Today, Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, which commemorates the day Robinson crossed the color line of baseball. Robinson is an athlete as revered as he will find in any sport and has become a symbol of how a single person can change a powerful institution for the better. While Robinson himself has survived the magnifying glbad of history as few individuals can, his legacy is still susceptible to reexamination; specifically, it is worth examining what integration really means.
As important as Robinson's debut was, it certainly did not indicate that any racial reconciliation or equality had been achieved. Robinson was nothing more than a player in a league that, moreover, was full of white men, and his presence did not result in a Major League Baseball integrated in 1947. Instead, the integration occurred in a long and slow march for more than a generation, with many individuals playing their own roles of breaking down barriers. It would be a dozen years after Robinson's debut before the Boston Red Sox became the last team to sign his first black player, inking Pumpsie Green in 1959. Jackie did not live to see Frank Robinson become the first black manager in 1975.
One of the defining characteristics of baseball's first steps towards integration was the standard of exceptionality that the first black players had. Jackie was an immediate superstar. He won the inaugural Rookie of the Year award, and his 1949 Most Valuable Player season remains one of the best second-base players. If he had played a full career in MLB (he entered at age 28), his accumulated numbers would place him among the greats of all time. Many other early black players followed his success: Larry Doby, the second black player in the Majors, hit more than .300 in his second season, and went on to make seven All-Star teams; Roy Campanella became Robinson's teammate in 1948 and was named All-Star in each of his first eight full seasons; Every year, from 1949 to 1953, a black player was crowned the National League Rookie of the Year, including Willie Mays in 1951.
But not all the first black players were immediately produced at the elite level, and baseball had no place for those who did not. Willard Brown, who is enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame for his contributions in black leagues, received only 67 turns to prove his worth in 1947 with the St. Louis Browns. By not doing so, it was cut without ceremony. Brown went on to lead the American Negro League in home runs and won two triple crowns in the Puerto Rico Winter League, however, he was never given a second chance in MLB. Similarly, pitcher Dan Bankhead received a mere four-game audition with the Dodgers in 1947, and did not pitch well. He was then relegated to the minors, where he remained for the next two seasons despite winning 20 games each year.
The stories of these players paint a more nuanced image of the barrier: it was Robinson's immense talent (and the luck of that talent being manifested immediately) at least as much as any real racial tolerance that led to the integration of baseball. This should be obvious and it is something that Robinson himself understood. As Leo Durocher allegedly told the Dodgers players that they were skeptical of Robinson, "he can make us all rich."
A definition of integration would be the point at which black players no longer I had be exceptional to survive; when players whose performance was close to that of an average player (white) were allowed to remain in the big leagues; when the MLB finally had black men. This would be a more accurate picture of a player whose presence actually represented a broader racial inclusion, rather than exceptional talent alone.
The list of the first black major leaguers is filled with Hall of Famers such as Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin, and stars like Minnie Miñoso (an All-Star nine times). ) and Don Newcombe (one of only two players in history to win an MVP, a Cy Young and a Rookie of the Year award), along with the washes that were given only the shortest chance to succeed. It was not until the mid-1950s that the first players that did not fit into any category emerged. Two players in particular, Harry Simpson and Bob Boyd, achieved the extraordinary feat of relatively long careers (880 and 696 games, respectively) despite being black and, statistically, only average players. These two men had different career paths, but both showed resistance and achieved their own kind of remarkable success that deserves to be celebrated along with other pioneers like Robinson.
In 1949, an explorer labeled a young gardener and first baseman named Harry "Suitcase" Simpson, and then with the Philadelphia Stars of the National Black League, "the tan Ted Williams." With a smooth movement, Simpson had improved. Success in the black leagues, but impressed enough to offer a test for the MLB teams. On April 21, 1951, the fourth game of the 1951 season, Simpson, 25, made his Major League debut for the Cleveland Indians, entering as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the eighth, becoming the 16th black. Major League Baseball Player. This would start an eight-year, five-team, almost 900 game in which Harry Simpson achieved the unbelievable: he built a career as a black man in Major League Baseball even though he was almost never better than a useful starter.
Far from the 67 at-bats that Willard Brown received, Simpson received more than 1,000 at-bats with the Indians over the course of the 1951, & # 39; 52 & & 39; However, he did not live up to his nickname given by the scout, hitting a .246 much like Williams. As a result, he spent the entire 1954 season in the minors. But Simpson persevered, thanks in part to the expanding role of black players in the majors. Where only five of the 16 baseball teams had recruited a black player before the 1953 season, that number had risen to 12 in early 1955. Simpson was traded to one of those teams, the Kansas City Athletics, where he stayed as a headline Modern statistics rate Simpson's performance with the Athletics as decidedly below average, and he never recorded more than one Over the Top Replacement in any season with them. But he led the league in triples twice, and even played in an All-Star game. Simpson was given more opportunities with the Yankees, the White Sox and the Pirates before his career ran out at the age of 34. Near the end of his career, a newspaper article declared what would have been unimaginable for a black player only a few years earlier. : "No player received more consideration, or a longer and seemingly endless test, than Simpson".
On September 8, 1951, Bob Boyd debuted for the Chicago White Sox. Unlike the Simpson prospect, Boyd was a 31-year veteran of the black leagues, where he was known as a line hitter who hit first base. Boyd was the first black player to sign a contract with the Chicago White Sox, but he had rebounded in the minor leagues and Minnie Miñoso had beaten the White Sox for four months. After accumulating just 18 at-bats in 1951, Boyd never saw the big leagues in 1952, despite leading the Pacific Coast League AAA and the Puerto Rico Winter League in batting average that year. But unlike some previous black players, he had another chance. He took another shot at the White Sox in 1953 by hitting .297 in 55 games, but he was sent back to the minors, where he languished for most of 1954 and all 55. But, persevering as hard as Simpson (or, in fact, as Robinson), Boyd was signed by the Baltimore Orioles before the 1956 season, where he finally landed a regular spot on a major league roster. He spent five seasons with the O's, hitting more than .300 in four of those years, although with very little power. He remained in MLB until he was 41 years old.
Both Simpson and Boyd had long careers defined by the perseverance that we attribute to many more famous pioneers. Each one carried the additional burden of being non-star blacks, who had to constantly justify their professional existence. Consequently, according to an important set of criteria, long careers characterized by performances basically equivalent to those of an average white player, were pioneers of unmistakable integration. They hung around the big leagues in a way that only white men previously had.
Recognizing the careers of Simpson and Boyd is not diminishing the importance of Jackie Robinson. Instead, this rethinking should highlight the enormity of Robinson's talent and the absurd fact that black players had to be transcendent to receive an opportunity. More generally, Simpson and Boyd can teach us an important lesson: if we are ever going to have responsible conversations about breaking down barriers in any paradigm, exceptional people like Robinson can never be the only focus. We must not confuse the excellence of the individuals that first appeared with institutional inclusion. They are not the same. Inclusion, perhaps the most boisterous labor concept of our time, must be measured by the way we treat the Harry Simpsons and Bob Boyds among us. We should ask ourselves if everyone in our environment is allowed the same access to mediocrity. If the answer is "no," then that institution is not inclusive, even if you have Jackie Robinson.
C. Brandon Ogbunu is an academic computer biologist, data scientist and sports journalist. Follow it on twitter @Big_Data_Kane.
Ben Odell suffers the double misfortune of being a lawyer and a lifelong Mets fan.