Baseball Civil Rights: The Pioneers of The Movement
On October 28, 1945, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, signed the first African-American baseball player to a professional contract to play with their minor-league affiliate, the Montreal Royals. The man that was signed went by the name of Jackie Robinson.
Robinson would be signed to a major-league contract and then later debut on April 15, 1947. Robinson is recognized as the first colored baseball player in Major League Baseball, but should not be considered the first African-American man to ever play professional, organized baseball. Robinson was not even the only man of color to debut in the year 1947.
On July 2, 1947, Cleveland Indians general manager, Bill Veeck signed Larry Doby, the first African-American baseball player to an American League ball club. Doby would later debut on the day after Independence Day of the same year as Robinson.
Doby was often ignored due to the lack of utility for him on the Indians club during his debut season.
Doby is not the only colored ballplayer to be unrecognized. Perhaps Robinson and Doby were 65 years late to becoming the first African-Americans to be integrated into organized baseball.
In the early 1880s two gentleman, not named Robinson or Doby, participated in organized, integrated baseball. The two men were Moses “Fleetwood” Walker and Bud Fowler, who fulfilled different journeys as pioneers of the game of baseball and African-African athletes in a segregated post-Civil War society.
Walker would not have the opportunities that Fowler had, as he played for only one season in the American Association for the Toledo Blue Stockings. His batting average was exactly what the word describes, very average. Walker batted .263 on the season, which in today’s game of baseball can earn you another opportunity to play. Obviously, the game was not as liberal only 20 years removed from the Civil War. Walker would walk with one life in organized baseball.
Fowler, on the other hand, played in various organizations for nine seasons. He would debut for a club in the International Association in 1878 as a 20-year-old, and then found the Northwestern League six years later to continue his career. Fowler would play a little at a time, moving from league to league because of the time period that he participated in.
The story between Fowler and Walker were completely different from one another. Fowler was forty points better in average, and might have been a better player than Walker. Statistics on Baseball- Refernce.com shows when Fowler was not accepted into a league or was banned due to his race, he went on to find an organization that accepted his God-given-talent. Walker did not get a second chance with Toledo and the American Association, so he made other plans accordingly.
Both men are ignored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but can be honored with the other great African-American and professional Negro League ball players.
Doby would be remembered by the worshippers of the sport of baseball and its historians as one of the all-time great center fielders. The issue with Doby is that today’s society is hardly recognized of his contributions to baseball, and most importantly, America’s history during the Civil Rights movement.
This past weekend my father and I watched condensed broadcasts of the earliest World Series with African-American participants. These were the 1947 and 1948 fall classics that involved both Robinson and Doby, in addition to pitcher Satchel Paige of the Indians.
The 1947 World Series, the first of many New York Yankees versus Brooklyn Dodgers, featured the potential Rookie of the Year Robinson. Robinson batted one point away from averaging .260 and patrolled first base for the Dodgers. From what was highlighted, Robinson challenged the Yankees from both the defensive and offensive sides of the box score, but unfortunately lost in the seventh game in Yankee Stadium.
The story of the following series was quite different for Doby and the Cleveland Indians who battled the Boston Braves (now the Atlanta Braves). Cleveland in 1948 added veteran Negro League pitcher Paige to their arsenal of pitching to eventually help them win their second World Series championship.
In game five of the 1948 series, Doby, batting second, smacked the first home run as a colored ballplayer in World Series history to put Cleveland on the board first. He finished the series with an impressive .318 average. This moment in time was pivotal to the game of baseball, as Doby displayed his resilience, as an African-American ballplayer, to step up in the situation that was presented to him and perform in which he did.
If there was a most valuable player award in the World Series in those times, it should have went in Doby’s name. He was a leader and eventually reached new heights in America’s Civil Rights movement in the sport of baseball.
Unlike Fowler and Walker, Robinson and Doby were blessed as they were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Robinson would be elected by the baseball writers and then enshrined in the summer of 1962. Doby, though, would be elected into the hall 36 years after Robinson by the Veterans Committee. He earned close to no respect on the writer’s ballot, but was honored greatly in 1998.
A season after Doby’s contributions to Cleveland’s second championship, Doby, Robinson, and two newcomers from the Brooklyn Dodgers, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe were the first selected “black baseball” players to a major league All-Star Game.
February is Black History month, a month where we honor the African-American people as a community and remember their struggle before and during the Civil Rights movement.
Every year we read and watch stories about Jackie Robinson, as we should. Perhaps some more attention should go to players like Doby, Fowler, and Walker. Players that persevered in the game of baseball in a segregated America.
As Wendell Smith, a preserving African-American journalist said in the motion picture “42,” “Baseball was proof positive that democracy was real. A baseball box score after all, is a democratic thing. It doesn’t say how big you are, or what religion you follow it does not know how you voted, or the color of your skin, it simply states what kind of ballplayer you were on any particular day.”