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Minors integrate, the hard way
02/02/2006 10:06 AM ET
Part II: How and Why Integration Takes Hold

While the first players to break color barriers in the South did not last long, the following years saw some leagues' attempts at desegregating have more lasting success. Leagues from the short-lived Tri-State League to the Texas League, South Atlantic League, Appalachian League and Florida State League all made moves to integrate, some that became permanent and began sending African-American players on the way to the big leagues.

The Texas League led the way, and the success the circuit had with integration certainly helped other reluctant leagues move forward. In 1952, Dave Hoskins was added to the Dallas Eagles roster. He was the league's best pitcher, leading it in wins, innings pitched and complete games. He also was the best draw, leading sportswriters to call him the "Savior of the Texas League," according to Kenneth Fenster's article in the SABR journal Nine. More than 180,000 fans took in the 32 games Hoskins pitched. That averaged out to almost 6,000 per game, more than twice the average attendance at other games in the league. Dallas' attendance rose 17 percent in 1952. Hoskins went on to pitch for the Cleveland Indians in 1953 and sparingly in 1954.

That's not to say Hoskins' stay in the Texas League was a smooth one, though he felt the people of Dallas treated him fairly well.

"I received three letters that morning, one at a time," he said of his experience, as retold in Bruce Adelson's book Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor League Baseball in the American South. "First one said I'd be shot if I sat in the dugout. Second one said I'd be shot if I went on the field and the third one said I'd be shot if I took the mound. I figured all three were from the same person. Probably someone just trying to scare me."

By 1953, the South Atlantic League was ready to integrate, even with teams in seeming segregation strongholds like Savannah and Augusta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Five players broke into the league that year, highlighted by a 19-year-old named Hank Aaron. Aaron was joined on the Jacksonville Braves with Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner. All three played well, with Aaron (obviously) and Mantilla going on to lengthy Major League careers. As with Hoskins in Dallas, this trio -- along with Al Israel and Junior Reedy in Savannah -- helped the league tremendously as overall attendance rose 12 percent, despite each team playing 14 fewer games.

Economics, parental club pushing, forward thinkers

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These integration "success stories," as well as the less successful attempts described in Part I, show a variety of contributing factors that led to the addition of black players to rosters in the South. First, and perhaps most importantly, was money.

For many owners of struggling clubs in the South, green made them otherwise color blind. They saw the inclusion of previously banned players as a means to attract the local African-American community. The risk was a move that appeared to some as a stunt rather than a push toward equality.

That was the case when David Mobley joined the Rock Hill Chiefs, an independent member of the Class B Tri-State League, becoming the first black player in South Carolina minor leagues. He joined the team, which lasted for only nine seasons and experienced constant financial problems, in late August 1952.

With attendance dropping rapidly and other teams moving closer to integrating, the Chiefs signed Mobley on Aug. 26. A Negro League veteran, he played the outfield for Rock Hill, entering a game in the fifth inning. But he never again played for Rock Hill due to pressure from the troubled league's president.

In the Texas League, integration was pushed by Dallas Eagles owner Dick Burnett. A flamboyant promoter, Burnett is credited with things like the first stadium organ in the league. He obviously understood what kind of impact signing black players would have -- and he was proven right by what Hoskins accomplished -- but he also believed all baseball players should be allowed to play together.

San Antonio followed Dallas to full-fledged integration the following year, not only because of economics but because of on-field performance. The club in San Antonio was a perennial also-ran and adding black players seemed the best way to improve the product on the field.

"In small towns, they were facing economic pressures," Adelson said. "Attendance was down. They were looking for ways to boost the bottom line and decided to bring in black players. There were some who took a more progressive line, who wanted to do it because it was the right thing to do."

Particularly with the club in Jacksonville, pressure from parent clubs played a vital role. The Braves organization had been signing young African-American talent in an attempt to keep up with the Brooklyn Dodgers. By 1953, several of those players -- Aaron and Mantilla in particular -- were ready to move up. So Jacksonville was integrated.

The forced integration, needless to say, wasn't always comfortable for the players who went through it. As time passed, and more Southern teams broke barriers, it became fairly apparent that parent clubs didn't necessarily consider what it might be like for the player when placing him with a Minor League affiliate.

"It had struck me at the time that the (Minor League) teams seemed to play the players that were sent to them," said Jules Tygiel, author of Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. "I was surprised how little thought was given to where they sent players.

"In some ways, you could make the argument that black players were treated equally and sent based on where their talent merited, but they didn't think it could be a problem. They sent them to play in these hotly segregated areas at a time when segregation was even a bigger issue. It would appear to me teams would never give it a thought."

Integration failures

Not every attempt, even by forward-thinking owners or with pressure from Major League clubs, went as well as it did in Jacksonville, where having a talent like Aaron certainly helped a great deal.

The Double-A Southern Association fought against integration to the bitter end. Ironically, the success of the Jacksonville trio led to some of the difficulties.

In 1954, the Double-A affiliate of the Braves was the Atlanta Crackers, whose owner, Earl Mann, saw the successes in the Texas and South Atlantic Leagues and realized it was time to integrate his club. As the next step up from Jacksonville, Mann thought he'd hit the jackpot, not only getting a star in the making in Aaron but a trio of players who had been through a previous integration situation.

Mann's dream wasn't realized. Garner, who was 27, had knee surgery in the offseason and wouldn't be available until long after the season was underway. Mantilla was only 19 but had already crashed through the color barrier for two teams. He made it known he didn't want Atlanta to be No. 3, so the Braves skipped him up to Triple-A Toledo. Aaron seemed ticketed for Atlanta until Bobby Thomson broke his ankle in the spring of 1954. Aaron had a great Spring Training, was made the starting left fielder in Milwaukee and the rest, as they say, was history.

That left the Atlanta Crackers with Nat Peeples, who had signed earlier that spring. The 27-year-old played in two games, making one start, on the road in Mobile, Ala., then was optioned to Jacksonville days later when the team returned to Atlanta. He never played in the Southern Association again and was the first and only black player ever to play in the league, which went out of business in 1961. Since then, there's been an ongoing debate over whether Peeples was sent down because he wasn't good enough and so he could play every day, as Mann claimed at the time, or if Mann caved to pressure from the Southern Association to resegregate the league.

Even pressure from big league clubs didn't make the Southern Association budge. In 1955, New Orleans was an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The general manager of the parent club? None other than Branch Rickey, the man responsible for bringing Jackie Robinson to the big leagues. He put pressure on New Orleans to integrate. Five black players were invited to camp but were released before the season began with the explanation they weren't good enough for the Double-A level.

Despite this situation occurring before the civil rights movement had gelled, the New Orleans community felt empowered enough to try to do something. In several towns in the Minor Leagues, the African-American community boycotted the local team to try to force integration. It worked in Norfolk, Va.

In New Orleans, the boycott certainly was effective, with a different end result. Attendance dropped from approximately 40,000 annually to 3,500. But the Pelicans never caved to community pressure and instead went out of business. The Southern Association followed soon thereafter. Integration may not have taken hold in New Orleans -- or in the league -- but it was a big sign that members of the black community were ready to start demanding what was rightfully theirs.

"The owner later said, 'Give me back the 40,000 African-Americans and we're OK,'" Adelson said. "It's a great example of African-Americans coming together."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.