Saturday, April 27, 2013

Continuing Reflections on "42": Great Players Dominate Integration's First Generation

A postscript to the movie "42" could well have ended on the inspirational (and educational) point that the first (1950s) generation of black players in the major leagues spearheaded by Jackie Robinson included a disproportionate share of great players who otherwise would not have had the opportunity.  This Baseball Historical Insight looks at what their excellence meant in the process of integrating major league baseball.

Continuing Reflections on "42":  Great Players Dominate Integration's First Generation

Ten years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, 88 black players had donned a major league uniform.  Of those 88 who had major league experience by the end of the 1957 season, only 19--sixteen position players and three pitchers--could claim to have been a core regular on their team for at least five years by 1960.  (Five others would become established regulars in the 1960s.)  Eleven of those 19 were elite players--defined here as those who were among the ten best players in their league for the years they were regulars, based on the wins above replacement (WAR) metric of player value, or who had career arcs that led them ultimately to the Hall of Fame--including Roberto Clemente, who really did not reach elite status until the next decade.  Of the elite eleven, all but two are in the Hall of Fame, including Monte Irvin, who was elected for his career in the Negro Leagues.  And the two who are not?  Well, Minnie Minoso was good enough to be on the Veterans Committee ballot last year for reconsideration, and Don Newcombe, who also failed to be elected when he was on the Veteran Committee ballot in 2007, might well be enshrined in Cooperstown today had he not lost two years of his prime in the service during the Korean War.

That nearly 60 percent of the black players in the 1950s who were five-year regulars for their teams were far better than the average major league player is astounding when you consider that fewer than one in five of all major league players (regardless of race) who were core regulars for at least five years between 1947, Robinson's rookie season, and 1960 could be considered "elite." Quite clearly, the 11 elite black players--(in order of appearance: Jackie, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Newcombe, Irvin, Minoso, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Clemente, and Frank Robinson) --were too good to be denied.  What this speaks to is the lack of opportunity given to other black players with more ordinary major league-level talent to compete against whites with comparable ability for starting positions, which in turn was indicative of the continued resistance at the time by most major league owners to the idea of integration, even once Jackie Robinson's success ensured that would be no turning back to the days of whites-only big league ball.

It is also revealing that from 1947, when Robinson integrated major league baseball, to 1960, when there was no longer any doubt about the ability of blacks to play at the major league level, five of the top ten position players in the National League, based on their cumulative WAR for their five best consecutive years, were black, compared to only two of the top ten in the American League, which was by far the more resistant league to integration.  (See table at the end of this post.)  By 1959, when the major league's last holdout against integration--the Boston Red Sox--finally fielded a black player, 41 blacks had played in the American League, less than half the number (89) who had worn the uniforms of National League teams.  And only five of those 41, including Minoso and Doby (who both played for more enlightened AL franchises, at least where integration was concerned), were regulars on their team for as many as five seasons, compared to fourteen black five-year regulars in the National League.

Black players dominated the top half of the NL list, accounting for three of the league's four best position players and four of its top six.  All five had an average annual player value during their five best years well above the standard for All-Star quality performance of 5 wins above a replacement-level player, with Mays and Jackie Robinson playing at an MVP-level of 8 wins above replacement, and Banks and Aaron were just below.  Roy Campanella, meanwhile, was the NL's fourteenth best position player based on his best years from 1949 to 1953--far ahead of Cincinnati's Ed Bailey in player value as his league's best catcher during this time frame.

It was likely necessary that the majority of the first black players to become regulars on major league teams were exceptional ballplayers.  Given the opposition to integration by most club owners and their concern that it would destabilize the game, implicit quotas limiting the number of blacks on big league rosters to a handful well into the 1950s--accepted even by the enlightened teams at the forefront of integration (including the Brooklyn Dodgers)--put a premium on favoring elite black players for scarce big league jobs.  A key consideration for doing so was to avoid provoking any more clubhouse dissension than necessary among white players who were skeptical, wary, or downright hostile to the idea of black teammates.  For the great majority of (white) major league players at the time, for whom big league jobs were intensely competitive and tenuous, accepting a black teammate who played with much superior ability--like the Dodgers' big three (Robinson, Campanella, and Newcombe), Doby, Mays, Aaron, or Ernie Banks--was one thing, a hurdle that could be overcome in the beginning phases of integration because superior talent cannot be denied; having to compete for their positions with players of comparable ability, with the better player winning the job, was something else entirely--a far bigger obstacle to overcome.

Major league baseball would first have to accept black players as worthy of the big leagues before black players of more ordinary talent would be welcome.  Branch Rickey understood this dynamic.  He calculated that the social experiment he unleashed on major league baseball was most likely to be accepted sooner if there were no doubts about the major league ability of the black players presented at big league ballparks.  That integration's first generation of black players was so disproportionately weighted towards players with exceptional ability guaranteed there was no going back in time.  But for integration to take hold, it was still necessary for black players blessed with only average major league ability to be given the chance to compete for--and win--regular positions against white players of comparable, ordinary major-league ability.

Top 10 NL and AL Position Players, 1947-60: 
Most Wins Above Replacement By Position Players For Their Best Five Years

Top 10 NL Position Players                WAR          Top 10 AL Position Players                  WAR

Willie Mays, OF, 1954-58                 44.3            Mickey Mantle, OF, 1954-58                46.4
Stan Musial, OF/1B, 1948-52             43.1            Ted Williams, OF, 1947-51                  38.1
Jackie Robinson, 2B, 1949-53          40.5            Al Kaline, OF, 1955-59                        31.6
Ernie Banks, SS, 1955-59                37.8             Larry Doby, OF, 1950-54                   28.9
Duke Snider, OF, 1953-57                 37.7             Al Rosen, 3B, 1950-54                       28.8
Hank Aaron, OF, 1956-60                37.6             Minnie Minoso, OF, 1954-58             27.3
Eddie Mathews, 3B, 1953-57             35.3             Yogi Berra, C, 1952-56                       25.3
Ralph Kiner, OF, 1947-51                  34.5             Nellie Fox, 2B, 1955-59                      24.2
Richie Ashburn, OF,1954-58              30.7             Joe DiMaggio, OF, 1947-51                23.4
Frank Robinson, OF/1B,1956-60      28.2             Gil McDougald, IF, 1953-57                22.5
Black Players in bold face italics.

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