From Bud to Buck, 10 Baseball Trailblazers


Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, January 21, 2008

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, a tribute to ten African-American trailblazers in Major League Baseball, whether famed or forgotten:

Bud Fowler became the very first African-American professional baseball player in 1878, the second year of organized minor league play.  He was alleged to have suited up for a club team in New Castle, Pennsylvania, in 1867 or 1872, but these reports or unsubstantiated.  Breaking in with Chelsea, Fowler played in ten seasons in white organized leagues and began organizing and managing black barnstorming teams in the twentieth century.  He is also believed to have invented the first pair of shin guards to help protect himself from spiking.  Bud Fowler’s original name was John Jackson, and coincidentally he grew up in Cooperstown, New York.

While Fowler was the first African-American to play in organized pro ball, Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker was the first to do so in the Major Leagues.  After catching 60 games for the Northwest League’s Toledo Blue Stockings in 1883, Walker stayed with the club when Toledo jumped up to the American Association for the 1884 season.  Walker batted .263 in 42 games in the AA – and then Toledo released him, prompted in large part by anonymous threats.  Walker’s life was even more fascinating outside of baseball.  He was born at a way station along the Underground Railroad and worked as a newspaper editor and an inventor upon the conclusion of his playing career.

63 years after Fleet Walker originally integrated the Major Leagues, the color barrier was broken for good.  A four-sport standout at UCLA, Jackie Robinson only played one season in the Negro Leagues (1945 with the Kansas City Monarchs) before Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey signed him to a Major League contract.  After a season in the minors with Montreal, Robinson made his National League debut on April 15, 1947.  He would finish the season with a .297 batting average, 12 home runs, and 29 steals, earning the very first Rookie of the Year award.  In 1949, Robinson added the Most Valuable Player award to his trophy case.  Thirteen years later, he became the first African-American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Additionally, Jackie Robinson was the first African-American baseball broadcaster, hired by ABC as an analyst in 1965, and the first baseball player ever to appear on a U.S. postage stamp in 1982.

While Jackie Robinson integrated the National League, it was Larry Doby who integrated the American League.  The star of the Negro League’s Newark Eagles during the early 1940s, Doby jumped straight to the Cleveland Indians in June of 1947, three months after Jackie Robinson’s debut.  A seven-time All-Star, he was the first African-American to appear in both the Negro League World Series and Major League World Series (both of which he won), the first to homer in the World Series, and the first lead the league in home runs and runs batted in.  After retiring as a player, Doby later worked as a scout, an executive and a manager in the Major Leagues.  He was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.

The very first African-American pitcher in the Majors was Dan Bankhead, though he did not experience the same success as Robinson or Doby.  An acclaimed flamethrower, Bankhead won the 1947 Negro League All-Star Game and was snapped up the Dodgers and Rickey, who needed pitching in the worst way.  Bankhead slugged a home run in his first Major League at-bat but was battered for ten hits in three innings.  After three more appearances, the right-hander was demoted to the minors with an ERA of 7.20, having allowed 15 hits and walked eight in only ten innings.  He would return to Brooklyn for the 1950 campaign, posting a solid 9-4 record against an ugly 5.50 ERA.  1951 proved to be another struggle – 27 hits and 14 walks issued in 14 innings – and Bankhead never made it back to the Major Leagues.

Who was the first African-American player to be named team captain?  It was 1964.  The team was the San Francisco Giants.  Their choice was Willie Mays.  Arguably the greatest all-around player to have put on a uniform, Mays dazzled spectators with a thundering bat, lightning speed, and incomparable defense from his debut as a 16-year-old with the Negro League’s Birmingham Black Barons in 1947 through a 22-season Hall of Fame career in the Major Leagues with the Giants and Mets.  Mays cracked 660 total home runs in the Majors, trailing only god-son Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth.  He trails no one in career outfield putouts, compiling 7,095 by virtue of his great speed and instincts.  Undoubtedly, Mays is best known for The Catch, a sprinting-over-the-shoulder snare of Vic Wertz’s mammoth blast to centerfield in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series.  Wrote a sportswriter of the play, “It would have been a home run in any other park, including Yellowstone.”

The first African-American umpire in the Major Leagues, Hall of Famer Emmett Ashford worked for U.S. Post Office until the age of 36.  He was 51 years old when he called up to the Majors from the Pacific Coast League in 1966 and quickly established a name for himself with style and flair.  In 1967, Ashford was given the honor of umpiring the All-Star Game.  Three years later, in his very last season, he umpired the World Series between Pittsburgh and Baltimore.  In 1973, the National League welcomed its first African-American umpire, Art Williams.

John “Buck” O’Neil starred for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1938-1943 and 1946-1955, the height of the Negro Leagues.  In 1956, O’Neil joined the Chicago Cubs as a scout, signing eventual Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock to professional contracts.  In 1962, he became the first African-American coach in the Major Leagues.  After 33 seasons with the Cubs, O’Neil returned to Kansas City in 1988, serving as a scout for the Royals.  Buck O’Neil chaired the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Board of Directors and served on Baseball Hall of Fame’s Veterans’ Committee before passing away in 2006.

Frank Robinson first made a name for himself by tying the National League rookie record with 38 home runs as a Cincinnati Reds leftfielder in 1956.  For 10 seasons Robinson tore up the senior circuit.  Following the 1965 campaign, however, Reds general manager Bill DeWitt shocked the fanbase by trading his perennial All-Star to Baltimore.  Frank Robinson responded by winning the Triple Crown in 1966, becoming the first player to claim the Most Valuable Player award in both leagues.  Robinson’s career wound down with the Cleveland Indians, who acquired him off of the waiver wire in 1974.  The next season, Robinson was named the Tribe’s player-manager, the first African-American manager in the Major Leagues.  Cleveland finished 1975 with its first winning season since 1968; still, Robinson was fired two years later after a slow start.  He would later serve as San Francisco Giants manager from 1981-1984, Baltimore Orioles manager from 1988-1991, and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals franchise from 2002-2006.  In 1989, perhaps Robinson’s finest year of managing, his upstart Orioles were nosed out of an American League East title by Cito Gaston and the Toronto Blue Jays.  Gaston would later become the first African-American manager to win the World Series, leading the Blue Jays to championships in 1992 and 1993.

Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner named himself team general manager in 1976, but it was Bill Lucas (officially known as Vice President of Player Personnel) who held the responsibilities and fulfilled the tasks required of the position, thereby becoming the first African-American general manager.  Originally an infielder in the Braves minor league system, Bill Lucas worked in Atlanta’s sales and promotions department from 1965-1966, moved to player development in 1967, and was appointed Farm System Director in 1972.  Sadly, Lucas’ reign as Braves General Manager was cut short by a massive stroke in May of 1979.  He was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 2006.

 

Thanks to:

The Negro League Professional Baseball Players Association – www.nlbpa.com

The Negro League Baseball Museum – www.coe.ksu.edu/nlbemuseum.html

Baseball Reference – www.baseball-reference.com

Major League Baseball – www.mlb.com

The Official Website of Jackie Robinson – www.jackierobinson.com

Academy of Achievement: “Willie Mays” – www.achievement.org

Answers.com: “Emmett Ashford” – www.answers.com/topic/emmett-ashford

Baseball Library: “Frank Robinson” - www.baseballlibrary.com

The Official Website of the Atlanta Braves – “African Americans Left Their Mark” and “Braves to induct two into Hall of Fame” by Mark Bowman, mlb.com

The Atlanta Metro Observer – www.kacom.com/observer/Braves_nlb.htm

Wikipedia: “Bill Lucas” – www.wikipedia.com

2008 PER Sports, Inc.

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