Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A missed opportunity to make baseball history

Jackie Robinson was the first, but not the only African American player to cross over Major League Baseball’s “invisible color line” in 1947.   Larry Doby played his first game for the Cleveland Indians on July 5th of that year to become the first African American in the American League (the Dodgers and Robinson were in the National League).  Two weeks later, the St. Louis Browns signed two black ballplayers:  Willard Brown and Hank Thompson and then in August the Dodgers signed Don Bankhead.

Although Doby hit only .156 in 1947; he was instrumental the next year in helping the Indians become World Series Champions, played 13 seasons in the Major Leagues (1947 – 1959), and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994.  Appearing in ten games in 1947, Bankhead became the first African American to pitch in the Major Leagues and played two other seasons with the Dodgers (1950, 1951).

But St Louis Browns’ Owner Richard Muckerman and General Manager Bill DeWitt were not seriously committed to erasing baseball’s “invisible color line” that year. Their signing of Willard Brown and Hank Thompson, both from Negro League baseball’s Kansas City Monarchs, was solely a haphazard attempt to attract St. Louis’ black baseball fans.  It was a knee jerk reaction to the large crowds following Jackie Robinson in the season’s beginning months.  It was a desperate, but half-hearted attempt to help a financially struggling franchise.

There was no visible commitment from Muckerman to Brown and Thompson as he was noticeably absent from the press conference announcing their signings.  He issued a statement stating the signings were not a cheap trick to boost attendance.  But this was met with skepticism because the Browns were the Major League’s worst franchise.  From 1922 – 1944 they had finished no higher than 3rd place, more than 15 games out of first place 17 of those years.  They won the American League pennant in 1944 when the best players from other teams were in the military, but returned to their losing ways after the war.  When Brown and Thompson were signed in 1947, the Browns were 28 – 50.   Attendance had dropped below 1,000 fans for some of the games.  There is no way Muckerson and DeWitt could have ignored the crowds Jackie Robinson was attracting that spring.

But when the signings of Thompson and Brown did not overcome the negative fan attitude towards the team and produce an instant fix to the attendance problem, the players were released after one month.  The Browns did not give them more time to display their big league talents, nor place them in the team’s minor league system.

Thompson had shown potential by hitting as well as his white teammates (.256 in 27 games).  He eventually played 7 seasons with the New York Giants, helping them win the pennant in 1951 and the World Series in 1954.    Brown, who hit .179 in 21 games; went back to finish his All Star Negro League career and later was one of the first African Americans to play in the Texas League.  He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005. 

The Browns ignored other African American players with Major League potential they could have signed at that time.  It lost the opportunity to be a part of baseball history.  The team did not sign another one until 1953 when under the new ownership. 

What do you remember about the St. Louis Browns?

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