Friday, April 15, 2016

Status of Integration in the National League on Opening Day 1956

Exactly nine years and two days after his major league debut in 1947, Jackie Robinson made the first play of the 1956 season for the Brooklyn Dodgers on opening day, April 17, fielding a ground ball hit to third by the Phillies' Richie Ashburn and throwing him out at first. At the beginning of the 10th year of the Jackie Robinson era of integration in major league baseball, 65 blacksalmost all African-Americanhad so far played in the big leagues. All five rookies on opening day rosters who had yet to play a major league game were on National League teams, including Frank Robinson. 

The 1956 season began with 29 black players on the opening day rosters of seven of the eight National League teams; only the Philadelphia Phillies had still not integrated their roster. Fourteen black players were in their team's opening day starting line-up. All eight clubs played their first game on April 17.


With seven players, the Cincinnati Reds had more black players on their roster than any other major league team to open the 1956 season. The most talked about were right-hander Brooks Lawrence, acquired in an off-season trade with the Cardinals, and highly-touted rookie outfielder Frank Robinson. Questions about Lawrence focused on whether he could recapture what he had going for him in his impressive 15-6 debut for the Cardinals in 1954 after being a bust in 1955 and being sent to the minor leagues in August. Questions about Robinson were about whether he would really be as good as he gave every indication of being.

On opening day, Frank Robinson made a very strong case that indeed he would be. Robinson was the only one of the Reds' seven black players to start on opening day, batting seventh in left field. Facing the Cardinals' Vinegar Bend Mizell, Robinson hit a ground-rule double in his first major league at bat in the second and singled in his next at bat in the fourth. After hitting into a force-out in the sixth, Robinson was intentionally walked with runners on second and third with two outs to load the bases in a tie game in the eighth; the Cardinals, it seemed, preferred to pitch to veteran, light-hitting shortstop Roy McMillan, who had doubled to tie the game after Robinson's single in the fourth, rather than have to deal with the rookie who was now 2-for-3 in his big-league career. Good move. McMillan fouled out to end the threat and Stan Musial hit a two-run home-run in the ninth that decided the game.

Of historical note, not only was Frank Robinson back in the line-up for the second game of the seasonhe would start in 150 of the Reds' 155 games in 1956but Cincinnati started a black pitcher in their next game, rookie southpaw Pat Scantlebury, who gave up 4 runs in 5 innings. He was relieved by Joe Black, an African-American pitcher who was NL Rookie of the Year in 1952 as a stellar relief pitcher for the Dodgers, and Lawrence, called in to pitch in the tenth, got the win when Cincinnati scored in the bottom of the inning. Scantlebury pitched poorly in his next start, however, appeared in four games in relief, and spent the rest of the year with the Reds' Triple-A club in Havana. 

With Lawrence no longer on the team, the St. Louis Cardinals had just one black player on their opening day rosterback-up first baseman Tom Alston. Alston integrated the Cardinals in 1954, was their starting first baseman the first two months of that season, spent the rest of his rookie season with Triple-A Rochester, and virtually all of 1955 in the minor leagues. He would do the same in 1956playing just three games as a late-inning defensive replacement before being demoted at the end of April. That left St. Louis without any blacks on their roster until outfielder Charlie Peete was called up in mid-July after having hit .350 in 116 games for the Cardinals' Double-A team in Omaha.

The Chicago Cubs started the 1956 season with five black players on their roster. Second baseman Gene Baker batting second, shortstop Ernie Banks batting clean-up, and veteran Monte Irvin, acquired from the Giants, batting sixth in left field were in their starting line-up for the first game of the season.

The Cubs' opening day opponents were the Milwaukee Braves, starting the season with five black players in their dugout. Hank Aaron, batting fourth, in right field and Billy Bruton, the center fielder batting seventh, started on opening day. In the the Braves' 6-0 home victory over the Cubs, Aaron went 2-for-3, driving in the first run of the game with a single and adding a home run. Bruton went 1-for-4 with a triple that finished off Cubs' starter Bob Rush in the seventh.

The Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Giants, who met at the Polo Grounds on opening day, both had three black players on their rosters. Roberto Clemente, after hitting .255 for the Pirates in his rookie season the year before, batted third and was 0-for-4 in the game. Willie Mays in center field batting third and third baseman Hank Thompson, batting fifth, played key roles in the Giants' game-winning eighth-inning rally to break a 2-2 tie. Mays doubled with a runner on first for his only hit of the day, putting runners on second and third to start the inning. After an intentional walk to load the bases, Thompson's flyout to center drove in the tie-breaking run, the throw to the plate on which Mays moved up to third. 

More dramatically, with now one out, Willie Mays being Willie Mays took off for the plate on the next playa grounder to shortas soon as the throw was released to first base. He was ruled safe when the catcher, in his haste to make the tag, dropped the relay from first baseman Dale Long. Mays's aggressive pursuit of the run providing the Giants with a 4-2 lead was crucial because Long hit a home run in the ninth to make the final score 4-3.

Finally, the Philadelphia Phillies, whose vicious verbal assaults on Jackie Robinson in his rookie season live on in infamy, including in popular culture (see the movie, 42), were in Ebbets Field for opening day. The Phillies were the only National League teamand one of just three big leagues teams, along with the Tigers and Red Soxthat had refused to integrate, even though it was clear by now that there was no going back to segregated major league baseball. 

While the Phillies had no blacks in their dugoutand would not all seasonthe Brooklyn Dodgers opened with five of their six black players in the starting line-up. Their ace, Don Newcombe, took the mound, against Philadelphia ace Robin Roberts; Jim Gilliam was in left field batting first; catcher Roy Campanella was the clean-up hitter; Jackie Robinson was at third base batting sixth; and Charlie Neal was at second base batting eighth in his major league debut. Sandy Amoros, a left-handed hitter who had platooned in left field the previous yearand who made the catch that saved Game 7 for the 1955 World Champion Dodgerswas on the bench. It looked likely that Amoros would spend most of the season coming off the bench because the Dodgers had decided to move the switch-hitting Gilliam from second base to play left field every day so that rookie prospect Neal could play second.

The Dodgers lost their first game in defense of their 1955 championship. But Gilliam went 1-for-2 with an inside-the-park home run into the left-center field gap off Roberts; Campanella went 2-for-4 and also tagged Roberts for a home run; Neal went 0-for-4 in his first game; and Jackie went 0-for-3 in what would be the last opening day of his career, with a sacrifice fly. Newcombe's second-inning double gave the Dodgers a brief lead, but while his bat was willing, his pitching stuff proved weak as he gave up 5 runs on 5 hits in 4.2 innings and took the loss. He would lose only six more times all year.
One game down with 153 to go, the Dodgers were not in first placeafter having been there all year in 1955.

The following are links to my posts on the status of integration in the National League on opening day in 1955:

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