Friday, May 3, 2013

Final Reflections on "42": The '59 Dodgers and the Consolidation of Integration

After Jackie Robinson had "made it" in the major leagues, especially with Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe at his side, it was a certainty that black superstars like Mays, Aaron, Banks, and Frank Robinson would find a place in starting line-ups.  Black players whose abilities were not indisputably superior to that of the white players they were competing with for jobs, however, were not necessarily going to get a fair chance to become regulars in the major leagues.  This Baseball Historical Insight looks at how the success of the 1959 Dodgers made the most compelling case for integration by winning the pennant and World Series with four black players, whose abilities were more typical of the average major league regular, in key starting roles in the pennant-race drama.  

Final Reflections on "42":  The '59 Dodgers and the Consolidation of Integration

My previous post about the first generation of black players following Jackie Robinson into the major leagues noted that the majority of those who became core regulars for at least five years between 1947 and 1960 were elite players who were among the best in their league or with a career arc headed towards the Hall of Fame.  I concluded by writing: "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."  Even enlightened Brooklyn was careful at first not to push the envelope on integration too far beyond the comfort level of most major league teams in the first five years of Jackie's career, limiting the number of blacks on their team to three superior players--Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe.

It was not until 1952 that the Dodgers began to expand their horizons about which blacks would be given a chance in the major leagues.  Joe Black made a substantial contribution as an ace reliever to the  Dodgers' 1952 pennant (winning NL Rookie of the Year honors); second baseman Jim Gilliam did the same when Brooklyn was the NL's best team in 1953 (winning Rookie of the Year honors), 1955, and 1956; and outfielder Sandy Amoros was a competent platoon player on the 1955 and 1956 Dodgers, making an iconic catch in the 7th game of the 1955 World Series to help preserve Brooklyn's one and only World Series triumph.  But the cornerstone players on the Dodgers' four pennant-winning teams in Brooklyn in the 1950s (before their westward ho) still included Robinson, Campanella, and Newcombe, although big Newk missed out on 1952 and 1953 when he was serving as a draft pick in the Selective Service on account of the Korean War.  All three were elite players:  from his rookie season until he started slowing down in 1954, only Stan Musial and Ted Williams could credibly be considered better players than Jackie Robinson, and he was the best player in major league baseball in 1951 and 1952 according to the wins above replacement (WAR) metric for player value; Campanella won three National League MVP awards in the odd-number years between 1951 and 1955; and Newcombe won the first-ever Cy Young award and was the NL Most Valuable Player in 1956.

With black players not of superstar stature having been added seamlessly, although piecemeal, to the roster throughout the 1950s, by the time the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, it was no longer necessary for the black players they promoted from their vaunted farm system to be great players the caliber of Brooklyn's early trailblazers. When the Dodgers in 1959 unexpectedly--(because they had ended the previous year next-to-last in the National League)--competed with a far superior Milwaukee Braves team coming off back-to-back pennants for the right to go to the World Series, they did so without their Big Three from Brooklyn; Robinson had retired (after being traded to the arch-rival New York Giants, it must be said); Campanella was paralyzed in a tragic accident before their first season in LA; and Newcombe had been traded to Cincinnati after an 0-6 start to the 1958 season.  Most of the other "boys of summer" from Brooklyn were also either gone or in the twilight of their careers. The Dodgers would not have finished the scheduled season tied for first with the Braves and gone on to sweep a best-of-three playoff to win the pennant without significant contributions from four blacks in their starting line-up--none of whom would ever play to the level of Robinson, Campanella, or Newcombe.

  • Switch-hitting Jim Gilliam, a regular in the Dodgers line-up since his rookie season in 1953, was a versatile player who had started out as Jackie Robinson's replacement at second base (with Jackie finishing his career alternating between third and left field) and moved to third in 1959, hitting .286 in the lead-off spot.  He was in the middle of a very respectable fourteen-year career in Dodger blue.  His season high was .349 at the All-Star break, which was crucial to an inferior Dodgers team keeping pace with the Braves and the Giants, only a half-game behind both at the break.
  • Charlie Neal made Brooklyn's spring training cut in 1956, by 1957 had replaced Pee Wee Reese at shortstop (with Reese moving his body of declining skills to third), and by 1958 was the Dodgers' new second baseman in their first season in LA (with Gilliam alternating between the outfield and third base). Batting behind Gilliam, Neal had the best season of his career in 1959, hitting .287 and leading the team in runs scored (103), hits (177), doubles (30), and triples (11, which also led the league).  Neal hit .295 down the September stretch, and his 4.5 wins above replacement was the second-highest (behind outfielder Wally Moon) on the '59 Dodgers.
  • Catcher Johnny Roseboro was in his second full season with the Dodgers in 1959, after becoming their backstop the previous year only because of the accident that abruptly ended Campanella's career.  A left-handed hitter, Roseboro was platooned at catcher with Joe Pignatano and had only 41 plate appearances against southpaws, hitting .232 with 10 home runs.  His 10th home run broke a 2-2 tie in the sixth inning of the first playoff game against Milwaukee and proved the difference in LA's 3-2 victory.
  • Maury Wills was called up in June and became the Dodgers' regular shortstop beginning on July 4, displacing Don Zimmer, who was batting all of .175 at the time. Batting primarily in the eighth spot, Wills hit .260 in 88 games for the season, but his .345 batting average in September was absolutely indispensable to the Dodgers winning the pennant in a tight three-team race that also involved the Giants until the final week of the season.

All four were productive players through most of their big league careers.  But none of the four were so good that had they come along in the first years of integration they would have been given the opportunity to compete for a position as a regular on a major league team at the expense of a white player.  According to the WAR metric, in their collective fifty years in the major leagues, only Gilliam (in 1956 and 1963) and Wills (in 1962 and 1965) played at or close to All-Star level, contributing at least 5 wins above what would be expected of a replacement-level player.  Of the four, only Wills received any Hall of Fame votes by the Baseball Writers Association of America, and though he was on the BBWAA ballot all fifteen years of eligibility, Wills never came close to the threshold for Cooperstown immortality.

It was almost certainly necessary for Jackie Robinson and his fellow trailblazers to be far better than the typical (white) major league player for them to win and hold onto starting roles before blacks became accepted in major league baseball.  But integration could only be consolidated once teams allowed any black player with potential major league ability to realistically compete for a starting position.  It was the 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers winning the pennant and World Series with Robinson, Campanella, and Newcombe no longer in Dodger blue but four blacks (Jim Gilliam, Charlie Neal, Johnny Roseboro, and Maury Wills) who were not close to being elite players that paved the way for major league baseball's broader acceptance, based on merit, of African Americans and black Latinos--not just superstars and a token handful of others--in starting positions.

The powers that be in major league baseball surely took notice, including teams that even by 1959 were slow-walking integration (even though it was obvious by now there was no going back to segregated baseball).  Because, even for an ownership group that was in general not enlightened about racial diversity, still less about equality, winning was the bottom line.

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