The Philadelphia Tribune and other media outlets have addressed the absence of American-born Blacks in this year’s World Series.
My interest in baseball waned during my teen through adult years, replaced with football and basketball. I have even given ice hockey more attention than baseball. But the Philadelphia Phillies’ appearance in the World Series caused me to once again pay attention to major league baseball. The focus on the absence of American-born Blacks in the World Series led me to dig a bit deeper into the matter and to think about the decline in Blacks in professional baseball over the years. This reflection resulted in today’s column. Join with me as I resurrect memories of Blacks that were major players in professional baseball, back in the day.
Some of you, like me, experienced being taken to baseball games by your teachers. The games, in which the Brooklyn Dodgers or New York Giants participated, were played at Shibe Park, located at 21st and Lehigh Avenue. These trips were common because the Dodgers team included Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella and the Giants had Willie Mays and Monte Irvin. We had few role models and our teachers believed it was important for us to see these outstanding stars in action. But, our own Philadelphia Phillies had no Black ballplayers, back then. The same was also the case with the city’s American League team, the Philadelphia Athletics. It may be even more surprising to know that the Philadelphia Phillies were one of the last major league baseball teams to have a Black player on its roster, when shortstop, John Kennedy made his debut in 1957.
Jackie Robinson‘s integration of the Major Leagues in 1947 is infamous. But, let me put a pin in this statement. Why? Well, according to “6 Decades Before Jackie Robinson, This Man Broke Baseball’s Color Barrier,” a piece written by Farrell Evans on history.com, points out that Moses Fleetwood Walker became the first Black American to play in a Major League Baseball game, playing on May 1, 1884, for the Toledo Blue Stockings. I was unaware of this and decided to drill down on this revelation. Based on several internet postings, two other Black Americans surfaced as having played major league baseball long before 1947. They are William Edward White, whose complexion enabled him to pass for white and Weldy Walker, who was related to Moses Walker. They all played six decades before Robinson’s integration into the modern era of professional baseball. As you can see, it took ten years after Robinson’s historical appearance in Major League Baseball before the Phillies had a Black player. Consequently, many Blacks do not support the Phillies today just as they did not root for the Phillies, back in the day.
In speaking with several of my contemporaries, I asked each to name any Black American ball player in Major League Baseball today. They gave me blank looks. We talked about our ability to easily name Black baseball players from back in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the 90s. Let me highlight a few. Most people generally identify, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers from the late 40s. Some know about Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians also from the late 40s. Then there is Hank Thompson of the St. Louis Browns, Roy Campanella of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Satchel Paige of the Cleveland Indians, Monte Irvin and Willie Mays of the New York Giants, Sam Jethro of the Boston Braves, Luke Easter of the Cleveland Indians, Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs, Curt Roberts of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Elston Howard of the New York Yankees and Joe Black of the Brooklyn Dodgers, all from the fifties.
Interestingly, most of my favorite memories of American-born Black baseball players are from the 50s. James William “Junior” Gilliam is one of my favorites. I loved this Dodgers’ second baseman, who entered the league in 1954, so much until I pretended to be him when I played sandlot baseball or even “half-ball.” I even batted left and right handed to mimic his style. Then there was Don Newcombe. Whenever I observe a manager changing pitchers because of the pitch count, I think of Don Newcombe. I will remember him for starting in both games of a doubleheader. Of course, Jackie Robinson will always be one of my favorites. Whenever there is footage on television of Robinson dancing off of third base and stealing home plate, I stop whatever I am doing and watch. What a great feeling to observe his base running prowess. While Robinson broke into the Major Leagues in 1947, my memories of him are mainly from the 50s.
Dave Parker is a name that may not be known by many of you. He is not from the 50s but from the 70s. But, his throwing out Brian Downing at home plate with a laser throw from right field that did not touch the ground before arriving at the plate, is something that I still talk about today. In fact, I occasionally Google this amazing feet and watch it with admiration. But, the player and event that has always been most vivid in my mind is Willie Mays making “the basket” catch off of the bat of Vic Wertz as he raced into center field at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan in a Worlds Series game, back in the day.
Clearly, there have been countless outstanding Black American baseball players since the 1950s. An NBC report, however, indicates that only 7.2% of players on opening day rosters this year were Black Americans which represents the lowest percentage since 1991 when this statistic was first charted. Major League Baseball has recognized this problem and has committed to spend $150 million to create opportunities for Blacks in baseball. In the past, the development of Black youth in baseball began with stick ball and was played in the streets or playgrounds with whatever equipment could be obtained. Along came organized youth leagues but playing in such leagues became prohibitive for many families. Hopefully the investment by the MLB will pay dividends; if so, we can once again see Blacks in professional baseball in significant numbers, as we once did, back in the day.