NY Sports Dog: Historic Times, Baseball and the Negro Leagues

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Historic Times, Baseball and the Negro Leagues

It's hard to gauge baseball's true impact on desegregation. Let's face facts, baseball was purposefully and willfully segregated.

In fact, teams were still segregated until 1959, when Pumpsie Green became the last "first" black player to make his debut, finally breaking the barrier for the last holdout team: the widely scorned Boston Red Sox.

It's amazing, and shameful, that the Red Sox couldn't find a black player for their roster until more than 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

Each team's first black player and debut date:

Player Team Date
Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers, NL April 15, 1947
Larry Doby Cleveland Indians, AL July 5, 1947
Hank Thompson St. Louis Browns, AL July 17, 1947
Monte Irvin New York Giants, NL July 8, 1949
Hank Thompson
Sam Jethroe Boston Braves, NL April 18, 1950
Minnie Miñoso Chicago White Sox, AL May 1, 1951
Bob Trice Philadelphia Athletics, AL Sept. 13, 1953
Ernie Banks Chicago Cubs, NL Sept. 17, 1953
Curt Roberts Pittsburgh Pirates, NL April 13, 1954
Tom Alston St. Louis Cardinals, NL April 13, 1954
Nino Escalera Cincinnati Reds, NL April 17, 1954
Chuck Harmon
Carlos Paula Washington Senators, AL Sept. 6, 1954
Elston Howard New York Yankees, AL April 14, 1955
John Kennedy Philadelphia Phillies, NL April 22, 1957
Ozzie Virgil, Sr. Detroit Tigers, AL June 6, 1958
Pumpsie Green Boston Red Sox, AL July 21, 1959

As Mets fans we take great pride in the tribute paid to Jackie Robinson in Citi Field. New York has always been one of the most, if not the most, progressive cities in the world. Mets fans, many of whom have a direct lineage to the old Brooklyn Dodgers, cannot wait to see the "tribute to Jackie" when the stadium opens in just a few months. I am personally ecstatic that the Mets chose this beautiful venue for this wonderful and deserving tribute.

But for all the change, all the tributes, and all the self-glorifying that occurs when baseball gives itself a collective pat on the back, there are still issues worth discussing.

Baseball is a different sport now and all clubhouses feature a variety of colors, religions, races, and nationalities. There is one disturbing trend, however, that's been well documented: there are fewer and fewer black players. In fact, only 8.3% of major leaguers are African-American, down from 19% just a decade ago. And we see our two most recent Hall of Fame inductees are both black players, now seemingly from a different era, but if I asked you today, "which current African-American ballplayers are Hall of Famers?", I bet your list wouldn't be very long.

Football, on the other hand, has seen a dramatic rise in the number of African-American players. Of more interest, however, is how little attention is played to the desegregation on professional football.
At its inception in 1920, the American Professional Football Association had several African-American players (a total of thirteen between 1920 and 1933). Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the first black players in what is now the NFL in 1920. Pollard became the first black coach in 1921. However, by 1932 the subsequent National Football League had only two black players, and by 1934 there were none. This disappearance of black players from the NFL effectively coincided with the entry of one of the leading owners of the league, George Preston Marshall. Marshall openly refused to have black athletes on his Boston Braves/Washington Redskins team, and reportedly pressured the rest of the league to follow suit. The NFL did not have another black player until after World War II.

In the NFL, when the Cleveland Rams wanted to move to Los Angeles, it was stipulated in their contract with the Los Angeles Coliseum that they had to integrate their team, so they signed two UCLA teammates, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, who were playing semi-pro ball in the area in 1946. Still, Marshall was quoted as saying "We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites." In spite of this open bias, Marshall was elected to the NFL's Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. As part of his "qualifications"' for enshrinement, the hall says: "Marshall was totally involved in all aspects of his team's operation and endured his share of criticism for not integrating his team until being forced to do so in 1962." The Redskins had no black players until they succumbed to the threat of civil-rights legal action by the Kennedy administration. The Redskins eventually came through though signing Bobby Mitchell and two other African American players by 1962. In 1946, the Cleveland Browns of a rival pro football league, the All-America Football Conference, signed two black players: Marion Motley and Bill Willis.

Even when the NFL did sign black players, poor treatment was evident. Reportedly, black players routinely received lower contracts than whites in the NFL, while in the American Football League there was no such distinction based on race.[1] Position segregation was also prevalent at this time. According to several books such as the autobiography of Vince Lombardi, black players were stacked at "speed" positions such as Defensive Back but excluded from "intelligent" positions such as Quarterback and Center. However despite the NFL's segregationist policies, after the league merged with the more tolerant AFL in 1970, more than 30% of the merged league's players were African American. Today, recent surveys have shown that the NFL is approximately 57-61% non-white (this includes African Americans, Polynesians, non-white Hispanics, Asians, and people that are mixed race.) Conversely, the American Football League actively recruited players from small colleges that had been largely ignored by the NFL, giving those schools' black players the opportunity to play professional football. As a result, for the years 1960 through 1962, AFL teams averaged 17% more blacks than NFL teams did.[2] By 1969, a comparison of the two league's championship team photos showed the AFL's Chiefs with 23 black players out of 51 players pictured, while the NFL Vikings had 11 blacks, of 42 players in the photo. The American Football League had the first black placekicker in U.S. professional football, Gene Mingo of the Denver Broncos; and the first black regular starting quarterbacks of the modern era, Marlin Briscoe of the Broncos and James Harris of the Buffalo Bills. Willie Thrower was a back up quarterback who saw some action in the 1950s for the Chicago Bears.
Football has a very interesting history of race relations, but it is rarely spoken of, especially in comparison to other sports.

And that brings us back to baseball. While baseball celebrates itself over the next few days as an institution that brought about change, it has also come full circle. It was an elitist institution that prohibited blacks from playing in its league, and now has seemingly lost the allure it once had for young black athletes. Did you know that in 2005, the Houston Astros reached the World Series without one black player on the roster?

The MLB Network is airing a special tribute to the Negro Leagues tomorrow night with the debut documentary Pride and Perseverance: The Story of the Negro Leagues, airing at 9:00 p.m. ET on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Monday, January 19. This never before aired one-hour special is narrated by Hall of Famer and Negro Leagues advocate Dave Winfield. Debuting on the eve of President-elect Barack Obama's historic inauguration, the documentary will depict the history of African Americans in the Negro Leagues and Major League Baseball.

It will feature the history of Negro Leagues baseball players in the early half of the century leading up to the modern era's African-American Major League Baseball players. Produced by Major League Baseball Productions, Pride and Perseverance: The Story of the Negro Leagues, will showcase rarely seen footage from the 1920s through 1950s that feature the birth of the Negro Leagues, and that depict both the struggles endured and milestones achieved by its players.

Today begins a great and historic week in our country's history. We start with Martin Luther King Day tomorrow, followed by the swearing in of our first African-American President.

And I still ponder baseball, always baseball. What if Jackie Robinson didn't break the color barrier in 1947? How would the forces of change have shifted to the inevitable? Why do we glorify baseball and the its impact on desegregation when it, for so long, was partially responsible for the separation of equals?

At the end of the day we are all better off for what happened those 62 years ago--a lifetime ago--but we haven't fully come to grips with the true meaning, and we probably never will.
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