The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Ed Thoma

April 14, 2013

Thoma: Jackie was the first — but not the only one in 1947

— Today is Jackie Robinson Day — the day all major league players wear his otherwise retired 42 in honor of his social significance.

Further attention is being devoted to Robinson this year with the release of the movie “42,” which depicts his struggles as he broke baseball’s color bar in 1947.

Largely lost in the adulation for Robinson are the four other black men who played in the major leagues that year — four men who faced the same racism and opposition as Robinson did, but without the historic fame that has accompanied Robinson through the years.

Their stories also suggest how well Branch Rickey chose Robinson as the trailblazer. Robinson’s success in his first year stands in contrast to the others.

Here are their stories:

Larry Doby, Cleveland Indians, debut July 5.

Doby may well have been on Rickey’s list when he was searching for the pioneer black. Instead, Doby became the Buzz Aldrin of baseball integration: the second black player in the majors, the first in the American League.

Doby had been a middle infielder in the Negro Leagues, but the Indians had a superb double play combo in shortstop Lou Boudreau and second baseman Joe Gordon. Doby was mainly used as a pinch hitter in 1947 and hit just .156.

The next spring he was converted into a center fielder, and his career took off. He hit .301 and helped the Indians win the pennant and World Series in 1948. He went on to make seven straight All-Star teams. He twice led the American League in home runs, once in RBIs, once in runs scored.

In 1978 be became the second black man to manage a major league team (Frank Robinson having been the first). In 1997 he was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Hank Thompson and Willard Brown, St. Louis Browns. Thompson debuted July 17, Brown on July 19.

Robinson was carefully selected for his pioneering role. Thompson and Brown were not — unless they were being set up to fail.

Thompson, 21 at the time, was an alcoholic with a history of arrests. Brown, who had been a legitimately great player in the Negro Leagues, was 32 and on the downside of his career — and he had a reputation among his Negro League peers for laziness.

Both men were released in August after playing less than two dozen games.

Thompson soon resurfaced in the majors with the New York Giants (he and Monte Irvin were that team’s first blacks), for whom he played in two World Series. Brown spent the rest of his playing days in the Negro Leagues.

Brown was the first black to homer in an American League game. The story goes that he did so with the bat of white teammate Jeff Heath, who promptly broke the bat against a wall.

That may not be as obvious a case of racial animosity as it sounds. Thompson years later said that Heath was one of the few Brownies who welcomed the two blacks to the club. Heath was, apparently, quite superstitious about his bats; he wasn’t so much upset that a black man had used the bat as that anybody had. The behavior still seems odd.

Brown was selected for the Hall of Fame in 2006 by the special Negro League Committee.

Dan Bankhead, Brooklyn Dodgers, debut Aug. 26.

Bankhead was the first black pitcher in the majors. He didn’t pitch much for the Dodgers in 1947 — just four games and 10 innings of relief work with an ERA of 7.20. He was on the World Series roster, but was merely used as a pinch runner.

He spent the 1948 and ’49 seasons in the minors (part of that time with the St. Paul Saints) and returned to the majors in 1950 and ’51, without notable success. He had a career ERA of 6.52.

More blacks would come to the majors in 1948 — notably Roy Campanella with the Dodgers and the legendary Satchel Paige with the Indians.

But in 1947, there were just the five — and only Robinson was a true success on the field that season. He was also the only one to spend any time in the white minors before hitting the major leagues. Two of the other four were talented enough to reach Cooperstown, but they weren’t prepared for the ordeal of 1947 as Robinson had been.

Edward Thoma (344-6377; ethoma@mankatofreepress.com) maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.

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Ed Thoma