The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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May 5, 2014

Thoma column: History lesson: Bill Veeck and the aborted black Phillies

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Baseball in 1942 is deeply segregated, but the racial divide, while real, is unofficial. For the record, Commissioner Kenesaw Landis insists that teams are free to sign blacks; behind the scenes, he discourages any such move.

As Veeck told the story over the years, he had the team purchased. But on his way to Philadelphia to close the deal, he visited Landis in Chicago while delayed to make a train connection, and informed Landis of his plan. And by the time he got to Philly, Frick had seized the franchise and was finding a safer buyer.

That turned out to be a fiasco of its own. William Cox didn’t last long; by midseason he was discovered to be betting on Phillies games. He was banished, and the league again took over the team, this time selling it to the Carpenter family, DuPont heirs who would own the Phillies for about four decades.

Anyway, it’s a great what-if. What if Veeck had been able to turn the Phillies into, in essence, a Negro Leagues all-star team?

On talent alone, such a team — which could have featured the likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Leon Day and Ray Dandridge at or near their primes — would figure to be almost unbeatable, especially as the war degraded the rosters of the white teams over the next three seasons.

But this would be real life, not a Strat-O-Matic experiment. Philadelphia in 1943 might not have been the ideal time and place to break the color barrier — certainly not as good as Brooklyn was in 1947, when Jackie Robinson arrived.

Branch Rickey carefully plotted out each step when he brought Robinson into organized ball; Veeck, a genius of a different mold, was always more off-the-cuff. It may well be to everyone’s benefit that it was Rickey who made the move.

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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