December 10, 2013
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Saturday, March 09, 2013
20,000 days ago, the Tigers made a historic change to their franchise.
On that day, June 6, 1958, the Tigers started Ozzie Virgil at third base. In and of itself, that wasn’t especially important. Virgil didn’t have much of a career, and the Tigers were one of five teams he played for, mostly as a backup.
Aye, but one key feature set Virgil apart from all previous Tigers players. Virgil was a black man, and he was the first black baseball player in the franchise’s history. It had taken over 11 years since Jackie Robinson made his MLB debut, but the Tigers finally had integrated.
People know about Robinson and how he integrated the game in 1947 as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. But people often don’t know just how slow the pace of integration was after that. Oh, not all teams were as slow as the Tigers, of course, but few jumped at getting the best black baseball players.
The opening stages are relatively well known. In 1947, the Dodgers integrated, and then later that year Bill Veeck’s Indians signed Larry Doby, the first black AL player. Both Robinson and Doby helped their teams set attendance records, so the St. Louis Browns signed Negro League stars Hank Thompson and Willard Brown. When floods of fans failed to appear, the Browns cut their first Negro Leaguers.
At the end of 1947, only the Dodgers and Indians had integrated rosters. That was still the case when 1948 ended.
In 1949, the Giants broke through, signing Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson. They debuted together in July of 1949. The game was back up to three integrated teams. In 1950, the Boston Braves joined the club, getting Sam Jethroe, but that was it. 1950 was the fourth season of integrated baseball, and only five teams ever had played a black man, one of which had done it only briefly as an attendance stunt.
Things improved a bit in 1951. By now, Bill Veeck owned the Browns, and he re-integrated them, bringing in Satchel Paige. The White Sox also integrated, with the first great Afro-Caribbean player in the big leagues, Minnie Minoso.
Again, things stalled. When Minoso took the field for the Sox on May 1, 1951, six teams out of 16 had integrated. Things remained that way for over 28 months. Not a single squad integrated their roster again until mid-September of 1953.
This time, however, things began to break open. In mid-September, two clubs integrated, first the Philadelphia A’s and then the Chicago Cubs. While the A’s Bob Trice is obscure and known only for being their first black player, the Cubs integrated with one of their best players ever: Ernie Banks. (Well, Banks was co-integrated alongside fellow black Cub infielder Gene Baker).
In 1954, things really picked up, with three more squads integrating to begin the year: the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds. That September, the Washington Senators joined the club. In a little under a year, the number of integrated clubs had doubled, from six to a full dozen.
That put considerable pressure on the holdout squads to finally enter the 20th century. (Also, 1954 was also the year the Supreme Court issued their Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, helping to spark America’s social revolution in race relations.)
The Yankees, after years of outside protest at their avoiding integration, finally did so on Opening Day 1955 with Elston Howard in their lineup. That just left three squads without a black player: Philadelphia, Detroit, and Boston.
Again, the pace of integration slowed up. None of the holdouts integrated until 1957, two years after the Yankees. (In the meantime, Robinson himself had retired). The Phillies were No. 14 when they debuted a man named John Kennedy on April 22, 1957.
Over a year later, the Tigers left the Red Sox as the last non-integrated team. The Red Sox remained alone until July 21, 1959, when they put Pumpsie Green on the field. People often recall how slow the Red Sox were to integrate, waiting a dozen years after Branch Rickey and Robinson. However, while they held out the longest, they were hardly the only hold out. The Tigers and Phillies should be glad for Boston, because that club’s slow march to integration obscures their similar stories.
Regardless, however, the Tigers did integrate before the Red Sox (though no one else), and that integration occurred 20,000 days ago.
Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary.” Here they are, with the better ones in bold.
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