Forgotten members of the 'great experiment'
Playing second base for the Royals was none other than Jackie Robinson, the first black player to appear in white organized baseball in the 20th century. The fleet-footed 27-year-old excelled in his debut, as he went 4-for-5 with a home run, four runs scored, two stolen bases and two forced balk calls as the Royals coasted to an easy 14-1 win.
The events of that day were momentous, and made waves far beyond the world of professional sports.
"This in a way is another Emancipation Day for the Negro race," wrote sportswriter Baz O'Meara. "A day Abraham Lincoln would like."
"We all sensed that history was in the making," recalled Robinson in his autobiography, My Own Story, "that the long ban on Negros was about to come crashing down, setting up reverberations that would echo across a continent and perhaps around the world. I believe everyone in Roosevelt Stadium that day realized he was witnessing a significant collapse in the ancient wall of prejudice."
Given how much has been written about Robinson and his historic 1946 Minor League campaign, it is perhaps surprising how little is known about two of his teammates on the club: pitchers Johnny Wright and Roy Partlow. While Robinson went on to a Hall of Fame career and iconic status within American culture, Wright and Partlow quickly faded into obscurity. Today, they are regarded as little more than historical curiosities, mere footnotes to the epic and oft-told Robinson integration saga.
This is puzzling, as Wright and Partlow were also African-American.
In fact, five black players appeared in the Minor Leagues in 1946, all as part of Dodger president Branch Rickey's "great experiment." In New Hampshire, future stars Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella made their debuts with the Nashua Pride of the Class B New England League. Both men reported that there was virtually no racial prejudice in the small town of 35,000 people, and both were instrumental in leading their club to the league championship. Campanella made his Major League debut in 1948, and Newcombe followed one year later. And while their initial foray into white organized baseball may have been overlooked, the duo is lodged in the public consciousness as first-rate ballplayers and commendable social pioneers.
The same cannot be said for John Wright, despite the fact that he was on the active roster when Robinson made his debut with the Montreal Royals. A native Southerner, Wright had several dominant Negro League campaigns under his belt (including a 25-win season with the Homestead Grays), as well as a stint as one of the best pitchers in the Armed Forces during World War II.
Despite his credentials, Wright was regarded as little more than Robinson's sidekick, a fellow black player with whom Jackie could share in his trials and tribulations. It was speculated that this was the reason that Rickey signed him to the team.
"Wright doesn't boast the college background that is Jackie's," wrote Sam Lacy, the Baltimore Afro-American's well-regarded sportswriter. "But he possesses something equally valuable, a level head and the knack of seeing things objectively."
Despite his mental and physical gifts, as well as his prominent role in integrating the Minor Leagues, Wright's time with the Royals was largely unmemorable. During his six weeks with the club, he was used sporadically and often suffered from control problems. On May 14, he was demoted to the Class C Three Rivers (Quebec) Royals of the Canadian-American League.
Apparently believing that it was still crucial for Robinson to have a black teammate, the Dodgers immediately replaced Wright with veteran hurler Roy Partlow, who had previously been playing with the Negro League Philadelphia Stars. Partlow was in his mid-30s at the time and had a reputation as a hard-thrower with a fiery temperament on and off the field. He hardly seemed like the ideal candidate to participate in the Dodgers' integration experiment, and, perhaps not surprisingly, he was not given much to do as a member of the Royals.
"Right now, I've got seven starting pitchers and not enough work for them," Montreal Manager Clay Hopper told Lacy's Baltimore Afro-American. "I'm winning ballgames and therefore I don't feel like complicating matters by experimenting with Partlow."
After two weeks spent riding the bench, Partlow finally made his debut with the Royals on June 5. He then spent the next two months alternating between a starting role and bullpen work. While he was sometimes brilliant, he also suffered through a few horrendous outings. In mid-July, with his ERA at a lackluster 5.59, Partlow was demoted to Class C Three Rivers. He, along with Wright, would spend the remainder of the season with the team.
Three Rivers (or "Trois-Rivieres", as it is known locally) is a French-Canadian burg located approximately 70 miles from Montreal. The city had hosted a professional team during the 1941 and 1942 seasons, but the advent of World War II caused the Canadian-American League to suspend operations for the next three years. Baseball returned to the area in 1946, which also marked Three Rivers' first campaign as a Dodgers affiliate. Now, quite unexpectedly, the town was host to two of the Minor Leagues' five black players.
While Three Rivers (and Quebec as a whole) was a racially tolerant area, neither Wright nor Partlow responded positively to their respective demotions. After all, they were established Negro League stars who now found themselves toiling in a remote outpost three levels removed from the Major Leagues. In the two months that he pitched with club before Partlow's arrival, Wright's performance was mediocre. He had won as many games as he lost, despite the fact that he was in the prime of his career and had previously excelled at a much higher level of play.
Paltrow, meanwhile, did not take kindly to being demoted, and briefly disappeared. This caused an apoplectic reaction by some in the black press, who felt that the slightest misstep by a black athlete could result in the collapse of the entire integration experiment.
"It looks as though Partlow has turned out to be an eccentric 'prima donna' and a problem child of no small means," wrote Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier.
Wright, meanwhile, snapped out of his funk upon the arrival of Partlow. He won his last five starts of the season and finished the year with a respectable record of 12-8. Buoyed by the stellar performances of the two pitchers, the Royals snuck into the playoffs on the last day of the season. After dispatching the Rome (N.Y.) Colonels in a seven-game series, the team went on to face the Pittsfield (Mass.) Indians in the championship. In the fifth and final game, Partlow came through with a clutch pinch hit and scored the winning run in a 9-6, come-from-behind victory. His offensive heroics made a winner of Wright, who had also earned a victory in game four.
Frenchy Bordagaray, Three Rivers' ebullient player-manager, still remembered that pennant-winning season 49 years later.
"Wright and Partlow, now they were nice boys," he recalled in a 1995 interview with the Montreal Gazette. "They were just perfect. They had to be. Otherwise, I was a dead duck, and so were they. Sure, it was a sensitive job. We were breaking down the color barrier."
Despite the triumphant way in which the 1946 season had ended, neither Wright nor Partlow pitched within white professional baseball ever again. Wright was released by the Dodgers in January of 1947, and went on to pitch several more years in the Negro Leagues. Partlow, meanwhile, went to Spring Training with Montreal in 1947. He didn't make the team, however, and never appeared in the Minor Leagues again.
While the achievements of Partlow and Wright pale in significance to those of players like Robinson, Campanella and Newcombe, their story deserves to be rescued from the dustbin of baseball history. Both men played the game admirably well under very trying circumstances, and for this alone they deserve to be recognized as true Minor League pioneers.
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com