Forget, for a moment, the most famous home run in baseball history, which was hit 63 years ago today. Forget, for a moment, Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca, and “the shot heard ’round the world.” Remember, instead, the circumstances that brought together an unprecedented cast for the drama.
On Opening Day, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play modern major league baseball. He was the long-planned, carefully orchestrated product of Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey. In the eyes of some, he was a social movement. In the eyes of others, he was a shrewd box-office-boosting move. To still others, he was an outrage. Players on his own team talked of petitioning management not to put him on the roster, players on the Cardinals muttered about striking, and the Phillies poured racist abuse on him from their dugout. He was just one–in the words of sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, “The loneliest man I have ever seen in sports.”
Soon, Bill Veeck integrated the American League with Larry Doby and then Satchel Paige. The Browns, Giants and Braves followed suit by the end of 1950. On days that Don Newcombe pitched, the Dodgers started a team that was one-third black.
But despite Rickey and Veeck, despite Robinson’s and Doby’s barrier-breaking, integration of the sport was far from complete. The 1950 World Series was played with no black player in either dugout. The participants, the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, were not among the five major league teams that had integrated.
Between the 1950 Series and the last days of September, 1953–almost three full baseball seasons–just one more team would break the barrier. It would not be until 1959 that the Red Sox became the last team to field a black player.
But in 1951, the landscape was changing. Robinson was no longer “the loneliest man,” and the Dodgers weren’t the loneliest team in New York. The Giants had broken their color line with Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson in 1949 and persisted through legend-to-be Willie Mays’ slow start. The Dodgers and Giants between them fielded nine black players during the 1951 season. Four would accumulate National League MVP awards—Roy Campanella three times (including in 1951), Mays twice. Four are in the Hall of Fame.
And these two teams staged a monumental pennant race, with the Giants making up 13½ games in a month and a half to tie the Dodgers for the pennant, forcing a three-game playoff. And this was in New York, the media capital of the United States. To say that the eyes of the country were on this series and these teams is literally true: The playoff contests were the first baseball games ever televised coast to coast. All those eyes were watching the two most integrated teams in baseball.
In the last and deciding game of this series, Newcombe threw the first pitch of the day for the Dodgers and every subsequent pitch but the final two. He gave up seven hits and walked two but shut out New York for six innings and left with a 4-2 lead with one out and two on in the bottom of the ninth. And then, Bobby Thomson.
Newcombe was 24 that season, two years removed from being Rookie of the Year, six from pitching in the Negro National League. The Dodgers almost certainly would not have been a first-place team all season without him. If WAR had been invented then, he would have compiled 5.8 of them.
On Sept. 8, in his last previous appearance against the Giants, he had shut them out. It was the only one of the teams’ last six pre-playoff games, the games since the Giants’ surge began, that the Dodgers won. When the Dodgers were staggering through the last week of the scheduled season, their leaking league lead turning into a gusher, he beat the Braves on Sept. 26, pitching a complete game on three days’ rest. Then, on two days’ rest in the next-to-last day on the schedule, he shut out the Phillies. It was his 20th win of the season.
But the Dodgers needed to win yet another game, the next day, to force the playoff. The Phillies took an early 6-1 lead. After seven innings, they had pounded five Dodgers pitchers for eight runs on 13 hits.
But the Dodgers pulled into a tie, and in came Newcombe. He pitched 5.1 innings of one-hit ball, holding off Philadelphia long enough for the Dodgers to stay tied deep into extra innings. Finally, Brooklyn prevailed in 14. Had the Dodgers lost any of those Newcombe-pitched games, there would have been no playoff games for Brooklyn.
Newcombe went on to win 149 big league games and an MVP award (in 1956), largely lose the second half of his career to alcoholism, beat the demon and become a respected elder statesman, as he is today at 88.
Jackie Robinson drove in the first run that day of the third playoff game, giving the Dodgers a 1-0 lead that would stand up through the top of the seventh. He scored after being walked intentionally in the eighth, making it 4-1 Brooklyn; that would be the last run for the Dodgers until the following April.
The Dodgers would not have gotten that far without Robinson. By this time, he was not a curiosity; he was a marvelous baseball player. Statistically, his 1951 had been an almost exact match for his 1949 season, when he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player. His 1949 numbers: .342 batting average, .432 on-base percentage, .527 slugging, wRC+ of 156, WAR of 9.6 In 1951: .338/.429/.527, with 155 wRC+, 9.0 WAR. He played in all but four games.
And then…remember that game we just discussed, the one in which Newcombe pitched five-plus innings on no days rest to hold the fort so the Dodgers could win and keep their season alive? Robinson made a game-saving catch of a line drive in the 12th. The winning blow was his home run in the 14th.
What can we say about Robinson that’s new? He was a UCLA halfback, an Army lieutenant, a high school basketball coach, a Kansas City Monarch–a Negro Leagues baseball professional in a sport he’d merely dabbled in. Then he was a piece of history.
It was no accident that Robinson was the first. It’s an oft-told story that Rickey selected him from among several candidates for his character and demeanor as well as his talent, that Rickey told him, “I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” The Dodgers made his first stop in organized baseball as far from the storm as possible: Montreal, another country, in part even with another language.
Yet he succeeded, all alone in the first days of the 1947 season and despite the “intense adversity” his Hall of Fame plaque notes. He played 10 years, made six All-Star teams, and played in six World Series. And he made 1951 possible.
If Robinson was key to the Dodgers’ success that year, what of Campanella? Well, we can say he’d be voted National League MVP that winter, and that he hit 33 home runs with a .983 OPS as the Dodgers’ catcher.
He was not, however, catching on Oct. 3. He had injured a leg in the last regular-season game, that 14-inning contest against Philadelphia the Dodgers needed to win to tie the Giants and force the playoff. He made it through Game One of the playoff, but that was all.
You can imagine all the ways that final game might have been different with Campanella catching. When he played, he hit in the middle of a lineup of sluggers. His replacement, Rube Walker, drove in 14 runs that year; Newcombe’s lifetime batting average was 44 points better than Walker’s. Manager Charlie Dressen batted Walker eighth on Oct. 3. He had a single in four at-bats. In the eighth inning, after the Dodgers scored three to make it 4-1, Walker came to bat with two on and two out. He grounded out.
Would Campanella have been able to get his co-pioneer Newcombe thorough that ninth inning? I’m not the only one to wonder. Would Branca have thrown that up-and-in 0-1 pitch to Thomson in the bottom of the ninth if Campanella had been behind the plate? Would the Giants have been able to read Campanella’s sign to Branca, as some say they did Walker’s?
Campanella, with Newcombe, was in the second wave of black Dodgers, arriving in Brooklyn and the big leagues the year after Robinson broke in. He was the big leagues’ first black catcher, but he arrived without the fanfare that accompanied Robinson. He would be the Dodgers’ regular catcher for 10 years, winning MVP titles not only in 1951, but in the pennant-winning years of ’53 and ’55, hitting 242 homers, and making the All-Star team all but the first and last years of his career.
Campanella had turned pro at the age of 16, playing in Negro and Mexican leagues. He played his first game as a Dodger at 26. By 1957, his skills had diminished, eroded by injuries and the wear of 20 years behind the plate. He was prepared to play on, though, before his playing days–and his walking days–ended in an offseason auto accident.
Yet another black man played for the Dodgers that season. Unlike the others, he wasn’t instrumental to their success.
Dan Bankhead, the Dodgers’ second black player and the first black pitcher in the majors, had appeared in a few games–and become Robinson’s roommate–at the end of 1947. Bankhead was 27; he had been in the Negro Leagues since before World War II (he played as a Marine Corps “morale raiser” during the war). Rickey paid the Memphis Red Sox $15,000 for his services and brought him straight to Brooklyn without any minor league seasoning.
He reappeared, mostly unsuccessfully, in 1950 and 1951. In ‘51, Bankhead did not pitch after July, nor, with a sore arm and a 15.43 ERA to that point, should he have. He never made it back to the majors.
Newcombe had the Giants shut out before Irvin led off the seventh inning with a double. It is somewhat ironic that Irvin, the New York cleanup man and as hot as any hitter in baseball at season’s end, made the only out in the Giants’ ninth that day. But they wouldn’t have been there without him.
He led the league in RBIs that year and paced the team in batting average, finished third in National League MVP voting. Over the last two months of the 1951 season, while the Giants were making their run, Irvin had OPS marks of 1.015 and 1.049.
On Sunday, Sept. 9, the day after losing to Newcombe, the Giants were 6½ back and getting what was supposed to be their last crack at Brooklyn. They won, 2-1, their runs coming on a two-run homer by Irvin. Three weeks later, as it turned out with the Dodgers’ late win, the Giants absolutely needed to win the last game of the schedule. Irvin drove in what would be the winning run in a 3-2 game.
Irvin was 32 in this, his best year. Like many of the early black stars, he played his 20s, his prime, in the Negro leagues, beginning his professional career in 1937. Thus, he’s in the Hall of Fame courtesy of a special committee on the Negro Leagues, voted in just after legends Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Buck Leonard.
Hank Thompson had one inconsequential at-bat on Oct. 3, grounding out as a pinch-hitter in the eighth. He was a good player having a bad year.
He’d been the Giants’ regular third baseman and would be again, but this season, with the arrival of Mays, the Giants had an abundance of players for the outfield and corner infield spots. Thompson had been the Giants’ No. 3 hitter on Opening Day but, injured, he lost his starting role in mid-July. Manager Leo Durocher settled on a lineup that had erstwhile outfielder Bobby Thomson at third base and Hank Thompson on the bench. Limited mostly to pinch-hitting, Hank Thompson went the last two months of the season without a two-hit game.
Thompson had accomplished a “first” also. Just days after Doby’s 1947 debut in Cleveland, the desperate St. Louis Browns, who sometimes drew fewer than 1,000 fans to a game, saw an opportunity. They signed Thompson and 32-year-old outfielder Willard Brown, thus becoming the first major league team with two black players.
The hoped-for effect wasn’t there. The Browns drew 3,000 fans for Thompson’s first game, a 16-2 loss. Both black players were back in the Negro Leagues a few weeks later.
In 1949, the Giants integrated their team with Thompson and Monte Irvin. (As Frank Jackson chronicled in a profile of the man in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2012, Thompson went on to several other “firsts,” including integrating the Giants along with Irvin.) Unfortunately, he died young, at 43, after a troubled life.
Baseball historian Donald Honig wrote: “The talent that came from the once-forbidden vineyards was ripe and lush, and had to be, because if many of those still-grudging teams were going to be lassoed into the new age it was going to be with the very best. They weren’t going to pay a black player white man’s green money to bat .230 and sit on the bench.”
So it was with the Hall of Famers-to-be who played in that famous game, but even that already was beginning to change in New York.
The least-known black player in the box score that day was Ray Noble, the Giants’ backup catcher. After Wes Westrum, the regular, was pulled for a pinch-hitter, Noble caught Larry Jansen’s 1-2-3 ninth for the Giants.
It’s hard to make the case that Noble was an irreplaceable cog in one of these baseball machines. The Giants, who rarely lost in August and September, were 1-7 in that stretch when Noble started. He was a replacement-level player behind Westrum; neither catcher hit much, but Westrum hit ‘em far; he had 20 home runs in 1951.
Noble was a rookie in major league terms but a veteran of many professional years in Cuba and in the Negro National League. At 32, he didn’t have much of what today is called “upside.” He would play parts of two more seasons in the majors.
The Giants had one other black player that season: Infielder Artie Wilson, a 30-year-old rookie, played 19 games. The last was on May 23. Two days later, the Giants debuted Willie Mays.
Mays, the Giants’ sensational rookie center fielder, did not have a sensational day. Seventh in the lineup, he lined out, struck out and hit into a double play.
Barely 20 years old, Mays had gotten off to a famously bad start in 1951, his debut season. Brought up from the minors and thrust into the lineup on May 25, he went 1-for-May. He didn’t get his average to .200 until June 7. But then…as the Giants sank further and further behind Brooklyn, Mays hit 10 July homers, helping keep the pennant within the realm of the possible, if improbable.
By the end of July, he was hitting .280 with a .925 OPS. By the end of the season, Mays was Rookie of the Year. By the end of his career, he was regarded as one of the best baseball players ever, one who could hit, run, throw, hit for average and power better than almost anyone.
Mays’ last nine games of 1951 were not terrific: he had just one hit in the three playoff contests against the Dodgers and hit into three double plays in the World Series against the Yankees. But, who knows? If Thomson’s three-run homer hadn’t won the game and the pennant, if his fly ball had fallen short of that close wall at the Polo Grounds, had settled into the glove of left fielder Andy Pafko, had left the Giants still behind with two out in the ninth…Mays was next up.
Eventually, of course, the stories about which teams had black players became fewer. The stories about which teams didn’t became more frequent. Teams sensed the inevitable, but the transition wasn’t always smooth. There was, for example, the burning question of who would be a black player’s roommate. Thus, when in 1953 the Cubs contemplated bringing up Gene Baker, a minor leaguer in their system, they cast around for another black player and bought Ernie Banks from the Kansas City Monarchs.
It was important that the anointed one not rock the boat, so fans saw condescending items like this one from Arthur Daley of The New York Times on Elston Howard:
“He seems certain to be the first Negro to make the Yankees. … They’ve waited for one to come along who [is] ‘the Yankee type.’ Elston is a nice, quiet lad whose reserved, gentlemanly demeanor has won him complete acceptance from every Yankee.”
Baseball was far from the only bastion of bias in American society. The stories of early black major leaguers inevitably cite instances of discrimination in restaurants and hotels.
In 1957, a young man named Elijah Jerry Green Jr. played for the Oklahoma City Indians in the Texas League. He played most of the time, anyway. There was a Texas League team in Shreveport, La., where state law barred blacks from playing in an integrated setting. So he sat out those games.
Two years later, he was starring in spring training with the Red Sox in Arizona–but staying in a hotel far from his teammates. The Sox spokesman said the team hotel had run out of rooms. Green roomed with players from other teams that stayed at hotels that weren’t segregated.
He didn’t make the Opening Day roster; the resulting controversy in the press and the public went beyond his hitting and fielding skills. Finally, on July 21, 1959, Pumpsie Green played his first game with the Red Sox. Every team in baseball had now integrated.
References and Resources
- The holy trinity: Baseball-reference, Retrosheet & FanGraphs
- The SABR Baseball Biography Project
- Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson, A Biography. Random House, 1997
- Jonthan Eig, Opening Day. Simon & Schuster, 2007
- Kevin Nelson, Baseball’s Greatest Quotes. Simon & Schuster, 1982
- Donald Honig, Baseball America. MacMillan, 1985