Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey deservedly get most of the credit for overcoming the obstacles that prevented African-American players from participating in Major League Baseball. Robinson’s story is well-chronicled with regard to the trials and hardships he endured on his route to breaking the color barrier in the sport in 1947. In addition to Robinson, however, there have been a number of other key African-American individuals who played critical roles throughout the history of baseball.
In observance of February as Black History Month, following is a review of several notable African-American figures, including players, executives, managers, and umpires, who made a lasting impact on the game.
While Robinson changed who was allowed to play professional baseball, it was Curt Flood who significantly changed the game from a business perspective, affecting both owners and players. Flood challenged the fairness of baseball’s reserve clause by refusing to be traded by his team in 1969. He took his position to court and was ultimately unsuccessful after a final ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court. However, his cause became a rallying point for other players that eventually led to free agency for players after they had fulfilled their contracts with their teams. Flood was black-balled by major-league owners after the court ruling, and it effectively ended his career. He had been a productive player, a three-time all-star and winner of five Gold Glove Awards. But his legacy will primarily be remembered for his actions off the field. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine professional baseball without player free agency.
Rube Foster was instrumental in forming the Negro National League in 1920. In fact, Jackie Robinson first played in the Negro Leagues before integrating the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Most of the early blacks who followed Robinson into the big leagues also got their start in the Negro Leagues. Based on his pioneering career as a player, manager, and executive, Foster became known as the “father of Black Baseball. His contributions were recognized by his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.
Satchel Paige was a legendary player in the Negro Leagues from 1927 to 1947, winning over 160 games as a pitcher. Before he was eligible to play in the majors, he often competed in exhibition games with black teams against all-star teams comprised of all-white major league players—and his teams frequently won. He finally got his chance to play in the big leagues in 1948 at age 41, including an appearance in the World Series with Cleveland. He was still playing in the majors at age 46. Paige was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971, only the second African-American after Robinson. His election effectively gave credence to the other black ballplayers who starred in the Negro Leagues, and numerous players from the Negro Leagues subsequently followed him with inductions into the Hall.
Willie Mays made his major-league debut in 1951 with the New York Giants, capturing Rookie of the Year honors. After missing nearly two seasons due to military service, he rivalled for the attention of New York City fans with Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees and Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers, until the Giants’ and Dodgers’ franchises moved to California. The three players were often compared to each other, since they were in their early-to-mid 20s. They all played centerfield, and all three were among the best offensive players at the time. Mays, the only African-American of the trio, developed into a popular star, on par with the other two, despite the fact that integration had still not fully penetrated the big leagues. Mays’ infectious personality and zest for the game would serve him well in being one of the most popular players in the history of the sport. Mays went on to have a Hall of Fame career that included 20 all-star seasons and two MVP awards.
Pumpsie Green was thirteen years old when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Green took his place in baseball history by becoming the first African-American to play for the Boston Red Sox, an astonishing twelve years after Jackie Robinson’s historic debut in 1947. Boston was the last major-league team to integrate, as its owner, Tom Yawkey, had a questionable record on race relations at the time. Green had been to spring training with the Red Sox in his debut season and he was required to stay in different hotels than his teammates when they travelled in the South. Green wound up playing a total of thirteen pro seasons, five of them in the majors.
Hank Aaron eclipsed Babe Ruth’s long-standing career record of 714 home runs in early 1974. Amid the fanfare of his approaching the historic record, the event did not come without Aaron having to endure hate mail, including threats to his life, because of bigotry towards his African-American ethnicity. Even though he and his family were understandably troubled by the situation, Aaron was commended for handling it in a quiet, professional manner. Many journalists and celebrities, including Babe Ruth’s widow, provided public support for him. Aaron played 23 seasons and still holds the all-time record for RBI and total bases. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first time on the ballot in 1982.
Frank Robinson became Major League Baseball’s first black manager in 1975 when he was still playing for the Cleveland Indians. He went on to manage in the big leagues for 16 years with four different teams. He paved the way for future black managers such as Cito Gaston, Dusty Baker, Don Baylor, Cecil Cooper, Willie Randolph, and Ron Washington. Robinson had a Hall of Fame career as a player, which included a MVP Award in both leagues and a Triple Crown title in 1966 with the Baltimore Orioles. Robinson has long been well-respected within the baseball community and is considered one of Major League Baseball’s foremost ambassadors.
Emmett Ashford was the pioneer for African-American umpires by becoming the first black in Organized Baseball in 1951. However, it took fifteen more seasons before he broke the color barrier for umpires in the major-leagues. The 5-foot-7 arbiter, noted for his karate-like chop behind the plate to signal strikes, was popular among fans. Following his retirement as an umpire in 1970, he worked in public relations for the MLB Commissioner’s Office.
Bill Lucas was the first African-American executive to hold general manager duties in Major League Baseball for the Atlanta Braves. After a six-year minor-league playing career in the Braves organization, he went to work in their front office, starting out in sales and promotions and eventually working his way into the job as vice president of player development in 1977. However, after forty years, major-league front offices remain an area in the baseball industry where African-Americans have yet to receive significant opportunities to make an impact.
Each of these gentlemen made historic accomplishments in baseball, paving the way for other blacks to follow them in their respective roles. Many of these accomplishments can be traced back to Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in the major leagues. His impact is probably best exemplified by the fact that every team has retired his uniform Number 42. Furthermore, all major-league teams honor Robinson each April by having every player, manager, coach and umpire wear his uniform number on the anniversary date of his major-league debut.