Opening the black door

added 5/8/2007 by Gene Elston

Interestingly, the first public mention of the possibility of Negroes playing in the major leagues came from the media on July 24, 1942. The sports editor of the New York Daily Worker, Nat Low, sent this telegram to Dave Barnhill, a pitcher in the Negro National League:

HAVE JUST ARRANGED WITH WILLIAM BENSWANGER, PRESIDENT OF THE PITTSBURGH PIRATES, A TRYOUT FOR YOU WITH TEAM IN PITTSBURGH SOON. CONGRATULATIONS, WON’T YOU PLEASE GET IN TOUCH WITH ME SO WE CAN MAKE FULL ARRANGEMENTS.

Three days later the Daily Worker reports that Benswanger would arrange not only for Barnhill but also for Roy Campanella and Sammy T. Hughes. It never came to pass and Barnhill’s only comment later was: “He (Benswanger) was scared to take a chance.” Barnhill never pitched in the majors.

That information was taken from my book A Stitch in Time first published in 2001. It was taken from information acquired during my research and reeked of a cover-up.

In 1942 (the article’s date) I was in the Navy and had not yet begun my baseball broadcasting career. I had been out of high school for two years and had not given a whole lot of thought to Negroes. During my growing up in Iowa there were blacks attending our schools and participating in most activities, although their numbers were quite small. Also, my first year in baseball was 1946, the same year that Jackie Robinson had signed a minor league contract.

It would not be until I reached the majors in 1954 that I began my intense study of the game. Some of what I have learned of this period has been rather shocking - as in the case involving the 1942 article where nothing developed and completely disappeared.

Here are some excerpts from a document, submitted to club owners by a special committee in August of 1946. This was after Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers had already cracked the color line in the minor leagues.

The report supported segregation by asserting that if the Negro leagues folded the major league clubs would be deprived of the revenue they were obtaining for renting their parks to the black teams. That if blacks were allowed to play in the major leagues, the “preponderance” of black attendance “could conceivably threaten the value of the major league franchises” in such cities as New York and Chicago. Certain groups in this country, including political and social-minded drum-beaters, are conducting pressure campaigns in an attempt to force major league clubs to sign Negro players. Members of these groups are not primarily interested in Professional Baseball. They are not campaigning to provide a better opportunity for thousands of Negro boys who want to play baseball. They are not even particularly interested in improving the lot of Negro players who are already employed. They know little about baseball—and nothing about the business end of its operation. They single out Professional Baseball for attack because it offers a good publicity medium. Professional Baseball is a private business enterprise. It has to depend on profits for its existence, just as an any other business in which Negroes, as well as Whites, have substantial investments in parks, franchises, and player contracts. Professional Baseball, both Negro and White, has grown and prospered over a period of many years on the basis of separate leagues.

Getting back to the Black press, they once-again attempted to break the color line. It was in April 1945 when they popped up again, this time not requesting a “tryout” but “demanded “ the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers each look at two Negro League players in their spring camps. Along with Nat Low of the New York Daily Worker, who attempted to give Dave Barnhill an audition with the Pirates in 1942, the trio was rounded up by Joe Bostic, Negro sports editor of the Harlem People's Voice and Jim Smith, Negro sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier. The three had hoped their maneuver would open the door for black players into the major leagues because of the passage of an anti-discrimination measure known as the Quinn-Ives bill.

Unknown to the group of writers was that Branch Rickey, the Mahatma of Brooklyn, had already cemented his plan that he had held in abeyance for a number of years. Rickey had already determined the time was ripe for all-white major league baseball to admit a black player, not just any player but one who measured up to his standards. A player had to be a college product, a competitor, an intelligent individual with baseball talent who had the moral and physical courage to shrug off on-field insults with remarkable displays of self-control.

However, Rickey was as gracious as Rickey could be to his interlopers in the spring of 1945. He was obviously indignant at the “pushing around” he felt he was getting but because of the circumstances, he did lean backwards and gave both players a complete tryout. Following the workouts Rickey stated he was tolerant and appreciative of the Negroes’ rights, but said any participation in the major leagues must come gradually, through the proper channels. Force, such as he said was being used to pressure him into an immediate trial would set the cause of the Negroes back a considerable length of time. In winding down his encounter with the press he stated in his well-known Rickey-ish, “Any ball player who came into camp and used the method these people have used, demanding an immediate trial without any recommendations or scouting whatever, would have been ushered to the door immediately.” Then in a softer tone Rickey finished with,” However, because of the unusual circumstances, I acceded to their wishes, and granted the tryout.”

All of that action was during spring training in 1945 and it would not be until the fall of 1945 that Rickey would place Robinson on the Montreal roster to further agitate baseball’s brass. His popularity dropped further and anti-feelings increased when Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella formed a battery at Nashua (New England League) and two other blacks, Roy Partlow and John Wright had joined the Dodgers farm team at Three Rivers (Canadian-American). All of this after the owners had held a secret meeting and voted down the Negro experiment 15-1. The owners were in favor of keeping the blacks in the minors but nothing beyond that.

Probably no one else in the game exercised a more profound impact on baseball, for so long a period, than Branch Rickey. He certainly didn’t do it as a player. In his four seasons on the diamond as a catcher-outfielder-first baseman for the Browns and New York Highlanders (Yankees) with a bat mark of . 239, or as a manager for 10 years with the Browns and Cardinals. His forte was front office management with the Cardinals and Browns -- enthusiasm and imagination that produced a long line of contributions to further the game – the farm system, the knot hole gang, the sliding pit, the batting cage, Ladies Days, and through his effort to start a third major league forced the National League to expand. All of that plus a highly developed eye for raw baseball talent. Rickey was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1967.

Let’s look at the chronology of this whole story:

October 23, 1945 – Jackie Robinson, former UCLA football star, who played shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs in his only season in the Negro American League in 1945. (47 games hit .387, 14 doubles, four triples, five home runs, 23 RBI and stole 13 bases) is the center of a bombshell announcement by Brooklyn’s Branch Rickey. Baseball’s unwritten, but long observed color line had been broken. Rickey had signed two Negroes, Robinson and John Wright. Wright was a pitcher who had played with various Negro League teams since 1937, to Montreal (International League) contracts. Wright played in only two games with the Royals and was released in 1946. This broke the color that had existed since the 1880s. Robinson was given a $3,500 bonus and a salary of $600 a month with the Royals.

April 18, 1946 – Jackie Robinson appears in his first minor league game with Montreal at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City at second base leading the Royals to a 14-1 victory over the Jerseys. After grounding out in his first at-bat, Robinson collected four straight hits, including a 323 foot home run. He also scored four times and stole two bases. At seasons’ end he would lead the league in runs scored with 113 and win the International League batting title with a .349 average. The Royals won the pennant by 18 and-a-half games finishing with a record of 100-54. Montreal would also win the Junior World Series over the American Assoiation.

April 10, 1947 – The Brooklyn Dodgers quietly announce the purchase of Jackie Robinson from Montreal.

April 15, 1947 – Jackie Robinson makes his major league debut with Brooklyn playing first base. In his first game he goes 0 for 3 at the plate but scores the deciding run in a 5-3 win over the Boston Braves. Although this was one of the most significant events in baseball history, it was not treated as such. Only two major columnists of the eight New York papers, plus Brooklyn and Long Island dailies, attended the game and wrote of the historic event. One just mentioned Robinson’s name and the other did not make too much of the event. In game coverage the New York HERALD TRIBUNE Robinson’s name did not appear until the fifth paragraph. THE SPORTING NEWS, summing up the 1947 year-in-review, gave the story only one line on page five. Attendance was only 25,000 in a park that seated 34,000.

October 10, 1956 – Jackie Robinson plays the final game of his career. With the Yankees leading the Dodgers 7-0 in the last of the ninth inning with two outs in game seven of the World Series, Johnny Kucks strikes out Robinson to complete his three-hitter and give the Yanks the championship.

January 8, 1957 – Jackie Robinson announces his retirement from baseball. He was traded to the New York Giants two months following the World Series for pitcher Dick Littlefield and $35,000. Although Giants president Chub Feeney offered Robinson a most generous contract for 1957, Robinson decided his career was over. The way he went out was obviously the result of the tumultuous ten years he spent in the major leagues. Robinson withheld the announcement from the writers who had followed his career daily over the years. He scooped them all with a by-lined story in LOOK magazine and, again brought on much criticism. He shrugged this off by saying the writers would have done the same thing to pick up some extra money.

Robinson hit .311 with Brooklyn in his ten seasons, winning the National League batting title with a .342 mark in 1949, won the leagues Most Valuable Player Award in 1949 and represented the Dodgers in six straight All Star games (1949-1954). He also was a league-leader in stolen bases in 1947 (29) and 1949 (37) and had 197 during his career. He also led the league in on-base-percentage with .440 in 1952 and in his ten seasons his OBP was .410. Robinson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962 in his first year of eligibility.

With the recent celebrations held on the 60th Anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in major league baseball, I felt as I always do when he is honored for what he accomplished - he did everything that Branch Rickey knew he could, and did it well. At the same time the Mahatmas’ accomplishment should never be forgotten – next time let it be injected into baseball history that Jackie Robinson AND Branch Rickey completed the unforgettable Double Play.

Quoting Branch Rickey in a banner headline in The Sporting News on April 12, 1945 when this whole story was about to explode:

Negro in O.B. EVOLUTION, NOT REVOLUTION---B.R.

--- Gene Elston