Archive for the ‘These Men Changed Baseball’ category

These Men Changed Baseball: Willard Brown

04/18/2010

Though I realize for series continuity I should be writing about Chuck Harmon right now, I want to step back just a little bit.  Willard Brown deserved to be more than a footnote in the posts on Hank Thompson and the role of Canada.  Brown was a future Hall of Famer who bombed in his brief tenure with the St. Louis Browns in 1947, a team he missed integrating by a matter of days.  What is the story of Willard Brown?

Brown was born in Shreveport, LA on June 26, 1915. Some push that birthdate up to 1911. From there, he moved to nearby Monroe to play for the Monroe Monarchs in 1934. In 1935, he moved up to the big club, joining the Kansas City Monarchs. He would play for them off and on through 1948. His statistics are incomplete, as are all Negro League stats, but sources credit him with 7 home run titles in the Negro American League and per 162-game averages of .348 batting average, .565 slugging percentage, 23 home runs, and 16 triples. Brown, nicknamed “Home Run” by Josh Gibson, was a noted combination of power and speed, a point I’ll return to in a minute. Because of these skills, Brown’s contract was purchased from the Monarchs, along with teammate Hank Thompson, by the St. Louis Browns.

Brown debuted on July 19, 1947, playing for the Southern-most team in the major leagues at the time, two days after Thompson. The results were not pretty. Brown played in 21 games, hitting .179 without a walk, posting .269 slugging percentage. In his third to last game, though, Brown pinch hit against future Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser, ripping Newhouser for an inside-the-park home run so reminiscent of his Negro League combination of power and speed. This was the first home run hit by an African-American in the American League. For the moment, let’s leave the story there. It is a nice cap to the career of a player who do to racism could debut until he was already 32-years-old, well past his baseball prime. The Browns would cut him in late August, and he would return to the Monarchs for his last hurrah in 1948.

Now we need to flesh out this story. For starters, note the players the Browns used to integrate. Thompson was a hot-head, a trait that would eventually lead to his death. Brown a player that teammates regularly accused of not hustling. If you wanted to pick players to embody negative stereotypes about African-Americans, you could not find a better matched pair. Was this the Browns’ intent? I have no proof, but I do know that these players stick out in a list of early integrators like Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and Sam Jethroe. At the least, the Browns were poor talent evaluators, a point which dovetails well with their history of lousy teams full of white players. I am inclined to blame incompetence rather than malice, but I am willing to be convinced otherwise.

Second, the story of Brown’s home run has a little more detail that I have left out. Brown, sitting on the bench as he was, was not prepared to hit that day. He had to borrow a bat from a white player in order to hit, and he proceeded to use this borrowed bat to hit the home run. Hollywood story, right? Well, when he got back to the dugout, the story goes, the white player, the immortal Jeff Heath, an outfielder in direct competition with both Thompson and Brown for playing time, took the bat back and broke it because it had been used by a black man.

In the end, Brown faded away. He died of Alzheimer’s while living in extreme poverty in Houston, TX on August 8, 1996. Heath died at age 60 and was commemorated (scroll down for the obituary) for his early accomplishments and long-time role in baseball in the Seattle area. Fortunately, the story has a posthumous bright spot. A committee led by his former manager Buck O’Neil secured Brown’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. Late though it was, he finally received a modicum of recognition for his accomplishments.

The Canadian Role in Integrating Major League Baseball

04/02/2010

As I write more and more about the players who integrated major league baseball from 1947 to 1959, I am constantly reminded how important Canada was in this story. For starters, I would encourage you to go through the stories of the players that I have already told. Canada pops up time and time again. More than anything else, I would like to catalog some of those stories. These players deserve to be remembered, as I’ve said repeatedly, but so do the people who enabled their success. Given a sport in which every major league team was in another country, I find it remarkable just important Canada was to enabling their success.

Jackie Robinson signed his first contract with the white major leagues when he signed with the Montreal Royals. Integration of a white team, for the first time since 1884, happened in Canada first. Branch Rickey wanted Robinson to go to Canada first to smooth the transition from the Negro Leagues to the white major leagues.

Sam Jethroe, after getting overlooked by the Red Sox, broke in with Montreal. After his career in the majors ended in 1952, Jethroe spent his
last five seasons playing for Toronto of the International League.

After poor initial numbers in the minors (with Farnham and St. Hyacinthe, both Canadian teams), Bob Trice got his big break in Ottawa. In Ottawa, he followed in the footsteps of future Hall of Famer Willard Brown, the second African-American to play for the St. Louis Browns and teamed up with former Negro League star and Indians first baseman Luke Easter. From there he was brought up by the Athletics.

Tom Alston broke into organized ball with Jacksonville, then he moved onto the Saskatchewan Rockets. From there he was spotted by the San Diego Padres, his home before joining the St. Louis Cardinals.

This accounts for 4 of the initial 10 players to integrate major league baseball teams. In addition to this group, other whose followed their lead spent significant time in Canada. Dan Bankhead, the first African-American pitcher in the major leagues, spent minor league time in Montreal, as did future Hall of Famer Roy Campanella and first Cy Young winner Don Newcombe. Sam Bankhead, Dan’s brother, was too old to play in the majors and instead became the first black manager of a white team when he managed the Farnham Pirates of the Provincial League. Even Pirates integrator Curt Roberts wandered through Montreal after his major league career ended.

Canada was critical to major league integration. A disproportionate number of early black baseball players cycled through one of only a handful of minor league teams in Canada. Given that Canada did not have the racial history of the United States, the country was invaluable in the process of adjusting black players to the reality of playing for mostly white teams in the heavily racist major leagues. We should certainly remember the players who gave so much in order to play in the major leagues, but the country that enabled their great successes is also deserving of our gratitude.

These Men Changed Baseball: Tom Alston

03/25/2010

Moving from a small second baseman liked Curt Roberts, it is time to look at a very large first baseman named Tom Alston whose career is gutted by segregation and health issues.  Most of the later integrators, minus Elston Howard, fall in the large category of prospects that did not pan out.  Alston, though, was much too old to be a prospect, and his career is for that reason abbreviated.

Alston was born on January 31, 1926 in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1944, he joined the Navy then went to North Carolina A&T, an historically black college. He graduated in 1951, then he went to play for the Jacksonville Eagles, a black minor league team. From there he was signed by the Saskatchewan Rockets, then the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. In the offseason after the 1953 season, new St. Louis Cardinals owner Gussie Busch pushed for the team to be integrated, leading to an offseason trade for Alston (The trade included Dick Sisler, son of Hall of Famer George Sisler). Alston, then, would come up on April 13, 1954 as the player who integrated the Cardinals. By this time he was already 28. Now, many players have come up late in life, especially players like Alston who had short careers. Why do I think segregation is an important part of this story? Alston’s size.

Tom Alston was 6′ 5″, 210 lbs. Consider those numbers in the context of the 1950’s. He was a massive man for his day and age, and that alone would have qualified any white player as a top prospect. Alston, instead, got lost in the shuffle by white organizations who spent little time scouting black players. Alston slid through college and was picked by Jacksonville because the Negro Leagues had died by 1951. In this sort of world, we lose the first 3-5 years of his career.

Alston never adjusted well to the majors, for reasons we will discuss below. On April 13, 1954, Alston played first base and hit 6th for the Cardinals. He committed an error on his very first play, dropping a foul pop hit by the Cubs leadoff hitter. That sort of mental error is I think emblematic of the problems that beset his entire career. In his rookie year, he hit .246 with 4 home runs, a far cry from his last year with the Padres when he hit just below .300 with 20 home runs. From that point on, Alston bounced between the majors and the minors, always doing better in AAA then failing in his call-ups. He played in 25 more games before bowing out of professional baseball in 1957. He died on December 30, 1993 in Winston-Salem and is buried in Greensboro.

What went wrong for this player who consistently put up such good minor league numbers? Neurasthenia. Neurasthenia is mental disorder triggered by stress or anxiety, and it is not primarily hereditary. The environment of discrimination in which Alston lived, then, is an important part is his eventual mental collapse. Alston was swamped by fatigue, began hearing voices, attempted suicide, and was institutionalized on multiple occasions after his career ended.

What else did Alston do? It is easy to dwell on the negative, so let’s remember the positive in closing. He is another part in the Canadian legacy of MLB integration, playing in Canada before he reached the big leagues. David Halberstam, in October 1964, credits him with an important role in acculturating Curt Flood to professional baseball in Flood’s first season with the Cardinals, 1957. He was also critical in Bob Gibson’s first year in the minors, with Omaha in 1957. Alston, at the end of his career, held his mental problems in check long enough to help the first great African-Americans to play for the Cardinals. Flood and Gibson? Not a bad legacy for Tom Alston.

These Men Changed Baseball: Curt Roberts

03/23/2010

Returning to our long-paused series, it is time to turn to Curt Roberts, integrator of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Roberts fits into a trend that is hidden in the players already discussed.  Certain teams jumped into integration:  first the Dodgers, then the Indians, then the Giants and Braves.  Everyone else trailed this group.  Though the Browns were actually the third team to integrate, they quickly pulled back, and their team suffered accordingly.  These four, though, did more than just integrate for themselves.  The Dodgers, for example, signed Sam Jethroe originally, before trading him to the Braves where he would integrate that team.  Similarly, the Braves jumped on a young amateur second baseman named Curt Roberts, later trading him to the Pirates.  Roberts, then, and the Pirates as an organization, followed in the footsteps of those teams that had already blazed the trail.

Roberts was born on August 16, 1929 in Pineland, Texas. Like most African-American baseball players from that part of the world, his career started with the Kansas City Monarchs. He came up in 1947 and played with the team through the 1950 season. After that year, he was signed by the Braves and assigned to Denver of the Western League. He was traded to the Pirates in 1952 and broke in with the big club in 1954. On April 13, 1954, the Pirates broke in their new second basemen against the still lily-white Phillies. In his first at-bat, Roberts tripled off future Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts. For the game he went 1-for-3. It was the highlight of his major league career.

From that game on, Roberts appears to be a fairly standard poor hitting middle infielder. In his rookie year, he hit .232 with 1 home run and a 62 OPS+. In the next two seasons, he played in 37 total games, being replaced in 1956 by a new rookie second baseman named Bill Mazeroski. After the year, the Pirates traded him to the New York Yankees’ farm team, the Kansas City A’s. The A’s sent him to the minors, then traded him to the big league club after the 1957 season. He could not break in with the Yankees either, and he disappeared to the Pacific Coast League for the rest of his career. He died at age 40, getting hit by a car.

Why does Roberts matter? Three reasons: First, he came first. Surely other people could have integrated the Pirates, but they did not. Roberts did, and he deserves to be remembered for that point alone. Second, Roberts, like Bob Trice with the A’s, helped proved that marginal major leaguers come in all shapes and colors. The superstars were important in showing that blacks could play with whites; marginal players were important in showing that blacks were not supermen. In the end integration only works when two groups of humans come together. Roberts inability to hit, when paired with the spectacular talent of fellow second baseman Jackie Robinson, gave African-Americans the full range of humanity. Third, Roberts was a fluent Spanish speaker. This, in and of itself, seems unremarkable. But in 1955, the Pirates were breaking in a rookie right fielder from Puerto Rico named Roberto Clemente. Roberts was considered instrumental in his transition to the major leagues.

Put all of that last paragraph together and you have a player deserving of remembrance. Sadly, Roberts, like the other non-Hall of Famers of the integrators has been forgotten. Hopefully, people can notice this series and remember the important trail-blazing done by Curt Roberts.

These Men Changed Baseball: A Recap

02/01/2010

On February 1st, we in the United States begin Black History Month. In honor of the occasion, I would like to remember one of the many contributions that African Americans have made to major league baseball by recapping the series on the players who integrated the major leagues from 1947-1959.

First, the list.

Jackie Robinson

Larry Doby

Hank Thompson

Monte Irvin

Sam Jethroe

Minnie Minoso

Bob Trice

Ernie Banks

Their are more to come. Only one great player is still to come, Elston Howard, but a number of fascinating players are still to come. Look forward to a post coming soon on Curt Roberts, the second baseman who integrated the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1954. Until then, celebrate this under-reported moment in black history by remembering the men who fundamentally changed America’s pastime.

These Men Changed Baseball: Ernie Banks

01/25/2010

Unlike the A’s Bob Trice, the Chicago Cubs integrated with one of the greatest players in baseball history.  The Cubs were in one of their standard down spells, a team that had shown no promise since making the World Series in 1945.  They were about to make one of their rare good decisions of the era because they had just begun a relationship with a Negro League manager they would hire in 1955.  That manager was Buck O’Neil of the Kansas City Monarchs.

In 1950, the Monarchs had signed a shortstop from Dallas by the name of Ernie Banks. The Negro Leagues were in the process of collapsing. The last Negro League World Series was played in 1948, followed soon thereafter by the collapse of the Negro National League. The Negro American League survived for another 3 seasons as little more than another minor league. Given the slow progress of integration, teams like the Kansas City Monarchs were still able to attract occasional top talent, most notably Banks. Banks was scouted by future Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell and joined the team in 1950. He then spent two years in the military before rejoining the Monarchs in 1953. In 1953, the Cubs signed Banks directly as a 22-year-old top prospect and brought him directly to the majors. On September 17th, Banks became the first African-American to play for the Chicago Cubs, replacing previous Cubs shortstop Roy Smalley, Sr. (father of the immortal Roy Smalley Jr.) Banks went 0 for 3 with a walk in his first game, but he would soon get it all figured out. For the season, Banks played in 10 games, hitting .314 with 2 home runs in 39 plate appearances. He would just get better.

In 1954, Banks would come in second in Rookie of the Year balloting, losing easily to Wally Moon of the Cardinals. Banks peaked from 1958-60, winning consecutive MVP’s in 1958 and 1959 and leading the league in home runs in 1958 and 1960. He led the league in RBIs in 1958 and 1959, along with slugging percentage and total bases in 1958. He won a Gold Glove in 1960 in his last year as a full-time shortstop. By 1961 his knees had given out, and the bus moved him to first base where he would play the most games for his career (1,259 at first to 1,125 at short). He would finish his career with 512 home runs and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977 with 83.8% of the vote. (Consider that: More than 16% of Hall of Fame voters did not consider Banks worthy of Hall of Fame induction.)

Banks is unusual in the list of integrators for several reasons. He does not really lose any major league time to segregation. (Apparently, there is some question as to his birth year. He could have been 6 years older than he claimed, which would change this paragraph dramatically.) The two years prior to his debut, he was in the military because of the Korean War. His biggest obstacle, from a playing standpoint, was knee problems that kept him from being probably the second best shortstop in major league history. He still faced racism, though, as a white scout for the White Sox refused to consider him for their opening at short. This led to his signing with the Cubs. (The White Sox found their own Hall of Fame shortstop in 1956 with Luis Aparicio. Given the White Sox integrated with Cuban-born Minnie Minoso, it appears they were much more comfortable moving into Latin America than into the African-American community.) Despite these barriers, Banks is easily one of the best players ever to play the game. Given his sunny personality, it is easy to forget the challenges he must have overcome. Nevertheless, we should remember Banks not just for his on-field greatness but also for his off-field historical significance.

These Men Changed Baseball: Bob Trice

01/13/2010

With Bob Trice, our series on the players who integrated baseball takes a distinct turn. We still have superstars left, in particular Ernie Banks and Elston Howard, but the number declines. The team that moved quickly in integrating skimmed the best players out of the Negro Leagues. The names: Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and Monte Irvin, along with other great players who did not happen to be the first on their teams: Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron; prove the point. The Negro Leagues led to a great infusion of talent into the major leagues. Teams that moved later, though, were often stuck with a slightly lower level of player. In this category, we meet Bob Trice of the Philadelphia A’s.

Bob Trice was born in 1926 in Newton, GA. He moved to Weirton, WV while a child and graduated high school there in 1945. He briefly served in the Navy at the end of World War 2, then he moved into the Negro Leagues with the Homestead Grays, pitching with them from 1949-51. He was signed by the A’s and after poor minor league numbers, ended up in Ottawa of the International League. There, in 1953, Trice had his one great season. He went 21-10, with a 3.10 ERA, and he earned a September call up. On September 10, Trice became the first black ballplayer to play for the Athletics franchise. Trice went 8 innings, giving up 5 runs, and striking out 2. Trice lost to Don Larsen and the St. Louis Browns, 5-2. For the season, he was 2-1 with an ERA north of 5.

In 1954, the A’s brought him back. Trice went 7-8. with an ERA still over 5, and 22 strikeouts in 119 innings. He pitched briefly in 1955, after the A’s moved to Kansas City. In 4 games, he had an ERA of 9 and 2 strikeouts in 10 innings. He headed back to the minors and pitched poorly, until he left the realm of organized baseball. After baseball, he went back to Weirton, where he worked for the Weirton Steel Corporation until his death in 1988 at age 62.

Trice was a marginal pitcher. What does that mean? First, it means that he was one of the best baseball players to have ever lived. You do not make the major leagues unless that is true. Second, it means that Trice was like many a thousand of professional baseball players who flamed out in the major leagues. Trice defined replacement level, as he was a good AAA pitcher who could not translate those skills into the big leagues. Nevertheless, Trice mattered. He brought integration to the A’s. He was followed soon thereafter by the more successful Vic Power, whom the A’s had acquired from the Yankees organization. Power would make 4 All Star teams and win 7 Gold Gloves at first base in 12 seasons. Trice paved the way, even providing Power his essential black roommate in his first two seasons. Though he does not measure up to the great players who integrated the Dodgers or the Giants, Trice is worthy of remembrance. I would love to see the Oakland A’s retire Trice’s #23 in remembrance of his contribution and of the players who could not play for the A’s during the first 52 segregated seasons of Athletics baseball.