It's April 16 -- A Day After Jackie
ALSO: JUST A HANDFUL OF JEWISH PLAYERS BUT SOME PROVE UNFORGETTABLE
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After Jackie – April 16th, 1947
By William H. Johnson
The date of April 15, 1947 marked a tectonic shift in sport and society that we now commemorate every year at baseball stadiums around the country. The day after Jackie Robinson broke the 60-year-old ceiling in professional baseball, when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers as a black player among Caucasian teammates, marked the start of the real work involved in de-segregating baseball.
The use of the term ‘desegregating’, in lieu of ‘integrating’, is intentional.
Robinson’s presence on the diamond merely broke the exclusion. The process of full racial integration in professional sports, the complete team fusion of players regardless of race, would take much longer. Many, reasonably, argue that full integration has yet to occur. But it was on April 16 that that next phase began.
In 1947, a total of five black players joined what had been referred to as ‘Organized Baseball’, or non-Negro League baseball. Along with Robinson, Larry Doby followed two months later in Cleveland, and he in turn was followed by Hank Thompson, Willard Brown, and Don Bankhead.
Only two formerly ostracized players cracked the majors in 1948, Satchel Paige and Roy Campanella, with Paige becoming the first former Negro Leaguer to pitch in the World Series that October.
The 25th black player did not arrive until Sam Jones appeared with Cleveland in late 1951.
In a span of more than four years after Robinson’s advent, only 25 black players received their shot at proving their baseball skill on the truly national stage. Despite fielding just 16 big-league teams in those pre-expansion years, baseball still took 12 years after Jackie Robinson’s National League debut for the final segregated team, the Boston Red Sox, to put a black player on the diamond. On July 21, 1959, Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Green finally took the field for the Sox as a pinch-runner against the White Sox.
In many cases, desegregating the minor leagues proved an even more daunting challenge. Hank Aaron told tales and wrote accounts of his and Horace Garner’s and Felix Mantilla’s 1953 season in the newly desegregated Southern League. Playing for Jacksonville (Florida), he wrote about what he called his ‘favorite incident.’ Garner, a rifle-armed outfielder, chased down a pop fly one afternoon and, well, Aaron tells it better in his book I Had A Hammer:
“We drew so well that they often filled the stands and put the overflow around the edge of the playing field. Well, one time there was a fly ball right down the line in right field and Horace and I (Aaron was playing second base) went after it. Horace caught it on the run, and when he did, it carried him right into the crowd. He was about to run over this little kid, so to keep from knocking him down, he just picked the kid up and kept going for a few steps. And before he could put the kid down, this lady started shrieking: “My God! That (N-term)’s running away with my baby!”
Without the protection of visibility from a national press, or the threat of adverse attention that could be mustered by the media on bad actors, life on the field in the South could often be rough. Life off the field was even worse.
Former Negro All-Star Art “Superman” Pennington, returning from a few years playing in Mexico in the late 1940s, was forced to ride in a separate train car than the one used by his Spanish wife. The stories go on.
In an interview with one star player from the 1970s, he shared that even in the early 1980s, more than 30 years after Robinson broke through the color line, there were parts of some cities in which black players – or people - were simply not welcomed. It has been a winding path for the nation and the sport.
But baseball has continued to progress. More slowly, perhaps, than it should, the game has still moved forward. By 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates fielded the first-ever all-black starting nine in a league that – until 1947 – had been segregated.
Frank Robinson broke the managerial race barrier a few years after.
Now the professional game embraces players from an array of national backgrounds, from Canada to Asia to Mexico to the Caribbean and South America; all are welcomed if the ability is there. Yes, there remain well-documented deficiencies in the executive levels of the game, and now that Derek Jeter has departed the Marlins, the collective cadre of team owners is again somewhat racially homogenous. There is still work to be done, but it is happening.
In spite of all the challenges, though, April 16, 1947 offers hope. Had baseball treated Robinson as a one-off, a unique aberration, and then returned to the old ways once the player had left the game, the story of the sport would be incalculably worse. Not only would we lament never having had a chance to see Josh Gibson face Lefty Grove, for example, but would also have been denied Rickey Henderson, Bob Gibson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays…the list goes on and on. April 16, 1947 was an inflection point in sport and social history.
Today, on the field, the game is desegregated. Even as baseball competes with football and basketball for elite athletic talent, race is less of an issue than it ever has been regarding which sport athletes choose. Full, seamless integration, however, remains a vision in the future.
There will be a day when skin pigmentation and cultural background, even gender and sexual preference, will be useless adjectives in discussing baseball people.
Owners, executives, coaches, and players will mix not only in the organizations but also in the public eye, and the game will thrive in ways difficult to image now. But if that vision is still blurry and far off in the distance, it is at least there.
That is the meaning of April 16, 1947.
IBWAA member W.H. “Bill” Johnson has contributed to SABR’s Biography Project, and presented papers at the 2011 Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, the 2017 Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference, and the inaugural Southern Negro League Conference in 2018. He has published a biography of Hal Trosky (McFarland and Co., 2017) and most recently an article about Negro American League All-Star Art “Superman” Pennington in the journal Black Ball. Bill and his wife Chris currently reside in Georgia. He can be contacted on Twitter: @BaseballStoic
Baseball Has Its Share Of Jewish Stars — And Some Are Pretty Good
By Dan Schlossberg
Without Hank Greenberg’s help, Jackie Robinson might have failed in his mission.
Though sadly omitted from the otherwise-fine movie 42, it was Greenberg — finishing up his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947 — who took Robinson into his confidence the first time Jackie reached first base during a Dodgers-Pirates game.
“I went through the same thing,” said Greenberg, a target of vicious anti-Semitic hecklers when he broke into the big leagues with the Detroit Tigers during the ‘30s. “I’m going to help you handle it.”
And he did, quietly but completely. One target of bigots helping another.
And just as Robinson paved the way for a raft of talented black players, so did Greenberg open the gates for fellow Jews.
Though only 0.2 per cent of the total American population, Jewish players have made an impact throughout baseball history.
Al Rosen won a Most Valuable Player award, Alex Bregman was MVP of the All-Star Game, and Sandy Koufax won three Cy Youngs and an MVP. Greenberg himself was the first man to be Most Valuable Player at two different positions and came within a whisker of besting Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season.
Greenberg led his league in home runs and runs batted in four times — numbers that allowed him to become the first Jewish member of the Baseball Hall of Fame (Koufax and Commissioner Bud Selig joined him later).
And let’s not forget Ryan Braun, a Jewish MVP, or Steve Stone, a Jewish Cy Young Award winner. Barry Latman, Larry Sherry, Jason Marquis, and Ken Holtzman were also capable Jewish pitchers.
Shawn Greene, who holds the record for total bases in a game (19), was one of several Jews who won Gold Gloves, a group that also includes Brad Ausmus.
Then there’s Ron Blomberg, the first designated hitter, and Art Shamsky, whose .538 batting average against Atlanta in the very first National League Championship Series allowed the New York Mets to complete their “miracle.”
Ausmus, Norm Sherry, and the active Gabe Kapler and Bob Melvin managed or are managing major-league clubs, while Theo Epstein and Chaim Bloom are two of the more talented working executives in baseball. And the list of Jewish owners runs the gamut from Selig to Jerry Reinsdorf and Steve Cohen.
Nor have we forgotten Al Clark, the American League’s first Jewish umpire and one of its longest-lasting (26 years).
Koufax might have been the king of the castle — even though he retired at age 30 in need of Tommy John surgery that didn’t exist in 1966.
More than a dozen Jewish players, led by Atlanta lefty Max Fried, are playing now. They include Richard Bleier, Bregman, Scott Effross, Dean Kremer, Jake Kalish, Ty Kelly, Ryan Lavarnway, Eli Morgan, Joc Pederson, Kevin Pillar, Ryan Sherriff, Garrett Stubbs, Rowdy Tellez, Zack Weiss, and Andy Yerzy.
Marty Appel, the master publicist and promoter, actually produced a weekend program promoting Jewish contributions to baseball; it was the first time catered Kosher food was ever served to a group in Cooperstown.
Among the former players who participated were Richie Scheinblum, Bob Tufts, Elliott Maddox, Blomberg, Holtzman, and Norm Sherry. All of them appear in Marty Abramowitz’ Jewish Major Leaguers card set.
Jewish fans can also be proud of Team Israel, a squad of cast-offs, has-beens, and never-will-bes who enjoyed such surprising success in the World Baseball Classic that a fine movie was made about their achievements. The best part? Team Israel’s mascot is named Mensch on the Bench !!
Fate wasn’t so kind to the six-team Israel Baseball League, which lasted only one summer before finances failed. But Blomberg’s team, the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, beat Shamsky’s — providing a few years of bragging rights.
There could be more bragging rights for Jews in baseball this year if Fried follows up on his sensational second half (best-in-baseball 1.74 ERA) and wins his first Cy Young Award. He already owns two Gold Gloves and — get this — a Silver Slugger.
Now that the DH has expanded to both leagues, his name will also be the answer to a trivia question.
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is weekend editor of Here’s The Pitch and baseball writer for forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, and others. He’s written 40 books too. Contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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