When it comes to the integration of Minor League Baseball, it would be very difficult to top the significance of 1946.
That was the year that five black players made their debuts in the previously all-white world of the Minor Leagues. Jackie Robinson led the charge, of course, rocketing to stardom as a member of the International League champion Montreal Royals. Pitchers John Wright and Roy Partlow also suited up for the Royals that season, while Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe broke in with Nashua of the Class B New England League.
The Minor Leagues finally opened the door for black players during that history-making 1946 season, but it was in 1949 that the door was completely knocked down. That year, an unprecedented wave of previously excluded athletes made its presence felt at Triple-A stadiums throughout the country.
The success of these pioneering players was crucial in helping to establish professional baseball as an integrated institution. Collectively, they demonstrated to the nation that Jackie Robinson was no mere anomaly. There were many others like him, players whose talents could not be denied.
What follows is a brief look at a few of the talented black players who broke into the Minors at the Triple-A level in 1949. A source of much of the information is "Baseball's Great Experiment," by the late Jules Tygiel. This book deserves the widest possible readership, as it is a comprehensive and exceedingly well-written account of baseball's protracted, but ultimately successful, attempt to achieve full integration.
Beginning in 1949, "black athletes introduced interracial baseball to towns and cities throughout the nation, enduring regional variations of prejudice and discrimination while struggling to advance to the Major Leagues," Tygiel wrote. "To younger players, the lower classifications represented the gateway to stardom. But for many Negro League veterans, trapped by the persistent racism of the newly integrated sport, the Minor Leagues at mid-century marked the final frustration of a lifetime of exclusion."
From San Diego to Minneapolis to Jersey City
While black players had appeared in all three Triple-A leagues prior to 1949, that season marked the first time each circuit featured several bona fide stars. No player enjoyed a bigger breakout than Luke Easter, who quickly established himself as the most feared hitter in the Pacific Coast League. Easter batted .436 over the first 15 games of the season and cemented himself as an unparalleled box office draw.
"When he takes his turn at batting practice, the other players, the sportswriters, the goober salesmen and fans rivet their eyes on the batting cage to watch Luke Easter powder the ball," sportswriter Frank Finch wrote.
Easter shut himself down for the season on July 1, however, no longer able to play through the pain caused by a Spring Training knee injury. He hit .363 with 25 home runs and 92 RBIs in only 80 games and went on to play 15 more seasons in Triple-A and the Major Leagues before hanging up his cleats in 1964. At that point, he was nearly 50 years old.
Easter's hitting heroics -- and ability to attract crowds -- inspired other PCL franchises to look for black players. Shortstop Artie Wilson signed with the Oakland Oaks and went on to lead the league in average, hits and stolen bases. This performance shouldn't have been surprising to those who were aware of Wilson, who'd spent the previous seven seasons as the preeminent shortstop in the Negro National League.
Wilson remained a PCL mainstay for the next decade, finally retiring in 1962. He didn't get much of a chance to prove himself in the Majors, however. In 1951, at the age of 30, he suited up for the New York Giants and hit .182 over 22 at-bats before getting replaced on the roster by a young Willie Mays.
"The PCL was just another ballgame as far as I was concerned," Wilson told MiLB.com's Kevin Czerwinski in a 2006 interview. "It was an experience playing against those guys, but I didn't make a big deal of it. It never bothered me being there so long. I was making more money than a lot of the players in the Major Leagues.
"All I wanted to do was play baseball. I got to play in Japan and Cuba, too. So I've had a good life."
The stellar play of Easter and Wilson opened the PCL floodgates for black players. Both Los Angeles and Portland fielded black players by the time the '49 season was through and every team in the circuit had integrated itself by 1951.
Meanwhile, black players were making names for themselves in the American Association. Roy Campanella had broken the league's color line the previous season and, in 1949, the circuit had its first bona fide black star in the form of third baseman Ray Dandridge. Although claiming to be 29 years old, Dandridge had, in fact, already logged 16 seasons in the Negro Leagues and Mexico. He joined the AA's Minneapolis Millers on June 5 (along with fellow Negro League veteran Dave Barnhill) and went on to hit .364 while playing spectacular defense. He finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting, a rather incongruous achievement for someone who had been playing baseball for so long.
Dandridge won the AA's Most Valuable Player award in 1950, then hit .324 in 1951. That season, he befriended a young Mays, soon to replace Wilson on the Giants roster. But despite his credentials, Dandridge never got a chance to compete in the Major Leagues. Perhaps it was age, perhaps it was racism, perhaps it was a combination of the two. He finally retired in 1954 at the age of 41.
Dandridge was denied the chance to compete at baseball's highest level, but he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.
"If I had to do it all over again, I think I would do it the same way," he said in his acceptance speech. "I love the game of baseball and I hope that today it looked like baseball loved me."
The third and final Triple-A circuit that was active in 1949 was the International League. The IL's Montreal Royals were the Minor League standard bearers when it came to integration, of course, as Robinson, Wright and Parlow played for the club in 1946. But it was in 1949 that black players rose to a whole new level of prominence on the circuit. Before the season, league president Frank Shaughnessy remarked, "We will have the most colorful league of all time." This might not have been saying much, under the circumstances, but Shaughnessy's boast nonetheless rang true.
Montreal, a Dodgers farm club, remained at the forefront of "Baseball's Great Experiment." Dan Bankhead, who had appeared in four games with the Dodgers in 1947, went 20-6 and led the league in strikeouts and walks. Meanwhile, veteran Negro League speedster Sam Jethroe emerged as the circuit's most exciting player, hitting .326 with 151 runs scored and a record 89 stolen bases. The next season, Jethroe won the National League Rookie of the Year award as a member of the Boston Braves.
But 1949 also was the season that New York City's other Major League teams added black players to their farm systems. The "Little Giants" of Jersey City fielded a squad that included pitcher Ford Smith and outfielders Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson. While Smith failed to distinguish himself, Irvin and Thompson were called up to the big club on July 8. For the second year in a row, Thompson had the distinction of being a Major League club's first black player (in 1947, he had appeared in 27 games with the St. Louis Browns as part of that club's somewhat haphazard integration experiment).
Thompson and Irvin stayed on with the Giants through the 1956 season. The latter was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973, recognition of a distinguished career that was divided among the Negro, Minor and Major Leagues.
Even the Yankees, who shamefully failed to integrate at the big league level until 1955, signed their first black players in 1949. Angel Marquez and Frank Austin began the season with the Newark Bears but were gone from the team within two months. More lasting success came in the form of slugging outfielder Bob Thurman, who joined the club in July and quickly became a box office draw, thanks to his prodigious home run-hitting ability.
No going back
In taking note of the high level of skill displayed by the Minor Leagues' black players in 1949, Tygiel observed that "needless to say, not all of the black players active in 1949 attained these levels of performance. Many were given brief tryouts and then released, others displayed routine abilities. Nonetheless, given the relatively small number of black players in organized baseball, a high proportion produced not just good seasons, but spectacular ones."
These "spectacular" efforts, combined with the continued stellar play of Major Leaguers like Robinson, Campanella and Larry Doby, went a long way toward solidifying the presence of black players in the formerly all-white leagues. While Robinson made 1946 momentous, 1949 was significant because the events of that season proved there were many others like him.
Integrated baseball was here to stay.