Robinson and Mays: What Might Have Been

Major League Baseball has dedicated the 1997 season to Jackie Robinson, who on April 15, 1947 broke the color line established in the 1880s. The fiftieth anniversary of Robinson’s debut features an on-field ceremony during the Mets-Dodgers game at Shea Stadium, with President Clinton scheduled to honor Robinson’s widow Rachel.

But the Red Sox could have been first.

By 1945, columnist Dave Egan and the Boston City Council were pressuring the Braves and Red Sox to integrate. Sox GM Eddie Collins insisted that the team was blameless. In his 12 years with the club, he explained, "we have never had a single request for a tryout by a colored applicant."

That was easy to fix. Legendary black sportswriter Wendell Smith brought three Negro Leaguers to town: .338-hitting 2B Marvin Williams, outfielder Sam Jethroe (1950 NL Rookie of the Year with the Boston Braves)...and rookie shortstop Jackie Robinson. During their workout with the Sox a voice in the distance, widely believed to be Collins', shouted "Get those niggers off the field."

Having refused to sign black players, the Sox worked to keep them off other rosters, too. In the summer of 1946, with Jackie Robinson tearing up the International League, Sox owner Tom Yawkey served on an owners' committee formed to study integration and other issues. The committee delivered its report at the August 27, 1946 owners' meeting -- a report so sensitive that recipients were asked to destroy their copies.

The report launched every tired, circular weapon in Organized Baseball's arsenal to defend the color line. According to Yawkey and his colleagues, baseball was being singled out by meddling publicity hounds who didn't care about blacks. Most Negro Leaguers weren't good enough for the majors. The Negro Leagues offered inferior training and produced players with no grasp of the fundamentals. Besides, Negro League contracts must be respected!

But the real reasons were buried deep in the text. Many teams profited from segregation. “The Negro leagues rent their parks in many cities from clubs in Organized Baseball. . . . Club owners in the major leagues are reluctant to give up revenues amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars every year." And black players would attract black fans, who would drive away more desirable white patrons: “a situation might be presented, if Negroes participate in Major League games, in which the preponderance of Negro attendance in parks such as the Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, and Comiskey Park could conceivably threaten the value of Major League franchises owned by these clubs.”

Even after Robinson integrated the majors, the Red Sox rejected black players who were practically dropped in their lap. The general manager of their AA team in Birmingham, Alabama alerted them to a phenomenal prospect on the Birmingham Black Barons whose contract could be bought for only $5,000. Even though the Red Sox' local scout echoed the rave reviews, GM Joe Cronin wasn't interested...and so Willie Mays became a Giant.

The Red Sox were the last team to integrate, 12-1/2 years after Jackie Robinson's debut. By the time Pumpsie Green was called up to the Red Sox in July 1959, Robinson was long retired. Roy Campanella, Luke Easter, Monte Irvin and Satchel Paige had come and gone, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Minnie Minoso and Frank Robinson were in their prime -- and the Sox had fallen from pennant contenders to mediocrity.

Just imagine two generations of New Englanders growing up with this memory:

"FENWAY PARK, OCTOBER 1, 1951: Sparked by Jackie Robinson's first-inning steal of home and a three-run blast by rookie sensation Willie Mays, the Boston Red Sox today won their fifth American League pennant in six years, thrashing the New York Yankees, 8-3, in their one-game playoff."

Copyright © 1997 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the April 1997 issue of Boston Baseball.

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