Sunday, April 17, 2016

Status of Integration in the American League on Opening Day, 1956 (60 Years Ago)

In contrast to the National League, where 29 black players were on the rosters of seven of the eight NL clubs at the start of the 1956 season, there were only 11 blacks who made the opening day roster on just five of the eight teams in the American League. Six were in the starting line-up in the first game on the schedule on April 17Larry Doby and Minnie Minoso for the White Sox, Al Smith for the Indians, Vic Power and Harry Simpson for the Athletics, and Elston Howard for the Yankees. 


By now it was accepted that there was no going back on the integration of major league baseball. The "great experiment"to use historian Jules Tygiel's phrase to describe Branch Rickey's signing Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgershad proven a resounding success. Robinson and the first wave of elite black players who followed him demonstrated they were every bit as good as the best white players. Although most clubs in both leagues initially took a let's-wait-and-see attitude, the National League was more proactive in signing and promoting black players. 

Resistance might have been futile, but resistance there was in the AL outside of a handful of ball clubs. The American League had two enduring black stars of its own during the breadth of Jackie Robinson's careerLarry Doby in Cleveland and Minnie Minoso in Chicagobut was much slower to integrate at the big-league level. 

Just three American League clubs started the 1956 season with as many as two black players on their roster and two other clubs began the season with just one black player, which meant that ten years into the Jackie Robinson era, three AL teams were all-white as they took the field for the first time in 1956. In the National League, six of the eight clubs had at least three black players on their opening-day rosterincluding the Reds with seven, the Dodgers with six, and the Cubs with five. 

And whereas the National League had two high-profile black rookie players who were expected to beand indeed werein their team's opening-day starting line-up in 1956, Cincinnati's Frank Robinson and Brooklyn's Charlie Neal, the American League had none who were first-time rookies on their roster, let alone starting the first game of the year. Of the four black players who were September call-ups in the American League in 1955, only Earl Battey went north with his team, and he played in just four games for the White Soxthe last on May 8before being sent down. And while the National League had more than a handful of dynamic, young black players starring for their teams, several of whom were superstars like Mays, Aaron, and Banks, the American League had . . . none; established veterans Doby and Minoso were both at least 30. 

The two American League teams that had been most enlightened about integration since early in the Jackie Robinson erathe Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Soxfaced off against each other on opening day. The White Sox had the most black players to start the season of any AL teamfour, with Doby, whom they acquired in an off-season trade from the Indians; Minoso; Connie Johnson, a pitcher; and Battey. Well-established as elite players, Doby (batting third in center field) and Minoso (batting fifth in left field) were in the starting line-up. Minoso scored the first run of the game after his single started a two-out rally in the fourth and went 1-for-4 in Chicago's 2-1 victory. Doby, hitless in three at bats in his first game against his old team, walked in his first plate appearance in a White Sox uniform.

Having traded Doby, the Indians now had just one black player on their rosterright fielder Al Smith in his fourth year with Cleveland. Batting third in the opening day line-up, Smith got Cleveland's first hit of the season with a first-inning single off Chicago ace Billy Pierce and went 1-for-4 on the day.

The Kansas City Athletics were the only other American League team to start the season with three black players on the roster, two of whomfirst baseman Vic Power batting lead-off and center fielder Harry Simpson batting clean-upstarted on opening day. Power was beginning his third-big league season, and Simpson had played three years in Cleveland from 1951 to 1953, was demoted to the minor leagues in 1954, and been traded to KC early in the 1955 season. The third black player on KC's opening day roster was their starting third baseman Hector Lopez, who did not play in either of the first two games, but started 144 of the Athletics' 154 games in 1956.

KC's opponent on opening day, who they beat 2-1, were the Detroit Tigers, who along with the Boston Red Sox were the two American League holdouts against integrating at the major league level. The Tigers did not field a black player until 1958 and the Red Sox not until 1959. 

The Red Sox were up against the Baltimore Orioles, who began the season with two black players on their rosterBob Boyd and David Popeneither of whom started on opening day, although both pinch hit in the ninth inning. Both had prior major league experience, but not as core regulars. Until an injury sidelined him for almost three months, however, the left-handed Boyd was used in a three-player, two-position platoon at the beginning of the season, alternating at first base with the right-handed Gus Triandos, who was an everyday player platooning with Hal Smith behind the plate; in effect, the left-handed-batting first baseman Boyd was platooned with the right-handed-batting catcher Smith. 

The Washington Senators also opened the 1956 campaign without any black players on their roster. Carlos Paula, who integrated the Senators in September 1954 and played all of the 1955 season with them, rejoined the team in mid-May. He would be the only black to play for the Senators in 1956. After hitting just .188 in 33 games, mostly as a defensive replacement, Paula was back in the minor leagues by July, never again to resurface in the majors, and the 1956 Senators were back to no black players for the rest of the year. 

Of historical note, none of the four blacks who had played so far for the Washington Senators were African American. Paula and Juan Delis, who also spent all of 1955 in Washington but was not invited back, were both from Cuba, and 1955 September call-ups Webbo Clark and Julio Becquer were from Panama and Cuba.

The Senators hosted the New York Yankees on opening day. One of the clubs most staunchly opposed to integration, the Yankees had long taken the so-called principled position of refusing to be pressured into promoting the black players in their stellar minor league seasonwho had once included Vic Powerjust for the sake of appearances. It wasn't until 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson made his debut over in Brooklyn, that the Yankees finally put a black player on their roster. That was Elston Howard, who stayed all year and played 97 games in his rookie season with 10 home runs, 43 RBIs, and a .290 batting average. The Yankees did not call up another black player all that season.

Nor did they in 1956, when Howard was once again the only black player in New York pinstripes the entire year. Howard was in the starting line-up on opening day and had one hit in five trips to the plate. His lead-off single in the sixth with the Yankees ahead of the Senators, 4-2, started a 4-run rally that was capped by Mickey Mantle's 3-run home run. 

Mantle was 2-for-3 on opening day, with two home runs and four runs batted in. That was nothing. Reigning AL Most Valuable Player Yogi Berra went 4-for-4 with a home run and 5 RBIs as the Yankees clobbered the Senators, 10-4. With one game down and 153 to go, the New York Yankees had set the tone for the American League in 1956.

The following is a link to the status of integration in the American League in 1955:


1 comment:

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