Jackie Robinson wasn’t the only black baseball player to show up for the big leagues in 1947. After breaking the color line and becoming the first black baseball player to play in the US major leagues in the course of the 20th century, four other colored players soon followed in his footsteps.
Like Robinson, these four men had to face unimaginable pressure. They had teammates who didn’t want to shake hands, fans ridiculed and threatened them. None could stay in the same hotels as their teammates. And they all had to prove to the world that a black man could be as good as a white man, not just at baseball, but as members of society. Like # 42, they were all pioneers.
On July 5, 1947, less than three months after Robinson’s first appearance in the National League, Larry Doby struck in the seventh inning of the Cleveland Indians game against the Chicago White Sox, becoming the league’s first black player. American. Although his career started on a low note with a strikeout, it ended triumphantly, with his bust in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Doby was born in Camden, South Carolina, but became a star in three sports at high school in Paterson, New Jersey. He was quickly noticed by the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League, and signed to play professionally with them at the age of 17. Because he didn’t want to lose his amateur status – and his scholarship to Long Island University – Doby played under the pseudonym “Larry Walker.” He eventually resumed his name and played for the Eagles for two. years before leaving for the South Pacific during World War II.
Meanwhile, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck was doing his best to get into the majors. Beginning in 1942, Veeck began asking the league to let him bring in a black player, but was rejected by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. After Robinson signed with the Dodgers in 1946 (he spent a year in the minor leagues before his debut in 1947), the door was open for Veeck to sign a black player as well. Due to Doby’s age and skill, as well as his solid reputation off the pitch, the choice was easy for Veeck.
Unlike how the Dodgers brought in Robinson, the Indians didn’t send Doby to the minor leagues first. Instead, they allowed him to stay in the Negro leagues with the Eagles (where he had returned after the war). Veeck waited to make the signing official, carefully wading through the waters of integration until he felt his fan base was ready. Once he felt the time was right, Veeck signed Doby and put him on the Big League roster.
Doby had his first start the next day, but played sparingly for the remainder of the 1947 season. As a regular player in 1948, Doby helped the Indians qualify for a World Series championship and became the first African-American to hit a home run in the “Fall Classic”.
While playing with Cleveland, Doby was part of the All-Star squad every year from 1949 to 1955, before being traded to the White Sox before the 1956 season. Although he struggled with mounting injuries, Doby was productive for the White Sox, but returned to Cleveland for the 1958 season. He played part-time for the Detroit Tigers before returning to the White Sox. He retired in 1959 at the age of 35.
In 1978, Doby became the second black coach in the big league, (after Indian player-coach Frank Robinson in 1976), when he coached the White Sox in the second half of the season. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 and died in 2003.
Although he may have been the second after Robinson in baseball, he was the first African American to play in the American Basketball League (a predecessor to the NBA), when he joined the Paterson Crescents at the winter 1947.
Hank Thompson and Willard Brown
On July 16, 1947, Dan Daniel from Sports news wrote in his column: “In Saint-Louis, they say that the fans would never represent the negroes of the cardinals or the browns. Saint-Louis, they insist, “is too much of a city in the South”. “
Just a day later, the St. Louis Browns put that bold prediction to the test, when they signed not just one African-American player, but two: Hank Thompson and Willard “Home Run” Brown. Like Jackie Robinson, Thompson and Brown came from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League.
Thompson, 21, made his second baseman debut on July 17, finishing without a hitting with four batters. The Oklahoma native played again the next day, singling out Red Sox pitcher Dave Ferriss for his first league success. Brown, 32, a Louisiana-born Negro League legend, made his debut on July 19, but to no avail.
On July 20, the two made history by becoming the first black players in the same starting lineup of a Big League game. On August 17, Brown and Thompson were back in the lineup as the Browns faced Indians Larry Doby, marking the first time African-American players have faced each other in a game.
Unlike the signings of Robinson and Doby, Thompson and Brown were brought into the majors primarily to spur sagging footfall in St. Louis. Owner Richard Muckerman has seen the growing crowds in Brooklyn and Cleveland. Eager to sell tickets, he struck a deal with Kansas City to join his team. The Browns agreed to pay the Monarchs $ 5,000 up front, then $ 5,000 for each man if the club decided to keep them after a while.
When the time came for the St. Louis to decide whether or not to keep the struggling sloths, the team saw no results in the standings or at the box office. Brown was sent back to the monarchs. Thompson dragged on but was released after the season. The Browns then unofficially broke up and did not allow another black player on the roster until they signed Satchel Paige in 1951. Paige was signed (by chance or not) after the team was bought by Bill Veeck, who had integrated the Indians.
While Thompson’s stint with the Browns was short-lived, he has the distinction of being the only player to break the color barrier for two different franchises. On July 8, 1949, he and Monte Irvin became the first African Americans to join the New York Giants.
Hank played for the Giants until 1956 and died in 1969, aged 43. Although he never played in the majors again, Brown was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, 10 years after his death.
There was another pioneer in breaking the barrier in 1947. Unlike the others, 27-year-old Dan Bankhead didn’t earn his status as a batter, but as a pitcher. Four months after Robinson’s debut, owner Branch Rickey signed Bankhead and brought him to Brooklyn, making Alabama the first African-American pitcher in Major League Baseball.
Bankhead, who was often compared to Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, apparently had all the tools to succeed at the Big League level. He also came from a solid baseball background, as he and four of his brothers all played in the Negro leagues. Bankhead had a solid career with the Birmingham Black Barons and the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League before signing with the Dodgers.
The former US Marine made his reliever debut in the Dodgers’ Aug. 26 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates had jumped all over Brooklyn starter Hal Gregg, knocking him out with no one at the top of the second inning. When Bankhead came in to try and clean up the mess, the Pirates scored him for eight more runs in just over three innings.
The only bright spot in Bankhead’s exit came not on the mound but in his first major league at bat, when he hit a Fritz Ostermueller field over the fence for a two-run home run. This made Bankhead, a pitcher, the first African-American to hit a home run in his first Major League at bat.
Sadly, things never got better on the mound for Bankhead. According to Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947-1959 by Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt, Bankhead was hampered by control issues, an old injury and all-too-common disappointment. “Like many early black baseball players, he was thrown into white baseball with the physical tools to be successful but little to no emotional support,” the authors write.
After only a few more appearances this season, Bankhead was sent to the minor leagues and only returned to the Dodgers in 1950. After a 1951 season, Bankhead left the game for good at age 31. He died in 1976..