Jackie Robinson walked onto Ebbets Field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947 and was met by a crowd of more than 25,600 baseball fans. That day was not only one of the most watched moments in sports history, but it also paved the way for other black athletes to compete on the ball field. But, no matter how great their RBI or batting average, neither Jackie nor the other black players could escape the racism, insult or injustice of the times.
Carrying Jackie's Torch: The Players Who Integrated Baseball-and America
(Lawrence Hill Books)
Carrying Jackie’s Torch: The Players Who Integrated Baseball—and America (Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press, January 2007) by Pulitzer Prize-nominated sports writer Steve Jacobson chronicles the struggles of black baseball players who followed Robinson into the major and minor leagues from 1947 through 1968. In this compelling volume, Jacobson offers stories from first-person interviews with 20 well-known players, including Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron and Lou Brock.
The following excerpt sets the stage for the stories of black baseball players who transformed America’s favorite pastime.
Excerpt from Chapter 1: Equal but Separate, Before Jackie Changed Everything
By the first light of day, they’d stop the bus on the all–night roll from one game in one town to one more game in another town. They’d pick up the newspapers and open directly to the box scores. How did Jackie do? He was one of theirs the way a man’s heart is a part of him.
In their hearts, Jackie Robinson was playing for them and they were playing every game with him. “He was the idol,” Lester Lockett recalled, still in awe of Robinson’s success more than a generation later. “It told them maybe they had a chance.” By the time Robinson pushed open the door the first crack with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Lockett was 35 years old and reconciled to the fact that his time had come and gone playing infield in the Negro League.
It was 1947, the summer after the great Josh Gibson had died with the big leagues still closed to him, and nobody would ever know how good he might have been. But Jackie was in the big leagues now and maybe the young ones could go through that door after him. It was that first summer of Jackie that Lockett and the Baltimore Elite Giants were stopping in Covington, Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati, where the Dodgers were in town to play the Reds.
“The bridge from Covington was loaded,” Lockett recalled. “People on crutches were going to see him. Boy, I’m telling you, all those people!” Awe and joy mixed in Lockett’s voice, and there was probably a well–hidden tear as well. It must have been a wondrous scene.
Hank Aaron and Willie Mays
Black players—politely called Negroes when they weren’t called niggers—had played in what was the beginning of Major League Baseball in the 19th century. Then with Cap Anson, now a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, leading the way, blacks were systematically excluded. “Get that nigger off the field” was how Anson put it. But Negroes continued to play baseball and form teams and loose leagues of their own.
From the 1920s to the late 1950s, the Negro Leagues played in loosely defined competition, ultimately with contracts and schedules similar to the major leagues. In many cases they played in the same ballparks when the home teams were out of town. They played other games where they could find a crowd. And when the major–league seasons were over—which was in early October, when the weather was still mild and there was still money to be made—many major–league players barnstormed mostly through the South competing against players from the Negro Leagues.
More than a few of the white stars, including Joe DiMaggio, said Satchel Paige, the legendary pitcher of the Negro Leagues—as wondrous as he was flamboyant—was the best pitcher they’d ever seen. Josh Gibson would have been a star catcher in any league without question. But the major leagues wouldn’t let Paige or Gibson in, and for the players in the Negro Leagues, that’s how it was. Competing in those postseason barnstorming tours against major–league players or in their own leagues was as good as it got. The big–time baseball remained for whites only.
So they lived the life they loved and loved the life they lived. They were playing baseball during the Depression, and the money was pretty good for black men. These black players, some of them wonderfully talented, were relegated and resigned to hotels oftentimes without hot water, rickety buses, meals cobbled together on those buses. “We’d call it Dutch lunch—baloney and cheese and stuff—and we’d buy it before the games so we’d have something to eat after; a lot of places wouldn’t serve us,” Josh Gibson Jr., the great catcher’s son, an infielder in the Negro Leagues, said.
At a time when so many of the current stars of the big leagues are black men who would have been fated to ride those buses, too, these recollections come without bitterness. During those barnstorming tours they got the notion that many of them were as good as the white big leaguers, but they would never know.
Their schedules were mixed with exhibition games to make a much–needed buck. They played on teams that used different names from town to town because there was only so much revenue they could draw from any one place. There was no videotape then. Film from that era is scarce and statistics are unreliable. “You just have to go by what we tell you,” said Monte Irvin, who made his big–league debut in 1949, at age 30, after 11 years in the Negro Leagues. “We didn’t know how good we were, either.”
For teams with the stability to play in one hometown and still pay their bills, the living was pretty good. The Kansas City Monarchs was one of them. “We didn’t eat on the bus,” Buck O’Neil, the historian and patriarch, said. “We stayed at some of the best hotels and restaurants in the country, but they were black. It wasn’t like a lot of people thought; we were in our big leagues.” (Orchestra leader Duke Ellington explained that he adapted by eating steak every morning at a good hotel because “I never knew when the next meal was coming.”)
O’Neil played and managed in the Negro Leagues from 1937 to 1955, played with Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks, then scouted and coached for the Cubs. The day Banks signed his first contract with the Cubs, Buck O’Neil signed to scout for them.
“The black guys in the white minor leagues in the South had it tough,” he said. “I knew where to go in Greenville, Mississippi, but I didn’t know where to go in Newark, New Jersey. When I scouted for the Cubs, I would drive all the way from Tucson to Mesa and when I get there they see that I’m black and they say that they have no reservation, and a white person come up right behind me and gets the room.” Perhaps the name O’Neil fooled them.
Maybe we don’t really understand the racism of that period in America. It was much more blatant then than now, but we’re still passing through it. Buck O’Neil was in the segregated navy in World War II. He was on the train transferring German prisoners of war from Virginia to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, and the prisoners rode in the front of the train. The American Negro sailors had to ride in the back. Even though the German soldiers were prisoners, they sat ahead of the men guarding them. “Pitiful,” O’Neil says. “The American uniform didn’t make any difference.”
The players on the Monarchs who had played a few seasons in the league knew how to make those oppressive rules work as best they could. And young black players who grew up in Harlem or inner Chicago knew about the rules. “If we got a kid from Albany or something, it was tough on them,” O’Neil said. “I knew where to take them. We had a book of places to go and stay all over the country. In Chicago we’d ask the guys on the Chicago American Giants, in Kansas City we’d tell them about the Blue Room, the jazz club in the Streets Hotel.”
Management at the Streets Hotel kept the Monarchs’ schedule always in mind. Duke Ellington and Count Basie would be booked for the Blue Room for weekends when the Monarchs were playing at home so the upper–class Negroes from Wichita and St. Joe could make a weekend out of the trip. (Years later when the author was a young reporter covering the Yankees, the Blue Room was a prize destination after a night game.) O’Neil’s book on places to go and things to do is now on display in the Museum of the Negro Leagues in Kansas City.
Branch Rickey signed Jackie for the Dodgers organization late in 1945 and assigned him to their Montreal Royals farm team. But the wheels had been turning with agonizing frustration for some time.
Some recall the bittersweet memory of those players who experienced the Negro Leagues in the later years when they knew Robinson’s success as a rookie in 1947 would break open the big leagues and mean the end of their league. If Major League Baseball was open to the best of the Negro Leagues, then the life of the baseball they loved, however restricted, was being closed down. They were pleased that at long last one of their own was getting a chance at the major leagues. The sadness for almost all of them was that they would never have that chance for themselves. Their time as baseball players was past for all but a few of the youngest and most talented players.
“Oh man,” O’Neil said. “Jackie signing actually was the death knell of Negro League baseball. The guys I used to sign for the Monarchs out of high school or college, now they’re signing with organized baseball. It really hurt us, but even with that we were so happy that it had finally happened. This is why they were forced to organize the Negro Leagues in the first place.”
The first major–league tryout of black players was hidden in secrecy in April 1945, two years before Jackie’s debut. Columnist Wendell Smith, who had campaigned relentlessly in the black Pittsburgh Courier for the gates to open, was bolstered by Boston city councilman Isadore Muchnik, who threatened to revoke the Red Sox’s permit to play Sunday games at Fenway Park unless the Red Sox granted a tryout to three black players.
Smith selected shortstop Marvin Williams, outfielder Sam Jethroe, and former UCLA running back Jackie Robinson, who was about to begin his first season with the Monarchs. Robinson, a great college athlete in football, baseball, track, and basketball, was fresh out of the army and had not played any baseball for six years. The workout was supposed to be supervised by four Red Sox Hall of Famers: Joe Cronin, the manager; 78-year–old Hugh Duffy, a coach; owner Tom Yawkey, a South Carolina lumberman; and Eddie Collins, the general manager. The workout was, of course, a sham.
Cronin refused to give an evaluation of the players he’d seen. Duffy said one workout wasn’t enough. Yawkey said any judgment had to come from his baseball people. And Collins said he couldn’t be there because of a previous engagement. Don’t call us, we’ll call you—and the Red Sox never did call.
Smith recommended Robinson to Rickey, and in 1947 Robinson was Rookie of the Year. Jethroe was the Rookie of the Year in 1950 for the Boston Braves. The Red Sox had a farm team in Birmingham, Alabama, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and teenager Willie Mays was blossoming with the Negro League team in town, but the Red Sox declined to sign him. A few years later Red Sox manager Pinky Higgins, a favorite of owner Yawkey, gave a simple explanation: “There’ll be no niggers on this ball club as long as I have anything to say about it.”
In the 13 seasons after Robinson and before the Red Sox in 1959 became the last team to field a black player, eight black players were Rookie of the Year in the National League and nine were MVP. No black player won either award in the American League in that same time. Scouts say that when National League teams were trying to sign black players, they emphasized that they would be more comfortable in the National League, while American League teams told white prospects they wouldn’t have to deal with black players.
Red Sox management wasn’t the only team to let bigotry handicap them on the field. The dynasty Yankees, who had dominated the standings for four decades with brilliant scouting and money, lost some of their advantage by not elevating black players. Their only exception was Elston Howard in 1954. The Yankees were content with their success in signing the best white players in the South and advised scout Tom Greenwade, who had found Mickey Mantle, “not to go down dark alleys.” Once the flow of black players to the majors became a steady stream, the Yankees went from 1965 until 1976 without winning a pennant. The Red Sox, who won the American League pennant in 1946, the last year of the all-white major leagues, did not win another pennant until 1967. The effect was clear.
When Robinson got his chance, the ripple effect was profound in the mind of black athletes who had never before felt they had a chance. For those in the Negro Leagues, it was a flash of brilliant light. Maybe they did have a chance before it was too late. Larry Doby got his chance 11 weeks after Robinson in 1947. Monte Irvin got his chance in 1949 and Ernie Banks in 1953. Henry Aaron was the last big leaguer to come out of the Negro Leagues in 1953. It was too late for Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell and who knows how many more. Ray Dandridge, one of the greats, got a taste of the minor leagues, but by the time baseball was open to him, his time had passed.
Who knows how good they really were? That evaluation exists only in legend and in the few old gray heads that were there. “You just have to take our word for it,” said Monte Irvin, a member of the group who selects long-overlooked players to the Hall of Fame. Irvin was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973, partly because of his play over eight seasons in the major leagues but more in recognition of his greater accomplishments in the Negro Leagues.
“Oscar Charleston was the Willie Mays of his day,” Irvin said. “Nobody ever played center field better than Willie Mays. Suppose they had never given Willie a chance, and we said that, would anybody believe there was a kid in Alabama who was that good? Or there was a black guy in Atlanta who might break Babe Ruth’s home run record? No.
“Charleston,” Irvin said. “Of all of the players in our league, he was the best. Rifle for an arm, strong as two men, had no weaknesses. I played six years with Willie; Oscar would be comparable to him. Some players say Oscar was better.
“You should have seen Willie Wells play shortstop: as good as Ozzie Smith and a better hitter. How I wish people could have seen Ray Dandridge play third base, as good as Brooks Robinson and Craig Nettles and all of those. He was bowlegged; a train might go through there but not a baseball.”
Who knows if Satchel Paige was even greater than my father told me? At a Biblical age of at least 42, Paige got to the Cleveland Indians in 1948 in time to help them to the American League pennant. He compiled a 6-1 record and a 2.48 earned-run average, so he must have been some pitcher when he was younger. He lasted until 1953 with the St. Louis Browns. In a token appearance in 1965 for the Kansas City Athletics, he pitched three scoreless innings at the age of something like 59. If that was a token of what he was when he was young, who knows what he was in his prime.
The evidence of how great these players really were must be in their success once they got the chance. Clearly the myth that they weren’t good enough to play with white players was exposed.
Josh Gibson may have been the best of them in the Negro Leagues, maybe the best of any of them anywhere. He was a catcher with a strong arm, speed, and extraordinary power who played from 1930 to 1946, when he died of high blood pressure and a brain hemorrhage at 35. Legend says he might have followed Robinson to the majors in 1947.
“That’s what’s so ironic,” said Josh Gibson Jr., himself a Negro Leagues infielder for two seasons. “My father was never bitter. The everyday Negro might have felt bitter, but not the players. My father didn’t die of a broken heart. Put that in there.”
Ted (Double Duty) Radcliffe
So the players in the Negro Leagues got on the bus from one town with some sort of stadium to another, to play three games in one day on occasion, perhaps a doubleheader in the morning in Brooklyn and a night game in New Jersey a couple of hours away. Maybe it would be a game against one of the Negro League teams or maybe it would be against a team of local hotshots. Sometimes they’d stay at private homes or at a hotel that had one shower, and they’d wait their turn until there was only cold water. Meal money at the time the Negro Leagues were winding down had reached a high of $2 a day. Sometimes payday depended on a bet between owners.
“You had to laugh a lot; you did, you did,” Lester Lockett, a longtime veteran of the leagues, said at the age of 80. Good times, they were not forgotten.
“It was like riding the wagon,” Ted (Double Duty) Radcliffe said. “Ride all night, play all day, sing all night.”
Radcliffe died in 2005 at the age of 103. He loved participating in a benefit for the Negro League Baseball Players Association at Shea Stadium in New York in 1992 and was full of memories and smiles on that occasion. This was a good and worthwhile event because Major League Baseball and its players’ association were very late in finding a place to honor what those players contributed. For that benefit event they wore replicas of their old uniforms and wreaths of nostalgia. In recent years historians like Monte Irvin have selected a number of Negro League players for inclusion in a special category at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
However painful it was to accept that there was no way to the top for all those years, what those outcasts remembered was the joy. Radcliffe, at age 90, was full of smiles at the recollections. He put out his hand. “See that,” he said. The five fingers of his right hand pointed in five directions. He was a catcher, also a pitcher, which accounts for the nickname an appreciative Damon Runyon hung on him. One time Radcliffe caught Satchel Paige in the first game of a doubleheader and hit a grand slam. “And I was sitting on the bus hustling girls for the night,” Radcliffe said. “Every town we went to was like being on vacation. And I loved the girls.
“The owner comes out and says he needs me to pitch the second game. I said, `Sweeten the ante,’ and he did. I pitched a one-hitter.”
Radcliffe played for 36 years. At the same time he was pitcher, catcher, general manager, and club secretary for $650 a week. Gibson was their Babe Ruth of the payrolls. Gibson’s son recalled his father, the great man of the Negro Leagues, was paid $1,000 or $1,200 a month at the time. That was pretty good money when $80 a week was a reasonable living for most Americans. Ruth, of course, was being paid $80,000 a year then, more than even President Hoover.
Robinson changed everything. He changed things even before he got to Brooklyn. Sure the Monarchs could have Dutch lunch while they rolled, but a restroom-equipped bus was not part of the equipment. “We could buy gas because they wanted the money, but we couldn’t go to the restroom,” O’Neil said.
“When Jackie came with us, we’d been going to a town in Oklahoma for 20 years; we’d been going to that same gas station. But the sign on the restroom door said `White Men Only.’ Jackie came with us and we’d go to this town and fill up the ballpark. Next morning we’d be fixing to leave and go to the filling station.
“The man comes out, puts the hose in the tank. He says, `You guys played baseball last night, filled up the ballpark, and put on a great show.’ Jackie gets off the bus and starts to the restroom. `Where you goin,’ boy?’ the man says.
“`I’m goin’ to the restroom.’
“`Boy, you know you can’t go to that restroom.’
“Jackie said, `Take the hose out of the tank.’”
“Man thought awhile now because we got a 50-gallon tank on this side and we got a 50–gallon tank on that side. He’s not going to sell that much gas at one time any day soon. You know what he said: `You boys can go to the restroom but don’t stay long.’
“From that day on, we never went to a gas station where we couldn’t use the restroom. We never played in a town where we didn’t have a place to sleep or a place where we could eat. Jackie said we’re making money for these people; I think we’ve been putting up with a lot of stuff we don’t have to.”
Surely Branch Rickey’s dossier before he signed Robinson must have included information like that. Robinson changed everything. Maybe there was a better player in the Negro Leagues; his peers thought he was the superior man. “Like a lot of things, we had to be better,” Lester Lockett said.
O’Neil, elegant and eloquent at 94, was the lead speaker at Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in 2006 when a five-year study presented 17 Negro Leagues players and executives for inclusion. He pointed out that in the great years of the Negro Leagues 8 percent of major–league players had been to college. Since the Negro Leagues usually had spring training on the campus of a black college, 40 percent of the black players had been to college. “We helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice,” he said.
At that time Negro Leagues baseball was the third–largest black industry, behind black insurance and cosmetics. The departure of their Robinson was the arrival of Robinson on the bigger stage. It meant the opening of doors and it meant the best talent was going to the big leagues. It meant the end of the Negro Leagues. And that’s a little bad. But also a whole lot good.
Reprinted by arrangement with Lawrence Hill Books.
From the book Carrying Jackie’s Torch: The Players Who Integrated Baseball—and America by Steve Jacobson. Copyright © by Steve Jacobson.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.