The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports Columns

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.

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Sports Columns
  • Thoma column: Twins are scoring lot of runs; can this continue? The Minnesota Twins entered Sunday's play with the American League's second-highest number of runs scored. And, they haven't had the advantage of hitting off their own pitching staff. OK, it's dreadfully early in the season, far too early to draw co

    April 14, 2014

  • Courrier: Masters is first sign that winter has been conquered Don't know if anybody noticed but it's been a tough winter, with brutal cold and piles of snow that are now just disappearing. If not for an exciting season of local basketball and hockey, it would have an unbearable four months. Minnesota State had

    April 10, 2014

  • Thoma column: We all know the Ryan Braun saga: Winner of the National League MVP award, flunked a drug test, convinced the arbitrator to toss his suspension on the basis that his sample was mishandled, was snagged anyway in the Biogenesis investigation, suspended

    April 7, 2014

  • Focus will be on Mavericks' QBs this spring The Minnesota State football team began its spring practice period this week, 14 workouts in 27 days, trying to see who has been working hard to maintain a starting position and which backups might be ready to get more playing time in the fall. The b

    April 4, 2014

  • Thoma column: For the remade Twins, 2014 looks like more losing The start of the baseball season is supposed to be about fresh beginnings, wide open promises and the hope that springs eternal in the human breast. I'm here to quash that kind of optimism among the followers of the Minnesota Twins. (I strive to be a

    April 1, 2014

  • Shot clock isn't answer for high-school basketball A few weeks back, the state's basketball fans were all riled up that during a state-tournament game, the Hopkins boys spent much of the four overtimes holding the basketball, preferring not to shoot until the final seconds of each extra period in the

    March 28, 2014

  • Thoma column: Projected lineup is Mauer, Arcia and a bunch of outs The Minnesota Twins begin play in earnest in less than a week -- weather permitting -- and wow, do they have lineup issues. They scored 614 runs last season, 13th in the 15-team American League and almost 100 under the league average (702). Justin Mo

    March 26, 2014

  • Thoma column: Perkins extension may not be such a relief over time In the abstract, long-term contracts for relief pitchers are bad bets for teams. Nobody seems to be too concerned about that rule of thumb when it comes to Glen Perkins' new deal with the Twins. The contract, worth more than $21 million in guaranteed

    March 17, 2014

  • Courrier: No. 1 seed has brought no guarantees for MSU Since the Minnesota State men's basketball team started this nearly annual tradition of playing in the NCAA II tournament, the home team has almost been unbeatable in the regional. The Mavericks have played in nine of the last 10 national tournaments

    March 14, 2014

  • Thoma column: The many purposes of spring training

    March 9, 2014