Part I: Integration of the Minor League South
When the calendar turned to 1950 in the United States, the country had little idea of the monumental changes it was about to undergo in the coming decade and beyond. The Supreme Court had yet to strike down separate-but-equal as unconstitutional and the Civil Rights movement was barely in its infancy.
Major League Baseball had been ahead of just about everyone when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. By 1950, however, only four other big-league teams (including the Boston Braves, who did so in April 1950) had followed the Dodgers' lead.
Minor League Baseball moved at a slightly slower speed. Obviously, the International League trumped everyone (in the 20th century) with the inclusion of Robinson in Montreal during the 1946 season. The leagues in the South, not surprisingly, lagged behind the big leagues even further. It took at least five years after Robinson moved to Brooklyn for many of the leagues to break the color barrier.
That delay can be looked at in two different ways. On one hand, it took too long for many of these Minor Leagues -- some of which are long since defunct -- to fall in step with Major League Baseball. These leagues, it could be argued, gave in to local pressures more than they should have. On the other, these leagues integrated by 1954. Considering the Brown vs. Board of Education decision wasn't handed down until May of that year and that Rosa Parks' bus refusal in Montgomery, Ala., was still a year away, in many ways these leagues were somewhat ahead of schedule.
"The thesis always was that baseball integration, especially in the South, played a role in the integration of the rest of the country," said Bruce Adelson, author of Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor League Baseball in the American South, the seminal work on the subject. "Integration of Minor League Baseball is not something that's widely thought of. Most things are oriented to the big leagues."
"Baseball was really paving the way," agreed Jules Tygiel, author of Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. "Most other institutions were barely even thinking about it, but baseball was thinking about it quite a lot, pushing integration into the South."
In the end, several factors contributed to the integration of leagues in the southern United States. There were fairly strong economic pressures to add African-American players. In some instances, a local community's boycott made integration key to survival. It wasn't all monetary, however, as some owners integrated to field a better team and a few even broke free of Southern prejudices because they felt it was the right thing to do.
Jackie Robinson's impact
By the 1950s, Robinson had entrenched himself as one of the stars of the National League. His role as pioneer and his ability to perform at the highest level clearly served as a tremendous example not only for other African-American baseball players, but for the country at large.
The impact didn't necessarily filter down to the South, where segregation and separate-but-unequal still ruled the land. As leagues below the Mason-Dixon line began to slowly integrate, players had obvious respect for what Robinson was doing, though it sometimes felt that he and his accomplishments were a world away.
Ed Charles spent nearly a decade in the Minor Leagues, much of it in the South, before joining the Kansas City Athletics in 1962 and eventually winning a World Series with the 1969 Mets. He told Adelson that he and many other Minor Leaguers in the South were "Robinson's disciples." But while Charles and others were trying to follow in Robinson's path, they didn't see Robinson's experiences as helping them in North Carolina, Georgia or Alabama.
Al Israel, who helped integrate the South Atlantic League with Hank Aaron in 1953, often saw the Major Leaguers breeze through the South on barnstorming trips. While they were in town for just one day, he told Adelson, black Minor League players in the South had to live that existence every day.
"What Jackie Robinson is doing in Brooklyn is wonderful, but it doesn't help me," Israel told Adelson.
Barriers come down
Minor League segregation in the South ended slowly, beginning in 1951. Barriers came down in Texas, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. Northern teams weren't exactly far ahead of their Southern counterparts, though some did help pave the way by bringing the first black players to the South.
Jim Pendleton (St. Paul Saints) and Ray Dandridge (Minneapolis Millers) were the first black players to play against the Louisville Colonels in the American Association in 1949. A year later, Willie Mays broke the barrier in the Class B Interstate League when his Trenton Giants traveled to Maryland to play the Hagerstown Braves.
By 1951, some teams in the South were ready to integrate. The Lamesa Lobos signed J.W. Wingate in the Class C West Texas-New Mexico League early in the 1951 season. In August, Percy Miller Jr. joined the Danville Leafs, officially integrating the Carolina League. Both players' tenures -- and careers in organized baseball -- were short-lived. The 23-year-old Wingate was released by the Lobos before the end of May.
"Although he batted a respectable .250 for the Lobos," Adelson wrote, "Wingate did not instantly manifest the star qualities expected of African-American ballplayers who crossed southern minor-league color lines. Many believed, with some justification, that white fans, already discomfited by the prospect of watching blacks and whites playing interractial baseball, would have their angst salved only by the opportunity to watch the best African-American althletes available ... Countless black ballplayers in the 1950s faced this same reality."
Miller Jr. certainly did. A kid not long out of high school signed with his hometown team -- the Danville Leafs -- breaking the color line in Virginia and in the Carolina League. He played 19 games at the end of the 1951 season and that winter the Leafs released him. That ended the Carolina League's experiment and Miller's career. There wasn't another black player in the league until 1953.
Too often in these early integration stories, the time was too brief, the pressure too great, the racism too overt for young players like Miller to get a fair chance at proving he belonged. When Miller joined the Leafs, he was given a size 48 shirt and size 46 pants, told by the equipment manager that it was the only uniform available. Miller saw it differently, thinking it was a racially based snub.
"Here I was a [sic] 31 inches in the waist," Miller Jr. told The Roanoke Times in 1997. "It fit me like a bathrobe."
Also in 1951, the Granite Falls Graniteers in the Class D Western Carolina League signed three black players to become the first team in North Carolina to integrate, though a lack of official statistics from that time make it more difficult to confirm.
None of these players went on to stardom at any level of professional baseball, and while many of them were "firsts," it's unlikely many of them felt they were making history.
"I didn't think I was a trailblazer," Miller Jr. said in that 1997 interview at age 65. "I figured Jackie had done the job. And everybody who followed along after had him to thank."
Part II: How and Why Integration Takes Hold