Opening Day 60 Years Ago: Status Report on Integration—The American League
Notwithstanding that by now black players had certainly proven they could play at the major league level, American League teams for the most part remained stubborn holdouts when it came to integration, although they all had blacks playing in their minor league systems. Going into the 1955 season, Larry Doby, Cleveland's center fielder since 1948, and Cuban-born Minnie Minoso, an outfielder for the Chicago White Sox since 1951, were the only black players with any longevity in the AL. Doby and Minoso were two of only four black players written by their managers into the line-up card for the the first game of the season, along with 68 white players.
As was then the tradition, so the President could throw out the first ball (which President Eisenhower dutifully did), the American League season opened in Washington's Griffith Stadium, where the Senators played host to the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles started the season without any black player in their dugout until they obtained outfielder David Pope from the Indians in a trade in mid-June.
After becoming the twelfth major league team to introduce a black player in a September call-up the previous year, the Senators opened a season for the first time with blacks on their roster—outfielder Carlos Paula, who was the September 1954 call-up, and Juan Delis, who could play both third and the outfield. Neither was African American. Both were born in Cuba, where the Senators had an advantage because they were the only major league team to have been scouting players there, white Hispanics to be sure, since the 1930s.
Neither Paula nor Delis were in manager Charlie Dressen's starting line-up, and neither got into the game. After appearing in seven games as a pinch hitter or pinch runner, Delis made the first of his 29 starts in Washington's 15th game of the year. He appeared in only 54 games for the Senators, batting .189 in what would be his only major league season. Paula played in 115 games for the Senators in 1955, getting only 374 plate appearances, and did not make his first start in the outfield until their 23rd game of the season.
The following day, April 12, the Orioles played their home opener in Baltimore against the Boston Red Sox—major league baseball's most notorious team when it came to holding out against integration. It would be another four years, three months, and nine days—July 21, 1959, to be exact—before a black player, Pumpsie Green, would take the field for Boston.
Also on April 12, the Detroit Tigers opened the 1955 season against the Athletics, playing their first season in Kansas City. The Tigers were as staunchly opposed to integration at the big league level as the Red Sox, and it would be another three years before they did so with Ozzie Virgil taking the field at third base on June 6, 1958, making Detroit the next-to-last major league team to integrate
For the second year in a row, the Athletics had one black—and one black only—on their opening day roster. He was Vic Power, who started in center field in 1954 and hit .255 in his rookie season. Power played first base and batted lead-off on this opening day, but manager Lou Boudreau pinch hit for him in the sixth inning, the A's up by 3-2, and the bases loaded. Power had been hitless in three at bats. Power went on to hit .319 for the season—second in the American League, although far behind Al Kaline's .340 average.
The third AL opening-day game on April 12 was Chicago at Cleveland. The Indians and White Sox were the only two American League teams that had an early commitment to integration. Minnie Minoso, however, was the only black player on the White Sox opening day roster, coming off a terrific season in which he was the best player in the league based on the wins above replacement metric, with a league-leading 304 total bases, 116 runs batted in, and a .320 batting average in 1954. Batting third and playing left field, Minoso drove in the only run in Chicago's 5-1 loss to the Indians with a sixth-inning single.
The Indians started the year with four black players on their roster. Lead-off batter Al Smith went 2-for-4 and Larry Doby went 1-for-3. Smith was Cleveland's batting star for the day; he reached base on an infield hit leading off the Indians' first and scored their first run of the year, then crashed a two-run home run off Chicago starter Virgil Trucks to give Cleveland a 4-0 lead in the second. Both Harry Simpson and David Pope, who were outfield reserves, were traded soon after the season began.
The New York Yankees did not open their season until the next day, April 13, at home against Washington. If there was any team as notorious as the Red Sox and Tigers for their opposition to integration, it was the Yankees, whose excuse was that they were looking for a black player who could play up to their standard of excellence, and whose line was that they would not be pressured into integrating their dugout at Yankee Stadium.
Vic Power somehow failed to meet that standard of excellence, despite batting .331 and .349 (winning the batting title) for their Kansas City Triple-A affiliate in 1952 and 1953, and notwithstanding that first base was a position of weakness those years for the Big Club in New York. Power played with a certain amount of flair that was anything but Yankee-regal; rather than keep him down on the farm, the Yankees traded Power to the Athletics, with whom he began his big league career in 1954.
On opening day in 1955, however, the Yankees finally did have a black on their major league roster. Casey Stengel may have jokingly complained that he had the only African American player who couldn't run, but Elston Howard was nothing if not versatile—a catcher who could also play the outfield, and even corner infield positions. Despite the Yankees' 19-1 drubbing of the Senators on opening day, Stengel did not find an opportunity to put Howard into the game.
Howard got into his first big league game in the sixth inning the next day in Boston and singled in his first at bat with two on to drive in Mickey Mantle with the first RBI of his career. He would not make his first start (catching) until the Yankees played their 14th game of the season in Kansas City on April 28, and was not in the starting line-up of a game at Yankee Stadium until May 14 (in left field)—the Yankees' 26th game of the year and their 10th at home.
The next article will examine the state of integration in the National League on opening day in 1955.