Black History Month: The Barrier Breakers
Not just every baseball fan but almost every American is familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers to break the so-called “color line” and integrate Major League Baseball in 1947, but the other 16 black players who became the first to join the rosters of the remaining pre-expansion clubs is a largely unsung group of pioneers. Most fans probably don’t know that the first black player in the American League followed Robinson by a mere three months.
Larry Doby, at just 23, became the first to break the barrier in the American League when he joined the Cleveland Indians on July 5, 1947. A year later, Doby, became the first black player to hit a home run in a World Series game, and he went on to be named to seven AL All-Star teams in a 13-year career.
Despite the “back-to-back” nature of Robinson and Doby walking into their respective big league clubhouses, it took a full 12 years before all of the clubs in Major League Baseball had assigned a black player to their big-league rosters. While Robinson and Doby became the faces of baseball’s slow and stubborn integration and endured the brunt of the overt racism and backlash that ensued after they took the field, the players who followed suffered similar indignities with far less fanfare.
The “color line” in baseball didn’t exist before 1887 when owners joined in an unwritten rule, known as the “gentleman’s agreement,” to prohibit the signing of black players. While there were several (failed) attempts to sneak black players onto rosters by suggesting they were Native Americans, the prohibition against black players persisted until Rickey signed Robinson in 1945.
Happy Chandler, the Commissioner at the time, supported the signing, justifying it as the right thing to do considering blacks had fought side-by-side with white soldiers during World War II. Still, it would be another 12 years before each of the game’s 16 clubs had integrated.
In order of their ascension to a Major League roster, the following were the first black players to be placed on the rosters of their respective clubs. It would fall upon the shoulders of these men to integrate their own Clubhouses, and along the way dissolving the game’s racial divide, once and for all.
1. Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers, April 15, 1947
2. Larry Doby, Cleveland Indians, July 5, 1947
3. Hank Thompson, St. Louis Browns, July 17, 1947
4. Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson, New York Giants, July 8, 1949
5. Sam Jethroe, Boston Braves, April 18, 1950
6. Minnie Minoso, Chicago White Sox, May 1, 1951
7. Bob Trice, Philadelphia Athletics, Sept. 13, 1953
8. Ernie Banks, Chicago Cubs, Sept. 17, 1953
9. Curt Roberts, Pittsburgh Pirates, April 13, 1954 (Puerto Rican Carlos Bernier debuted April 22, 1953)
10. Tom Alston, St. Louis Cardinals, April 13, 1954
12. Carlos Paula, Washington Senators, Sept. 6, 1954
13. Elston Howard, New York Yankees, April 14, 1955
14. John Kennedy, Philadelphia Phillies, April 22,, 1957
15. Ozzie Virgil, Detroit Tigers, June 6, 1958
16. Pumpsie Green, Boston Red Sox, July 21, 1959
In the end, these brave pioneers not only paved the way for hundreds of young African American boys to follow in their footsteps, but their on-field contributions to the game are legendary. For example, combined, “The 17” participated in 22 World Series, with eight World Series titles. They also combined for 47 (Irony?) All Star Game appearances, four Most Valuable Player awards, two Rookie of the Year awards and six Gold Glove awards. Four of these men have gone on to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Combined, “The 17” tallied 136 years of Major League service, leaving behind over a century’s worth of memorable imprints on the game during their respective careers.
For additional information on each of these players, please see the below resources
Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Negro Leagues page
The National Baseball Hall of Fame