of the internet, and bloggers, and the declining appeal of newsprint (if not news itself), this is already something of a period piece. Somebody ought to update it–maybe you.

If baseball really was invented by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839, we have only the findings of the Mills Commission to support the theory. That commission, formed in 1905, relied heavily on the rambling recollections of an old mining engineer named Abner Graves to reach the conclusion that Doubleday indeed “devised the first scheme for playing baseball.” Graves’s testimonies were later found to be chock full of inaccuracies.

There can be no dispute, however, as to when the art of writing about baseball began. In the mid-1850s William Trotter Porter gave a decided lift to the game with extensive coverage in his publication Spirit of the Times. Until Porter’s reports began appearing regularly, baseball in America was ignored in most publications.

John Rickards Betts of Tulane University, in his American Quarterly paper “Sporting Journalism in Nineteenth-Century America,” credits Porter with being the greatest “antebellum sports editor” in America. On December 10, 1831, he published the first copy of Spirit of the Times. It was, for a while, the country’s leading sports journal. But while it carried great reports on racing, prize fighting, and even cricket, it did not devote space to baseball until the 1850s.

William Trotter Porter

William Trotter Porter

When he did start reporting on baseball, Porter is credited with having given it the title of “the national game” and also with having printed the first box scores (although this claim is questionable) and “dope” stories. Shortly thereafter, Frank Queen and Harrison Trent founded the New York Clipper, which devoted even more space to baseball. One reason was the addition to the staff of Henry Chadwick, who had begun his career as a journalist in 1844 by contributing to the Long Island Star. Chadwick, who had played baseball briefly in his youth, was a devotee of the game and wrote of it voluminously.

Alfred H. Spink, in his book The National Game, published in 1910, credits William Cauldwell, editor of the New York Mercury, as being the first man to write about baseball for a daily newspaper. Spink’s authority for this assertion is a gentleman named William M. Rankin, one of the nation’s leading reporters on sports in the late 1880s. Rankin, who was the official scorer for the Mutual Club, also wrote extensively for such New York papers as the Times, Tribune, World, Mail, and Express. He was considered one of the game’s leading authorities. According to Rankin, Cauldwell was writing about baseball by 1853. But Cauldwell found the work of editing his newspaper and writing about baseball too exhausting, and he soon hired Chadwick to write on baseball for the Mercury. It was not long before Henry Chadwick became the leading baseball authority in America.

If weekly and daily publications were slow to catch on to the popularity of baseball, they caught up in the late 1880s. Magazines like The Police Gazette and Sporting Life devoted considerable space to the game. Soon editors of daily newspapers recognized the interest in baseball. James Gordon Bennett, one of the world’s most respected newspapermen, who was editor of the New York Herald, was one of the first to increase coverage of the game.

In time every newspaper in America devoted a full page to sports . . . focusing on baseball. Charles Dana of the New York Sun and Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World are recognized as pioneers in the creation of entire sports departments. By the 1890s, most newspapers in America had created a sports staff. It was in the final decade of the nineteenth century that sportswriting began to develop as a full-time job on the nation’s newspapers.

At the time of his death in 1908, Chadwick was clearly established as the nation’s leading baseball authority. Chadwick, who even in his youth had been honored with the nickname “Father Chadwick” for his role in the development of baseball, was such a busy writer that the history of his various affiliations is in conflict. He is credited in some publications as having worked for the Brooklyn Eagle in 1856 and the New York Clipper in 1857. In others, Chadwick is reported to have written for the Mercury before any of the others, or for both at the same time.

Beadle Dime Base-Ball Player, 1860

Dime Base-Ball Player, 1860

Whatever his affiliations, Chadwick was the most prolific of the early-day baseball writers, and eventually he abandoned daily reporting of the game to concentrate on weekly roundups and books about the game. Chadwick originated what is known today as The Baseball Guide, as published by The Sporting News. He wrote and edited the first baseball guide in 1860, the Beadle’s Dime Base Ball Player. Later he edited the DeWitt’s Guide from 1869 to 1880 and, finally, Spalding’s Baseball Guide from 1881 until his death.

Chadwick’s involvement in the game was more than just writing of it. He was instrumental in changing several rules, is credited with having perfected the box score, and was most concerned about drinking, gambling, and rowdyism at ballparks. He led campaigns to clean up the game. Baseball officials of the day heeded his advice.

As early as 1868, Chadwick wrote the first hardcover book in America devoted strictly to baseball. Appropriately, it was titled: The Game of Base Ball.

Chadwick’s writings on the game led to honors that would be unheard of in the modern era. In 1894, the National League elected Henry an honorary member and two years later voted him a lifetime pension of $600 a year. If a major league today awarded a baseball writer a pension, it would result in an investigation.

Honors continued for Chadwick thirty years after his death. In 1938, one year before the Hall of Fame opened, Chadwick was elected to the Cooperstown shrine as one of the great contributors to the game along with Alexander Cartwright. It was the same year that Grover Cleveland Alexander was elected. Although baseball writers are now honored with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award and scrolls in their honor are mounted in the Hall of Fame Library, Chadwick is the only former baseball writer with a bronze plaque in the main hall, alongside those of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Cy Young, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and others.

Another early-day baseball writer who earned great respect from the leaders of the game was Timothy H. Murnane, known as the Silver King. When Murnane died in 1917, he was so highly regarded that the American League paid for and erected a huge marble tombstone over his grave in Old Calvary Cemetery in Roslindale, Massachusetts. The tombstone cites Murnane as a “pioneer of baseball . . . champion of its integrity . . . gifted and fearless writer.”

Boston Referee

The Boston Referee, Tim Murnane’s sporting paper.

Murnane was a baseball player who turned to writing after his playing days were over. He founded the Boston Referee in 1885, and his writings attracted the editors of the Boston Globe, who in 1888 hired him as their baseball writer, a job he held until his death. In his thirty years as baseball editor of the Globe, he was one of the most influential writers in the country and even found time to serve as president of the New England League for twenty-four years.

Upon his death, it was learned that Murnane left only a small estate to his widow. Immediately, a benefit all-star game was scheduled between great players of the American League and the Boston Red Sox with all proceeds to go to Murnane’s widow. On September 17, 1917, 17,119 Boston fans attended the game which included a pregame show featuring Ziegfield Follies stars Will Rogers and Fanny Brice. The all-star team included such names as Grover Cleveland Alexander, Walter Johnson, Johnny Evers, Wally Schang, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Buck Weaver, Stuffy McInnis, Eddie Collins, Ty Cobb, and Tris Speaker. Heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan coached first base and Babe Ruth pitched the first six innings for Boston.

All appeared without pay. That was evidence of the esteem in which Murnane was held.

Until the creation of full-time sports staffs in the late 1890s, writing about baseball was, in many cities, a hit-and-miss affair. In many areas, the reports of games were turned in by club secretaries or part-time correspondents. It was often less than objective reporting. With the advent of full-time sports reporters and sports editors in the early 1890s, especially in New York, other major cities suddenly followed suit. This resulted in localized styles of writing and language familiar to the areas. John Rickards Betts describes it in his American Quarterly article on nineteenth-century journalism:

The most important developments in sporting journalism outside New York were taking place on the Chicago newspapers. Charles Seymour of the Herald, Finley Peter Dunne of the News and a reporter for the Times were creators of a novel style among baseball writers, a style based on picturesque jargon, lively humor and grotesque exaggeration.

Hugh Fullerton, who was one of the great turn-of-the-century baseball writers in Chicago, noted that “the style of reporting baseball changed all over the country.”

In New York and Boston the style of baseball writing emphasized expert knowledge of the game. In Chicago and other western cities, the style involved more humor and cynicism. Often the final score of the game was secondary. Reporters described games with a great flourish and seemed intent on capturing readers’ interest with their individual writing styles. Here is the way one Chicago Times writer reported a Chicago Cubs game on September 26, 1888:

Hugh Fullerton

Hugh Fullerton

The ninth inning of yesterday’s ball game was a marvel of beauty. To describe it one needs a big stretch of canvas, a white-wash brush, a pan of green paint, and an artist’s hand. Words are hardly expressive enough…. Mr. Schoeneck is a large secretion of fat around considerable bone and muscle, and he knocked the ball out of the diamond and puffed down to first base … immediately after which Mr. Buckley bunted the ball and went to first, his fatness moving to second.

The inning had not been particularly gorgeous up to this moment, but with the hitting of a fly by Mr. Hines it took on a resplendent and glorious aspect, for Mr. Van Altren [Van Haltren] got under the fly, gauged it with his blue eye, and muffed it beautifully. When the ball reached Capt. Anson it had lost much of its virulence and was bounding gently long, smiling the while. But if it had not been for a chunk of lava fresh from the earth it could not have had more fun with Capt. Anson, for it rollicked out of his hands and into them again and all over his person, blithely tapped him in the face, and danced away. Indeed, it was a beautiful error, that one of Anson’s–a regular sunset error flushed and radiant with shadings of purple and a mellow border.

Mr. Van Altren picked it up and looked about irresolutely. He was debating whether he should sacrifice skill to art, and being a young man of no high culture in this respect, he esteemed art as naught, but hurled the ball to the plate to catch Mr. Hines. But art was triumphant for all, for Mr. Van Altren’s irresolution had been fatal. The ball came to the plate a second after Mr. Hines crossed safe, and Mr. Raphael, Mr. M. Angelo, and Mr. Turner will have to take a seat near the door.

A reporter describing a game in that manner today would not be assigned to cover the next day’s game. But it was in that style that games were recorded around the turn of the century. A baseball writer, covering a game at three o’clock in the afternoon, had until three o’clock in the morning to write his story. This enabled many to write what some journalists later referred to as “fabulous narratives.” Writers were bent on influencing the readers with their imaginative use of the language in long, descriptive phrases. Space in newspapers was plentiful, and baseball writers frequently used two and three columns to describe a single game. It gave writers an opportunity to develop their own style in an effort to capture the imagination of the readers.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Chicago, where such writers as Sy Sanborn, Ring Lardner, Hugh Fullerton, and Charles Dryden were winning over readers with their often humorous accounts of baseball games. Lardner came out of South Bend, Indiana, and covered the Chicago Cubs for the Inter-Ocean, the Examiner and later the Tribune. Eventually he abandoned daily baseball writing and made his mark as an author of short stories, many with a baseball theme. You Know Me Al and “Alibi Ike” are two of his baseball classics.

Fullerton was considered the most remarkable forecaster of his day, and his predictions on the outcome of games were sought in every major league city. When he died at age seventy-two in 1946, he was hailed in his obituaries as “the game’s original dopester.” But for all the expertise and humor that he brought to his readers, Fullerton is best remembered in journalistic circles as the writer most responsible for exposing the Chicago White Sox for throwing the 1919 World Series.

Prior to the 1919 Series, the fearless forecaster had predicted an easy victory for the Sox against Cincinnati. But early in the Series Fullerton was convinced that the Sox were not giving it their best effort. In his summary of the Series after Chicago lost, Fullerton suggested as much. But he was not about to let go of it there. Fullerton went to New York, where he followed up leads that tied some of the White Sox to gamblers. The New York Evening World published a toned-down version of his theory, and Fullerton was criticized by members of his own craft. But his persistence continued until he convinced American League president Ban Johnson to investigate the matter. Using much of the information Fullerton supplied, Johnson brought the investigation to a head late in the 1920 season. The result was a trial in which eight players were found innocent. But the same eight were later banned from organized baseball for life by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the newly appointed commissioner of baseball. Fullerton’s investigative reporting was responsible for the findings of the commissioner.

Fullerton was a baseball purist, and his Ten Commandments of Sports were widely published. They read:

1. Thou shalt not quit.
2. Thou shalt not alibi.
3. Thou shalt not gloat over winning.
4. Thou shalt not sulk over losing.
5. Thou shalt not take unfair advantage.
6. Thou shalt not ask odds thou art not willing to give.
7. Thou shalt always be willing to give the benefit of doubt.
8. Thou shalt not underestimate an opponent or overestimate thyself.
9. Remember that the game is the thing and he who thinks otherwise is no true sportsman.
10. Honor the game thou playest; he who plays the game straight and hard wins even when he loses.

Grant;and Rice, Base-Ball Ballads

Grantland Rice, Base-Ball Ballads

It was common at the turn of the century for baseball writers to begin their stories with a few lines of verse. Grantland Rice, who came out of Nashville, where he had been sports editor of the Tennesseean, to join the staff of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, was perhaps the most widely known writer in this style. His poetic jingles were read throughout the American League and many attempted to copy his style.

Rice did not remain long in Cleveland. He longed for the South and returned there. But then he returned North to New York, where his syndicated column appeared throughout the country. Rice actually was better known for his football writing than he was for his baseball work.

Besides Rice, another leading baseball writer of the early twentieth century who frequently began his stories with a few lines of verse was Franklin Pierce Adams, who wrote under the byline of “F.P.A.” He wrote what is known as “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” during a New York Giants-Chicago Cubs series in 1908. Quoted to this day, it read in part:

Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double,
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble,
Tinker to Evers to Chance.

That verse, as much as their actual records on the field, is credited with leading to the induction of the Chicago Cubs’ infield trio into the Hall of Fame.

Charles Dryden, born in 1857, moved about as much as any baseball writer in the late 1890s and into the 1900s. He covered the California League for the San Francisco Examiner and then moved to the New York American and on again to Philadelphia with the North American. But in 1905 he was offered what was then considered the highest salary paid a baseball writer and moved to the Chicago Examiner. The salary was reported to be $100 weekly.

It was in Chicago that Dryden gained fame with his nicknames for the baseball people he wrote about. He called Charles Comiskey, the White Sox owner, “the Old Roman.” He termed the light-hitting White Sox the “Hitless Wonders.” Chicago Cubs’ manager Frank Chance was dubbed “the Peerless Leader.” It was also Dryden who coined the phrase about the hapless Washington Senators: “Washington . . . first in war, first in peace and last in the American League.”

Dryden was a charter member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), which was formed officially in 1908. It was an association born of necessity when baseball writing in the early years of the twentieth century was attracting some of the nation’s outstanding young writers and baseball itself was dominating the sports pages. Only the baseball owners failed to recognize the importance of this feisty band of scribes. They were treated–or mistreated–as a necessary evil.

At the 1908 playoff game between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants at New York’s Polo Grounds, Hugh Fullerton arrived to find actor Louis Mann in his seat. This was not uncommon. Giants manager John McGraw loved to hobnob with Broadway actors and often told them to sit in the press box. When Fullerton asked Mann to vacate the seat, Mann refused. No Giants official would order him to move. At first Fullerton attempted to write his story sitting on Mann’s lap, but eventually he sat on a box in the aisle next to him and covered the entire game from that seat.

Baseball writers continued to suffer mistreatment during the Chicago Cubs-Detroit Tigers World Series that followed. The writers covering the Series were outraged at the treatment accorded them. In Chicago, out-of-town writers were placed in the back row of the grandstand. In Detroit, the writers were compelled to climb a ladder to the roof of the first base pavilion, where they were forced to write in the rain and snow that hampered the Series. Finally, unwilling to endure these conditions another year, the writers decided to organize. At the request of Jack Ryder of Cincinnati and Henry Edwards of Cleveland, Joseph S. Jackson, sports editor of the Detroit Free Press, arranged a meeting room in the Hotel Ponchartrain on the morning of the final game. That was October 14, 1908. Present at that first meeting, the founding fathers of the Baseball Writers Association of America, were: Tim Murnane and Paul Shannon, Boston; Charles Hughes, Hugh Keough, Malcolm McLean, Hugh Fullerton, Bill Phelon, and Sy Sanborn, Chicago; Ed Bang and Henry Edwards, Cleveland; Jack Ryder and Charles Zuber, Cincinnati; J.W. McConaughy and Sid Mercer, New York; William Weart, Philadelphia; George Moreland, Pittsburgh; Joseph Jackson and Joseph Smith, Detroit; James Crusinberry, Hal Lanigan, W.G. Murphy, and J.B. Sheridan, St. Louis; and Ed Grillo, Washington.

Joseph Jackson was appointed temporary chairman and Sy Sanborn, secretary. Tim Murnane was appointed treasurer, and he passed the hat to collect $1 dues from each of the founding fathers.

A more formal meeting was held in New York in December 1908 at the annual winter meetings of the two leagues. Fullerton, Edwards, and Weart, who had been appointed in Detroit to draw up a constitution, listed four items as the main objective of the BBWAA. They were:

1. To encourage a square deal in baseball.
2. To simplify the rules in scoring baseball games and promote uniformity in scoring.
3. To secure better facilities for reporting baseball games and better regulation of the scorers’ boxes during both championship seasons and World Series at the parks of the American and National League Clubs, hereinafter to be designated the major leagues.
4. To bring together into a closer bond of friendship the writers of baseball throughout the United States and Canada.

The organization was enthusiastically endorsed from the start by both leagues. Promise of full support was received by league presidents, who appointed the local representatives of chapters in each city to serve as custodians of the league press boxes.

Immediately conditions improved throughout baseball. No longer did writers have the problem of outsiders occupying seats in the press box. Interlopers were immediately escorted out by park security men upon orders of the local BBWAA representative. The writers had the backing of the league to police their own work area.

New York baseball writers, 1927

Baseball writers and sports figures, 1927

By 1910-11, the baseball writing fraternity was accepting into its ranks some of the bright young writers of that era–men who would go on to greater heights in the field of literature. Covering the Giants in New York that year were men like Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Heywood Broun, and Fred Lieb. Rice later became recognized as the dean of America’s sportswriters; Runyon became the chronicler of Broadway night life and the characters who inhabited the Great White Way, while Broun went on to the editorial side of newspapers and founded the Newspaper Guild of America. Lieb was a prolific writer who was one of baseball’s leading biographers.

Elsewhere in the country, other fine young writers were honing their skills covering baseball. Some of the greats who were regular beat writers in those days were Red Smith, Frank Graham, John Kieran, J. Roy Stockton, Warren Brown, John Carmichael, Shirley Povich, John Drebinger, and Tom Meany.

There was a coterie of writers in that era whose names were synonymous with baseball for the simple reason that they covered baseball from the first day of spring training until the final out of the World Series. A writer assigned to the Tigers or Cardinals or Pirates or any other club stayed with that team the entire season, traveled to the cities in each league, and made every road trip. Writers associated with one club were almost as well known as the players they wrote about.

Baseball coverage did not vary until after World War II. It was standard practice up to then for the writers on morning newspapers to wait until the end of the game and write on who won or lost, and how. The final score might not appear until well down into the story, but the reporter was writing up the details of the game. Writers for afternoon papers also often sat in the press box after the game and wrote their versions, with considerable editorial opinion and second-guessing. Talking to ballplayers after the game was not considered a necessity. Occasionally, but not always, writers did visit the clubhouses after games for some conversation and verification with ballplayers.

The style of writing changed after World War II. The need to know was of primary importance, and reporters for afternoon papers made it a habit to get down to the clubhouse after a game for what was then known as “the second-day angle.” The afternoon papers of the next day had to offer the readers something they had not learned in their morning paper.

Dick Young

Dick Young

But starting in 1946 and in the years that followed, a change in the style of covering a baseball game was evident–especially in New York. No longer did the writers on afternoon papers have the ballplayers to themselves after a game. Dick Young was an enterprising young baseball writer for the New York Daily News, a morning newspaper. Because of the multiple editions of his newspaper, he had the time to visit the clubhouse and “pick up quotes” or find out why certain plays had occurred.

Young changed the style of baseball reporting with his hustle, and ever since he arrived, the work of the morning newspaper reporter has not been the same. No beat reporter nowadays would dare turn in a story unless it had clubhouse quotes. Editors demand it.

Along with the enterprise of Dick Young came radio and the television age. Fans were now able to listen to and watch games at home. What they wanted in their papers the next day was inside stuff from the players and managers. For reporters working night games with deadlines approaching, the job of writing baseball was no longer the sinecure it had been in the first four decades of the century.

Picture the baseball writer of the 1930s. All games started around 3 PM. There was no need for a pregame story, since most newspapers did not go to press until around midnight. A baseball writer in that era was finished working around 6 or 7 PM and was free again until game time the next day.

Today’s baseball writer, what with virtually every game being played at night and early editions at all papers, finds himself working around the clock. The average writer covering baseball today, especially for a morning newspaper, will find himself writing three or four stories in a single day.

Night games and travel have also made it difficult for the modern-day writer. Before plane travel, all clubs moved from city to city by train, and the writers traveled with them. Trains left around midnight and arrived early the next morning in the team’s next city. At least there was a night of rest and time to fraternize with the ballplayers. Today, teams fly out right after a game, and writers find it impossible to catch the team plane. They most often travel alone and must handle their own luggage, an added chore the earlier-day writers did not encounter.

The result is that fewer writers remain on the baseball beat for any length of time. The travel, the long hours, and the night games have made it an arduous task. Before the age of television, it was quite common for a writer to remain on the beat for twenty to thirty years. Today, a writer feels “burned out” after just a few years.

The baseball beat writer’s job was always considered the glamour assignment on any sports staff. Baseball writers were envied for what was considered an easy lifestyle: spring training in some warm climate around the middle of February and then a ballgame every afternoon for six months followed by the World Series. From mid-October until mid-February, the baseball writer had a relative vacation, covering only signings, trades, and trivial matters.

The job of the baseball writer became even more difficult in the 1960s with the advent of the labor movement that created the Major League Baseball Players Association, the free agency that group won, and the proliferation of baseball players’ agents. Whereas baseball was an eight-month-a-year job for writers before the union was formed, it is now a year-round chore.

The job suddenly became more demanding, wearying, and less glamorous. One New York tabloid in the mid-1980s was forced to change beat writers four times in five years. The deadline pressures and arduous travel schedule were too much.

Despite the constant changes, the BBWAA retains the prestige it earned shortly after being founded in 1908. Much of this is due to the organization’s annual awards and its responsibility for voting on the Hall of Fame.

Baseball Hall of Fame Roster, 1937

Baseball Hall of Fame Roster, 1937

The major awards the BBWAA votes on each year are the Most Valuable Player, the Cy Young Award, the Rookie of the Year, the Manager of the Year, and the Hall of Fame, since the Cooperstown shrine’s creation in 1936.

The idea of a Most Valuable Player Award was first devised by the Chalmers Motor Company of Detroit in 1911. The company abandoned the award after four years. In 1922 the American League resurrected the award, but it was not until two years later that the National League followed suit. By 1929, however, both leagues had quit their sponsorship.

At the December 11, 1930, meeting of the Baseball Writers Association, the group voted to make the Most Valuable Player Award their official award. Three writers from each city in both the American and National Leagues were selected to vote. The first “official” winners selected by the BBWAA were announced in the fall of 1931. Since then, the BBWAA has voted on the award every year. In the late 1960s, the BBWAA copyrighted the award. In early years, The Sporting News awarded a trophy of sorts to the players selected by the BBWAA. At their 1944 meeting, the writers decided to make the award on  their own and renamed the MVP trophy the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Award. The commissioner died one month later, but his name remains on the award to this day.

In 1955, Ford C. Frick, then the baseball commissioner, had the feeling that pitchers were not getting their just recognition–this despite the fact that five American League and six National League pitchers had already won the award. Frick, a former baseball writer himself, suggested that a new award be created honoring the best pitcher in baseball each year. There was to be one award to cover both leagues. Frick suggested it be called the Cy Young Award.

The writers went along with Frick. But in 1956, the first year of the award, Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers not only won the Cy Young Award but also was recognized as the National League’s Most Valuable Player.

After voting a singular award for eleven years, the BBWAA voted in 1967 to award the Cy Young in each league. Frick had expressed strong objection to the dual awards, but fifteen months after his retirement, it was approved by then-commissioner Will Eckert.

Cy Young Award

Cy Young Award

In 1947, after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, the BBWAA decided to create a Rookie of the Year Award, naming Robinson as their first choice. The Chicago chapter of BBWAA had its own rookie award from 1940 to 1946 but dropped it when the entire association decided to sponsor an award for freshmen. At first, the writers voted for just one rookie in all of baseball. After Robinson was named in 1947 and Alvin Dark of the Boston Braves in 1948, the writers elected to choose a candidate from each league starting in 1949.

The Manager of the Year Award did not gain sanction from the BBWAA until 1983. Up to then, the Associated Press, the United Press International, and The Sporting News all had their own awards for managers. Often, three managers would be named. But the BBWAA Award is now considered the official Manager of the Year Award.

Of all the responsibilities of the Baseball Writers Association, none is taken more seriously than voting for the Hall of Fame. It is, perhaps, because more members participate and because of the honor accorded a player elected to Cooperstown. In the first election in 1936, 226 members voted. More than 450 members now vote in the annual January election.

The idea for a baseball Hall of Fame was first discussed in 1935 to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of baseball in 1939. The National Baseball Centennial Commission was formed. Ford Frick, then the National League president, was the moving force behind the creation of the Hall of Fame and the decision to name Cooperstown as the site for the museum. That same year, the Baseball Writers Association was asked by the Commission to vote for players to be elected to the Hall of Fame and inducted officially when the Hall opened in 1939.

The BBWAA has been charged with that responsibility ever since. Another group, known as the Veterans Committee, also votes on players, former executives, managers, and umpires.

Baseball, especially in recent years, has been the most written-about sport in America. No longer is it a sport covered solely by the beat writers for newspapers. It is a game that captures the imagination of authors, a fact born out by the Hall of Fame Library. By 1990, the library contained approximately 25,000 books about baseball.

It is a sport that has encouraged political columnists like George Will and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors like James Michener to publish books about the game. Statisticians like Bill James and Pete Palmer publish books annually with their own theories. The Elias Sports Bureau, statisticians for the major leagues, issue their own annual Elias Baseball Analyst edited by Seymour Siwoff and the Hirdt brothers, which tells you, among other things, that in 1989, only 29 percent of the fair balls Tony Pena hit to the outfield were pulled.

No sport in America is covered more extensively or comprehensively than baseball. It all begins with the game and the beat writers who cover it. Everyone else just wants to get in on the act.

Baseball Integration Timeline

Jackie Robinson, 1947.

Time, 9/22/47.

A colleague in the Commissioner’s Office asked me to work up a Jackie Robinson timeline, which soon extended to a timeline of baseball’s integration.This endeavor interested me and I hope it will grab you too. This outline is no substitute for a broader understanding of the African American experience in baseball, or in society at large. But it does provide an entry point, and I hope that you will consider adding entries to it, or following the supplied links, most of them from within Our Game (some may not work by clicking and may require copying into your browser). A fine overview of the subject–indeed the best I know–is Jules Tygiel’s “Black Ball,” which ran in this space over five days last week, commencing with

1820: The slave Henry Rosecranse Columbus Jr. plays baseball in Kingston, NY (slavery not abolished in New York State until 1827).

1831: William Lloyd Garrison begins publication of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. Also, Nat Turner leads the most successful slave rebellion in U.S. history.

1840s: African Americans play baseball near Madison Square.

1847: Frederick Douglass begins publication of the abolitionist newspaper The North Star.

The North Star, 1848; editor, Frederick Douglass.

The North Star, 1848; editor, Frederick Douglass.

1850s: Slaves play baseball in the south, as attested by several elderly African Americans interviewed by WPA writers in 1930s.; search full text for “baseball”

1855: Two African-American Clubs, the St. John’s Club of Newark and the Union club (home unknown) played a match game in Newark, New Jersey on October 23, rained out after two innings – Newark Daily Mercury, October 24, 1855.

1857: In Dred Scott v. Sandford, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds slavery.

1858: The Hunter club, of Flushing, NY, defeats Jamaica, New York’s Henson club (both black) by fifteen runs.

1859: African Americans form three clubs in the Brooklyn area: the Unknown of Weeksville, the Henson of Jamaica, and the Monitor of Brooklyn; these will be followed by the Uniques and the Union, both of Williamsburgh.

1861: Civil War commences with action at Fort Sumter, SC; Abner Doubleday did not start baseball, but by firing the first Union shot in response to the Confederate barrage here, he did commence the Civil War.

1863: Emancipation Proclamation issued.

1865: Luther B. Askin of Northampton, MA. plays on an otherwise white team, the Florence Eagles.

1866: Civil Rights Act of 1866 is passed by Congress over Andrew Johnson’s presidential veto. All persons born in the United States are now citizens.

1867: Color line drawn at National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players meeting in Philadelphia. Acting chairman James Whyte Davis of the Knickerbockers recommends the exclusion of African-American clubs from representation in the Association, saying, “It is not presumed by your committee that any club who have applied are composed of persons of color, or any portion of them; and the recommendations of your committee in this report are based upon this view, and they unanimously report against the admission of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” By way of explanation, the DeWitt Base Ball Guide for 1868 adds, on page 85, “If colored clubs were admitted there would be[,] in all probability, some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anybody….”

cs envelope addressed to Jacob White of Pythian Base Ball Club.

cs envelope addressed to Jacob White of Pythian Base Ball Club.

1868: The Eurekas and Aldephi clubs, of Nyack, NY, play for the “colored championship.” The “Eurekas” defeat the “Adelphis” by a score of 43 to 13.

1869: First instance of a black club playing against a white one. The colored Mutuals as well as the colored Alerts (both of Washington, DC) played games that year against the Washington Olympics, a top-ranked white club whose co-founder and president was Abraham G. Mills, later a National League president and head of the Special Commission (on baseball origins) of 1905–07. Playing for the black Mutuals was a son of Frederick Douglass. Also in this year: The Union club of Catskill, NY (black) defeats the Independent club of Kingston, NY (white) by a score of 36 to 7. Ex-senator William V. Fiero’s black servant captained the Catskill nine.

1870: The Mutual club, of Wilmington, NC, and the Mutual Club, of Washington, DC, agree to play for the colored championship of the United States. Also in this year: The Cambria club, of Providence, RI, dominates local amateur base-ball. The “Cambrias” cross bats with white and black teams at Dexter Training Ground. In Jersey City, meanwhile, on August 31, when a scheduled match fails to take place, eight members of the Champion Club of Jersey City play a nine selected “without respect to age or color.” The game causes much comment, as reported in the Evening Journal (Jersey City) on the following day.

1874: Graphic illustrator Solomon Eytinge, Jr. creates for Harper’s Weekly the first known visual representation to imagine baseball segregation: “Base Ball in Blackville.”

1875: William Fisher (a “professional pitcher” for the Chicago Unique club, black) is hired by Winona, Minnesota’s Clipper Base Ball Club (white). Fisher pitches against the Janesville, WI, Mutuals, defeating them by a score of 13 to 7. Later, the black hurler confesses to throwing a game against the Red Caps for $250.

1877: With the Compromise of 1877, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes withdraws federal troops from the South in exchange for being elected President. The compromise formally ends the Reconstruction Period.

1878: Bud Fowler pitches for an integrated club, the Chelseas, and defeats the Boston Red Stockings of the National League in an exhibition contest.

1879: William Edward White, a student at Brown University and the son of a Georgia slaveholder and his black house servant, plays first base in a game for the Providence Grays of the National League, against visiting Cleveland Blues.

1883: During the St. Louis Black Stockings championship season, Henry Bridgewater’s team plays black and white semi-professional and amateur nines in Indiana, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, and Upper Canada.

1888 Syracuse with Walker and Higgins

1888 Syracuse with Fleet Walker (top left)and Bob Higgins (lower left).

1884: Brothers Moses Fleetwood Walker and Weldy Wilberforce Walker play in major leagues with Toledo entry in American Association (a major in the period 1882-91). They are the last blacks in MLB until Jackie Robinson in 1947.

1885: In August three teams (the Keystone Athletics of Philadelphia, the Manhattans of Washington DC, and the Argyles of Babylon NY) combine to form the Cuban Giants, the most famous and influential of 19th-century black professional teams. Also in this year: The Rough and Ready Club, of Wilmington, NC, defeat the Blue Ridge nine for the local black women’s championship by a score of 18 to 0. Amelia Bradley captains the “Rough and Readys.” Also in this year: Norman Van Dyke covers shortstop for the Perth Amboy club, of Rahway, NJ (white). In 1887, Van Dyke would play for the Trenton Cuban Giants.

1887: Blacks are barred from signing new contracts in the international League, although several black players are “grandfathered in” for a few years.

1889: The Cuban Giants represent Trenton, N.J., in the (otherwise white) Middle States League. Over the next few years several other all-black teams play in minor leagues, the last being the Celoron, N.Y., Acme Colored Giants of the 1898 Iron & Oil League.

1892: On October 15 Charles Leander “Bumpus” Jones pitches a no-hitter in his first major league game for the Cincinnati Reds. Evidence now suggests he was an African American who passed as white during his baseball career.

1895: The all-black Page Fence Giants win 118 of 154 games, with two of their losses coming against the major league Cincinnati Reds.

Page Fence Giants, Sol White second from left.

Page Fence Giants, Sol White second from left.

1896: In Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds de jure racial segregation of “separate but equal” facilities. The decision upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities. Homer Plessy, a Creole of color, had challenged local custom in 1892. The 30-year-old Plessy was jailed for sitting in the whites-only train car of the East Louisiana Railroad. Plessy had been a member of the black Pickwick Base Ball club in the late 1880s.

1899: Bill Galloway becomes the last African American in Organized Baseball, playing five games for Woodstock, Ontario in the Canadian League. Except for Jimmy Claxton, who passed for Native American briefly with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League in 1916, Galloway is the last black signed for the minors until Jackie Robinson on October 23, 1945.

1900: The Cuban League becomes racially integrated with the addition of an all-black team, the San Francisco B.B.C., which won the pennant in its first season.

1901: Baltimore Orioles Manager John McGraw attempts to pass off second baseman Charlie Grant of the Columbia Giants as an Indian named Chief Tokohama, until Chicago White Sox President Charles Comiskey exposes the ruse.

1905: William Clarence Matthews, formerly shortstop for Harvard, plays for Burlington in the independent Vermont League (a.k.a. Northern League). Facing considerable racist resistance, he leaves professional baseball, becomes a lawyer, and eventually serves as an Assistant Attorney General of the United States in the Coolidge Administration.

1907: Nine African American players join Cuban League teams, inaugurating a long tradition of Negro leaguers playing professionally in Latin America.

1908: Jack Johnson wins the world heavyweight boxing title. Also in this year, in the fall the Cincinnati Reds play a series of games against Cuban League teams in Havana, finishing 6-6-1, and also lost a game to the Brooklyn Royal Giants, a black U.S. team, 9 to 1. Over the next five years several major league teams, including the New York Giants, Philadelphia Athletics, and Detroit Tigers, would play exhibition series in Havana against teams that often featured black American players.

1910: Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries, "The Knockout Blow."

1910: Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries, “The Knockout Blow.”

1909: Pete Hill and Bruce Petway are included in the Cabañas card set published in Cuba, becoming the first black U.S. baseball players depicted on baseball cards.

1910s: Many enduring all-black clubs—Cuban Giants, Lincoln Giants, All-Nations,, et al.—survive and even thrive in this period, but often they are at the tender mercies of white promoters and white ballpark owners.

1911: An African American catcher named Bill Thompson plays for Bellows Falls, Vermont, in the independent Tri-State League, with no controversy. Two years later, the Bellows Falls club tries to sign the black pitcher Frank Wickware, but the opposing team refuses to take the field against him.

1914: In the Philippines, the All-Marines team left the professional Manila League and was replaced by a team from the 24th Infantry, one of the segregated “Buffalo Soldier” regiments. Besides the 24th, the league had two white teams (Manila and All-Army) and one of native Filipinos. Future hall of famer Oscar Charleston was the ace pitcher for the 24th, and Wilber Rogan was his catcher. Also in this year: White Kansas City promoter J.L. Wilkinson organizes the All-Nations team, which includes whites, blacks, Indians, Asians, and Latin Americans.

1919: “Red Summer” race riots in Chicago, Washington, D.C.; Knoxville, Indianapolis, and Omaha.

1920: Rube Foster of the Chicago American Giants forms the Negro National League. It is at least the third and arguably the fourth attempt at an all-black league, but this one sticks, and three years later attracts a rival, the Eastern Colored League. Also in 1920, Tom Wilson founds the Negro Southern League, and Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall become the first two African-American players in what soon was known as the National Football League.

1924 Negro League World Series, Hilldale of Darby, PA vs. Kansas City Monarchs.

1924 Negro League World Series, Hilldale of Darby, PA vs. Kansas City Monarchs.

1924: First Negro League World Series. Also in this year: When Pedro Dibut takes the mound for the Cincinnati Reds on May 1, he becomes the first player to appear in both the organized Negro leagues and the white majors, having pitched for the Cuban Stars of the Negro National League in 1923. Two other players, Ramón “Mike” Herrera and Oscar Estrada, would make the same jump in the 1920s.

1925: A. Philip Randolph organizes and leads the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, first predominantly black labor union. Also in this year the Wichita Monrovians of the Colored Western League square off against an all-white Ku Klux Klan baseball club.

1926: Three white teams (Allentown, Camden, Chester) formed a new Interstate League with three teams from the Eastern Colored League (Harrisburg Giants, Bacharach Giants, and Hilldale). The league lasted only half a season. The Camden club included Tin Lai, a player of Chinese ancestry from Hawaii.

1928: On October 11, Homestead Grays slugger John Beckwith hit three home runs off of Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Rube Walberg. It was the first time an African-American player hit three homers in one game off an active major league pitcher. Two Hall of Famers also homered during the game: Jimmie Foxx and Martin Dihigo. The Grays beat the American League all-stars 12-10. The game was played in Butler, PA.

1933: Pittsburgh’s Gus Greenlee unifies the franchises owned by the numbers kings into a rejuvenated Negro National League. First East-West All-Star Game is played in Chicago, which becomes, for black baseball, a bigger draw and more important event than the annual World Series.

1934-35: Dizzy Dean’s barnstorming team travels the nation accompanied by the “Satchel Paige All-Stars.” In one memorable 1934 game, called by baseball executive Bill Veeck, “the greatest pitching battle I have ever seen,” Paige bests Dean 1-0.

1935: The Berkeley (CA) International League of 1935, a semipro circuit, includes African American, Caucasians, Asians, and Hispanics.

1936: Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

1937: Joe Louis becomes heavyweight champion of the world in boxing, which had been America’s most integrated professional sport. Jackie Robinson, age 18, enrolls at Pasadena Junior College, where he is a star in every sport he turns his hand to. A second top-flight black circuit, the Negro American League, is formed in the Midwest and South.

For Jackie Robinson’s personal timeline, see also:

1939: Jackie Robinson transfers to UCLA, where he continues to excel. He is one of four black players on the football team, with Woody Strode, Kenny Washington, and Ray Bartlett.

Hank Greenberg and Joe Louis

Hank Greenberg and Joe Louis

1941: A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement convinces President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 in 1941, banning discrimination in the defense industries during World War II. Jackie Robinson leaves UCLA short of graduation, plays pro football in Hawaii.

1942: Nate Moreland and Jackie Robinson request a tryout at a White Sox training camp in Pasadena, California. Branch Rickey, longtime GM of the St. Louis Cardinals, joins the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson is drafted into the military.

1943: At Owners’ Meetings, chaired by Judge Landis, Paul Robeson and other black dignitaries make pitch for integrating baseball. See: Joint Major League Minutes at:

1944: Jackie Robinson is court-martialed for insubordination but is acquitted. Receives honorable discharge, and writes to Kansas City Monarchs management to see about a job in baseball.

1945: People’s Voice sportswriter Joe Bostic appears at the Brooklyn Dodger training camp at Bear Mountain, New York, with two Negro League players, Terris McDuffie and Dave “Showboat” Thomas, and demands a tryout. In Boston, the Red Sox, under pressure from popular columnist Dave Egan and city councilman Isidore Muchnick, agree to audition Sam Jethroe, Marvin Williams, and Jackie Robinson. After no follow-up, Robinson plays for Monarchs and then in the fall joins Chet Brewer’s barnstorming Kansas City Royals, based in California. During this period, after years of wishing to act on his principles and his sense of obtaining a competitive edge, Rickey culminates his scouting efforts—and his Brooklyn Brown Dodgers subterfuge—by signing Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn’s top affiliate. The date of the contract was signed in Montreal, where he would play in 1946, on October 23 but Rickey had first met with Robinson at the Dodger offices in Brooklyn (215 Montague Street) on August 28. He felt he had to act quickly at this time because the Ives-Quinn Act, outlawing racial discrimination in employment in New York State, had passed in the spring. Also in this year, Jesse Owens and Abe Saperstein, along with the High Marine Club of West Oakland, develop the concept for a West Coast Negro League. This is in direct conflict with the existing Pacific Coast League, which is headed up by Clarence Rowland.

1946: The West Coast Baseball Association presents a problem for the Pacific Coast League, making its push to become the third major league. PCL clubs refuse to rent fields on off days to the proposed Negro League. Also, Robinson goes to spring training at Daytona Beach as a Montreal Royal. April 18, Opening Day for the Royals at Jersey City; Robinson goes 4-for-5 with a three-run home run and two stolen bases. Montreal goes on to win the IL pennant and the Little World Series (against the American Association pennant winner).

Opening Day at Jersey City, April 18, 1946.

Opening Day at Jersey City, April 18, 1946.

1947: April 15, Robinson makes his debut at Ebbets Field, playing first base. He would shift to second base in 1948. African-American pitcher Dan Bankhead will join the Dodgers later in 1947; Larry Doby breaks the color line with Cleveland in the American League, with the Cleveland Indians. Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe would arrive soon, and so would Monte Irvin, Minnie Minoso, and Satchel Paige.

1948: A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters successfully pressure President Harry S. Truman to issue Executive Order 9981, ending segregation in the armed services.

1949: Robinson wins NL MVP honors and plays in his second World Series in three years. In midsummer he is called to testify before House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he criticizes Paul Robeson, a step he later regrets.

1950: The National Football League absorbs four clubs from the rival All-American Football Conference and thus “re-integrates” (blacks had played in the 1920s, and in the AAFC). The AAFC champion Cleveland Browns had featured black stars Bill Willis and Marion Motley. The National Basketball Association also integrates in this year, with three blacks: Earl Lloyd, Sweetwater Clifton, and Chuck Cooper.

1952: Blacks begin to appear on minor league clubs in the Jim Crow South. The Dallas Eagles of the Texas League sign former Homestead Gray pitcher Dave Hoskins to become the “Jackie Robinson of the Texas League.”

Hank Aaron, Jacksonville 1953.

Henry Aaron, Jacksonville 1953.

1953: The Cotton States League barred brothers Jim and Leander Tugerson, under contract with the Hot Springs (AR) Bathers, from competing except where the home club permitted. The 19-year-old Henry Aaron, playing for Jacksonville, desegregates the South Atlantic League, which included clubs in Florida, Atlanta, and Georgia, while Bill White integrates the Carolina League.

1954: Nat Peeples breaks the color line in the Southern Association, but faced with virulent opposition, lasts only two weeks. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Supreme Court overturns Plessy v. Ferguson and bans “separate but equal” public schools. Yet in big-league baseball the luxury Chase Hotel in St. Louis informed Jackie Robinson and other Dodger players that they could room there, but had to refrain from using the dining room or swimming pool or loitering in the lobby.

1956: Jackie Robinson retires from baseball, not having landed the managing job he had desired. In this year Ozzie Virgil becomes the first player in MLB from the Dominican Republic; to date 617 more have followed.

1958: Willie O’Ree becomes first black player in National Hockey League.

1959: Boston Red Sox become last MLB club to integrate, via Elijah “Pumpsie” Green.

1961: The Pittsburgh Pirates place Gene Baker at the helm of their Batavia franchise, the first black to manage in the minor leagues.

1962: The Chicago Cubs name Buck O’Neil the first black coach in the major leagues. James Meredith, an African American, is barred from attending the University of Mississippi.

Buck O'Neil, 1962 Cubs.

Buck O’Neil, 1962 Cubs.

1963: Martin Luther King is arrested and jailed in Birmingham, Alabama for “parading without a permit.” President Kennedy sends Civil Rights Bill to Congress, where it languishes. He is assassinated November 22 of this year.

1964: Civil Rights Act passes: bans discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin” in employment practices and public accommodations.

1965: Voting Rights Act passes.

1966: In his Hall of Fame induction speech, Ted Williams says: “The other day Willie Mays hit his 522nd home run. [Williams retired with 521.] He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, “Go get ‘em, Willie.” Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be beter. This is the nature of man and the name of the game. I hope that one day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.”

1972: Jackie Robinson dies, nine days after a brief address at the World Series in which he chided MLB for its continued discrimination in hiring practices.

1974: Henry Aaron breaks Babe Ruth’s career record for home runs.

1975: Frank Robinson becomes MLB’s first black manager.

1981: An estimated 19 percent of the players in MLB are African-American. Most sources (there is some debate) claim this to be the high-water mark. Percentage of African Americans is now well below 10 percent, while Latino representation continues to rise.

1987: Commissioner Peter Ueberroth dedicates the season to the commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut.

Black Ball, Part 5

Clemente at Ebbets Field, 1955.

Roberto Clemente at Ebbets Field, 1955.

Part 5 continues from: The desegregation of organized baseball opened the way not only to blacks in the United States but to those in other parts of the Americas as well. Throughout the 20th century, baseball had imposed a curious double standard on Latin players, accepting those with light complexions but rejecting their darker countrymen. With the color barrier down, major league clubs found a wealth of talent in the Carribbean. Minnie Minoso, the “Cuban Comet” who integrated the Chicago White Sox, became the first of the great Latin stars. Over a 15-year career, Minoso compiled a .298 batting average. In 1954, slick-fielding Puerto Rican Vic Power launched his career with the Athletics.

The following year, Roberto Clemente, the greatest of the Latin stars, debuted with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The proud Puerto Rican won four batting championships and amassed 3,000 hits en route to a .317 lifetime batting average. In the late 1950s, the San Francisco Giants revealed the previously ignored treasure trove that existed in the Dominican Republic. In 1958, Felipe Alou became the first of three Alou brothers to play for the Giants, and in 1960 the Giants unveiled pitcher Juan Marichal, “the Dominican Dandy,” who won 243 games en route to the Hall of Fame.

Among the early Latin players were two sons of stars of the Jim Crow age. Perucho Cepeda, who had won renown as “The Bull” in his native Puerto Rico, had refused to play in the segregated Negro leagues. His son Orlando, dubbed “The Baby Bull,” went on to star for the Giants and Cardinals. Luis Tiant, Sr., a standout performer in both Cuba and the Negro Leagues, lived to see Luis, Jr. win over 200 major league games and excel in the 1975 World Series.

Perucho Cepeda with the Indians of Mayaguez

Perucho Cepeda with the Indians of Mayaguez

As the major leagues moved slowly toward complete desegregation, throughout the nation blacks invaded the minor leagues. In the Northern and Western states, these athletes, a combination of youthful prospects and Negro League veterans, were greeted by a storm of insults, beanballs, and discrimination. “I learned more names than I thought we had,” states Piper Davis of his treatment by fans in the Pacific Coast League. At least a half-dozen blacks had to be carried off the field on stretchers after being hit by pitches between 1949 and 1951. In city after city, blacks found hotels and restaurants unwilling to serve them. “At the same time when they signed blacks and Latins,” argues John Roseboro about his Dodger employers, “they should have made sure they would be welcome.” But neither the Dodgers nor other clubs provided any special assistance for their black farmhands.

Despite these conditions, blacks compiled remarkable records in league after league. In the early 1950s, blacks overcame adversity and dominated the lists of batting leaders at the Triple A level and in many of the lower circuits as well.

In 1952, blacks began to appear on minor league clubs in the Jim Crow South. The Dallas Eagles of the Texas League, hoping to boost sagging attendance, signed former Homestead Gray pitcher Dave Hoskins to become the “Jackie Robinson of the Texas League.” Hoskins took the Lone Star State by storm, attracting record crowds en route to a 22-10 record. The black pitcher posted a 2.12 earned run average and also finished third in the league in batting with a .328 mark. By 1955, every Texas League club except Shreveport fielded black players.

Hoskins’ performance inspired other teams throughout the South to scramble for black players. In 1953, 19-year-old Henry Aaron desegregated the South Atlantic League, which included clubs in Florida, Atlanta, and Georgia, while Bill White appeared in the Carolina League. Playing for Jacksonville (a city which seven years earlier had barred Jackie Robinson), Aaron “led the league in everything but hotel accommodations.” By 1954, when the United States Supreme Court issued its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision ordering school desegregation, blacks had appeared in most Southern minor leagues.

Hank Aaron, Jacksonville 1953

Hank Aaron, Jacksonville 1953

The integration of the South, however, did not proceed without incidents. Black players recall these years as “an ordeal” or a “sentence” and described the South as “enemy country” or a “hellhole.” In 1953, the Cotton States League barred brothers Jim and Leander Tugerson from competing. The following year, Nat Peeples broke the color line in the Southern Association, but lasted only two weeks. For the remainder of the decade, the league adhered to a whites-only policy, a strategy which contributed to the collapse of the Southern Association in 1961. As resistance to the civil rights movement mounted in the 1950s, black players found themselves in increasingly hostile territory. Even in the pioneering Texas League, teams visiting Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1956 had to leave their black players at home due to stricter segregation laws.

In the face of these obstacles, young black stars like Aaron, Curt Flood, Frank Robinson, Bill White, and Leon Wagner overcame their frustrations “by taking it out on the ball.” “What had started as a chance to test my baseball ability in a professional setting,” wrote Curt Flood, “had become an obligation to test myself as a man.” Throughout the 1950s, blacks appeared regularly among the league leaders of the Texas, South Atlantic, Carolina, and other circuits, advancing both their own careers and the cause of integration.

As these events unfolded in the South, the major leagues completed their long overdue integration process. In 1955, the Yankees, after denying charges of racism for almost a decade, finally promoted Elston Howard to the parent club. Two more years passed before the Phillies integrated, and not until 1958 did a black player don a Tiger uniform. Thus, at the start of the 1959 season, only the Boston Red Sox, who had yet to hire either black scouts or representatives in the Caribbean, retained their Jim Crow heritage. A storm of protest arose when the Red Sox cut black infielder Elijah “Pumpsie” Green just before Opening Day, but on July 21, 1959, 12 years and 107 days after Jackie Robinson’s Dodger debut, Green won promotion to the Boston club, completing the cycle of major league integration.

While integration became a reality in organized baseball, the Negro Leagues gradually faded into oblivion. As early as 1947, Negro League attendance, especially in cities close to National League parks, dropped precipitously. “People wanted to go Brooklynites,” recalls Monarch pitcher Hilton Smith. “Even if we were playing here in Kansas City, people wanted to go over to St. Louis to see Jackie.” Negro League owners hoped to offset declining attendance by selling players to organized baseball, but major league teams paid what Effa Manley called “bargain basement” prices for all-star talent. In 1948, the Manleys’ Newark Eagles and New York Black Yankees disbanded. The Homestead Grays severed all league connections and returned to its roots as a barnstorming unit. Without these teams, the Negro National League collapsed. A reorganized 10-team Negro American League, most of whose franchises were located in minor league cities, vowed to go on, but the spread of integration quickly thinned its ranks. By 1951, the league had dwindled to six teams. Two years later, only the Birmingham Black Barons,
Memphis Red Sox, Kansas City Monarchs, and Indianapolis Clowns remained.

Ernie Banks with KC Monarchs

Ernie Banks with KC Monarchs

For several years in the early 1950s, the Negro Leagues remained a breeding ground for young black talent. The New York Giants plucked Willie Mays from the roster of the Birmingham Black Barons, while the Boston Braves discovered Hank Aaron on the Indianapolis Clowns. The Kansas City Monarchs produced more than two dozen major leaguers, including Robinson, Paige, Banks, and Howard. But for most black players, the demise of the Negro Leagues had disastrous effects. “The livelihoods, the careers, the families of 400 Negro ballplayers are in jeopardy,” complained Effa Manley in 1948, “because four players were successful in getting into the major leagues.” The slow pace of integration left most in a state of limbo: set adrift by their former teams, but still unwelcomed in organized baseball. Some players like Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell were too old to be considered, while others like Ray Dandridge and Piper Davis found themselves relegated to the minor leagues, where outstanding records failed to win them promotion.

Throughout the 1950s the Negro American League struggled to survive, recruiting teenagers and second-rate talent for the modest four-team loop. In 1963, Kansas City hosted the 30th and last East-West All-Star Game and the following year the famed Monarchs ceased touring the nation. By 1965, the Indianapolis Clowns remained as a last vestige of Jim Crow baseball. Utilizing white as well as black players, the Clowns continued for another decade. “We are all show now,” explained their owner. “We clown, clown, clown.”

But the legacy of the Negro Leagues remained. Robinson and other early black players introduced new elements of speed and “tricky baseball” into the
major leagues, transforming and improving the quality of play. Since 1947, blacks have led the National League in stolen bases in all but two seasons. In the American League, a black or Latin baserunner has topped the league every year since 1951 with only two exceptions. Nor did this injection of speed come at the expense of power. In the 1950s and 1960s, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson reigned as the greatest power hitters in baseball. Thus, by the 1960s, the national pastime more closely resembled the well-balanced offensive structure of the Negro Leagues than the one-dimensional power-oriented attack that had typified the all-white majors.

The demise of the Negro Leagues and the decline of segregation in the majors, however, did not end discrimination. Conditions on and off the field, in spring training and in the executive suites, repeatedly reminded the black athletes of their second-class status. In the early 1950s, all-white teams taunted their black opponents with racial insults. Blacks like Jackie and Frank Robinson, Minnie Minoso and Luke Easter repeatedly appeared among the league leaders in being hit by pitches. While black superstars like Willie Mays had little difficulty ascending to the major leagues, players of only slightly above average talent found themselves buried for years in the minors. Many observers charged that teams had imposed quotas on the number of blacks they would field at one time.

Jackie Robinson and Frank Robinson, 1956

Frank Robinson and Jackie Robinson, 1956

In cities like St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and, later, Baltimore, black ballplayers could not stay at hotels with their teammates. In 1954, they achieved a breakthrough of sorts when the luxury Chase Hotel in St. Louis informed Jackie Robinson and other Dodger players that they could room there, but had to refrain from using the dining room or swimming pool or loitering in the lobby. Ten years later, the hotel had removed these restrictions, but still relegated black players, according to Hank Aaron, to rooms “looking out over some old building or some green pastures or a blank wall, so nobody can see us through a window.”

Blacks faced even greater discrimination each year in spring training in Florida. While all spring training sites now accepted blacks, segregation statutes and local traditions forced them to live in all-black boarding houses far from the luxury air-conditioned hotels which accommodated white players. “The whole set-up is wrong,” protested Jackie Robinson. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to live with our teammates.” When teams traveled from place to place, blacks could not join their fellow players in restaurants. Instead they had to wait on the bus until someone brought their food out to them.

Some teams attempted to reduce the problems faced by blacks. Several clubs moved to Arizona, where conditions were only moderately improved. The Dodgers built a special spring training camp at Vero Beach where players could live together. Most organizations, however, did very little to assist their black employees.

By the time that Jackie Robinson retired in 1956, conditions had barely improved. “After 10 years of traveling in the South,” he charged, “I don’t think advances have been fast enough. It’s my belief that baseball itself hasn’t done all it can to remedy the problems faced by . . . players.” Over the next decade, a new generation of black players militantly demanded change. Cardinal stars Bill White, Curt Flood, and Bob Gibson protested against conditions in St. Petersburg, while Aaron and other black Braves demanded changes in Bradenton. In many instances, however, significant changes awaited passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 barring segregation in public facilities.

By 1960, Robinson, Campanella, Doby, and the cadre of Negro League veterans who had formed the vanguard of baseball integration had retired. In their wake, a second generation of black players, most of whom had never appeared in the Negro Leagues, made most Americans forget that Jim Crow baseball had ever existed, as they shattered longstanding “unbreakable” records. In 1962, black shortstop Maury Wills stole 104 bases, eclipsing Ty Cobb’s 47-year-old stolen base mark. Twelve years later, outfielder Lou Brock stole 118 bases en route to breaking Cobb’s career stolen-base record as well.

In 1966, Frank Robinson, who had won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1961, became the first player to win that honor in both leagues when he led the Baltimore Orioles to the American League pennant. By the end of his career, Robinson had slugged 586 home runs; only Babe Ruth among players of the Jim Crow era had hit more. Both Ernie Banks and Willie McCovey also amassed more than 500 home runs during this era. On the pitcher’s mound, the indomitable Bob Gibson proved himself one of the greatest strikeout pitchers in the game’s history. Upon retirement, Gibson had amassed more strikeouts than anyone except Walter Johnson. Brock, Frank Robinson, Banks, McCovey, and Gibson all won election to the Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility.

Willie Mays

Willie Mays

The greatness of these players notwithstanding, two other black players, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, both of whom ironically had begun their careers in the Negro Leagues, reigned as the dominant stars of baseball in the 1950s and 1960s. Originally signed by the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League, Mays had joined the New York Giants in midseason 1951, sparking their triumph in the most famous pennant race in history and winning the Rookie of the Year Award. After two years in the military, he returned in 1954 to bat a league-leading .345 and hit 41 home runs. The following year, he pounded 51 homers. A spectacular center fielder, Mays won widespread acclaim as the greatest all-around player in the history of the game. In 1969, he became only the second player in major league history to hit 600 home runs and took aim at Babe Ruth’s legendary lifetime total of 714. Over the next four seasons, the aging Mays added 60 more homers before retiring short of Ruth’s record.

Unlike Mays, who had begun his career amidst the glare of the New York media, Hank Aaron had spent his career first in Milwaukee and later in Atlanta, far distant from the center of national publicity. Nonetheless, he steadily compiled record-threatening statistics in almost every offensive category. In 1972, at age 38, he surpassed Mays’ home run total and set his sights on Ruth. Entering the 1973 season, he needed just 41 home runs to catch the Babe. Performing under tremendous pressure and fanfare, Aaron stroked 40 homers, leaving him just one shy of the record. He tied Ruth’s mark with his first swing of the 1974 season. Three days later, on April 8, 1974, a nationwide television audience watched Aaron stroke home run number 715. Babe Ruth’s “unreachable” record thus fell to a man whose career had started with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues.

Henry Aaron

Henry Aaron

When Aaron retired in 1976, he boasted 755 home runs and held major league records for games played, at-bats, runs batted in and extra-base hits. He also ranked second to Ty Cobb in hits and runs scored.

By the 1970s, black players had become an accepted part of the baseball scene and regularly ranked among the most well-known symbols of the sport. Reggie Jackson, Willie Stargell, and Joe Morgan had succeeded Aaron, Mays, and the Robinsons as Hall of Fame caliber superstars. Yet three decades after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier, racism and discrimination remained a persistent problem for baseball. Several studies demonstrated that baseball management channeled blacks into positions thought to require less thinking and fewer leadership qualities. In 1968, blacks accounted for more than half of the major league outfielders, but only 20 percent of other position players. Black catchers were rare and fewer than one in 10 pitchers were black. By 1986, the disparity had grown greater. American-born blacks comprised 70 percent of all outfield positions but only 7 percent of all pitcher, second basemen, and third basemen positions. There were no American-born black catchers in the major leagues at the start of the 1986 season.

While superior black players had open access to the major leagues, those of average or slightly above average skills often found their paths blocked. “The Negro player may have to be better qualified than a white player to win the same position,” argued Aaron Rosenblatt in 1967. “The undistinguished Negro player is less likely to play in the major leagues than the equally undistinguished white player.” Rosenblatt demonstrated that black major leaguers on the whole batted 20 points higher than whites. As batting averages dropped, so did the proportion of blacks. This trend continued into the 1980s. A 1982 study revealed that 70 percent of all black non-pitchers were everyday starters, indicating a substantial bias against blacks who filled utility or pinch-hitting roles. Statistics compiled in 1986 showed a strikingly similar pattern.

The subtle nature of this on-the-field discrimination obscured it from public controversy. The failure of baseball to provide jobs for blacks in managerial and front office positions, however, became an increasing embarrassment. In the early years of integration, baseball executives bypassed the substantial pool of experienced Negro Leaguers from consideration for managerial and coaching positions. A handful of blacks, including Sam Bankhead, Nate Moreland, Marvin Williams, and Chet Brewer managed independent, predominantly all-black teams in the minor leagues. The first generation of black major leaguers fared no better. “We bring dollars into club treasuries when we play,” exclaimed Larry Doby, “but when we stop playing, our dollars stop.” No major league organization hired a black pilot at any level until 1961 when the Pittsburgh Pirates placed Gene Baker at the helm of their Batavia franchise. By the mid-1960s no blacks had managed in the majors and only two had held full-time major league coaching positions. The first black umpire did not appear in the majors until 1966, when Emmett Ashford appeared in the American League.

In the final years of his life, Jackie Robinson made repeated pleas for baseball to eliminate these lingering vestiges of Jim Crow. “I’d like to live to see a black manager,” he stated before a national television audience at the 1972 World Series. Nine days later he died, his dream unfulfilled. In 1975, the Cleveland Indians hired Frank Robinson to be the first black major league manager. This precedent, however, opened few new doors. Robinson lasted two-and-a-half seasons with the Indians, later managed the San Francisco Giants for four years, and in 1988 was made manager of the Baltimore Orioles. Maury Wills and Larry Doby each had brief half-season stints as managers. After four decades of integration, only these three men had received major league managerial opportunities.

Jackie Robinson sliding at Ebbets Field

Jackie Robinson sliding at Ebbets Field

A similar situation existed in major league front offices. Only one black man, Bill Lucas of the Atlanta Braves, had served as a general manager. As late as 1982, a survey of 24 clubs (the Yankees and Red Sox refused to provide information) found that of 913 available white-collar baseball jobs, blacks held just 32 positions. Among 568 full-time major league scouts, only 15 were black. While many teams hired former players as announcers, few employed blacks in these roles. Five years later, conditions had not improved. Of the top 879 administrative positions in baseball only 17 were filled by blacks and 15 by Hispanics. Four teams in California–the Dodgers, Giants, Athletics, and Angels–accounted for almost two-thirds of the minority hiring. Ten out of 14 American League teams, and five of 12 National League franchises had no blacks in management positions.

These shortcomings came to haunt baseball in 1987. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth had dedicated the season to the commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut. As the celebration began, Los Angeles Dodger general manager Al Campanis, who had played with Robinson at Montreal, appeared on ABC-TV’s Nightline. When asked about the dearth of black managers, Campanis explained that blacks “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or general manager.”

Campanis’ statement, which surely reflected the thinking of many baseball executives, evoked a storm of protest, and precipitated his resignation. An embarrassed Ueberroth pledged to take action to bring more blacks into leadership positions and hired University of California sociologist Harry Edwards to facilitate the process. Fifty blacks and Latins with past or present connections to baseball created their own Minority Baseball Network to apprise blacks of employment opportunities and to lobby clubs to recruit more minorities for front office jobs.

When the controversy of 1987 had subsided, few franchises had taken significant steps to increase minority hiring. Several clubs added blacks to administrative positions, but none offered field or general manager positions to nonwhite candidates. In 1988 Frank Robinson received his third chance to manage in the major leagues, this time with the Baltimore Orioles. At midseason 1989 Cito Gaston assumed the reins of the Toronto Blue Jays. When the squads managed by Robinson and Gaston had their initial confrontation, it marked, after 40 years of integration, the first time that two teams managed by black men had competed in a major league game. Fittingly, on the final weekend of the season, the Orioles and Blue Jays met face-to-face in a series to decide the championship of the American League Eastern Division. The spectacle offered a resounding rebuke to the shortsightedness and persistent discrimination that continues to plague the national pastime.

Black Ball, Part 4

1905 Ohio Wesleyan University; Rickey (back row, right).

1905 Ohio Wesleyan University; Rickey (back row, right).

Part 4 continues from: Raised in rural Ohio in a strict Methodist family, Rickey, nicknamed by sportwriters “The Deacon” and “The Mahatma,” had financed his way through college and law school playing and coaching baseball. His skills as a catcher merited two years in the major leagues. In 1913, he abandoned a fledgling law career to manage the St. Louis Browns, and in 1917 he began a 25-year relationship with the St. Louis Cardinals. Rickey served as the field manager of the Cardinals from 1919-1925, after which he became the club’s vice-president and business manager. In the 1920s and 1930s, Rickey perfected the farm system, whereby a major league team controlled young, undeveloped players through a chain of minor league franchises. This innovation allowed the Cardinals to compete equally with richer teams in larger cities, generating pennants for the “Gas House Gang” and allowing the team to profitably sell off surplus talent.

Although Rickey later claimed that his desire to integrate baseball dated from 1904, when an Indiana hotel had denied lodgings to a black player on his college squad, he gave no indication of any interest in the race issue during his years in St. Louis. Perhaps this stemmed from the fact that St. Louis was a Southern city with firmly entrenched segregationist traditions. Throughout Rickey’s reign with the Cardinals, blacks sat in Jim Crow sections at Sportsman’s Park, a policy which he never openly challenged. Nonetheless, in 1942, when Rickey left the Cardinals and assumed control of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he informed the Dodger ownership of his intentions to recruit black players in the near future.

Rickey never clearly explained the motivations for this dramatic turnaround. At times Rickey cited moral considerations, stating, “I couldn’t face my God much longer knowing that His black creatures are held separate and distinct from His white creatures in the game that has given me all I own.” On other occasions, he eschewed the role of “crusader,” proclaiming, “My selfish objective is to win baseball games . . . The Negroes will make us winners for years to come.” Some observers saw financial reasons behind Rickey’s actions, citing the lure of the growing black population in Northern cities and the prospects of increased attendance. Certainly, Brooklyn offered a more congenial atmosphere for integration than St. Louis. In all probability, a combination of these factors–geographic, moral, competitive, and financial–coupled with Rickey’s desire for a broader role in history, impelled him to seek black players.

From 1942-1945, Rickey, a conservative, cautious, and conspiratorial man, moved slowly, studying the philosophical and sociological ramifications of integration and taking few people into his confidence. During the spring and summer of 1945, under the guise of creating a new black baseball circuit, the United States League, Rickey’s scouts combed the nation and the Caribbean for black players. Rickey sought one player who would spearhead the breakthrough and several other potential stars who would follow in his wake. By August 1945, scouting reports and Rickey’s own investigations pointed to one man as the ideal candidate for the struggle ahead–Kansas City Monarch shortstop Jackie Robinson.

Jackie Robinson with Monarchs, 1945

Jackie Robinson with Monarchs, 1945

In Robinson, Rickey had found a rare combination of athletic ability, competitive fire, intelligence, maturity, and poise. Born in Georgia and raised in Pasadena, California, Robinson had won fame at UCLA as the nation’s greatest all-around athlete, earning All-America honors in football, establishing broad-jump records, and leading his basketball conference in scoring, all in addition to his baseball exploits. In 1942, he enlisted in the army where he attended officer’s candidate school and became a lieutenant.

Two years later, while stationed in Texas, Robinson’s refusal to move to the back of a bus resulted in a court martial and ultimate acquittal. This incident demonstrated his commitment to the cause of equal rights. After his discharge from the army, Robinson joined the Monarchs and earned a starting spot in the 1945 East-West All-Star Game. Robinson’s college education, experience in interracial athletics, and army career complemented his playing talents. But his fiery pride and temper seemed a potential obstacle to his success.

On August 28, 1945, Robinson met with Rickey at the latter’s Brooklyn offices. Rickey revealed his bold plan to integrate organized baseball and challenged Robinson to accept the primary role. The Mahatma flamboyantly play-acted, assuming the role of racist players, fans and hotel clerks, impressing upon Robinson the need to “turn the other cheek” in the event of racial confrontations. By the end of the session, Robinson had signed a contract to play for the Montreal Royals in the International League, the top farm team in the Brooklyn system. Rickey promised that if Robinson’s performance merited it, he would be promoted to the Dodgers.

Robinson and Rickey

Robinson and Rickey

Rickey intended to announce the Robinson signing along with that of several other black players, but political pressures stemming from the New York City fall elections forced him to abandon his original plans and, on October 23, 1945, to reveal the signing of Robinson alone. The announcement sent shock waves through the baseball establishment and placed Robinson into a spotlight that he would never relinquish. Numerous sports figures, from players to executives to reporters, predicted the ultimate failure of Rickey’s “great experiment.”

Robinson’s first test came at spring training in Florida in 1946. Thrust into the deep South where Jim Crow reigned supreme, Robinson and black pitcher John Wright, whom Rickey had recruited to room with Robinson, found themselves unable to room with their teammates and barred from playing in Jacksonville and other Florida cities. In addition, a shoulder injury hindered Robinson’s performance, raising doubts about his abilities.

On April 18, 1946, at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, Robinson became the first black to appear in modern Organized Baseball (excepting Jimmy Claxton, who passed as white in 1916 for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League). In the process he staged one of the most remarkable performances under pressure in the history of the game. In Robinson’s second at-bat, he hit a three-run home run. He followed this with three singles and two stolen bases, scoring a total of four runs. As the New York Times reported, “This would have been a big day for any man, but under the circumstances it was a tremendous feat.”

Jackie Robinson, Montreal at Jersey City, Opening Day 1946

Jackie Robinson, Montreal at Jersey City, Opening Day 1946

In many respects, 1946 proved a nightmare season for Robinson. Fans jeered him in Baltimore, and opposing players tormented him with insults. Pitchers made him a frequent target of brushback pitches and baserunners attempted to spike and maim him at second base. As the season drew to a close, Robinson hovered on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Through it all, however, Robinson remained a dominant force on the field. His .349 batting average and 113 runs-scored led the league and paced the Royals to the International League pennant. His presence inspired new attendance records throughout the circuit. In the Little World Series, which pitted Montreal against the Louisville Colonels of the American Association, Robinson braved the hostility of Kentucky fans and stroked game-winning hits in the final two games to give the Royals the championship.

Rickey’s initiative and Robinson’s dramatic success failed to inspire other team owners. In August, major league executives debated a controversial report discussing the “Race Question” which argued that integration would “lessen the value of several major league franchises.” No other clubs moved to sign black players. Only four blacks, all in the Brooklyn system, joined Robinson in organized baseball in 1946. At Nashua, New Hampshire, in the New England League, the Dodger farm club fielded catcher Roy Campanella and pitcher Don Newcombe. The Nashua Dodgers won the league championship largely due to Campanella’s hitting and Newcombe’s hurling. In the small town of Trois Rivieres in Quebec, pitchers John Wright and Roy Partlow, both of whom had appeared briefly with Robinson at Montreal, led a third Dodger farm team to the Canadian-American league crown. Nonetheless, at the start of the 1947 season, no additional black players appeared on major or minor league rosters.

Although Robinson’s performance at Montreal merited promotion to the Dodgers, Robinson remained a Royal when he reported to spring training in 1947. Rickey hoped that the Brooklyn players themselves, when exposed to Robinson’s talents, would request his addition to the team. He switched Robinson to first base, a weak spot on the Dodger squad, to make his case more compelling. Robinson compiled a .519 batting average against the major leaguers, but several Dodger players, instead of demanding his promotion, rebelled. Led by “Dixie” Walker, a group of mostly Southern Dodgers circulated a petition against Robinson. Rickey moved quickly to short-circuit the dissension, threatening to trade any athletes who opposed Robinson. In
addition, the refusal of Pete Reiser, “Pee Wee” Reese and other Dodger stars to support the protesters effectively squelched the petition drive. Finally, on April 10, just five days before the start of the 1947 season, Rickey officially announced that Robinson would join the Dodgers.

Robinson is called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers, April 10, 1947.

Robinson is called up from Montreal to the Brooklyn Dodgers, April 10, 1947.

Throughout the early months of the 1947 campaign Robinson stoically endured crises and challenges. The Philadelphia Phillies, led by manager Ben Chapman, unleashed a barrage of verbal abuse against Robinson which horrified Dodger players and fans. The Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia refused lodgings for Robinson and death threats appeared among his voluminous daily mail. In early May, rumors that the St. Louis Cardinals planned to strike rather than compete against Robinson prompted National League President Ford Frick to warn the players, “If you do this you will be suspended from the league.” Opposing pitchers targeted Robinson’s body at a record setting pace and an early season 0 for 20 batting drought led many to question his qualifications. “But for the fact that he is the first acknowledged Negro in major league history,” observed a Cincinnati sportswriter, “he would have been benched a week ago.”

Yet, as the season unfolded, Robinson converted doubters and enemies into admirers. By the end of June, a 21-game hitting streak had raised his batting average to .315 and propelled the Dodgers into first place. Robinson’s daring baserunning, typical of Negro League play, evoked images of an “Ebony Ty Cobb.” In city after city, record crowds flocked to experience Robinson’s charismatic dynamism as five teams set new all-time season attendance marks.

While periodic controversies erupted over baserunners who used their spikes “to make a pincushion out of Robinson” at first base, Robinson won the acceptance and respect of teammates and opponents alike. In September, as the Dodgers coasted to the pennant, the Sporting News named Robinson the major league Rookie of the Year. To cap his triumphant season, Robinson became the first black player to appear in the World Series.

Robinson’s success on the field and at the box office stimulated some movement on the part of other clubs to hire black players. In Cleveland Bill Veeck recruited 23-year-old Larry Doby, who jumped straight from the Negro League Newark Eagles to the Indians in July. Used sparingly, Doby batted a meager .156, casting doubts upon his future. The St. Louis Browns, seeking to boost flagging attendance, signed Willard Brown and Hank Thompson of the Kansas City Monarchs. When the turnstiles failed to respond, the Browns released both Brown and Thompson, although the latter had established himself as a top prospect. In the National League, the Dodgers signed Dan Bankhead to bolster the club’s pitching down the stretch. On August 25, Bankhead, the first black pitcher to appear in the major leagues, surrendered eight runs in three innings but also slammed a home run in his initial at bat.

In addition to the five athletes who appeared in the major leagues, a handful of blacks surfaced in the minors. Campanella succeeded Robinson at Montreal, earning accolades as “the best catcher in the business.” Newcombe returned to Nashua where he won 19 games. The independent Stamford Bombers of the Colonial League fielded six black players, and two blacks, including future major leaguer Chuck Harmon, played in the Canadian-American League. Veteran Negro League hurler Nate Moreland won 20 games in California’s Class C Sunset League. For the most part, however, organized baseball continued to ignore the treasure trove of black talent submerged in the Negro Leagues. A full year would pass before additional major league teams would add black players to their chains.

Robinson, Paige, Doby pinbacks

Robinson, Paige, Doby pinbacks

In 1948, the integration focus shifted from the Dodgers, where Robinson now reigned at second base, to the Cleveland Indians. In spring training, Larry Doby, who had performed so dismally in 1947, unexpectedly won a starting berth in the Cleveland outfield. After an erratic early season stretch in which Doby alternated errors and strikeouts with tape-measure home runs, he batted .301 and became a key performer for the American League champion Indians. In July, Cleveland owner Bill Veeck added the legendary Satchel Paige to the team. Amidst charges that his signing had been a publicity stunt, the 42-year-old Paige won six out of seven decisions, including back-to-back shutouts, and posted a 2.47 earned run average. Standing-room-only crowds greeted him in Washington, Chicago, Boston, and even in Cleveland’s mammoth Municipal Stadium. The Indians, after defeating the Boston Red Sox in a pennant playoff, won the World Series in six games with Doby’s .318 average leading the club.

In 1947, the Dodgers had integrated and reached the World Series; in 1948, the Indians had duplicated and surpassed this achievement. Both teams had set all-time attendance records. Remarkably, as the 1948 season drew to a close, no other franchise had followed their lead. In the minor leagues, Roy Campanella became the first black in the American Association, stopping at St. Paul before permanently joining Robinson on the Dodgers. Newcombe and Bankhead each won more than 20 games for Brooklyn affiliates. The Dodgers also added fleet-footed Sam Jethroe to the Montreal roster, where he batted .322. The Indians also began to stockpile black talent, signing future major leaguers Al Smith, Dave Hoskins, and Orestes “Minnie” Minoso to minor league contracts. Several other blacks, including San Diego catcher John Ritchey, who broke the Pacific Coast League color line, played for independent teams.

Ray Dandridge 1951

Ray Dandridge 1951

In the interregnum between the 1948 and 1949 seasons four more teams–the Giants, Yankees, Braves, and Cubs–signed blacks to play in their farm systems, and 1949 would herald the beginning of widespread integration in the minor leagues. Blacks starred in all three Triple A leagues. In the Pacific Coast League, Luke Easter won acclaim as the “greatest natural hitter . . . since Ted Williams,” amassing 25 home runs and 92 runs-batted-in in just 80 games before succumbing to a knee injury. Oakland’s Artie Wilson led the league in hits, stolen bases, and batting average. In the International League, Jethroe scored 151 runs and stole 89 bases while Montreal teammate Dan Bankhead won 20 games for the second straight year. At Jersey City, Monte Irvin batted .373. The outstanding performer in the American Association was Ray Dandridge. Considered by many the greatest third baseman of all time, the acrobatic Dandridge, now in his late 30s, thrilled Minneapolis fans with his spectacular fielding, batting .364 in the process. Former Negro Leaguers turned in equally stellar performances at lower minor league levels as well.

In the major leagues, the spotlight again returned to Jackie Robinson. For three years, Robinson had honored his pledge to Branch Rickey “to turn the other cheek” and avoid confrontations. With his position in the majors firmly established, Robinson announced, “They better be prepared to be rough this year, because I’m going to be rough on them.” The more combative Robinson produced his finest year, batting .342 and earning the Most Valuable Player Award. Complemented by teammates Newcombe and Campanella, Robinson led the Dodgers to another pennant.

By the end of the 1949 season, integration had achieved spectacular success at both the major and minor league level, but most teams moved “with all deliberate speed” in signing black players. The New York Giants joined the interracial ranks in 1949 when they promoted Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson. The following year, the Boston Braves purchased Jethroe from the Dodgers for $100,000 and installed him in the starting lineup. In 1951, the Chicago White Sox acquired Minnie Minoso in a trade with Cleveland, and Bill Veeck, who had acquired the hapless St. Louis Browns, brought back Satchel Paige for another major league stint. Yet, as late as August 1953, out of sixteen major league teams only these six fielded black players. Several teams displayed an interest in signing blacks but bypassed established Negro League stars who might have jumped directly to the majors, concentrating instead on younger prospects for the minor leagues. Still others like the Red Sox, Phillies, Cardinals, and Tigers continued to pursue a whites-only policy.

Minnie Minosos

Minnie Minoso

This failure to hire and promote blacks occurred amidst a continuing backdrop of outstanding performances by black players. The first generation of players from the Negro Leagues proved an extraordinary group. Jackie Robinson quickly established himself as one of the dominant stars in the national pastime, compiling a .311 batting average over his 10-year career while thrilling fans with his baserunning and clutch-hitting talents. Sportswriters called him, “the most dangerous man in baseball today.” Campanella won accolades as the best catcher in the National League and won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1951, 1953, and 1955. Both Campanella and Robinson later won election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Pitcher Don Newcombe averaged better than 20 wins a season during his first five full years with the Dodgers. In addition, from 1950-1953 Negro League graduates Sam Jethroe, Willie Mays, Joe Black, and Jim Gilliam each won the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

In the American League, where integration proceeded at a slower pace, several players compiled outstanding records. Larry Doby, while never achieving the superstar status many expected, nonetheless became a steady producer, twice leading the league in home runs and five times driving in more than 100 runs. His Cleveland teammate Luke Easter, who reached the majors in his mid-30s, slugged 86 home runs and drove in 300 runs in his brief three-season career. Satchel Paige, after a two-year stint with the Indians, joined the hapless St. Louis Browns from 1951-1953 and became one of the American League’s best relief pitchers. On the Chicago White Sox, Minnie Minoso proved himself a consistent .300 hitter. Despite their relatively small numbers, teams with black players in both major leagues regularly finished high in the standings and only in 1950 did both pennant winners field all-white squads. In addition, the more aggressive stance of National League teams in recruiting black players gave that circuit a clear superiority in World Series and All-Star contests for more than two decades.

By the end of the 1953 season, the benefits of integration had grown apparent to all but the most recalcitrant of major league owners. In September, the Chicago Cubs purchased shortstop Ernie Banks from the Kansas City Monarchs and finally elevated longtime minor league standout Gene Baker. Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics ended their Jim Crow era by acquiring pitcher Bob Trice. At the start of the 1954 season, the Washington Senators, St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Cincinnati Reds all joined the interracial ranks. The sudden integration of six more clubs left only the Yankees, Tigers, Phillies, and Red Sox with all-white personnel. In addition, 1954 marked the debut of young Henry Aaron with the Braves and the return of Willie Mays, who had sparkled for the Giants in 1951, from military service.

Concluding part 5 tomorrow.


Black Ball, Part 3

1934-37 Athletics vs. Zulu Cannibal Giants

1934-37 Athletics vs. Zulu Cannibal Giants; Syd Pollack Collection.

Part 3 continues from: In the United States, however, blacks often found themselves in more distasteful roles. To attract crowds throughout the nation and to keep fans interested in the frequently one-sided contests against amateur competition, some black clubs injected elements of clowning and showmanship into their pregame and competitive performances. As early as the 1880s, comedy had characterized many barnstorming teams. Black baseball, even in its most serious form, tended to be flashier and less formal than white play. Against inferior teams, players often showboated and flaunted their superior skills. Pitcher Satchel Paige would call in his outfielders or guarantee to strike out the first six or nine batters to face him against semi-professional squads. In the late 1930s, Olympic star Jesse Owens traveled with the Monarchs, racing against horses in pregame exhibitions.

Black teams, like the Tennessee Rats and Zulu Cannibals, thrived on their minstrel show reputations. The most famous of these franchises were the “Ethiopian Clowns.” Originating in Miami in the 1930s, the Clowns later op rated out of Cincinnati and then Indianapolis. Their antics included a “pepperball and shadowball” performance (later emulated by basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters), and mid-game vaudeville routines by comics Spec Bebop, a dwarf, and King Tut. Players like Pepper Bassett, “the Rocking Chair Catcher” and “Goose” Tatum, a talented first baseman and natural comedian, enlivened the festivities. By the 1940s, the Clowns, through the effort of booking agent Syd Pollack, dominated the baseball comedy market. In 1943, their popularity won the Clowns entrance into the Negro Leagues, although other owners demanded they drop the demeaning “Ethiopian” nickname. Although never one of the better black teams, the Clowns greatly bolstered Negro League attendance.

1938 Ethiopian Clowns and Borneo Cannibal Giants

1938 Ethiopian Clowns and Borneo Cannibal Giants

Their popularity notwithstanding, the comedy teams reflected one of the worst elements of black baseball. The Clowns and Zulus perpetuated stereotypes drawn from Stepin Fetchit and Tarzan movies. “Negroes must realize the danger in insisting that ballplayers paint their faces and go through minstrel show revues before each ballgame,” protested sportswriter Wendell Smith. Many black players resented the image that all were clowns. “Didn’t nobody clown in our league but the Indianapolis Clowns,” objected Piper Davis. “We played baseball.”

Even without the clowning, black baseball offered a more freewheeling and, in many respects, more exciting brand of baseball than the major leagues. Since the 1920s, when Babe Ruth had revolutionized the game, the majors had pursued power strategies, emphasizing the home run above all else. Although the great sluggers of the Negro Leagues rivaled those in the National and American Leagues, they comprised but one element in the speed-dominated universe of “tricky baseball.” Black teams emphasized the bunt, the stolen base, and the hit-and-run. “We played by the ‘coonsbury’ rules,” boasted second baseman Newt Allen. “That’s just any way you think you can win, any kind of play you think you could get by on.” In games between white and black all-star teams, this style of play often confounded the major leaguers.

Centerfielder James “Cool Papa” Bell personified this approach. Bell was so fast, marveled rival third baseman Judy Johnson, “You couldn’t play back in your regular position or you’d never throw him out.” In one game against a major league All-Star squad, Bell scored from first base on a sacrifice bunt! In center field, his great speed allowed him to lurk in the shallow reaches of the outfield, ranging great distances to make spectacular catches.

Martin Dihigo, 1946-47.

Martin Dihigo, 1946-47.

Negro League pitching also took on a peculiar caste. “Anything went in the Negro League,” reported catcher Roy Campanella, “Spitballs, shineballs, emery balls; pitchers used any and all of them.” Since league officials could not afford to replace the balls as frequently as in organized ball, scuffed and nicked baseballs remained in the game, giving pitchers great latitude for creative efforts. “I never knew what the ball would do once it left the pitcher’s hand,” recalled Campanella.

Since most rosters included only 14 to 18 men, Negro League players demonstrated a wide range of versatility. Each was required to fill in at a variety of positions. Star pitchers often found themselves in the outfield when not on the mound. Some won renown at more than one position. Ted “Double-Duty” Radcliffe often pitched in the first game of a doubleheader and caught in the second. Cuban Martin Dihigo, whom many rank as the greatest player of all time, excelled at every position. In 1938, in the Mexican League he led the league’s pitchers with an 18-2 record and the league’s hitters with a .387 average.

The manpower shortage offered opportunities for individuals to display their all-around talents, but it also limited the competitiveness of the black teams. While on a given day a Negro League franchise, featuring one of its top pitchers, might defeat a major league squad, most teams lacked the depth to compete on a regular basis. “The big leagues were strong in every position,” remarks Radcliffe. “Most of the colored teams had a few stars but they weren’t strong in every position.”

While black teams may not have matched the top clubs in organized baseball, the individual stars of the 1930s and 1940s clearly ranked among the best of any age. Homestead Gray teammates Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard won renown as the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of the Negro Leagues. The Grays discovered Gibson in 1929 as an 18-year-old catcher on the sandlots of Pittsburgh, where he had already earned a reputation for 500-foot home runs.For 17 years, he launched prodigious blasts off pitchers in the Negro Leagues, on the barnstorming tour, and in Latin America. As talented as any major league star, Gibson died in January 1947, at age 35, just three months before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Leonard, four-years older than Gibson, starred in both the Negro and Mexican Leagues as a sure-handed, power-hitting first baseman. The Newark Eagles in the early 1940s, boasted the “million dollar infield” of first baseman Mule Suttles, second baseman Dick Seay, shortstop Willie Wells, and third baseman Ray Dandridge. The acrobatic fielding skills of Seay, Wells and Dandridge led Roy Campanella to call this the greatest infield he ever saw.

Josh Gibson; Helmar Brewing Co.

Josh Gibson; Helmar Brewing Co.

Amidst the many talented Negro Leaguers of 1930s and 1940s, however, one long, lean figure came to personify black baseball to blacks and whites alike. Leroy “Satchel” Paige began his prolonged athletic odyssey in his hometown in 1924 as a 17-year-old pitcher with the semi-professional Mobile Tigers. He joined the Chattanooga Black Lookouts of the Negro Southern League in 1926. Two years later, the Lookouts sold his contract to the Birmingham Black Barons. By 1930, his explosive fastball, impeccable control, and eccentric mannerisms had made him a legend in the South. In 1932, Gus Greenlee brought Paige to the Pittsburgh Crawfords where the colorful pitcher embellished his reputation by winning 54 games in his first two years. Greenlee also began the practice of hiring out Paige to semi-professional clubs that needed a one-day box office boost.

For seven years Paige feuded with Greenlee, jumping the club when a better offer appeared, being banished “for life,” and then returning. In the mid-1930s, in addition to his stints with the Crawfords, Paige won fame by boosting Bismarck, North Dakota, to the national semi-professional championships, hurling for the Dominican Republic at the behest of dictator Rafael Trujillo, in the Mexican League, and especially on the postseason barnstorming trail pitted against Dizzy Dean’s Major League All-Stars. “That skinny old Satchel Paige with those long arms is my idea of the pitcher with the greatest stuff I ever saw,” claimed the unusually immodest Dean.

Paige with Crawfords, 1933.

Paige with Crawfords, 1933.

Paige’s appeal stemmed as much from his unusual persona as his pitching prowess. A born showman, Paige’s lanky, lackadaisical presence evoked popular racial stereotypes of the age. “As undependable as a pair of second-hand suspenders,” Paige often arrived late or failed to show. His names for his pitches (the “bee ball” which buzzed and all of a sudden, “be there”; the “jump ball”; and the “trouble ball”) and his minstrel show one-liners enhanced the image. But on the mound, Paige invariably rose to the occasion against top competition or challenged inferior opponents by calling in the outfield or promising to strike out the side.

In 1938, a sore arm threatened to curtail Paige’s career but the Kansas City Monarchs, hoping his reputation alone would draw fans, signed him for their traveling second team. On the road, Paige perfected a repertoire of curves and off-speed pitches, including his famous “hesitation” pitch. When his fastball returned in 1939, he became a better pitcher than ever. Promoted to the main Monarch club, Paige pitched the team to four consecutive Negro American League pennants. From 1941-1947, although officially still a Monarch, Paige spent far more time as an independent performer, hired out by Monarchs’ owner J.L. Wilkinson to semi-pro and Negro League clubs. “He kept our league going,” recalls Othello Renfroe. “Anytime a team got into trouble, it sent for Satchel to pitch.” Paige also continued to hurl against major league All-Star teams. In the 1940s, the example of Satchel Paige, whose legend had spread into the white community, offered the most compelling argument for the desegregation of the National Pastime.

Paige’s exploits against white players revealed a fundamental irony about baseball in the Jim Crow era. While organized baseball rigidly enforced its ban on black players within the major and minor leagues, opportunities abounded for black athletes to prove themselves against white competition along the unpoliced boundaries of the national pastime. During the 1930s, Western promoters sponsored tournaments for the best semi-professional teams in the nation. These squads often featured former and future major leaguers as well as top local talent. In 1934, the Denver Post tourney, “the little World Series of the West,” invited the Kansas City Monarchs to compete for the $7,500 first prize. The Monarchs fought their way into the finals against the House of David team (also owned by J.L. Wilkinson) only to find themselves confronted on the mound by Paige, rented out to pitch this one game. Paige outdueled Monarchs ace, Chet Brewer, 2-1. Black teams became a fixture in the Post series, emerging victorious for several consecutive years.

In 1935, the National Baseball Congress began an annual tournament in Wichita, Kansas. The competition attracted community squads heartily bankrolled by local business leaders. Neil Churchill, an auto dealer from Bismarck, North Dakota, recruited a half-dozen black stars, including Paige and Brewer, to represent the town in the Wichita competition. Bismarck naturally swept the series, and thereafter teams that were either integrated or all black routinely appeared in the National Baseball Congress invitational each year.

Buck O'Neil's 1946 "Satchel Paige All-Stars" Sweater

Buck O’Neil’s 1946 “Satchel Paige All-Stars” Sweater

In an age in which the major leagues were confined to the East and Midwest, and television had yet to bring baseball into people’s homes, postseason tours by big league stars offered yet another opportunity for black players to prove their equality on the diamond. Games pitting blacks against whites were popular features of the barnstorming circuit. Until the late 1920s, when Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis limited postseason play to all-star squads, black teams frequently met and defeated major league clubs in postseason competition. During the next decade, matchups between the Babe Ruth or Dizzy Dean “All-Stars” and black players became frequent. In the autumns of 1934 and 1935, Dean’s team traveled the nation accompanied by the “Satchel Paige All-Stars.” In one memorable 1934 game, called by baseball executive Bill Veeck, “the greatest pitching battle I have ever seen,” Paige bested Dean 1-0.

Surviving records of interracial contests during the 1930s reveal that blacks won two-thirds of the games. “That’s when we played the hardest,” asserted Judy Johnson, “to let them know, and to let the public know, that we had the same talent they did and probably a little better at times.”

The rivalries proved particularly keen on the West Coast where Monarchs co-owner Tom Baird organized the California Winter League, which included black teams, white major and minor league stars, and some of Mexico’s top players. In 1940, pitcher Chet Brewer formed the Kansas City Royals, which each year fielded one of the best clubs on the coast. One year the Royals defeated the Hollywood Stars, who had won the Pacific Coast League championship, six straight times. In 1945, Brewer’s team, including Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, regularly defeated major league competition.

The most famous of the interracial barnstorming tours occurred in 1946, when Cleveland Indian pitcher Bob Feller organized a major league All-Star Team, rented two Flying Tiger aircraft and hopped the nation accompanied by the Satchel Paige All-Stars. With Feller and Paige each pitching a few innings a day, the tour proved extremely lucrative for promoters and players alike and gave widespread publicity to the skills of the black athletes.

The World War Two years marked the heyday of the Negro Leagues. With black and white workers flooding into Northern industrial centers, relatively full employment, and a scarcity of available consumer goods, attendance at all sorts of entertainment events increased dramatically. In 1942, three million fans saw Negro League teams play, while the East-West game in 1943 attracted over 51,000 fans. “Even the white folks was coming out big,” recalled Satchel Paige.

But World War Two also generated forces which would challenge the foundations of Jim Crow baseball. In the armed forces, baseball teams like the Black Bluejackets of the Great Lakes Naval Station team posted outstanding records against teams featuring white major leaguers. In 1945, a well-publicized tournament of teams in the European theater featured top black players like Leon Day, Joe Green, and Willard Brown in the championship round.

Negro Baseball, 1945

Negro Baseball, 1945

More significantly, the hypocrisy of blacks fighting for their country but unable to participate in the national pastime grew steadily more apparent. As wartime manpower shortages forced major league teams to rely on a 15-year-old pitcher, over-the-hill veterans, and one-armed Pete Gray, their refusal to sign black players seemed increasingly irrational. “How do you think I felt when I saw a one-armed outfielder?” moaned Chet Brewer. Pitcher Nate Moreland protested, “I can play in Mexico, but I have to fight for America where I can’t play.” Pickets at Yankee Stadium carried placards asking, “If we are able to stop bullets, why not balls?”

Amidst this heightened awareness, organized baseball repeatedly walked to the precipice of integration, but always failed to take the final leap. In 1942, Moreland and All-American football star Jackie Robinson requested a tryout at a White Sox training camp in Pasadena, California. Robinson, in particular, impressed White Sox Jimmy Dykes but nothing came of the event. Brooklyn Dodger manager Leo Durocher publicly stated his willingness to sign blacks, only to receive a stinging rebuke from Commissioner Landis. Landis again short-circuited integration talk the following year. At the annual baseball meetings, black leaders led by actor Paul Robeson gained the opportunity to address major league owners on the issue, but Landis ruled all further discussion out of order.

In 1943, several minor and major league teams were rumored close to signing black players. In California, where winter league play had demonstrated the potential of black players, several clubs considered integration. The Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League announced tryouts for three black players, but pressure from other league owners doomed the plan. Oakland owner Vince DeVicenzi ordered Manager Johnny Vergez to consider pitcher Chet Brewer, the most popular black player on the West Coast, for the Oaks. Vergez refused and the issue died. Two years later, Bakersfield, a Cleveland Indian farm team in the California League, offered Brewer a position as player-coach, but the parent club vetoed the plan.

At the major league level, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith called sluggers Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard into his office and asked if they would like to play in the major leagues. They answered affirmatively, but never heard from Griffith again. In Pittsburgh, Daily Worker sports editor Nat Low pressured Pirate owner William Benswanger to arrange a tryout for catcher Roy Campanella and pitcher Dave Barnhill. At the last minute, Benswanger canceled the audition, citing “unnamed pressures.”

For more than two decades, the imperial Landis had reigned over baseball as an implacable foe of integration. While hypocritically denying the existence of any “rule, formal or informal, or any understanding–unwritten, subterranean, or sub-anything–against the signing of Negro players,” Landis had stringently policed the color line. His death in 1944 removed a major barrier for integration advocates.

Sam Jethroe

Sam Jethroe

In April 1945, with World War Two entering its final months, the integration crusade gained momentum. On April 6, People’s Voice sportswriter Joe Bostic appeared at the Brooklyn Dodger training camp at Bear Mountain, New York, with two Negro League players, Terris McDuffie and Dave “Showboat” Thomas, and demanded a tryout. An outraged but outmaneuvered Dodger President Branch Rickey allowed the pair to work out with the club. One week later, a more serious confrontation occurred in Boston. The Red Sox, under pressure from popular columnist Dave Egan and city councilman Isidore Muchnick, agreed to audition Sam Jethroe, the Negro League’s leading hitter in 1944, second baseman Marvin Williams, and Kansas City Monarch shortstop Jackie Robinson, all top prospects in their mid-twenties. The Fenway Park tryout, however, proved little more than a formality and the players never again heard from the Red Sox.

The publicity surrounding these events, however, forced the major leagues to address the issue at its April meetings. At the urging of black sportswriter Sam Lacy, Leslie O’Connor, Landis’ interim successor, established a Major League Committee on Baseball Integration in April 1945, to review the problem. In addition, the racial views of newly appointed Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler came under close scrutiny. A former governor of the segregated state of Kentucky, Chandler nonetheless offered at least verbal support to the entry of blacks into organized ball. “If a black boy can make it on Okinawa and Guadalcanal, hell, he can make it in baseball,” Chandler told black reporter Rick Roberts. Whether Chandler, however, unlike Landis, would reinforce his rhetoric with positive actions remained uncertain. Unbeknownst to the integration advocates, baseball officials, and local politicians sand-dancing around the race issue, Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had already set in motion the events which would lead to the historic breakthrough.

Part 4 tomorrow.


Black Ball, Part 2

John Henry "Pop" Lloyd

John Henry “Pop” Lloyd

Jules Tygiel’s monumental essay commenced here: [You may have to cut and paste the link; clicking is iffy.] Although most blacks lived in the South, during the first two decades of the 20th century, the great black teams and players congregated in the metropolises and industrial cities of the North. Chicago emerged as the primary center of black baseball with teams like the Leland Giants and the Chicago American Giants. In New York, the Lincoln Giants, which boasted pitching stars Smokey Joe Williams and Cannonball Dick Redding, shortstop John Henry Lloyd and catcher Louis Santop, reigned supreme. Other top clubs of the era included the Philadelphia Giants, the Hilldale Club (also of Philadelphia), the Indianapolis ABC’s and the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City. Player contracts were nonexistent or nonbinding and stars jumped frequently from team to team. “Wherever the money was,” recalled John Henry Lloyd, “that’s where I was.”

Fans and writers often compared the great black players of this era to their white counterparts. Lloyd, one of the outstanding shortstops and hitters of that or any era, came to be known as “The Black Wagner,” after his white contemporary Honus Wagner, who called it an “honor” and a “privilege” to be compared to the gangling black infielder. A St. Louis sportswriter once said when asked who was the best player in baseball history, “If you mean in organized baseball, the answer would be Babe Ruth; but if you mean in all baseball. . . the answer would have to be a colored man named John Henry Lloyd.” Pitcher “Rube” Foster earned his nickname by outpitching future Hall of Famer Rube Waddell, and Cuban Jose Mendez was called “The Black Matty” after Christy Mathewson.

Smoky Joe Williams; Helmar Brewing Co.

Smokey Joe Williams; courtesy Helmar Brewing Co.

The talents of Foster and Mendez notwithstanding, the greatest black pitcher of the early twentieth century was 6’5″ Smokey Joe Williams. Born in 1886, Williams spent a good part of his career pitching in his native Texas, unheralded until he joined the Leland Giants in 1909 at the age of 24. From 1912-1923 he won renown as a strikeout artist for Harlem’s Lincoln Giants. Against major league competition Williams won six games, lost 4, and tied two, including a three-hit 1-0 victory over the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies in 1915. In 1925, he signed with the Homestead Grays and although approaching his fortieth birthday, starred for seven more seasons. A 1952 poll to name the outstanding black pitcher of the half-century, placed Williams in first place, ahead of the legendary Satchel Paige.

Oscar Charleston ranks as the greatest outfielder of the 1910s and 1920s. With tremendous speed and a strong, accurate arm, Charleston was the quintessential centerfielder. During his 15-year career starting in 1915, Charleston hit for both power and average and may have been the most popular player of the 1920s. After he retired he managed the Philadelphia Stars, Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, and other clubs.

Several major stars of this era labored outside the usual channels of black baseball. In 1914, white Kansas City promoter J.L. Wilkinson organized the All-Nations team, which included whites, blacks, Indians, Asians, and Latin Americans. Pitchers John Donaldson, Jose Mendez, and Bill Drake and outfielder Cristobel Torriente played for the All-Nations team, described by one observer as “strong enough to give any major league team a nip-and-tuck battle.” A black Army team from the 25th Infantry Unit in Nogales, Arizona, featured pitcher Bullet Joe Rogan and shortstop Dobie Moore. In 1920, when Wilkinson formed the famed Kansas City Monarchs, the players from the All-Nations and 25th Infantry teams formed the nucleus of his club. In 1921, the Monarchs challenged the minor league Kansas City Blues to a tournament for the city championship. The Blues won the series five games to three. In 1922, however, the Monarchs won five of six games to claim boasting honors in Kansas City. One week later, they swept a doubleheader from the touring Babe Ruth All-Stars.

In the years after 1910, Andrew “Rube” Foster emerged as the dominant figure in black baseball. Like many of his white contemporaries, Foster rose through the ranks of the national pastime from star player to field manager to club owner. Born in Texas in 1879, Foster accepted an invitation to pitch for Chicago’s Union Giants in 1902. “If you play the best clubs in the land, white clubs as you say,” he told owner Frank Leland, “it will be a case of Greek meeting Greek. I fear nobody.” By 1903, he was hurling for the Cuban X Giants against the Philadelphia Giants in a series billed as the “Colored Championship of the World”. His four victories in a best of nine series clinched the title. The following year, he had switched sides and registered two of three wins for the Philadelphia Giants in a similar matchup, striking out 18 batters in one game and tossing a two-hitter in another. In 1907, he rejoined the Leland Giants and, in 1910, pitched for and managed a reconstituted team of that name to a 123-6 record.

Rube Foster

Rube Foster

As a pitcher, Foster had ranked among the nation’s best; as a manager, his skills achieved legendary proportions. A master strategist and motivator, Foster’s teams specialized in the bunt, the steal, and the hit-and-run, which came to characterize black baseball. Fans came to watch him sit on the bench giving signs with a wave of his ever-present pipe. He became the friend and confidant of major league managers like John McGraw. Over the years, Foster trained a generation of black managers, like Dave Malarcher, Biz Mackey, and Oscar Charleston in the subtleties of the game.

In 1911, Foster entered the ownership ranks, uniting with white saloon keeper John Schorling (the son-in-law of White Sox owner Charles Comiskey) to form the Chicago American Giants. With Schorling’s financial backing, Foster’s managerial acumen, a regular home field in Chicago, and high salaries, the American Giants attracted the best black players in the nation. Throughout the decade, whether barnstorming or hosting opponents in Chicago, the American Giants came to represent the pinnacle of black baseball.

By World War One, Foster dominated black baseball in Chicago and parts of the Midwest. In most other areas, however, white booking agents controlled access to stadiums, and as one newspaperman charged in 1917, “used circus methods to drag a bunch of our best citizens out, only to undergo humiliation . . . while [they sat] back and [grew] rich off a percentage of the proceeds.” In the East, Nat Strong, the part owner of the Brooklyn Royal Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Cuban Stars, Cuban Giants, New York Black Yankees, and the renowned white semi-pro team, the Bushwicks, held a stranglehold on black competition. To break this monopoly and place the game more firmly under black control, Foster created the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, better known as the Negro National League, in 1920.

Foster’s new organization marked the third attempt of the century to meld black teams into a viable league. In 1906, the International League of Independent Baseball Clubs, which had four black and two white teams, struggled through one season characterized by shifting and collapsing franchises. Four years later, Beauregard Moseley, secretary of Chicago’s Leland Giants, attempted to form a National Negro Baseball League, but the association folded before a single game had been played.

The new Negro National League, which included the top teams from Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and other Midwestern cities, fared far better. At Foster’s insistence, all clubs, with the exception of the Kansas City Monarchs, whom Foster reluctantly accepted, were controlled by blacks. J.L. Wilkinson, who owned the Monarchs, a major drawing card, had won the respect of his fellow owners and soon overcame Foster’s reservations. He became the league secretary and Foster’s trusted ally. Operating under the able guidance of Foster and Wilkinson, the league flourished during its early years. In 1923, it attracted 400,000 fans and accumulated $200,000 in gate receipts.

 1924 World's Colored Championship Official Program

1924 World’s Colored Championship Official Program

The success of the Negro National League inspired competitors. In 1923, booking agent Nat Strong formed an Eastern Colored League, with teams in New York, Brooklyn, Baltimore, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. With four of the six teams owned by whites, and Strong controlling an erratic schedule, the league had somewhat less legitimacy than Foster’s circuit. Playing in larger population centers, however, the more affluent Eastern clubs successfully raided some of the top players of the Negro National League before the circuits negotiated an uneasy truce in 1924. Throughout the remainder of the decade, however, acrimony rather than harmony characterized interleague relations. A third association emerged in the South, where the stronger independent teams in major cities formed the Southern Negro League. While this group became a breeding ground for top players, the impoverished nature of its clientele, and the inability of clubs to bolster revenues with games against white squads, rendered them unable to prevent their best players from jumping to the higher paying Northern teams.

At their best the Negro Leagues of the 1920s were haphazard affairs. Since most clubs continued to rely on barnstorming for their primary livelihood, scheduling proved difficult. Teams played uneven numbers of games and especially in the Eastern circuit skipped official contests for more lucrative nonleague matchups. Several of the stronger independent teams, like the Homestead Grays, remained unaffiliated. Umpires were often incompetent and lacked authority to control conditions. Finally, players frequently jumped from one franchise to another, peddling their services to the highest bidder. In 1926, Foster grew ill, stripping the Negro National League of his vital leadership. Two years later, the Eastern Colored League disbanded and in 1931, less than a year after Foster’s death, the Negro National League departed the scene, once again leaving black baseball with no organized structure.

With the collapse of Foster’s Negro National League and the onset of the Great Depression, the always borderline economics of operating a black baseball club grew more precarious. White booking agents, like Philadelphia’s Eddie Gottlieb or Abe Saperstein of the Midwest, again reigned supreme. In the early 1930s, only the stronger independent clubs like the Homestead Grays or Kansas City Monarchs, novelty acts like the Cincinnati Clowns, or those teams backed by the “numbers kings” of the black ghettos could survive.

The Kansas City Monarchs emerged as the healthiest holdover from the old Negro National League. In 1929, owner Wilkinson had commissioned an Omaha, Nebraska, company to design a portable lighting system for night games. The equipment, consisting of a 250-horsepower motor and a 100-kilowatt generator, which illuminated lights atop telescoping poles 50 feet above the field, took about two hours to assemble. To pay for the innovation, Wilkinson mortgaged everything he owned and took in Kansas City businessman Tom Baird as a partner. But the gamble paid off. The novelty of night baseball allowed the Monarchs to play two and three games a day and made them the most popular touring club in the nation.

Cum Posey, Homestead Grays

Cum Posey, Homestead Grays

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, former basketball star Cumberland Posey, Jr. had forged the Homestead Grays into one of the best teams in America. Posey, the son of one of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest black businessmen, had joined the Grays, then a sandlot team, as an outfielder in 1911. By the early 1920s he owned the club and began recruiting top national players to supplement local talent. In 1925, he signed 39-year-old Smokey Joe Williams, and the following year he lured Oscar Charleston, whom many consider the top black player of that era. Over the next several seasons Posey recruited Judy Johnson, Martin Dihigo, and Cool Papa Bell. In 1930, he added a catcher from the Pittsburgh sandlots named Josh Gibson, and in 1934 brought in first baseman Buck Leonard from North Carolina. Unwilling to subject himself to outside control, Posey preferred to remain free from league affiliations. Yet for two decades, the Homestead Grays reigned as one of the strongest teams in black baseball.

In the 1930s, Posey faced competition from crosstown rival Gus Greenlee, “Mr. Big” of Pittsburgh’s North Side numbers rackets. Greenlee took over the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a local team, in 1930. Greenlee spent $100,000 to build a new stadium, and wooed established ballplayers with lavish salary offers. In 1931, he landed the colorful Satchel Paige, the hottest young pitcher in the land, and the following year raided the Grays, outbidding Posey for the services of Charleston, Johnson, and Gibson. In 1934, James “Cool Papa” Bell jumped the St. Louis Stars and brought his legendary speed to the Crawfords. With five future Hall of Famers, Greenlee had assembled one of the great squads of baseball history.

The emergence of Gus Greenlee marked a new era for black baseball, the reign of the numbers men. In an age of limited opportunities for blacks, many of the most talented northern black entrepreneurs turned to gambling and other illegal operations for their livelihood. Novelist Richard Wright explained, “They would have been steel tycoons, Wall Street brokers, auto moguls, had they been white.” Like the political bosses of nineteenth century urban America, numbers operators provided an informal assistance network for needy patrons in the impoverished black communities and represented a major source of capital for black businesses. In city after city, the numbers barons, seeking an element of respectability or an outlet to shield gambling profits from the Internal Revenue Service or merely the thrill of sports ownership, came to dominate black baseball. In Harlem, second-generation Cuban immigrant Alex Pompez, a powerful figure in the Dutch Schultz mob, ran the Cuban Stars, while Ed “Soldier Boy” Semler controlled the Black Yankees. Abe Manley of the Newark Eagles, Ed Bolden of the Philadelphia Stars, and Tom Wilson of the Baltimore Elite Giants all garnered their fortunes from the numbers game. Even Cum Posey, who had no connection with the rackets, had to bring in Homestead numbers banker Rufus “Sonnyman” Jackson as a partner and financier to stave off Greenlee’s challenge.

1934 Pittsburgh Crawfords, with Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Satchel Paige (Photo, James VanDerZee).

1934 Pittsburgh Crawfords, featuring Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Satchel Paige; photo, James VanDerZee.

In 1933, Greenlee unified the franchises owned by the numbers kings into a rejuvenated Negro National League. Under his leadership, writes Donn Rogosin, “The Negro National League meetings were enclaves of the most powerful black gangsters in the nation.” This “unholy alliance” sustained black baseball in the Northeast through depression and war. Even the collapse of the Crawfords and demolition of Greenlee Stadium in 1939, failed to weaken the league which survived until the onset of integration. In 1937 a second circuit, the Negro American League was formed in the Midwest and South. Dominated by Wilkinson and the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro American League relied less on numbers brokers, but more on white ownership for their financing.

The formation of the Negro American League encouraged the rejuvenation of an annual World Series, matching the champions of the two leagues. But the Negro League World Series never achieved the prominence of its white counterpart. The fact that league standings were often determined among teams playing uneven numbers of games diluted the notion of a champion.

Furthermore, impoverished urban blacks could not sustain attendance at a prolonged series. As a result, the Negro League World Series always took a back seat to the annual East-West All-Star Game played in Chicago. The East-West Game, originated by Greenlee in 1933, quickly emerged as the centerpiece of black baseball. Fans chose the players in polls conducted by black newspapers. By 1939, leading candidates received as many as 500,000 votes. Large crowds of blacks and whites watched the finest Negro League stars, and the revenues divided among the teams often spelled the difference between profit and loss at the season’s end.

1942 East-West All Star Game Ticket

1942 East-West All-Star Game Ticket

By the 1930s and 1940s, black baseball had become an integral part of Northern ghetto life. With hundreds of employees and millions of dollars in revenue, the Negro Leagues, as Donn Rogosin notes, “may rank among the highest achievements of black enterprise during segregation.” In addition, baseball provided an economic ripple effect, boosting business in hotels, cafes, restaurants and bars. In Kansas City and other towns, games became social events, as black citizens, recalls manager Buck O’Neil, “wore their finery.” The Monarch Booster Club was a leading civic organization and the “Miss Monarch Bathing Beauty” pageant a popular event. Black baseball also represented a source of pride for the black community. “The Monarchs was Kansas City’s team,” boasted bartender Jesse Fisher. “They made Kansas City the talk of the town all over the world.”

In several cities, white politicians routinely appeared at Opening Day games to curry favor with their often neglected black constituents. When Greenlee Field launched its operations in Pittsburgh, the mayor, city council, and county commissioners lined the field boxes. Negro League owners also played a role in the fight against segregation. In Newark, Effa Manley, who ran the Eagles with her husband Abe, served as treasurer of the New Jersey NAACP and belonged to the Citizen’s League for Fair Play which fought for black employment opportunities. Manley sponsored a “Stop Lynching” fundraiser at one Eagles home game.

The impact of the Negro Leagues, however, ranged beyond the communities whose names the teams bore. Throughout the age of Jim Crow baseball, even in those years when a substantial league structure existed, official league games accounted for a relatively small part of the black baseball experience. Black teams would typically play over 200 games a year, only a third of which counted in the league standings. The vast majority of contests occurred on the “barnstorming” circuit, pitting black athletes against a broad array of professional and semi-professional competition, white and black, throughout the nation. In the pre-television era, traveling teams brought a higher level of baseball to fans in the towns and cities of America and allowed local talent to test their skills against the professionals. While some all-white teams, like the “House of David” also trod the barnstorming trail, itinerancy was the key to survival for black squads. The capital needed to finance a Negro League team existed primarily in Northern cities, but the overwhelming majority of blacks lived in the South.

Roy Campanella, Baltimore Elite Giants“The schedule was a rugged one,” recalled Roy Campanella of the Baltimore Elite Giants. “Rarely were we in the same city two days in a row. Mostly we played by day and traveled by night.” After the Monarchs introduced night baseball, teams played both day and night appearing in two and sometimes three different ballparks on the same day. Teams traveled in buses–“our home, dressing room, dining room, and hotel”–or sandwiched into touring cars. “We had little time to waste on the road,” states Quincy Trouppe, “so it was a rare treat when the cars would stop at times to let us stretch out and exercise for a few minutes.” Most major hotels barred black guests, so even when the schedule allowed overnight stays, the athletes found themselves in less than comfortable accommodations. Large cities usually had better black hotels where ballplayers, entertainers, and other members of the black bourgeoisie congregated. On the road, however, Negro Leaguers more frequently were relegated to Jim Crow roadhouses, “continually under attack by bedbugs.”

The black baseball experience extended beyond the confines of the United States and into Central America and the Caribbean. Negro Leaguers appeared regularly in the Cuban, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, and Dominican winter leagues where they competed against black and white Latin stars and major leaguers as well. Some blacks, like Willie Wells and Ray Dandridge, jumped permanently to the Mexican League, where several also became successful managers of interracial teams. As Wells explained, “I am not faced by the racial problem . . . I’ve found freedom and democracy here, something I never found in the United States . . . In Mexico, I am a man.”

Part 3 tomorrow.

Black Ball

Total Baseball, 1989

Total Baseball, 1989

Jules Tygiel, already famous for having written Baseball’s Great Experiment (Oxford University Press, 1983), wrote this sweeping history of the African American experience in baseball in 1988, for the late lamented Total Baseball, in which it was published with minor updates in each of seven succeeding editions. In that same year Jules and I collaborated on “Jackie Robinson’s Signing: The Real Story,” which has been reprinted at Our Game. Other scholars have made notable contributions in this field, both narrower and deeper, but for one who would grasp the great story of black ball in broad strokes, this is, in my humble estimation, the best essay ever written. I have chosen to share the essay as it was published in the second edition of Total Baseball, in 1991. Certain historical facts herein have been amended or expanded by later research, but not the author’s basic treatment; his text is left intact except for his own corrections. I will offer, however, Jules’s last updated conclusion, referencing the 1997 celebration of integration’s 50th anniversary and Commissioner Selig’s retirement of Jackie Robinson’s uniform number 42 across all of Major League Baseball: “At times the commemorations threat­ened to be overwhelmed by nostalgia and commercialism. However the 1997 festivities reminded the nation once again of its past heritage—both the shameful and the heroic—and its ongoing obligations to seek greater equal­ity in the future.”

In 1987, Major League Baseball, amidst much fanfare and publicity, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the finest moment in the history of the national pastime–Jackie Robinson’s heroic shattering of the color barrier. But baseball might also have commemorated the centennial of a related, but far less auspicious event–the banishment of blacks from the International League in 1887 which ushered in six disgraceful decades of Jim Crow baseball. During this era, some of America’s greatest ballplayers plied their trade on all-black teams, in Negro Leagues, on the playing fields of Latin America, and along the barnstorming frontier of the cities and towns of the United States, but never within the major and minor league realm of “organized baseball.” When slowly and grudgingly given their chance in the years after 1947, blacks conclusively proved their competitive abilities on the diamond, but discrimination persisted as baseball executives continued to deny them the opportunity to display their talents in managerial and front office positions.

Scattered evidence exists of blacks playing baseball in the antebellum period, but the first recorded black teams surfaced in Northern cities in the aftermath of the Civil War. In October 1867, the Uniques of Brooklyn hosted the Excelsiors of Philadelphia in a contest billed as the “championship of colored clubs.” Before a large crowd of black and white spectators, the Excelsiors marched around the field behind a fife and drum corps before defeating the Uniques, 37-24. Two months later, a second Philadelphia squad, the Pythians, dispatched a representative to the inaugural meetings of the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first organized league. The nominating committee unanimously rejected the Pythian’s application, barring “any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” Using the impeccable logic of a racist society, the committee proclaimed, “If colored clubs were admitted there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.” The Philadelphia Pythians, however, continued their quest for interracial competition. In 1869, they became the first black team to face an all-white squad, defeating the crosstown City Items, 27-17.

In 1876, athletic entrepreneurs in the nation’s metropolitan centers established the National League which quickly came to represent the pinnacle of the sport. The new entity had no written policy regarding blacks, but precluded them nonetheless through a “gentleman’s agreement” among the owners. In the smaller cities and towns of America, however, where underfunded teams and fragile minor league coalitions quickly appeared and faded, individual blacks found scattered opportunities to pursue baseball careers. During the next decade, at least two dozen black ballplayers sought to earn a living in this erratic professional baseball world.

Bud Fowler with Findlay, Ohio club, 1894

Bud Fowler with Findlay, OH, 1894.

Bud Fowler ranked among the best and most persistent of these trailblazers. Born John Jackson in upstate New York in 1858 and raised, ironically, in Cooperstown, Fowler first achieved recognition as a 20-year-old pitcher for a local team in Chelsea, Massachusetts. In April 1878, Fowler defeated the National League’s Boston club, which included future Hall of Famers George Wright and Jim O’ Rourke, 2-1, in an exhibition game, besting 40-game winner Tommy Bond. Later that season, Fowler hurled three games for the Lynn Live Oaks of the International Association, the nation’s first minor league, and another for Worcester in the New England League. For the next six years, he toiled for a variety of independent and semiprofessional teams in the United States and Canada. Despite a reputation as “one of the best pitchers on the continent,” he failed to catch on with any major or minor league squads. In 1884, now appearing regularly as a second baseman, as well as a pitcher, Fowler joined Stillwater, Minnesota, in the Northwestern League. Over the next seven seasons, Fowler played for fourteen teams in nine leagues, seldom batting less than .300 for a season. In 1886, he led the Western League in triples. “He is one of the best general players in the country,” reported Sporting Life in 1885, “and if he had a white face he would be playing with the best of them…. Those who know, say there is no better second baseman in the country.”

In 1886, however, a better second baseman did appear in the form of Frank Grant, perhaps the greatest black player of the nineteenth century. The light-skinned Grant, described as a “Spaniard” in the Buffalo Express, batted .325 for Meridien in the Eastern League. When that squad folded he joined Buffalo in the prestigious International Association and improved his average to .340, third best in the league.

Walker with Toledo 1883

Walker with Toledo, 1883

Although not as talented as Fowler and Grant, barehand-catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker achieved the highest level of play of blacks of this era. The son of an Ohio physician, Fleet Walker had studied at Oberlin College, where in 1881 he and his younger brother Welday helped launch a varsity baseball team. For the next two years, the elder Walker played for the University of Michigan and in 1883 he appeared in 60 games for the pennant-winning Toledo squad in the Northwestern League. In 1884, Toledo entered the American Association, the National League’s primary rival, and Walker became the first black major leaguer. In an age when many catchers caught barehanded and lacked chest protectors, Walker suffered frequent injuries and played little after a foul tip broke his rib in mid-July. Nonetheless, he batted .263 and pitcher Tony Mullane later called him “the best catcher I ever worked with.” In July, Toledo briefly signed Walker’s brother, Welday, who appeared in six games batting .182. The following year, Toledo dropped from the league, ending the Walkers’ major league careers.

These early black players found limited acceptance among teammates, fans, and opponents. In Ontario, in 1881, Fowler’s teammates forced him off the club. Walker found that Mullane and other pitchers preferred not to pitch to him. Although he acknowledged Walker’s skills, Mullane confessed, “I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used anything I wanted without looking at his signals.” At Louisville in 1884, insults from Kentucky fans so rattled Walker that he made five errors in a game. In Richmond, after Walker had actually left the team due to injuries, the Toledo manager received a letter from “75 determined men” threatening “to mob Walker” and cause “much bloodshed” if the black catcher appeared. On August 10, 1883, Chicago White Stockings star and manager Cap Anson had threatened to cancel an exhibition game with Toledo if Walker played. The injured catcher had not been slated to start, but Toledo manager Charlie Morton defied Anson and inserted Walker into the lineup. The game proceeded without incident.

1887 Buffalo with Frank Grant

1887 Buffalo with Frank Grant

In 1887, Walker, Fowler, Grant, Higgins, Stovey, and three other blacks converged on the International League, a newly reorganized circuit in Canada and upstate New York, one notch below the major league level. At the same time, a new six-team entity, the League of Colored Baseball Clubs, won recognition under baseball’s National Agreement, a mutual pact to honor player contracts among team owners. Thus, an air of optimism pervaded the start of the season. But 1887 would prove a fateful year for the future of blacks in baseball.

On May 6, the Colored League made its debut in Pittsburgh with “a grand street parade and a brass band concert.” Twelve hundred spectators watched the hometown Keystones lose to the Gorhams of New York, 11-8. Within days, however, the new league began to flounder. The Boston franchise disbanded in Louisville on May 8, stranding its players in the Southern city. Three weeks later, league-founder Walter Brown formally announced the demise of the infant circuit.

Meanwhile, in the International League, black players found their numbers growing, but their status increasingly uncertain. Six of the 10 teams fielded blacks, prompting Sporting Life to wonder, “How far will this mania for engaging colored players go?” In Newark, fans marveled at the “colored battery” of Fleet Walker, dubbed the “coon catcher” by one Canadian newspaper, and “headstrong” pitcher George Stovey. Stovey, one of the greatest black pitchers of the nineteenth century, won 35 games, still an International League record. Frank Grant, in his second season as the Buffalo second baseman, led the league in both batting average and home runs. Bud Fowler, one of two blacks on the Binghamton squad, compiled a .350 average through early July and stole 23 bases.

These athletes compiled their impressive statistics under the most adverse conditions. “I could not help pitying some of the poor black fellows that played in the International League,” reported a white player. “Fowler used to play second base with the lower part of his legs encased in wooden guards. He knew that about every player that came down to second base on a steal had it in for him.” Both Fowler and Grant, “would muff balls intentionally, so that [they] would not have to touch runners, fearing that they might injure [them].” In addition, “About half the pitchers try their best to hit these colored players when [they are] at bat.” Grant, whose Buffalo teammates had refused to sit with him for a team portrait in 1886, reportedly saved himself from a “drubbing” at their hands in 1887, only by “the effective use of a club.” In Toronto, fans chanted, “Kill the Nigger,” at Grant, and a local newspaper headline declared, “THE COLORED PLAYERS DISTASTEFUL.” In late June, Bud Fowler’s Binghamton teammates refused to take the field unless the club removed him from the lineup. Soon after, on July 7, the Binghamton club submitted to these demands, releasing Fowler and a black teammate, a pitcher named Renfroe.

Doug Crothers, Syracuse, 1887

Doug Crothers, Syracuse, 1887

The most dramatic confrontations between black and white players occurred on the Syracuse squad, where a clique of refugees from the Southern League exacerbated racial tensions. In spring training, the club included a catcher named Dick Male, who, rumors had it, was a light-skinned black named Richard Johnson. Male charged “that the man calling him a Negro is himself a black liar,” but when released after a poor preseason performance, he returned to his old club, Zanesville in the Ohio State League, and resumed his true identity as Richard Johnson. In May, Syracuse signed 19-year-old black pitcher Robert Higgins, angering the Southern clique. On May 25, Higgins appeared in his first International League game in Toronto. “THE SYRACUSE PLOTTERS”, as a Sporting News headline called his teammates, undermined his debut. According to one account, they “seemed to want the Toronto team to knock Higgins out of the box, and time and again they fielded so badly that the home team were enabled to secure many hits after the side had been retired.” “A disgusting exhibition”, admonished The Toronto World. “They succeeded in running Male out of the club”, reported a Newark paper, “and they will do the same with Higgins.” One week later, two Syracuse players refused to pose for a team picture with Higgins. When manager “Ice Water” Joe Simmons suspended pitcher Doug Crothers for this incident, Crothers slugged the manager. Higgins miraculously recovered from his early travails and lack of support to post a 20-7 record.

On July 14, as the directors of the International League discussed the racial situation in Buffalo, the Newark Little Giants planned to send Stovey, their ace, to the mound in an exhibition game against the National League Chicago White Stockings. Once again manager Anson refused to field his squad if either Stovey or Walker appeared. Unlike 1883, Anson’s will prevailed. On the same day, team owners, stating that “Many of the best players in the league are anxious to leave on account of the colored element,” allowed current black players to remain, but voted by a six-to-four margin to reject all future contracts with blacks. The teams with black players all voted against the measure, but Binghamton, which had just released Fowler and Renfroe, swung the vote in favor of exclusion.

Events in 1887 continued to conspire against black players. On September 11, the St. Louis Browns of the American Association refused to play a scheduled contest against the all-black Cuban Giants. “We are only doing what is right,” they proclaimed. In November, the Buffalo and Syracuse teams unsuccessfully attempted to lift the International League ban on blacks. The Ohio State League, which had fielded three black players, also adopted a rule barring additional contracts with blacks, prompting Welday Walker, who had appeared in the league, to protest, “The law is a disgrace to the present age. . . There should be some broader cause–such as lack of ability, behavior and intelligence–for barring a player, rather than his color.”

Page Fence Giants

Page Fence Giants, 1895

After 1887, only a handful of blacks appeared on integrated squads. Grant and Higgins returned to their original teams in 1888. Walker jumped from Newark to Syracuse. The following year, only Walker remained for one final season, the last black in the International League until 1946. Richard Johnson, the erstwhile Dick Male, reappeared in the Ohio State League in 1888 and in 1889 joined Springfield in the Central Interstate League, where he hit 14 triples, stole 45 bases, and scored 100 runs in 100 games. In 1890, Harrisburg in the Eastern Interstate League fielded two blacks, while Jamestown in the New York Penn League featured another. Bud Fowler and several other black players appeared in the Nebraska State League in 1892. Three years later, Adrian in the Michigan State League signed five blacks, including Fowler and pitcher George Wilson who posted a 29-4 record. Meanwhile Sol White, who later chronicled these events in his 1906 book, The History of Colored Baseball, played for Fort Wayne in the Western State League. In 1896, pitcher-outfielder Bert Jones joined Atchison in the Kansas State League where he played for three seasons before being forced out in 1898. Almost 50 years would pass before another black would appear on an interracial club in organized baseball.

While integrated teams grew rare, several leagues allowed entry to all-black squads. In 1889, the Middle States League included the New York Gorhams and the Cuban Giants, the most famous black team of the age. The Giants posted a 55-17 record. In 1890, the alliance reorganized as the Eastern Interstate League and again included the Cuban Giants. Giants’ star George Williams paced the circuit with a .391 batting average, while teammate Arthur Thomas slugged 26 doubles and 10 triples, both league-leading totals. The Eastern Interstate League folded in midseason, and in 1891 the Giants made one final minor league appearance in the Connecticut State League. When this circuit also disbanded, the brief entry of the Cuban Giants in organized baseball came to an end. In 1898, a team calling itself the Acme Colored Giants affiliated with Pennsylvania’s Iron and Oil League, but won only eight of 49 games before dropping out, marking an ignoble conclusion to these early experiments in interracial play.

Cuban Giants of 1887-1888

Overall, at least 70 blacks appeared in organized baseball in the late 19th century. About half played for all-black teams, the remainder for integrated clubs. Few lasted more than one season with the same team. By the 1890s, the pattern for black baseball that would prevail for the next half century had emerged. Blacks were relegated to “colored” teams playing most of their games on the barnstorming circuit, outside of any organized league structure. While exhibition contests allowed them to pit their skills against whites, they remained on the outskirts of baseball’s mainstream, unheralded and unknown to most Americans.

As early as the 1880s and 1890s several all-black traveling squads had gained national reputations. The Cuban Giants, formed among the waiters of the Argyle Hotel to entertain guests in 1885, set the pattern and provided the recurrent nickname for these teams. Passing as Cubans, so as not to offend their white clientele, the Giants toured the East in a private railroad car playing amateur and professional opponents. In the 1890s, rivals like the Lincoln Giants from Nebraska, the Page Fence Giants from Michigan, and the Cuban X Giants in New York emerged. From the beginning these teams combined entertainment with their baseball to attract crowds. The Page Fence Giants, founded by Bud Fowler in 1895, would ride through the streets on bicycles to attract attention. In 1899, Fowler organized the All-American Black Tourists, who would arrive in full dress suits with opera hats and silk umbrellas. Their showmanship notwithstanding, the black teams of the 1890s included some of the best players in the nation. The Page Fence Giants won 118 of 154 games in 1895, with two of their losses coming against the major league Cincinnati Reds.

During the early years of the 20th century many blacks still harbored hopes of regaining access to organized baseball. Sol White wrote in 1906 that baseball, “should be taken seriously by the colored player. An honest effort of his great ability will open the avenue in the near future wherein he may walk hand-in-hand with the opposite race in the greatest of all American games–baseball.” Rube Foster, the outstanding figure in black baseball from 1910-1926, stressed excellence because “we have to be ready when the time comes for integration.”

But even clandestine efforts to bring in blacks met a harsh fate. In 1901, Baltimore Orioles Manager John McGraw attempted to pass second baseman Charlie Grant of the Columbia Giants off as an Indian named Chief Tokohama, until Chicago White Sox President Charles Comiskey exposed the ruse. In 1911, the Cincinnati Reds raised black hopes by signing two light-skinned Cubans, Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida, prompting the New York Age to speculate, “Now that the first shock is over it would not be surprising to see a Cuban a few shades darker. . . breaking into the professional ranks . . . it would then be easier for colored players who are citizens of this country to get into fast company.” But the Reds rushed to certify that Marsans and Almeida were “genuine Caucasians”, and while light-skinned Cubans became a fixture in the majors, their darker brethren remained unwelcome. Over the years, tales circulated of United States blacks passing as Indians or Cubans, but no documented cases exist.

Part 2 tomorrow.


Baseball Ops: Welcome to the Evolution

In Pursuit of PennantsThis is a guest column by two old friends and baseball savants. Mark Armour and Dan Levitt wrote the fine article below to give “Our Game” readers a taste of their forthcoming book, In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations From Deadball to Moneyball. It will be published this month (March 2015) by the University of Nebraska Press (for more, see: This is Mark and Dan’s second book as a team, following Paths to Glory (Potomac, 2003); each is an award-winning and prolific researcher and writer. Mark (Twitter handle @markarmour04) received SABR’s Henry Chadwick Award–the “Chaddie,” the baseball researcher’s highest honor–in 2014. Dan was a finalist for the Seymour Medal in 2009, for Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty.

Seven months from now two baseball teams will meet in the 2015 World Series. Pitches will be thrown, balls will be hit, and catches will be made, as the fifty players on the two rosters rightfully take center stage. There may be a distraction or two over a manager’s decision or an umpire’s call, but we can be confident that the skills of the talented players involved will ultimately determine which side will hoist the trophy on that late October night.

Among the millions watching will be two groups of very interested people: the Baseball Operations staffs whose collective efforts to scout, evaluate, draft, develop, sign or acquire these players ultimately determined the composition of the two rosters. All of their decision making will have been analyzed and graded as never before by fans and writers, many of whom feel comfortable second-guessing not just major league trades but also the drafting of high school prospects. While most of us tried to play baseball and gave up our big league dreams as teenagers or earlier, that has not stopped us from imagining that we could be the general manager of our local nine.

There have always been debates in schoolyards and bars about trades that should be made or players who should be signed, but the discourse has become much more complex and detailed in the past generation with the explosion of available data about players and the rise of analytics. Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, released in 2003, was a best-selling book in which the heroes were not players performing wondrous athletic feats, but smart guys arguing about baseball, a demographic which is easier for most of us to imagine fitting into.Moneyballsbn

Moneyball depicts Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in a David-vs-Goliath story. Faced with a significant revenue disadvantage compared with nearly every other team, Beane prevails over his counterparts by finding ways to outsmart them. How much Beane prevailed and the reasons why will be debated forever, but one thing is clear: Lewis’s book unearthed (or inspired) an increased interest in how baseball teams are run off the field. Baseball fans are no closer to playing like Andrew McCutcheon, but they have no shortage of opinions about who the Twins should be targeting in the upcoming amateur draft.

In particular, Moneyball was about the rise of analytics in baseball front offices, with Beane’s A’s at the forefront. According to Lewis, Beane understood the concept of market inefficiencies and the analogous benefit of finding undervalued players, and he believed that these players could be better identified using statistical and analytical techniques than by traditional scouting. For example, players who had high on-base-percentages without other identifiable strengths were undervalued, as were college players in the amateur draft.

One reason that the book created such a stir is that to many of us, these ideas were not new. Baseball statistical analysis had been evolving and developing for roughly fifty years and had begun to find an audience with the writings of Bill James by the late 1970s. Sabermetrics, a word coined by James, did not prescribe a set of formulas and answers, as its critics might have charged. It prescribes a process, a philosophy that teams should make decisions based on evidence and data. This was not a wholly new concept—scouts had been using radar guns and stopwatches for decades rather than merely trusting their eyes—but sabermetrics suggested that baseball’s vast statistical record could better tell us which players were actually helping their team score or prevent runs, which game strategies would increase the team’s chances of winning, which minor leaguers were likely to be good major leaguers, and more. Much more, in fact. To the analytically inclined fan, Beane became their surrogate in the revolution that was (belatedly) taking place inside of the game.

Billy Beane

Billy Beane

Twelve years later, the debate is mainly over. The specific arguments raised by Moneyball have appropriately been adopted or rejected, the best run teams today are using both traditional scouting and evidence-based analytics, and the two schools are working together. Whatever advantage Beane held over his contemporaries in 2003 he holds no longer. Market inefficiencies last only as long as the market stands still, and baseball teams are constantly searching for a new advantage. Within a few years, Beane needed to think of something else.

For almost a century, the person in charge of bringing players into a team’s organization and constructing the roster has been called the “general manager.” These men have held various titles over the years, but if you were the guy who made the trades people called you the GM. Like any business model, the growing game has caused further departmentalization, resulting in farm directors, scouting directors, assistant GMs, player personnel directors, analysts, video coordinators, medical coordinators, and more. Some teams, like the Cubs, have muddied the waters further by giving Theo Epstein the title “President of Baseball Operations” and making Jed Hoyer the general manager. “Baseball Operations,” a relatively new term in the game, generally encompasses a few dozen people working 52 weeks per year trying to make their organization smarter or stronger.

The overarching job of Baseball Ops is the same as it was decades ago: to find, evaluate, acquire, and develop baseball players for their organization. Each of these four items has become more complicated over the years. Not long ago, players were best found by driving around the country watching games, while now scouts have to travel the world. Player evaluation used to involve a stopwatch and a few sets of eyes, while today computers are reading terabytes of pitch rotation data. How one acquires players (amateur draft, free agency, etc.) has changed many times over the years, of course. Player development and instruction is still evolving as well.

Theo Epstein

Theo Epstein

Building a championship team, 140 years after the start of the first professional league, is more challenging today than ever before. No matter the strengths of any organization, its management is competing against other smart, well-motivated people with significant resources of their own. In a direct competition, where every action draws a reaction, there can be no easy recipe for success. In an industry where people shift between organizations on a regular basis, it is not possible to maintain advantages for more than a short period of time.

Organizations are also dealing with imperfect information when constructing their teams. Which eighteen-year-old draftee will add five miles per hour to his fastball, and which will hit for more power? Which player is ready to be promoted to the majors, which declining player is over the hill and which will rebound, and which free-agent pitcher is least likely to break down due to arm troubles? The list of things one cannot know, at least precisely, is endless. Nevertheless, teams must make decisions.

Most baseball franchises recognize the limitations of their knowledge and spend time and money to improve their analysis and decision-making, some more successfully than others. However, there is still much that can be learned from studying the history of Baseball Ops. Looking carefully, one can often identify differences between teams that have consistently succeeded and teams that struggle.

While the rise of analytics in the game, ten to fifteen years ago, was new, the pattern of its evolution was not. Billy Beane’s “Goliaths”—well-heeled teams—have always been around, have always had an advantage, and have always won more than their share of pennants and championships. But the most successful organizations have also generally been the smartest, in particular the ones that have either fundamentally changed the way baseball teams are built, or have best adapted to changes in the environment in which teams operate.

George Weiss and Joe DiMaggio

George Weiss and Joe DiMaggio

In Only the Paranoid Survive, Andrew S. Grove, a onetime Intel CEO, called these transitions “strategic inflection points,” moments “when the balance of forces shifts, from the old structure, from the old ways of doing business and the old ways of competing, to the new.” Changes within the technology industry, where Grove worked, are usually more dramatic and momentous, but the concept he describes is certainly useful for thinking about changes in baseball.

No man illustrates Grove’s point better than Branch Rickey, the game’s most legendary and successful GM. Among other things, Rickey is largely responsible for the two most important inflection points in the game’s history.

In the 1920s Rickey was running the Cardinals and did not believe that his team could afford the high prices being charged by independent minor league teams for their players. Instead, he proposed that the Cardinals acquire their own teams and develop their own players. Baseball rules prohibited much of Rickey’s plan for a few years, but eventually the Cardinals and Yankees successfully lobbied for the requisite rules changes and both teams immediately set up huge farm systems. Over the next two decades, they were the dominant teams in the game. The clubs that were slow to create farm systems were soon unable to compete.

Branch Rickey (r.) with Larry MacPhail

Branch Rickey (r.) with Larry MacPhail

By 1945 Rickey was running the Dodgers, and that August he signed Jackie Robinson to a contract. In so doing, Rickey opened up, as a practical matter, the largest pool of untapped talent in the history of the game. Within a few years Robinson, Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella were playing in Brooklyn and winning pennants. Soon other teams followed suit, and now-legendary black players were starring throughout the game and winning championships.

This great story is usually told through a moral lens, through which Rickey had the courage to do the right thing and, thanks to his great players, triumphed. But Rickey and other GMs who subsequently integrated their teams needed more than courage, they needed to hire scouts and direct them to places where black people would be playing, places that they were not currently scouting, like Latin America or small towns in the segregated South.

The lessons of the 1950s have played out many times since, as teams have established advantages in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Japan, and, just recently, Cuba again. It sounds obvious—go where the players are—but pennants have been won or lost due to teams’ willingness to heed this simple commandment. Pat Gillick, a great scout and talent evaluator who became one of history’s best GMs, made inroads into the Dominican Republic that forever changed the game, as one look at today’s All-Star rosters and league leaderboards can attest. His later acquisition of Japanese stars, especially Ichiro Suzuki, ended any misconceptions Americans might have had about the talent there.

In the first half-century or so of the professional game the job of finding players fell to either the owner or field manager. Barney Dreyfuss owned the Pirates for more than 30 years and assumed the responsibility for finding many of the players for his great teams. He studied the baseball periodicals of the day, had connections around the country, and kept detailed notes in a notebook. Branch Rickey once suggested that Dreyfuss, who had never seriously played the game, was the best judge of baseball talent he had ever been around. John McGraw, whose Giants dominated the National League for a quarter century, completely ran his team on and off the field, with little interference from ownership. Both models, in the hands of a man of sufficient talent and genius, could and did work.

Barney Dreyfuss Tip-Top Bread Card, 1910

Barney Dreyfuss Tip-Top Bread Card, 1910

The first innovation, or “inflection point,” in Baseball Ops was the creation of the general manager position. There are many men who could lay claim to being baseball’s first GM, a non-owner non-manager in charge of finding and acquiring players. The best candidate for defining the position is probably Ed Barrow, hired by Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston in late 1920. Barrow’s unqualified success, building a great scouting staff and soon a dynasty, helped make the GM the dominant model in baseball front offices. Rickey held a similar role with the Cardinals, and had comparable success in the National League. The best GMs in later years—the Yankees’ George Weiss in the 1950s, the Reds’ Bob Howsam in the 1970s, the Blue Jays’ Gillick in the 1980s, the Giants’ Brian Sabean in recent years—were known for building top-notch baseball organizations by finding, motivating, and listening to scouts, player-personnel people, and, more recently, analytics and video staffs. Almost all great teams have done this better than their competition.

The evolution of team building also involved an increasing sophistication of front offices. In addition to Rickey, in the mid-1920s the Cardinals front office consisted of owner Sam Breadon (occasionally), treasurer/key assistant Bill DeWitt Sr. (the father of the Cardinals’ current owner), traveling secretary Clarence Lloyd, and two secretaries. Today, the Baseball Pperations side alone of the San Francisco Giants employs 33 executives.

Pat Gillick

Pat Gillick

Some of the biggest challenges faced by Baseball Ops over the years are due to changes to the game off the field. After experimenting with bonus rules for 20 years, in 1965 baseball held its first amateur draft. No longer could teams like the Yankees and Dodgers rely on their advantages in money and prestige. Scouts could still provide an advantage in deciding who to draft, but everyone had the same shot at the same players. The A’s and Dodgers, in particular, had several great early drafts that propelled them to excellence in the 1970s. Fifty years later, even with all of the international inroads that have been made, the draft still provides nearly 70 percent of the talent to the major leagues.

Baseball underwent another major change with the advent of widespread free agency in 1976. From a Baseball Ops standpoint, free agency put an even larger premium on evaluating veteran players—not only their present, but also their future. In an age of one-year contracts, players would hold down a job until they showed they could not, and then the team found someone else. But now most important decisions—signing free agents, signing your own players to keep them from free agency, making trades—had long-range implications. Understanding how players—both generally and specifically—are likely to age is crucial, and analytics have played an increasingly large role in this understanding.

Twelve years ago Moneyball shone a light on analytics, another chapter in the continual evolution of Baseball Operations. But it was not the final chapter. The recent marriage of video technology and high-speed computing, which has led (so far) to increased defensive shifts, a better understanding of swing mechanics, and further advances in pitch selection, was but a dream when Moneyball was published.

What’s next? Imagine a team that figures out how to reduce pitcher injuries—how big of an advantage would that be? You can be certain that the best organizations are working on this problem as you read this. Teams are also using the latest research from neuroscience and other disciplines to try to better understand the mental side of player performance.

The best organizations have always been ones that looked for new solutions, or better ways to implement the old solutions. New challenges will inevitably lead to larger and more complicated Baseball Operations departments, working ever harder in their search for an increasingly valuable extra win.

Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Photographs, Part 5


Mathew Brady's baseball photo missed the cut.

Mathew Brady’s baseball photo missed the cut.

And now we head for the last roundup. You, having arrived here presumably after a spin through the previous four parts, might offer radically different selections, or at the least rank them differently. The selection process, I can say, was difficult and the rankings no less so. But I have been thinking on this subject for a good long while, so it could be that I overstate the effort. A Facebook friend asked in midweek, “Will these perhaps be a part of a future book with corresponding text?”

I replied: “Mark Rucker and I had thought to create precisely such a book in the mid-1980s, when both baseball and photography were nearing their 150th anniversaries, as they were then identified. Publishers didn’t go for it. If this idea does a Lazarus, I’m all over it–and would always wish to work again with Mark, via” The limit for this week’s posts to “Our Game” I set at 25 for reasons of bandwidth consumption and user friendliness. But could this topic–baseball’s greatest photographs–go ten times larger, to 250 images? Absolutely.

I could make the additional selections, ideally with my old friend Mark, but wouldn’t it be great if we could work in your suggestions, too? You know, when we came up with the idea almost thirty years ago, a book was the obvious way to present such an array. But the web may be even better. The first of this five-part series drew three times more views than a typical “Our Game” blogpost; the next went on to triple that day-old high-water mark.

So maybe we do not end here, on this day, but only pause and regather.

[Clicking on an image will enlarge it.]

21.  Ted Williams beats the play at first, Fenway Park, ca. 1946; photographer unknown.

21.  Ted Williams beats the play at first, Fenway Park, ca. 1946; photographer unknown.

22. Jackie Robinson is called up from the Montreal Royals to the Brooklyn Dodgers, April 10, 1947; William C. Greene, New York World-Telegram.  

22. Jackie Robinson is called up from the Montreal Royals to the Brooklyn Dodgers, April 10, 1947; William C. Greene, New York World-Telegram.

23. Christy Mathewson portrait, 1910; Paul Thompson.

23. Christy Mathewson portrait, 1910; Paul Thompson.

24. Willie Mays, near the end of his great career, pleading an out call at home plate, 1973 World Series, Game Two; Russ Reed.

24. Willie Mays, near the end of his great career, pleading an out call at home plate, 1973 World Series, Game Two; Russ Reed.

25. A record crowd at Baltimore for game that clinches pennant for Boston, September 27, 1897; LOC.

25. A record crowd at Baltimore for game that clinches pennant for Boston, September 27, 1897; LOC.

This marks the end of the five-part series that commenced here:


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