Do you know the names Curt Roberts, Tom Alston and Bob Trice? They broke barriers, too
By Jerry Crasnick
Before Jackie Robinson changed the face of baseball and America in 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey did everything in his power to ensure the success of his Great Experiment. Rickey anticipated a backlash when Robinson broke the color barrier, and he implored Robinson to resist the temptation to lash out at the abuse he would endure.
In the book “Great Time Coming,” David Falkner chronicles how Rickey play-acted several roles -- from a belligerent hotel clerk to a hostile waiter to a combative opposing player -- to try to goad Robinson into snapping. He subjected Robinson to the vilest taunts imaginable.
“Do you want someone who would not have the courage to fight back?’’ Robinson said.
Replied Rickey: “I am looking for someone with courage not to fight back.”
Contrary to public perception, Rickey did not put a “leash’ on Robinson. He simply outlined the stakes, and left it to Robinson to summon the self-control and discipline necessary to lead the way.
Robinson came first, but he was hardly alone. As MLB celebrates the 73rd anniversary of Robinson’s first season, the names of 17 men who integrated other big-league clubhouses are testament that his courage was contagious.
The trailblazers run the spectrum from accomplished to nearly forgotten. Ernie Banks broke the Chicago Cubs’ color line in 1953 and went on to hit 512 home runs and reach the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1977. Monte Irvin, a Negro League star who broke the New York Giants’ color barrier in 1949, and Larry Doby, who integrated the American League as an outfielder with the Cleveland Indians, later joined Banks in Cooperstown through the Negro Leagues and Veterans Committees.
Hank Thompson was the only African-American to integrate two franchises -- the Giants and St. Louis Browns. Elston Howard won a Most Valuable Player Award with the New York Yankees in 1963. Minnie Minoso is the only player to appear in five decades. And Elijah “Pumpsie’’ Green became the last player to enter a segregated clubhouse when he joined the Boston Red Sox in 1959 -- long after the franchise passed on Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Billy Williams after what many considered sham tryouts.
Several Latin-American pioneers are on the list. Nino Escalera of the Reds grew up in Puerto Rico, Minoso and the Senators’ Carlos Paula hailed from Cuba, and Ozzie Virgil of the Tigers came from the Dominican Republic.
While some have meager statistical profiles, the numbers barely scratch the surface of their contributions. Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, is looking to change that perception. When the museum reopened from the coronavirus pandemic on June 16, it featured an exhibit called, “Barrier Breakers: From Jackie to Pumpsie,’’ to educate visitors on the lineage of groundbreakers.
“It didn’t get any easier for Pumpsie Green in 1959 in Boston than it was for Jackie in 1947 in Brooklyn,’’ Kendrick said. “All of these courageous athletes went through trials and tribulations as they were blazing a pathway to pursue their major-league careers. They deserve to be more than just a footnote in baseball and American history.
“There was enough hate and vitriol to go around for the entire group. More than enough. It speaks to the nature of us as a society. We always remember and celebrate the first. We don’t ever remember the second -- or the 16th or the 17th.’’
Rickey, the Hall of Fame executive known as the “Mahatma,’’ made integration a reality in two clubhouses. By 1954, he had moved on to Pittsburgh and chose a 5-foot, 8-inch second baseman named Curt Roberts as the first African-American to play for the Pirates. Just as Rickey had done with Robinson, he outlined the stakes and urged Roberts to stay calm no matter how vicious the abuse.
Decades later, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ed Bouchette chronicled Roberts’ ordeal in an interview with his widow, Christine. She recalled how her husband couldn’t stay with his teammates at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis until the Pirates supported him and the establishment was forced to relent. She absorbed the taunts from her seat in the Pirates’ wives’ section.
“Sometimes you want to forget it,” Christine Roberts said. “Things like, ‘Knock (him) down. Hit him in the head.’ They threw watermelon out on the field. My mother was visiting one day, and she and a man got into an argument. I just told her to ignore him.’’
Roberts hit .223 over parts of three seasons in Pittsburgh, lost his second base job to Bill Mazeroski and made his final big-league appearance in 1956. Thirteen years later, at age 40, he was struck and killed by a drunk driver while changing a flat tire on the side of an Oakland, Calif., freeway. Two years after his death, the Pirates made history as the first MLB team to field a starting lineup with nine black players -- Rennie Stennett, Gene Clines, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Manny Sanguillén, Dave Cash, Al Oliver, Jackie Hernández and Dock Ellis.
Tom Alston, the first black player to appear for the St. Louis Cardinals, similarly disappeared into history. When the Cardinals signed Alston in 1954, the team rented a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel and made a show of the occasion. Sportswriters drank Budweiser beer and ate caviar while owner August Busch signed the contract in real time. “The only blacks in the room were me and the valet who served the beer,’’ Alston recalled in an interview years later. Alston hit .244 over four seasons and was out of baseball by 1957.
Others came and went in cities throughout the majors. Willard Brown of the Browns. John Kennedy of the Phillies. Bob Trice of the Athletics. Sam Jethroe of the Braves. Chuck Harmon of the Reds. Some met with outright resistance while others encountered subtler indignities on a daily basis. For every teammate who was supportive, others harbored grievances for both financial and personal reasons; every new black player was taking the job of a white player -- or the friend of that player.
“That continued to manifest itself through the ‘60s and ‘70s,’’ Kendrick said “Once they proved they could play, people became more accepting.’’
Daily routines that so many players took for granted -- from eating a post-game meal to swinging a bat in the on-deck circle -- were magnified by the tenor of the times.
“The thing we want people to understand is, these players couldn’t just focus on playing baseball,’’ Kendrick said. “They were literally carrying their race, so you had that added pressure, particularly for those guys who transitioned in early. It’s difficult enough to play this game under the best of circumstances, much less when you’re carrying a race of people on your shoulders.’’
Jackie Robinson Day has shifted from April 15 to August 28 this season for reasons beyond anyone’s control, but the message is as powerful as ever. Jackie made history as the first. But it took so many others to help carry that weight.