April 15, 1947 might be baseball's moment to cherish, but the historical significance of that date transcends the sport. When Jackie Robinson stepped onto the diamond on a chilly spring afternoon at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field as a member of the Dodgers, he left an indelible mark not only on the sport at which he excelled but on the arc of America's future.
There were other firsts, of course. Perhaps none as notable or substantial as the first but no less important in helping right a wrong that for too long had been a fabric of society.
Robinson wasn't alone.
A league of his own
Baseball's color barrier was smashed that April afternoon in Brooklyn. It was a monumental step but only the first of many in the fight for equal rights. To a society that still clung to a separate but equal credo, the event was just as significant.
While Robinson's entry to the Majors created new possibilities, not every team or league was quick to follow. Hall of Famer Larry Doby integrated the American League with the Indians a year later, and while more teams and leagues saw the benefit of adding talent regardless of race, the forward movement was not swift. It took the Red Sox until 1959 to add an African American to their Major League roster in infielder Pumpsie Green.
The Minor Leagues were no different.
In the Texas League, April 13, 1952 is the watershed day. Coming 1,825 days after Robinson kicked open the gates, pitcher Dave Hoskins opened another door in the southwest. The former Negro Leaguer stepped on the mound for the Double-A Dallas Eagles in San Antonio. In doing so, he became the first African American to play in the Texas League's modern era.
The right-hander began what became his best professional season by working in and out of trouble in his debut. Hoskins struck out four, and, despite walking seven and yielding eight hits, he limited the Missions to two runs in a complete-game win. A lefty-swinging outfielder during his time in the Negro Leagues, he had a pair of hits to boot.
More than that, his mere presence on the field added a chapter to the story of a changing society.
Hoskins' story began in Greenwood, Mississippi, either in 1925 -- according to him -- or 1917 as was later documented by official census records. His family moved to Flint, Michigan, where his baseball talents sprouted. Hoskins' performance in the Flint City League as both an outfielder and pitcher drew the attention of the Cincinnati Clowns of the Negro American League, who signed him to a contract. He spent one season with Cincinnati before moving on to the Chicago American Giants, Louisville Buckeyes and the legendary Homestead Grays.
With baseball inching toward integration in the mid-1940s, enough was thought of Hoskins' talent that he earned a tryout with Boston's two big league teams, the Red Sox and Braves, along with future N.L. Rookies of the Year Sam Jethroe and Robinson. Although nothing came of it, his talent was undeniable. Five years later and two years after Robinson debuted for Brooklyn, Hoskins made the jump to organized ball. He joined unaffiliated Class A Grand Rapids, becoming the first African American to play in the Central League.
At the urging of Negro League legend and future Hall of Famer Satchel Paige, Indians general manager Hank Greenberg set up a tryout for Hoskins. The legendary slugger liked what he saw and with Paige -- an Indian at the time -- in his ear, inked Hoskins to a Minor League contract. Hoskins stayed in the Central League in 1950 with Dayton before moving to Class A Wilkes-Barre in the Eastern League a year later.
Although he'd dabbled in pitching during his amateur and Negro League tenures, Hoskins was primarily an outfielder. However, having suffered a skull fracture in high school and getting hit in the head again in 1951, he decided a switch to pitching on a full-time basis would be a safer option. Seeking the best advice, Hoskins turned again to Paige, who'd helped him during their time in the Negro Leagues.
Dallas Eagles owner Dick Burnett, who decided prior to 1952 that he wanted to integrate the league, soon crossed paths with Hoskins. The oilman's decision was largely a financial one. He reportedly denied that integration was a publicity stunt and, along with manager Dutch Meyer, vowed to find a legitimate player who could help his club win.
Meyer, who died in 2003 at the age of 87, was quoted in a 1998 article in the Dallas Observer that Burnett also might have had sentimental reasons for wanting to bring an African American into the league.
"Dick felt like he owed the black race. He said, 'I want to do something for the black race.' They've helped me, and I want to bring one into our organization. He said, 'I want to get a good one, one who can compete.'"
Burnett got a quick look at how good Hoskins could be. The Mississippi native tossed two perfect innings in a spring exhibition against the Eagles, instantly grabbing the owner's attention. That his club had a working agreement with the Indians obviously worked to Burnett's benefit. Agreeing that Hoskins would be an ideal fit, Greenberg loaned the pitcher to Dallas, where he soon made history.
Interestingly, Hoskins wasn't necessarily Burnett's first choice -- he just happened to be the player who stuck.
"Hoskins wasn't the first [African American] signed in the Texas League," former Texas League president Tom Kayser said. "Burnett had signed another [infielder Ray Neil] prior to Spring Training, but he didn't break camp with the club. The team felt he wouldn't hit enough to be worth the investment.
"Burnett always wanted the best franchise. He was well regarded in the league and in baseball circles and was successful," Kayser recalled. "The talent was out there, so he figured, 'Why not?'"
Hoskins enjoyed a solid spring and tuned up for the season by limiting the Red Sox to one run on two hits over four innings of a rain-shortened exhibition on April 3, 1952. One of his strikeout victims that afternoon was All-Star outfielder Dom DiMaggio.
'Someone just trying to scare me'
Whatever Burnett's motives, Hoskins broke camp with Dallas and was on the mound to complete a season-opening sweep in San Antonio on April 13. The win was the first of his league-leading 22 that year. Hoskins also topped the circuit with 280 innings pitched and 26 complete games and posted a 2.12 ERA and 1.096 WHIP in 35 appearances, including 33 starts. Leaning on his instincts as an everyday player, the then-35-year-old batted .328 and was one of Meyer's first options as a pinch-hitter.
But it was his arm that did the heavy lifting as the ace of an Eagles team that finished a league-best 92-69. Hoskins was clearly the Texas League's best pitcher in 1952 and earned an All-Star nod.
"Dave could throw a curveball through a knothole," Meyer told the Dallas Observer
. "He had a great curve and great control."
"He was a breaking ball pitcher," former teammate Don Mossi said in Bruce Adelson's book Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor-League Baseball in the American South
. "He threw a fastball, but his main thing was the breaking ball. He had good control. ... When he pitched, it seemed that everybody wanted to watch him."
Maybe not everyone, but enough people were intrigued by Hoskins that attendance rose sharply in the games he was scheduled to pitch. Dallas' attendance rose 17 percent compared to a year earlier, and it was the only club to top 200,000 fans. Overall, more than 180,000 fans attended the games in which Hoskins appeared, an average of nearly 6,000 per contest. That was more than twice the average attendance compared to the rest of the league.
However, there were incidents along the way. Much like Robinson, Hoskins bore the brunt of insults and threats. It wasn't that way in every city, but some were worse than others.
"They cursed him," Meyer told the Dallas Observer
. "Here I am, coaching on third base, and they would yell, 'Why are you paying that [guy]?' I will never forget someone asking me why I played a black guy in baseball, and I told him, 'Every time I look at him, I don't see a black guy. I see someone who won me the Texas League.'"
Shreveport, Louisiana, was an area of particular concern. Home to the Sports, the city still adhered to Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation. Early in 1952, Hoskins could not legally take the field or even be in the ballpark while Dallas was in town. Eventually, he was allowed to play, but Hoskins recalled one particular incident prior to a game in Shreveport on June 9, 1952 that he discussed in the March 4, 1953 edition of The Sporting News
. His teammates and coaches were unaware of it at the time.
"I received three letters that morning, one at a time," he told the tabloid. "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."
Unbowed, Hoskins went out and defeated Shreveport, 3-2, before a record crowd of 7,378. The Shreveport Times
reported that the more than 4,400 African American fans in attendance "overflowed the right-field stands, did the same to the left-field bleachers and left at least a thousand standing along the right-field fence."
Despite the abuse he endured, Hoskins felt the positives far outweighed any negatives.
"The people treated me very nice in Dallas and everywhere else, too," he told The Sporting News
. "Once in a while a ballplayer or a fan would holler something at me, but you've got to expect that. All in all, I had no complaints."
Neither did most of his teammates, who remembered Hoskins fondly.
"He was such a nice man, you couldn't not love the guy," former Eagles first baseman and slugger Joe Macko told the Dallas Observer
. "And he was a hell of an athlete."
Mossi, who appeared in the Majors with Cleveland along with Hoskins, recalled a sweet and kind man.
"Dave was a very nice guy. He was very personable, and he knew the situation," he said. "It was tough. I was surprised, and being very liberal myself, I couldn't understand the segregation at first. ... Dave kept his place. He knew people were looking at him, wondering what he'd do. He knew he couldn't say anything. He knew he had to just do his job."
That sentiment permeated many of the cities in which Hoskins pitched as the season wore on. The insults and threats kept coming, but his talents and personality were winning people over. As the year wound down, the rival Fort Worth Cats celebrated Dave Hoskins Night at LaGrave Field on Aug. 28. Rising to the occasion, he recorded his 20th win in front of 9,671 fans.
Immensely popular within the African American community in each of the cities in which he played, Hoskins made numerous appearances at group functions and spent countless hours signing autographs for children and adults alike.
Jackie Robinson of the South
While Robinson made the journey through the Majors alone in 1947, Hoskins' early-season success prompted other Texas League teams to act. Unsurprisingly, Burnett was at the front of the line, signing pitcher Jose Santiago to a contract not long after the season opened.
The Puerto Rico native and former Negro Leaguer became Hoskins' roommate. They also became a formidable 1-2 punch on the mound as Santiago won 14 games and compiled a 2.83 ERA in 25 games, including 23 starts.
Oklahoma City also realized the potential impact of talent, regardless of race. The unaffiliated club signed 27-year-old Bill Greason, a former teammate of Willie Mays with the Birmingham Black Barons in the late 1940s. Greason debuted in the Texas League on May 31 and finished 9-1 with a 2.14 ERA in 11 games (10 starts).
Hoskins and Greason faced off once, on Aug. 3, 1952, in what was billed as a historic first-time duel between African American pitchers. More than 11,000 fans -- the largest crowd of the season -- packed into Dallas' Burnett Field, including more than 5,800 African Americans as Greason bested Hoskins, 3-2.
Now 95 years old, Greason has spent most of his life as a pastor. Currently living in Birmingham, Alabama, he vividly remembers what life was like for an African American ballplayer in the segregated South.
"There were always situations that came up, but it wasn't always bad," Greason said. "It was only one or two towns that really came at [African Americans] really hard. I was born and raised in Atlanta. I grew up across the street from Martin Luther King Jr. I knew what segregation was. [African Americans] knew we couldn't go anywhere we wanted to, like white people could. We took things as they were. Staying at separate hotels and eating at different restaurants was the way of it."
Greason, who appeared in three Major League games with the Cardinals in 1954 and who retired five years later to begin his studies as a minister, has fond memories of his Oklahoma City teammates. Like Hoskins, he didn't feel any hatred or animosity from opponents.
"I was received quite well at the ballpark, but that's where it ended. I wasn't getting any invitations to go out and get a beer after the game," he said. "Likely, the [white players] were afraid to be associated with people of color. That's just how it was, particularly in the South. After the game, they went their way and I went mine. The only time we were all together was on the field or in the clubhouse, but I have nothing bad to say about them. They were great teammates."
The tale mirrors the experience Mossi and the Eagles had with Hoskins.
"Dave was something special," Mossi was quoted as saying in Adelson's book. The former southpaw, who was 90 when he died last July, continued, "Some of the southern boys on our team might have been buzzing back and forth about Dave early in the season. ... But they didn't say anything. No one had a problem with Dave playing. It was bigger for the fans than the players. ... The sooner the people saw him, the sooner they'd get into their heads that blacks and whites could be together."
Hoskins' success that year earned him a promotion to the Indians the following year. He made his big league debut on April 18, 1953 at the age of 36, although he continued to claim he was eight years younger. Hoskins was 9-3 with a 3.99 ERA as a rookie, spending the entire season in the Majors. He split 1954 between Dallas and Cleveland, which turned out to be his last Major League experience. Hoskins continued to pitch, primarily at the Triple-A level, until retiring in 1960.
He moved back to Flint, where he worked full-time for General Motors while driving a taxi to supplement his income. He spent the remainder of his life there with his second wife, Cora, and their children. Hoskins suffered a heart attack and died in 1970.
Although Hoskins has faded into obscurity, he'll be forever known as the first African American to play in the Texas League. His statistics show a remarkable ability to succeed on the field while dealing with myriad obstacles off it.
Unlike Robinson, he received no rah-rah speeches from the likes of Branch Rickey, no 'turn the other cheek' directive and certainly no assurances of reaching the Majors. Having seen what Robinson and others endured before him, Hoskins knew what his job entailed as a player and as an African American living and working in the South at that time.
"How tough it must have been for them," Kayser said. "[Cubs Hall of Famer] Billy Williams up and left San Antonio in 1959 because of the abuse he was taking around the league. He needed to be talked into returning by [legendary Negro leaguer] Buck O'Neil. It wasn't a great situation for any of those guys in the early days of integration."
The likes of Hoskins, Greason and others who came before and after knew what awaited them, as ugly as it could be.
"Segregation was the way of things," Greason remembered. "I learned from my parents to ignore what others say about you. That's how I've lived my life. I wasn't looking for anything special. I wasn't trying to mingle or intrude on white people's lives. I just wanted an equal opportunity ... to be judged on my character and talent. The color of my skin had nothing to do with it. I think we all felt the same way."
Michael Avallone is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @MavalloneMiLB.