Looking back on Major League Baseball’s integration.
“When I was born, I was colored.
When I signed a pro baseball contract, I was a Negro.
When I made the major leagues, I was black.
When I was elected to the Hall of Fame I was an African American.”
Jackson was born in 1946, the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Montreal Royals, the top minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. While Montreal fans were liberal and loved Robinson as a man and a player, Robinson heard the “N” word daily from fans when the team played on the road.
Robinson said the “N” word was the most demeaning insult to a Black person. “My grandmother was a slave,” Robinson explained. “She said the definition of a “n—–” was a low uncouth person. ‘And,'”she added, ‘”I’m not a low, uncouth person.’”
Robinson was promoted to the major leagues by the National League Dodgers in 1947. Later in the season the Cleveland Indians of the American League became the second team to integrate when they Larry Doby from Negro League team.
As more Black players made the major leagues in the late ’40s and 1950s, discrimination still reigned. Ballplayers were segregated during spring training in Florida as the hotels teams used wouldn’t allow Black people to stay even one night. Traveling secretaries of big-league teams had to find housing for their Black players, usually on the poor side of town, and arrange separate transportation to and from spring training fields.
Owners and club executives were generally indifferent to the treatment of Black players. Many didn’t realize that most spring training hotels were segregated. Hank Greenberg was the general manager of the Cleveland Indians in the early ’50s. One fine Florida day, he happened to ask Larry Doby how things were going. Greenberg expected a baseball answer, but Doby explained how demeaning it was to not being prevented from staying with the rest of the team. Greenberg never realized that Black players were separated when it came to housing and instructed the traveling secretary of the Indians to inform the hotel that all members of the team stay together or they stay elsewhere.
In 1952 Vic Power batted .331 for the top minor league club of the New York Yankees. The flashy fielding first baseman was a Puerto Rican man with a very dark complexion. Power liked tooling around spring training in Florida with a white Cadillac convertible and white blond woman in the front seat. Police watched Power closely and one day Power was ticketed for crossing the street against a red light.
Brought to court, Power explained his action to the judge. “In Cuba whites and Blacks have the same rules and use the same bathrooms and drinking fountains,” Power said. “But here in Florida I see that Blacks and whites have different bathrooms and drinking fountains. And I noticed that whites crossed when the light was green, so I thought that Blacks have to cross when the light was red.”
The Judge let Power go — but so did the Yankees. They weren’t ready for a smart, outspoken Black player. But Power was too talented not to be in the major leagues. After the Yankees traded him to another organization, he quickly rose to the majors and stayed for 12 seasons.
In 1954 the St. Louis Browns relocated to Baltimore and became the Orioles. The Mayor of Baltimore at the time was Thomas D’Alesandro. His 14-year-old daughter, Nancy, was thrilled that Baltimore became a major league city. Besides baseball, Nancy was also interested in politics and eventually became Nancy Pelosi, who currently serves as the of the House of Representatives. But Black players cited Baltimore in 1954 under her father’s domain as the worst city to play in. Black players couldn’t stay in the same hotel with white players at first. Today, Nancy Pelosi shrugs off questions about her father who served as Mayor from 1947 to 1959 when it comes to discrimination.
On May 2, 1948, Mayor D’Alesandro helped dedicate the statues and monument to honor confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Part of the Mayor’s speech, heavily covered by Baltimore’s newspapers, read: “Today, with our nation beset by subservice groups and propaganda which seeks to destroy our national unity, we can look to the lives of Lee and Jackson to remind us to be resolute and determined in preserving our sacred institutions.”
The Yankees brought up their first Black player in 1955. Elston Howard was a talented hitter and catcher and was well-liked by his minor league teammates. In a spring press conference, Yankees legendary manager Casey Stengel was asked what he thought about his first Black player. Stengel replied to the assembled press, “I got me the only n—– that can’t run.” While Howard wasn’t known for his speed he was good enough to stay in the majors for 14 years and went on to become a Yankees broadcaster.
In 1958 the Detroit Tigers had their first Black player infielder, Ozzie Virgil. Virgil was not the first African American to play for the Tigers, as he was from the Dominican Republic. Larry Doby was traded to the Tigers in 1959 and became the first African American to play for Detroit. In July of the ’59 season, infielder Pumpsie Green became the first player to integrate the Boston Red Sox. Boston scouted Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays in the 1940s and refused to offer them a contract because their scouts stated they weren’t good enough to play in the major leagues. The Red Sox, well-known as a racist organization at the time, became the last major league team to integrate.
Irwin Cohen headed a national baseball publication for five years before accepting a front office position with the Detroit Tigers where he earned a 1984 World Series ring. He went on to author several books about the history of Detroit and its baseball team.