Sunday, April 12, 2015

Opening Day 60 Years Ago: Status Report on Integration—The National League

Nine years into the Jackie Robinson era, there were 36 blacks on the 1955 opening day rosters of the sixteen major league teams27 on seven of the eight National League teams. Fourteen were in the starting line-up in their team's first game of the year. This is the third of four articles on the state of integration in major league baseball as Robinson was nearing the end of his great and ground-breaking career. 

Opening Day 60 Years Ago: Status Report on IntegrationThe National League

The first article in this series focused on the National League's traditional season-opening game on April 11 at Cincinnati's Crosley Field, where the Chicago Cubs beat the Reds, 7-5, with all three of the black playerstwo of whom were in the starting line-upon their roster playing a significant role in the victory. Both teams played again the next day, as the round of major league season-opening games continued.

The Cubs returned home to Wrigley Field to host the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals, playing in the farthest south of big league cities at the time, had not integrated until the 1954 seasonbut this day they started Brooks Lawrence, who was a revelation in his rookie season after being called up the previous June, going 15-6, including 9-2 in 18 starts. In his first opening day start, Lawrence didn't have it. He gave up five runs while getting only two outs in the first inning before being relieved. This proved an unfortunate harbinger of his year to come. Lawrence was sent back to the minor leagues in August with a 3-7, 6.35 record in 45 gamesmostly in relief.

Lawrence resurrected his career the following year, his 19-10 record with the Reds contributing to their pennant push that fell two games short of success in 1956. Of course, the real catalyst of Cincinnati's revival was the arrival of Frank Robinson, who became the first black player to start an opening-day game for the Reds on April 17, 1956. Robinson, batting seventh, got a double in his first big league at bat, a single in his second, went 2-for-3 in the Reds' loss to the Cardinals, and finished the 1956 season with 38 home runsmatching the then-record for the most by a rookieand winning the NL Rookie of the Year.

The Reds traveled to Milwaukee on April 12 for the Braves' opening day. As in the opening game, neither of the Reds' two black players were in the starting line-up, although Bob Thurman reached as a pinch hitter and Chuck Harmon went in to run for him. 

The Braves were fully committed to integration, with seven black players on their opening day roster. Center fielder Bill Bruton (in his third season) and right fielder Hank Aaron (in his second), batting first and second, were key contributors to Milwaukee's 4-2 win in their first game of the year. Bruton led off the game with a single and scored the Braves' first run of the season, and with the Braves up by 3-2 in the eighth, singled and scored an insurance run on Aaron's triple. As a rookie in 1954, Aaron had given many indications he would be an elite player. Bruton was among the first black players to be a consistent regular over at least five successive seasons who was not an elite player.

Of the five other black players on Milwaukee's opening-day roster, the most significant was George Crowe, who had batted .334 with the team's Triple-A club in Toronto in 1954 after two relatively underachieving seasons with the Braves in 1952 and 1953, during which he started in only 55 of the 120 games he played. Crowe made the 1955 Braves as the back-up to Joe Adcock at first base and wound up as Milwaukee's regular first baseman the final two months of the season after Adcock suffered a broken arm when he was hit by a pitch on the last day of July. The next year, Crowe was in Cincinnati, the back-up to Ted Kluszewski, and so started only 25 games. The other four black players on the 1955 Braves' opening roster were sent down to the minors in June.

The Giants at Philadelphia and the Pirates at Brooklyn did not begin their 1955 seasons until April 13. While the Phillies were just as bad as the Red Sox, Tigers, and Yankees in their stance on integration and had no blacks on their opening-day rosterit would not be until two years later, at the start of the 1957 season, that they integrated at the major league levelthe Giants not only had long been fully committed to integration, but had profited thereby. Hank Thompson had been a regular with the Giants since being called up in July 1949, Monte Irvin and Willie Mays were  instrumental to the Giants' epic come-from-behind pennant in 1951, and in 1954 they were joined by Ruben Gomez, who had a 17-9 record in helping New York derail Brooklyn in the National League, and then Cleveland in the World Series.

Mays in center, Irvin in left, and Thompson at third batted third, fourth, and fifth for Leo Durocher's Giants in their opening-day loss to the Phillies. Mays became the Giants' first base runner of the season when he walked, spoiling Philadelphia ace Robin Roberts' bid for a perfect game. Roberts carried a no-hit bid into the ninth, however, before it was broken up by Alvin Dark's one-out single following an error. After Roberts fanned Mays, Irvin doubled to drive home his team's first two runs of the 1955 season in their 4-2 loss.

Two of the three black players on the Pirates' opening-day roster were in the starting line-up in Pittsburgh's April 13, 6-1, loss in Brooklynsecond baseman Curt Roberts, batting second, and right fielder Roman Mejias, making his big league debut, batting third. Roberts had been the player to integrate the Pirates in 1954 and was their regular second baseman all season, but major league pitching proved challenging and his starting job at second rested on a thin reed. He went 1-for-4 in the game and 1-for-2 the next day against the Phillies, but by the end of April was sent packing to the minor leagues with a .118 batting average in six games and 19 plate appearances. Mejias was 1-for-3, his first major league hit coming in his second at bat against Brooklyn starter Carl Erskine. Mejias started in only 39 of the 71 games he played and batted only .216, earning him another year of seasoning in the minor leagues the next year.

Pittsburgh manager Fred Haney did not use the third black player on his team in any game until starting him in right field, in place of Mejias (who had only two hits in his first 11 at bats) in the fourth game of the year, on April 17, at home, against the Dodgers. Batting third and in right field, Roberto Clemente got an infield single in his first major league at bat and went 1-for-4. Once in the starting line-up, Clemente was there to stay in Pittsburghthrough 3,000 hits in his last at bat of the 1972 seasonuntil his tragic fate on a personally-organized humanitarian mission to bring relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua late on New Year's Eve.  

The Dodgers' opening day line-up in their win against Pittsburgh featured Jim Gilliam at second, batting first; Sandy Amoros, batting fifth in left field; Jackie Robinsonbeginning his ninth major league seasonat third base, batting sixth; and Roy Campanella, batting eighth and catching. It was Gilliam's home run off Pirates' starter Max Surkont to lead off the bottom of the seventh that proved the ultimate winning run, breaking a 1-1 tie. But it was Jackie Robinson being Jackie Robinson whose at bat was decisive in breaking open the game. With the score still 2-1 on Gilliam's home run, and runners on first and third with two out, Jackie dragged a bunt past the pitcher's mound, where it was fielded by second baseman Roberts, who had no play. Pee Wee Reese scored from third to make the score 3-1 on Robinson's second hit of the dayhe had doubled the previous inningand Carl Furillo followed with a three-run home run to put the game out of Pittsburgh's reach.

Brooklyn's two other black players were both pitchersreliever Joe Black, for whom there was no need in Carl Erskine's complete game victoryand Don Newcombe, the Dodgers' true ace who was reserved to start the second game of the season, against the hated, despised, and defending-champion New York Giants. Since the Pirates had been the worst team in the league in 1954, and would be again this year, the Giants' home opener at the Polo Grounds on April 14 would be the Dodgers' first true test of the 1955 season.

The fourth article of this series on the state of integration in major league baseball in 1955 will center on that game.

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