Tuesday, April 14, 2015

60 Years Ago (April 14, 1955): Enough With Four is Enough

When Don Newcombe took the mound to start the second game of the 1955 season for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the defending-champion New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on April 14, 1955, he had four black teammates on the field with himJim Gilliam at second, Jackie Robinson at third, Sandy Amoros in left, and Roy Campanella calling the game behind the plategiving the Dodgers five black players in their starting line-up. Although this was not the first time the Dodgers had done so, having a majority of players in the starting line-up who were minorities was a significant milestone in major league baseball's consolidation of integration because it meant a team's manager was starting the best players he thought could win the game without regard to racial considerations.

Enough With Four is Enough

It was not until 1952, six years into the Jackie Robinson era, that a major league team had more than four black players on their roster at any one time. The Dodgers had been the first with four when they opened the 1950 season with Robinson, Campanella, Newcombe, and right-hander Dan Bankhead on their roster. In 1951, the Dodgers, Giants, and Indians all had four black players on their rosters at the same time. Twice in 1951 the Giants could have been the first major league team with five blacks on their roster, but chose not to be: they sent down reserve infielder Artie Wilson two days before calling up Willie Mays on May 23, and with outfielders Mays and Monte Irvin, third baseman Hank Thompson, and back-up catcher Ray Noble already on the club, the Giants decided against bringing up Ray Dandridge when Thompson badly injured his ankle on July 18 but remained with the team. Instead the Giants decided to shift Bobby Thomson to third base from the platoon-role he had been playing in the outfield since the arrival of Mays, in no small part because Thomson was struggling at the plate.

Perhaps Wilson earned his demotion with a batting average of only .182 in 22 at bats as a bench player, but Dandridge, one of the all-time greats in the Negro Leagues, was having a terrific season for the Giants' Triple-A affiliate in Minneapolis (from where Mays was also promoted), hitting .324 on the season as a 37-year-old. The decision to move Thomson to third rather than call for Dandridge certainly did not hurt the Giants, as Thomson finished the season on a tear, ultimately culminating in his "Giants win the pennant! Giants win the pennant!" home run. As for Thompson with a "p," he pinch hit in seven games in August and another seven in September. Ready to play when the World Series began, courtesy of the Thomson (without a "p") home run, Irvin, Mays, and Hank Thompson became the first all-black outfield in major league historyand in the Fall Classic, no less.

The decision not to bring up Dandridge may have been motivated by the color of his skin, but probably not, in the case of the Giants, because of prejudice as much as by practical considerations to limit the number of blacks on big league rosters in the first years of integration, to avoid pushing the envelope of acceptance too far too fast. 

According to Roger Kahn, the elegant baseball writer who covered the Dodgers at the time and later wrote The Boys of Summer, it was understood in the beginning years of integration that teams should refrain from a majority of players on the field at any one time being blacks. He wrote that when Jim Gilliam made the club in the spring of 1953, the Dodgers sent outfielder Sandy Amoros back to the minor leagues despite his having had an outstanding spring training that followed a terrific season at Triple-A in 1952. Amoros had another terrific year in the minors in 1953 before being promoted to the Dodgers in 1954. 

Because 1954 was also the year that Dodgers' ace Don Newcombe returned from two years as a US Army draft pick during the Korean War, it was inevitable that sooner or later, Brooklyn manager Walt Alston would have a decision to make about exceeding the unofficial "quota"if Kahn's account is correctof no more than four black players on the field at any one time. July 17, 1954, in a game in Milwaukee, was the first time in history that five black playersGilliam, Robinson, Amoros, Campanella, and Newcombewere in a major league starting line-up. Newcombe pitched nine strong innings, giving up only one run, in a game the Dodgers ultimately won, 2-1, in eleven innings. 

These five players were also in Alston's starting line-up in three other games in 1954on August 24 in Cincinnati, a 12-4 Dodger victory; September 6 at home against the Pirates, a 9-7 loss in which Newcombe failed to get out of the first inning; and September 15 at home against the Reds, a 10-4 Dodger winmeaning April 14, 1955, was only the fifth time that a major league starting line-up included five black players. 

Carl Erskine had started for the Dodgers on opening day and pitched a complete game victory against the Pirates, and Johnny Antonelli started for the Giants and lost in Philadelphia. Each had been their team's best pitcher in 1954, so their starting assignments were deserved. But when it came to Dodgers-Giants, a rivalry with real venom, the veteran masters in combat were Don Newcombe and Sal Maglie, and they both had the honor of going at it in the second game for both teams in the 1955 season. 

Both pitchers had much to prove. Maglie was 14-6 for the Giants in 1954, but that was after an 8-9 season and he was about to turn 38 years old later in the month. Newcombe had struggled in 1954 with a 9-8 record and 4.55 earned run average, raising questions about whether he would recover his excellence from before he was drafted into the Army.

The marquee match-up turned out to be anything but stellar. Maglie lasted only four innings, giving up four runs. Newcombe pitched 7-1/3 innings and gave up eight runs, five earned, on 12 hits. Newcombe got the winand he earned it himself, because however ugly his pitching performance was, Newcombe could hit. Channeling his inner Babe Ruth, Newcombe tagged Maglie for a home run in the fourth, immediately after Campanella had put the Dodgers ahead with a three-run blast. And in the seventh, Newcombe hit a second home run, this time with Campy on base, to give the Dodgers a 10-3 lead. Hank Thompson hit a three-run home run off Newcombe in the bottom of the seventh to make it interesting, and a two-run home run by pinch hitter Bobby Hofmanwhose name is largely lost in historysent Newcombe to the Polo Grounds showers.

For both the Dodgers, now 2-0, and the Giants, 0-2, it was two games down and 152 to go in the 1955 season.

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