Major League Baseball’s color ban was broken on Opening Day 1947, when Jackie Robinson started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although he was the first African American to play in Major League Baseball, he wasn’t the only black player to suit up in the big leagues that year. When Robinson heroically opened the door, four other players walked in right behind him.
Like Robinson, these four men had to deal with unimaginable pressure. They all had teammates who wouldn’t shake their hands or play catch with them. They all had fans who ridiculed and threatened them with every slur in the book. None of them could stay in the same hotels as their teammates. And yes, they all had to prove to the world that a black man could be just as good as a white man, not just at baseball, but as members of society. Like #42, they were all pioneers, and deserve their own recognition.
Larry Doby: The first black player in the American League
On July 5, 1947, less than three months after Robinson’s first appearance, Larry Doby pinch-hit in the seventh inning of the Cleveland Indians’ game against the Chicago White Sox, becoming the first black player in the American League. Although his career started out ominously with a strike out, it would end triumphantly, with his bust in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Doby was born in Camden, South Carolina, but became a three-sport star in high school in Paterson, New Jersey. He was soon noticed by the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League, and signed to play professionally with them at age 17. Because he did not want to lose his amateur status–and his scholarship to Long Island University–Doby had to play under a secret identity—“Larry Walker” from Los Angeles. He eventually took his name back, and played for the Eagles for two years before shipping off to the South Pacific in WWII.
Meanwhile, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck was trying hard to integrate the majors. Starting in 1942, Veeck began petitioning the league to let him bring in a black player, but was rejected by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. After Robinson signed with the Dodgers in 1946 (he would spend a year in the minor leagues before his ’47 debut), the door was open for Veeck to sign a black player, too. Because of Doby’s age and skills, as well as his sterling reputation off the field, the choice was an easy one for Veeck.
Unlike what the Dodgers did with Robinson, the Indians did not send Doby off to the minor leagues for any seasoning. Instead, they allowed him to stay in the Negro Leagues with the Eagles (where he’d returned after the war). Veeck waited to make the signing official, wading carefully through the waters of integration until he felt his fan base was ready. Once he felt the time was right, Veeck signed Doby and put him on the big league roster.
Doby got his first start the very next day, but played only sparingly for the rest of the 1947 season. As a regular contributor in 1948, Doby helped the Indians to a World Series championship (they haven’t won since), becoming the first African American to homer in the “Fall Classic.”
He enjoyed a storied career with Cleveland, making the All-Star team every year from 1949 until 1955, before being traded to the White Sox prior to the 1956 season. Although aging and saddled with mounting injuries, Doby was productive for the White Sox but returned to Cleveland for the 1958 season. He retired after 1959–after a bad season spent part time with the Detroit Tigers and back with the White Sox–at the age of 35.
In 1978, Doby became the second black manager in the big leagues, (after the Indians’ player-manager Frank Robinson in 1976), when he helmed the White Sox in the second half of the season. He was elected to the MLB Hall of Fame in 1998, and passed away in 2003.
Although he may have been second to two Robinsons in baseball, he was the first African American to play in the American Basketball League, a predecessor to the NBA, doing so in the winter after he debuted for the Indians.
Hank Thompson and Willard Brown team up
On July 16, 1947, Dan Daniel of The Sporting News wrote in his column, “In St. Louis they say the fans would never stand for Negroes on the Cardinals or the Browns. St. Louis, they insist, ‘is too much of a Southern City.’”
Just one day later, the Browns put that bold prediction to the test, when they signed not just one African American player, but two: Hank Thompson and Willard “Home Run” Brown. Like Jackie Robinson, both Thompson and Brown came over from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League.
The 21-year-old Thompson made his debut at second base on July 17, finishing hitless in four at bats. The Oklahoma native played again the next day, singling off of Red Sox pitcher Dave Ferriss for his first big league hit. The 32-year-old Brown, a Louisiana-born Negro League legend, made his debut in July 19, but went hitless.
On July 20, the two made history by becoming the first black players in the same starting lineup of a big league game. On August 17, the two were in the lineup together again as the Browns played Larry Doby’s Indians, marking the first time African American players had squared off against each other in a game.
Unfortunately, the integration of the Browns was pretty much doomed from the beginning. Unlike with the signings of Robinson and Doby, Thompson and Brown were brought to the majors strictly to boost St. Louis’ sagging attendance. Owner Richard Muckerman saw the surging crowds in Brooklyn and Cleveland. Eager to sell tickets, he struck a deal with Kansas City to integrate his team. The Browns agreed to pay the Monarchs $5,000 up front, and then $5,000 for each man if the club decided to keep them after a period of time. Brown and Thompson were rushed to the big leagues with no minor league experience, and quickly found themselves overwhelmed.
When the time came for the Browns to decide whether or not to keep the struggling sluggers, the team was still not seeing results in the standings—or at the ticket office. Brown was sent back to the Monarchs. Thompson hung around, but was released after the season. The Browns would then unofficially re-segregate, not allowing another black player on the roster until they signed the incomparable Satchel Paige in 1951–coincidentally or not, right after the team was purchased by Bill Veeck, who’d integrated the Indians.
Although Thompson’s stint with the Browns was short-lived, he has the distinction of being the only player to break the color barrier for two different franchises. On July 8, 1949, he and Hall of Famer Monte Irvin became the first African Americans to start for the New York Giants.
Hank played for the Giants until 1956, and passed away in 1969, at the age of 43. Despite never playing again in the majors, Brown was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, 10 years after his death.
Dan Bankhead takes the mound
There was one more pioneer to break the barrier in 1947. Unlike the others, 27-year-old Dan Bankhead did not earn his living as a batter. Four months after Robinson, he took the mound for the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American to pitch in a Major League game.
Bankhead came from a strong baseball background, as he and four of his brothers played in the Negro leagues. He had a solid career with the Birmingham Black Barons and the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League before signing with the Dodgers in 1947.
Bankhead was often compared to Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, and seemingly had all the physical tools to succeed at the big league level. Unfortunately, he never quite put it together against the top competition.
The Alabama native made his debut as a reliever in the Dodgers’ August 26 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates jumped all over Brooklyn’s starter, Hal Gregg, knocking him out of the game with nobody out in the top of the second inning, and Bankhead came in to try to clean up the mess. Unfortunately, the Pirates tagged him for eight runs in just over three innings of work.
The one silver lining of Bankhead’s outing wasn’t even on the mound. It came in his first big league at bat, when he smacked a Fritz Ostermueller pitch over the fence for a two-run home run. That made Bankhead, a pitcher, the first African American to hit a home run in his first big league at bat.
But things never improved on the mound. After only a few more appearances that season, he was sent down, and didn’t return to “the show” again until 1950. That season was, by far, his best, but it wasn’t much to write home about, either. After a handful of appearances in 1951, Bankhead was out of the game for good at age 31. He passed away in 1976.