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A Brief History of The Minor League’s Reluctance to Integrate (Part 3)

The Road for Integration To Take Hold

As we last ended Part 2, black fans had to attend a game with awful conditions in Norfolk, Virginia. Sometimes they couldn’t even get in on time to see a full game in an integrated seating stadium.

This was about to change.

In 1953, the Norfolk Tars integrated the team but not the grandstand. The appearance of black players helped give fans the confidence to demand change. A boycott was arranged, as reported by the city’s black newspaper, the Norfolk Journal and Guide, which said: “Norfolk’s colored baseball fans have been among the league’s most faithful home boosters and they deserve better treatment. They’ve endured inferior accommodations for many years in silence and it appears that they have finally decided to quit supporting Norfolk where it hurts the most — at the box office.”

Norfolk fans started going to games in another city: Portsmouth, a fully integrated ballpark. The Tars won the league title in 1953, but attendance dropped by more than 10,000. New management made overtures to the black community in 1954, offering discounted tickets and even met with civic leaders. They responded that integration was the only thing that could end the boycott. Ownership acquiesced. The Tars won the pennant again and led the league in attendance.

From this “A light went on, it was a realization, an empowerment because of what went on the field,” Adelson told MiLB.com. “They saw Joe Durham or Bubba Morton, they saw these black players doing what white players had been doing for 100 years and it empowered them.” In Norfolk, there was success from the boycotts, just as in Dallas when the owner listened to his African-American fan base and ended segregation after Dave Hoskins integrated the league in 1952. However, in New Orleans, ownership ignored the fan boycott and was eventually driven out of business.

“Integration made people think, ‘Why do we still have to be treated as second-class citizens?'” Adelson explained. “‘Why do we have to go through the back door? Why do we have to sit in the lousy seats in the outfield? Why can’t we have a grandstand over our head?’ All of this happened directly because of integration on the field. “Baseball was the sport in the 1950s. What happened in a baseball stadium had a huge impact on the society.”

Seeing black and white players together on the field, and black and white fans sitting together, had a significant and decisive role in the larger integration of society.

As Hank Aaron told me, ‘A black man, crossing home plate and shaking hands with a white teammate in the segregated South in the 1950s had enormous power.'” While it might seem like baseball in the South took a long time to integrate, particularly when compared to Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the big leagues, it was tremendously ahead of the curve when compared to other institutions. Even other sports in the South lagged far behind the Minor Leagues that largely integrated through the 1950s.

“If you wanted to see blacks and whites compete athletically on the same field, Minor League baseball was the only way it was going to happen,” Sumner said. “It certainly wasn’t happening in high schools or colleges. The [Atlantic Coast Conference], in basketball, didn’t integrate for another decade.”

The impact throughout society was indeed powerful. As African-Americans found success on the playing field, they strove for more equality in other walks of life. What used to be accepted with resignation was being protested. Watching Joe Durham navigate through various Minor Leagues in the South undoubtedly inspired many fans to fight for what was fair and not just in their everyday lives. While players of that time likely recognized they were pioneers, they may not have truly understood the impact — from ballparks and beyond — they had while they played the game. “I didn’t realize it until after I had finished playing,” Durham said. “You go back, get invitations to different places, and that’s what they talked about, the integration or infiltration of black players in baseball, especially in the South.”

While the first players to break color barriers in the South did not last long, the following years saw some leagues’ attempts at desegregating have more lasting success. Leagues from the short-lived Tri-State League to the Texas League, South Atlantic League, Appalachian League and Florida State League all made moves to integrate, some that became permanent and began sending African-American players on the way to the big leagues.

The Texas League led the way, and the success the circuit had with integration certainly helped other reluctant leagues move forward. In 1952, Dave Hoskins was added to the Dallas Eagles roster. He was the league’s best pitcher, leading it in wins, innings pitched and complete games. He also was the best draw, leading sportswriters to call him the “Savior of the Texas League,” according to Kenneth Fenster’s article in the SABR journal Nine. More than 180,000 fans took in the 32 games Hoskins pitched. That averaged out to almost 6,000 per game, more than twice the average attendance at other games in the league. Dallas’ attendance rose 17 percent in 1952. Hoskins went on to pitch for the Cleveland Indians in 1953 and sparingly in 1954.

That’s not to say Hoskins’ stay in the Texas League was a smooth one, though he felt the people of Dallas treated him fairly well. I received three letters that morning, one at a time,” he said of his experience, as retold in Bruce Adelson’s book Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor League Baseball in the American South. “First one said I’d be shot if I sat in the dugout. Second one said I’d be shot if I went on the field and the third one said I’d be shot if I took the mound. I figured all three were from the same person. Probably someone just trying to scare me.”

By 1953, the South Atlantic League was ready to integrate, even with teams in seeming segregation strongholds like Savannah and Augusta, Georgia, and Knoxville, Tennessee. Five players broke into the league that year, highlighted by a 19-year-old named Hank Aaron. Aaron was joined on the Jacksonville Braves with Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner. All three played well, with Aaron (obviously) and Mantilla going on to lengthy Major League careers. As with Hoskins in Dallas, this trio — along with Al Israel and Junior Reedy in Savannah — helped the league tremendously as overall attendance rose 12 percent, despite each team playing 14 fewer games.

These integration “success stories” show a variety of contributing factors that led to the addition of black players to rosters in the South. First, and perhaps most importantly, was money: For many owners of struggling clubs in the South, green made them otherwise color blind. They saw the inclusion of previously banned players as a means to attract the local African-American community. The risk was a move that appeared to some as a stunt rather than a push toward equality.

That was the case when David Mobley joined the Rock Hill Chiefs, an independent member of the Class B Tri-State League, becoming the first black player in South Carolina Minor Leagues. He joined the team, which lasted for only nine seasons and experienced constant financial problems, in late August 1952. With attendance dropping rapidly and other teams moving closer to integrating, the Chiefs signed Mobley on Aug. 26. A Negro League veteran, he played the outfield for Rock Hill, entering a game in the fifth inning. But he never again played for Rock Hill due to pressure from the troubled league’s president.

In the Texas League, integration was pushed by Dallas Eagles owner Dick Burnett. A flamboyant promoter, Burnett is credited with things like the first stadium organ in the league. He obviously understood what kind of impact signing black players would have — and he was proven right by what Hoskins accomplished — but he also believed all baseball players should be allowed to play together.

San Antonio followed Dallas to full-fledged integration the following year, not only because of economics but because of on-field performance. The club in San Antonio was a perennial also-ran and adding black players seemed the best way to improve the product on the field. “In small towns, they were facing economic pressures,” Adelson said. “Attendance was down. They were looking for ways to boost the bottom line and decided to bring in black players. There were some who took a more progressive line, who wanted to do it because it was the right thing to do.”

Particularly with the club in Jacksonville, pressure from parent clubs played a vital role. The Braves organization had been signing young African-American talent in an attempt to keep up with the Brooklyn Dodgers. By 1953, several of those players — Aaron and Mantilla in particular — were ready to move up. So Jacksonville was integrated.

The forced integration, needless to say, wasn’t always comfortable for the players who went through it. As time passed, and more Southern teams broke barriers, it became fairly apparent that parent clubs didn’t necessarily consider what it might be like for the player when placing him with a Minor League affiliate.

“It had struck me at the time that the (Minor League) teams seemed to play the players that were sent to them,” said Jules Tygiel, author of Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. “I was surprised how little thought was given to where they sent players. “In some ways, you could make the argument that black players were treated equally and sent based on where their talent merited, but they didn’t think it could be a problem. They sent them to play in these hotly segregated areas at a time when segregation was even a bigger issue. It would appear to me that teams would never give it a thought.”

It took longer for some of the geographically isolated Southern States, which were so unchanged in their thinking since the Civil War, to integrate. This was becoming particularly embarrassing by the turn of the 1960s, and led to the disappearance of the venerable Southern Association after the 1961 season, when Organized Baseball withdrew its support in light of its steadfast refusal to integrate. It was rapidly replaced by other integrated leagues.

Another likely reason that integration killed segregation in the Minor Leagues was partly due to the rise of television in most American homes across the country. Perhaps none of the many impacts of TV on baseball was bigger than what it meant for the Minor Leagues and semi-pro baseball.

Synonymous with television’s rise in society, Major League Baseball took interest in the Minor Leagues and had acquired affiliate teams for cultivating players that would eventually play for the Major League squad when they were fully developed. The changes occurred dramatically in the 1950s regarding the minors. To show such a drastic change, in 1950 there were 58 minor leagues in organized baseball, and countless more semi-pro operations. By 1960 there were only 22 minor leagues, and semi-pro baseball had largely become extinct.

In the early 1950s, many Minor League teams were operating independently or semi-independently; they weren’t “farm teams” for the majors, but autonomous for-profit business ventures, which made it easier to discriminate. However, by 1960 nearly all of the remaining Minor League teams were strictly affiliated Major League farms.

There were a number of reasons for this dramatic transformation, but probably the most meaningful was the TV boom. With major league baseball (and, of course, many other amusements) freely available on TV, the choice of fans to spend evenings and weekends at local minor league or semi-pro ballgames became a far less easy one to make.

Among the many ways television transformed small town American life in the 1950s was the shift away from communal gatherings at events such as Minor League and semi-pro baseball games, and the resulting greater primacy of the Major Leagues as “the show” in baseball. With control of the Minor Leagues, the bankruptcy and failure of many southern leagues due to integrate, and the continuing success of black athletes in Major League Baseball propelled the Minor Leagues to fully integrate by 1964 and ended the slow movement that lasted nearly twenty years since Jackie Robinson entered the minors in 1946.

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