In the winter of 1937, Chester Washington, a writer for the black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier and later an influential publisher, wrote the following telegram to Pittsburgh Pirates manager Pie Traynor.
“KNOW YOUR CLUB NEEDS PLAYERS STOP HAVE ANSWER TO YOUR PRAYERS RIGHT HERE IN PITTSBURGH STOP JOSH GIBSON CATCHER FIRST BASE B. LEONARD AND RAY BROWN PITCHER OF HOMESTEAD GRAYS AND S. PAIGE PITCHER COOL PAPA BELL OF PITTSBURGH CRAWFORDS ALL AVAILABLE AT REASONABLE FIGURES STOP WOULD MAKE PIRATES FORMIDABLE PENNANT CONTENDERS STOP WHAT IS YOUR ATTITUDE? STOP WIRE ANSWER”
Clearly Washington was trying to gauge the Pirates organization’s stance on the possible integration of baseball. Each of the players mentioned in the telegram were, of course, the biggest stars of the Negro Leagues. Both the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, two of the most popular draws in baseball of any color at the time, played in Pittsburgh. Their fans would no doubt move the turnstiles at Forbes Field. And the talent on the field would have been extraordinary.
The telegram went unanswered and one of the most agonizing “What If’s” in baseball history was born.
Pretty impressive value over replacement players
From a purely statistical stance, the star power that would have been inserted into the Pirates organization for 1938 would have been nothing short of staggering.
Satchel Paige was, besides being the biggest showman in Negro League history, considered to be the hardest thrower in the game. And he mixed his blazing fastball with an assortment of offspeed pitches that kept hitters guessing with little luck. Imagine inserting Pedro Martinez in his prime into a rotation. Imagine an ERA+ of 219 with a WAR of 8.8 like Pedro gave the Expos in 1997.
Ray Brown, also a pitcher, was the opposite of Paige. He relied on his breaking pitches; he supposedly had the most devastating curveball in the game. Picture, along with Pedro Martinez, also adding Bert Blyleven to the rotation. Estmate a 144 ERA + and a 5.2 WAR.
Buck Leonard was the steady force at first base who hit left-handed with extraordinary power. People who saw him play compared him favorably to Lou Gehrig, bringing an OPS+ near 200 and a WAR consistently in the 9 or 10 range. Again, not a bad bat to plug into a squad.
Cool Papa Bell was the greatest leadoff hitter in Negro League history. Along with hitting for a high average, he was the premier base stealer in a league that valued speed. He would have been in his mid-30s at the time of the telegram, but the switch hitter still played for several years more. Picture a veteran Tim Raines, with an OPS+ in the 120s and a WAR around 5 or 6, also being added to the mix.
And of course Josh Gibson was the most legendary hitter in Negro League history. A solid catcher with a cannon for an arm, he may have hit as many as 900 homers. Trying to find an equivalent catcher in big league history is futile. The greatest offensive catcher in big league history was probably Mike Piazza, whose OPS+ would hit around 180 and his WAR would reach 8 or 9. Piazza should be humbled that he is being equated to Josh Gibson.
No matter what method of statistic you prefer, their combined contributions would be revolutionary on any team and make their individual stats shine even more.
Imagine putting a speedster like Cool Papa Bell on the basepaths against unsuspecting catchers. (Stan Hack’s 16 stolen bases led the National League in 1938!)
The left and right power combination of Leonard and Gibson would be the most lethal the game had ever seen. Not until Willie Mays and Willie McCovey would the big leagues have witnessed such a duo. And mixing the flame thrower Paige one day and the breaking stuff of Brown the next would give batters fits.
Of course these players wouldn’t be playing in a vacuum. They would be racial pioneers who would no doubt be facing a torrent of threats and potential violence from fans, players and possibly even teammates alike. But unlike Jackie Robinson, who faced the ugliness alone, Paige, Gibson, Leonard, Brown and Bell, being the biggest names in their league, may have been able to draw strength from each other in a way Jackie never was allowed. Or perhaps the built-in fan base of black fans in Pittsburgh could have made the transition smoother. Integration was going to be painful no matter the era or players involved. But there would be no questioning their talents.
A potential Dream Team in Pittsburgh
And inserting these players specifically into the 1938 Pittsburgh Pirates would have been extraordinary. This Pittsburgh team already had three future Hall of Famers in the lineup. Shortstop Arky Vaughan was a left-handed hitter who hit for a high average, posted a 141 OPS+, was among the leaders in stolen bases, walked a ton and virtually never struck out.
The Waner Brothers still manned the outfield. Both were left-handed hitters. Paul Waner’s average was coming back down to Earth but still combined hits with a low strikeout total. Lloyd Waner hit over .300, got 194 hits and struck out 11 times all season.
Imagine starting the lineup with the bat control and speed of Cool Papa Bell, having Vaughan and one of the Waners to make contact in the No. 2 and 3 spots to set up the Gibson and Leonard combination in the heart of the order. Then the other Waner would bat behind Leonard to make sure he saw plenty of fastballs. The first six hitters would all be future Hall of Famers. Only second baseman Pep Young and third baseman Lee Handley would not be enshrined in Cooperstown.
The pitching staff had some valuable innings eaters like Russ Bauers, Jim Tobin, Cy Blanton and Bob Klinger. Also relief ace Mace Brown had one of his best seasons. Insert the unflappable Paige and the devastating Brown to that staff and its depth would be outstanding.
Adding the Negro League stars would have of course cost several players their jobs. First baseman Gus Suhr was a good if unspectacular hitter. Rookie Johnny Rizzo had an outstanding debut season, slugging 23 homers with 11 RBIs to a .882 OPS. Veteran catcher Al Todd began to break down as the season progressed.
Making the difference in the 1938 pennant race
That actual 1938 season looked like it was going to be a magical one in Pittsburgh. The Pirates had a 13-game winning streak starting in late June. By July 14, they were in first place by themselves. By Sept. 1, they had a seven-game lead and the pennant seemed all but clinched. But the Pirates stumbled through September, setting up a critical three-game series at Wrigley Field against the charging Cubs. On Sept. 28 with the game on the verge of being called for darkness, Gabby Hartnett hit a two-out walk off homer against Mace Brown to give the Cubs the win. The “Homer in the Gloaming” knocked the Pirates out of first place and they never regained it. The Cubs won the pennant by two games.
Wouldn’t the addition of Paige, Brown, Gibson, Bell and Leonard have equaled three more wins and a pennant?
The Cubs went on to be swept by the Yankees in the 1938 World Series. Simply imagine the drama of the integrated Pirates club facing off against the Yankees that year who featured future Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing, Joe Gordon and Lefty Gomez. Could it have been the greatest collision of talent baseball history ever witnessed? Possibly.
And it was not to be.
The racially enlightened Pie Traynor wanted a winner
Despite not answering to the telegram, it would not be fair to paint Pie Traynor as an aloof racist in this scenario. He probably did not have the unilateral authority to bring in whichever players he wanted.
Traynor was also more racially enlightened than many of the high-profile baseball figures on the 1930s. He was interviewed by the famous black journalist Wendell Smith in 1939 and implied that he wanted to bring black players into the league.
“Personally, I don’t see why the ban against Negro players exists at all” he was quoted as saying. This was eight years before Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers, and a year and a half after the telegram was sent. Later as a Pirates broadcaster in the 1940s, he urged the Pirates to integrate the team, not just for social justice, but to make the Pirates a contender.
He was loved by the fans of Pittsburgh and respected by his players. Traynor was, at the time, the second-biggest star in the history of the Pirates (only Honus Wagner was bigger). He was considered to be the greatest third baseman in baseball history and was a key part of the Pirates World Championship season in 1925.
And if the Pirates had Paige, Gibson, Brown, Bell and Leonard on the team with Traynor’s approval, he could have gone a long way in quieting the critics in the Steel City. Remember how Leo Durocher’s unwavering approval of Jackie Robinson helped stop a players insurrection in 1947? Under Traynor it may not have even gotten that far.
The collapse of the 1938 Pirates took its toll on Traynor. During the stressful September, Traynor lost an unhealthy amount of weight and the team spiraled. In the offseason he told Tigers pitcher Bobo Newsom that he wished he had a pitcher who could throw complete games. And, fed up with Al Todd’s abilities as catcher, he traded him to the Boston Braves (then called the Bees).
He needed a new battery. How about Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson?
Traynor’s drive went out after the 1938 season and a few years later he resigned from the Pirates. Imagine if he had the integrated team. With that squad, he might have been a Hall of Fame manager as well as a great player.
Was it the right time for integration?
Of course there will be people who will wonder if 1938 was the right time for desegregating baseball and if people would accept an integrated team. When would have been the perfect time? When would have been a time when all the i’s would be dotted and the t’s crossed and all of America would have welcomed it with open arms?
Ask Jackie Robinson if 1947 was a stress-free time to carry out the experiment. It is not as if racial tensions were subtle in the 1950s or 1960s either. How about the bussing of students in my lifetime within the suburbs of Boston? There would be no ideal time.
The 1930s, on the heels of Joe Louis becoming the admired champion of the World, could have been as good a time as any. And just a few years earlier, Jesse Owens became the biggest sports hero in America at the Berlin Olympic Games. Another medalist those games was Mack Robinson, whose younger brother Jackie would become a big player in this drama.
Of course Baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis did everything within his power to prevent integration, so perhaps the point was moot. According to Bill Veeck, Landis blocked clubs from breaking the color line before. Maybe Traynor and Pirates owner William Benswanger wanted to make the moves but were stopped. Landis’ death in 1944 hastened the destruction of the color line.
The story of the end of the color line is so familiar to baseball fans that it is almost impossible to imagine it unfolding differently. Branch Rickey defied his critics and sought to find an unflappable African-American man to join the Dodgers. He chose Jackie Robinson not because he was the best player (he was far from that) but because he was college educated, religious, had served in the military and was a family man. And under Rickey’s orders, he had to suppress his famously short temper. And like a stoic borderline martyr, he carried the weight of his race on his shoulders and became a champion.
But the story could have been different. Monte Irvin was approached by the Dodgers before Jackie. It could have been Irvin’s whose jersey was retired throughout baseball. Perhaps integration could have happened in a brash showman like way by Bill Veeck. He claimed that he wanted to make the Phillies essentially the Negro League All-Star team but was rebuffed by Landis. There is no evidence other than Veeck’s recollection to corroborate that claim, but Veeck did indeed integrate the American League a few years later bringing Larry Doby and Satchel Paige to the Indians. Maybe Doby and Satchel would have been he great heroes.
Or maybe it could have been Pie Traynor and his great Pirate teams of the late 1930s. Baseball, more than any other sport, weaves its past into the present legacy of the team. Yankee fans crow about their 27 titles, which include the great teams of the 1920s and 1930s The likes of Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Chrisy Mathewson, Bill Terry and yes, Pie Traynor, are honored on the walls of current ballparks. The names Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Buck Leonard would be associated with Pittsburgh sports lore instead of being frustrating symbols of a less enlightened time. And the Pirate championship count would no doubt be greater than five total. The Pirates went from 1927 to 1960 without appearing in the World Series. (The 1960 team was assembled in part by Branch Rickey.)
And of course if integration had happened in the late 1930s, perhaps the Civil Rights conversation would have had a decade head start. We will never know the answers to those questions.
We won’t even know if Pie Traynor even got the telegram.
References & Resources
Besides Baseball Reference and Fangraphs, I used the books “Only the Ball Was White” by Robert Peterson, “Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography” by James Forr and David Proctor as well as “Veeck as in Wreck” by Bill Veeck as sources. The Baseball Biography Project also was used as a source, specifically this page: http://bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v=l&pid=14330&bid=1101