Jackie Robinson and the Integration Advantage

© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared at FanGraphs on April 17, 2018 to mark the 71st anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking major league baseball’s color line.

Sunday was Jackie Robinson Day around the majors, commemorating the anniversary — the 71st, this year — of the fall of baseball’s color line via Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But just as Robinson’s immeasurable courage in confronting racism and the immense talent he showed while playing at the highest level deserve more than a single day for paying tribute, so too is it worth remembering the black players who bravely followed in his footsteps and ensured that baseball’s great experiment would not be a one-off. In the two decades following Robinson’s arrival, the influx of talent, first from the Negro Leagues and then the sandlots and high schools whose players previously could not have dreamt of such an opportunity, radically transformed the National League, in particular.

Led by president and general manager Branch Rickey, the Dodgers, of course, got the jump. During Robinson’s major-league career, which lasted from 1947 to 1956, the Dodgers won six pennants as well as their lone Brooklyn-era championship in 1955. In addition to becoming a pioneer of tremendous importance, Jackie himself was the game’s third-most valuable player over that span according to WAR (57.2), behind only Stan Musial and Ted Williams. While the Dodgers had a great supporting cast of white players such as Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider, those teams also got great work from two Negro Leagues graduates whom Rickey had signed before Robinson even reached the majors — namely Roy Campanella, who debuted in 1948 and went on to win three NL MVP awards, and Don Newcombe, who debuted in 1949, won Rookie of the Year honors that season, and would later win a Cy Young and an MVP award.

Though Rickey lost a power struggle to Walter O’Malley and was forced to sell his share of the team following the 1950 season, the Dodgers furthered their dominance over the NL in part by continuing to sign talented black players. Under Buzzie Bavasi as general manager and Fresco Thompson as director of minor-league operations, the organization added right-hander Joe Black (1952 NL Rookie of the Year), infielder Jim Gilliam (1953 NL Rookie of the Year), outfielder Sandy Amoros, second baseman Charlie Neal, catcher John Roseboro, shortstop Maury Wills (1962 NL MVP), and outfielders Tommy Davis and Willie Davis (no relation), among others.

Amoros, Black, and Gilliam would augment the Dodgers’ Robinson-era core, and the latter remained a vital lineup cog through the transitional phase that included the franchise’s 1957 move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and their return to powerhouse status behind the one-two pitching punch of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Neal, Roseboro, and Wills would each spend at least half a decade in the minors and/or as understudies awaiting their shots before contributing to the team’s 1959 pennant and championship, with the latter two becoming more central alongside the two Davises as the team won championships in 1963 and 1965, and added one more pennant in 1966, Koufax’s final year. Tommy Davis, a left fielder, won back-to-back NL batting titles in 1962 and -63, while Willie Davis, a center fielder, was the position’s best defender this side of Willie Mays (his three errors in Game Two of the 1966 World Series to the contrary).

In addition to their 10 pennants during the 1947-66 span, the Dodgers narrowly missed three more, one on the final day of the 1950 regular season (they lost to the “Whiz Kid” Philadelphia Phillies, whom they could have tied with a victory) and two more to the New York Giants in best-of-three playoffs, not only in 1951 but also in 1962. While a pair of American League teams, the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns, both integrated before the 1947 season was over, it would take until 1949 for the next NL team (the Giants) to do so, with the Boston Braves following a year later — with yet another player the Rickey-era Dodgers had signed, outfielder Sam Jethroe. The Giants, who would pluck Mays out of the Negro Leagues in June 1950, and Braves, who would do likewise with Hank Aaron in June 1952, would become the only other NL teams to win multiple pennants during that two-decade span, while the rest of the Senior Circuit was largely left in the dust:

The Integration Advantage: NL Standings, 1947-66
Rk Team W L W-L% Pennants
1 Dodgers 1832 1294 .586 10
2 Braves 1706 1414 .547 3
3 Giants 1687 1438 .540 3
4 Cardinals 1645 1473 .528 1
5 Reds 1541 1575 .495 1
6 Phillies 1514 1604 .486 1
7 Pirates 1431 1687 .459 1
8 Cubs 1338 1780 .429 0
9 Colt .45s/Astros* 333 475 .412 0
10 Mets* 260 547 .322 0
*Denotes 1962 expansion club.

The Cardinals had dominated the NL in the years just before integration, winning pennants every year from 1942 to 1946 save for 1945, when they finished second to the Cubs; they won the World Series in the three even-numbered seasons. Though they had been the game’s most forward-thinking organization during Rickey’s 1926-42 run as general manager, creating the modern farm system, they would not integrate until April 13, 1954, via first baseman Tom Alston, who struggled during his first two-plus months on the job and was demoted to Triple-A Rochester. As the majors’ southernmost city, with the game’s largest radio network furthering the reach, the Cardinals cultivated white Southern fans, and Fred Saigh, who bought the the club from the ailing Sam Breadon in 1947, would not let general manager Bing Devine sign black players. Despite a lineup centered around Musial and fellow future Hall of Famers Enos Slaughter and Red Schoendienst, the Cardinals couldn’t return to the top of the NL.

Not until Anheuser-Busch bought the franchise in 1953, after Saigh had been indicted for income tax evasion, did the Cardinals get serious about integration via August Busch Jr.’s hiring of Negro Leagues veteran Quincy Trouppe to scout, and not until the team acquired going-on-20-year-old center fielder Curt Flood from the Reds in December 1957 would they have a black regular in the lineup.

While the date April 15, 1947, is etched into history, Rickey signed Robinson to his first professional contract over 19 months earlier. Summoned to the Dodgers’ business offices on 215 Montague Street (a location not far from this author’s residence), the 26-year-old Robinson first met with Rickey, who asked him if he could withstand the abuse he was certain to take from some fans and players. “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” asked an angry Robinson. “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back,” answered Rickey.

Robinson’s contract would not be announced until October 23, 1945. Less than a month later, the Dodgers signed John Wright, a 28-year-old Negro Leagues pitcher who would join Robinson as a member of the Montreal Royals, the team’s Triple A affiliate. On April 4, 1946, the Dodgers announced the signing of two other players out of the Negro Leagues, Campanella and Newcombe, who would join the team’s Class B affiliate in Nashua, New Hampshire, managed by future Dodgers skipper Walter Alston. The pair were reported as 23 and 22 years old, respectively, but based upon their birthdates now listed at Baseball-Reference, they were actually 24 and 19.

Robinson, of course, was such a success while helping the Royals to the International League championship and a victory over the American Association’s Louisville Colonels in the Little World Series that he was promoted to the Dodgers the following year, a tale that by now is both familiar and yet remarkable. Wright, who lacked a major league-caliber fastball, did not pan out; he was soon demoted to Trois-Rivieres of the Canadian-American League and replaced on the Montreal roster by another Negro Leagues veteran, 35-year-old Roy Partlow, though soon he was demoted, as well. Neither would ever reach the majors.

Compared to the hostility Robinson faced at times in the International League, Campanella and Newcombe had a relatively easy time integrating the New England League. Both excelled, and after a second-place finish in the regular season, Nashua won the championship in the four-team postseason format. While all eyes were on Robinson breaking in with the Dodgers, Campanella had been promoted to the Royals, but Newcombe was left to spend another year honing his curveball in Nashua.

Though forced to adapt to an unfamiliar position (first base) to go with the incredible scrutiny and, at times, nearly unbearable abuse, Robinson held his own early in the 1947 season, reeling off a 14-game hitting streak to start May and then a 21-gamer from June 14 through July 4. By the end of it, he was hitting .315/.404/.407 and the Dodgers were in first place to stay. They would go 94-60, winning the NL pennant by five games before losing to the Yankees in a seven-game World Series. For the season, Robinson hit .297/.383/.427 with 12 homers, a league-high 29 steals, and a solid 3.5 WAR. He won the BBWAA’s first Rookie of the Year award, an honor that was renamed for him in 1987.

On August 24, 1947, the Dodgers debuted 27-year-old Dan Bankhead, whom they had purchased from the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League. He became the first black pitcher in major-league history, though he made just four appearances that year and wouldn’t resurface in the majors until 1950. On April 20, 1948 (Opening Day), Campanella debuted; he went on to hit .258/.345/.416 with nine homers and 1.6 WAR that year. Newcombe finally debuted for the Dodgers on May 20, 1949; he went 17-8 with a 3.17 ERA, a league-high five shutouts and 5.6 WAR en route to winning the first NL Rookie of the Year award (previously, one award covered both leagues). He, Campanella (.287/.385/.498, 4.3 WAR), and Robinson (.342/.432/.528 and an NL-high 9.6 WAR) were among the seven Dodgers to make that year’s NL All-Star team. The Dodgers won 97 games and the pennant but again fell to the Yankees in the World Series. Robinson was named the league’s MVP, another first for a black player.

While the Dodgers led the way, the Indians and Browns climbed on the integration bandwagon before the 1947 season was out, albeit with less immediately successful results. On July 3, 1947, the Indians — whose maverick owner Bill Veeck had sought to buy the Phillies and integrate them in 1944 — purchased the contract of 23-year-old second baseman Larry Doby from the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. Doby would make history as the AL’s first black player two days later, though he played just 29 games and batted 33 times that year. Less than two weeks later, on July 12, the lowly Browns would debut 21-year-old second baseman Hank Thompson and, two days after that, 32-year-old outfielder Willard Brown. The pair were poorly received, and both struggled mightily in the face of racist treatment, even from teammates. Brown hit his only major-league home run — the first in AL history by a black player, with the bat of teammate Jeff Heath, who afterwards smashed the bat rather than let Brown use it again. On August 23, the Browns released both Thompson, who would become the first player to integrate the Giants on July 8, 1949, and Brown, who would never play in the majors again but was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006.

Aided by instruction from Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, Doby converted to center field and settled into the Indians’ lineup, hitting .301/.384/.490 with 14 homers and 4.5 WAR in 1948. On July 9, he was joined by 42-year-old (?) Satchel Paige, who would go 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA in seven starts and 14 relief appearances, good for 1.7 WAR. The pair helped the Indians to the AL pennant and a World Series victory over the Braves, who had outpaced the Dodgers and the Cardinals.

Integration-wise, Veeck made two other notable transactions, one in 1948, and the other in -49. Acting on a tip from Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein, whose players occasionally earned extra money by suiting up for Negro Leagues teams, Veeck signed Cuban-born Minnie Minoso, who may or may not have been 22 years old, depending upon the multiple, contradictory sources. Minoso went 21-for-40 for the Class-A Dayton Indians of the Central League in the final weeks of the season.

In February 1949, Veeck signed slugging first baseman Luke Easter, who had starred for the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League. Easter told Veeck he was 27 years old, but at the time he was actually 33. Assigned to the Indians’ Pacific Coast League affiliate, the San Diego Padres, Easter suffered a right-knee injury during a spring-training collision and then was hit on the same kneecap by a pitch. He would not debut in the majors until August 11 and went homerless in 54 plate appearances. Minoso beat him to the majors, debuting on April 19, 1949, thus becoming the first Afro-Latino major leaguer, but with a lineup that featured All-Star Ken Keltner at third base (the position at which Minoso starred for the New York Cubans) as well as Doby and hot-hitting Dale Mitchell in the outfield, they had little room to accommodate him. After Minoso began his career by going 3-for-20, Veeck sent him to San Diego, where he would spend the better part of the next two seasons destroying PCL pitching.

For as much progress as the Indians made with regards to integration, Veeck was forced to sell the team in late 1949 to settle his divorce. Minoso was traded to the White Sox on April 30, 1951 — becoming their first black player the next day — and while Doby and Easter continued as part of the team’s powerful lineup, aside from 1954 (when the Doby-fueled Indians won again) and 1959, no team could get past the Yankees, who won 15 AL pennants and 10 championships from 1947 to 1964. The Yankees succeeded despite not integrating until April 14, 1955, via catcher Elston Howard, making them the 13th of the 16 major-league teams to do so.

The Giants, who had been only intermittently able to break into the first division since their last World Series appearance in 1937, became the fourth major-league team to integrate on July 8, 1949, with Thompson, the former Brown, starting at second base and 30-year-old Monte Irvin, who had starred for the Newark Eagles, pinch-hitting. Thompson played regularly the rest of the way, hitting .280/.377/.444 en route to 1.9 WAR in 75 games, but Irvin scuffled (.224/.366/.316) while playing sporadically. Thompson took over third-base duties the following season and excelled on both sides of the ball, hitting .289/.391/.463 with 20 homers and 5.0 WAR, second on the team. Irvin, initially a fourth outfielder, took over starting first-base duties over the final two months of the season and finished at .299/.392/.497 with 3.2 WAR. The Giants totaled 86 wins that year, their best showing since 1937.

On May 25, 1951, a 20-year-old Mays joined Irvin and Thompson in the Giants lineup. Though he went just 1-for-26 to start his career, he quickly came around, and finished the year hitting .274/.356/.472 with 20 homers and 3.9 WAR, good for NL Rookie of the Year honors. That year, the Giants famously overcame the Dodgers’ 13-game lead, tying them at 96 wins by the end of the regular season and winning the best-of-three playoff via Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Though they lost to the Yankees in the World Series, in the opener they made history with the first all-black outfield, with the versatile Thompson playing right field alongside Mays and Irvin.

The Braves, whose 1948 pennant represented their only one — and one of their rare first-division finishes — since 1914, integrated on April 18, 1950, with the debut of Jethroe, who had spent a long time waiting his turn. Like Robinson, he had been part of an infamous sham tryout put on by the Red Sox on April 16, 1945, to appease a city councilman named Isadore Muchnick, who threatened to lead an effort to revoke the permits that allowed the team to play on Sundays. Whether it was owner Tom Yawkey or general manager Eddie Collins is unknown, but while the players worked out, somebody in the stands shouted, “Get those n——s off the field!” The Red Sox wouldn’t integrate until July 21, 1959, via second baseman Pumpsie Green, making them the last team of the 16 teams to do so.

The Dodgers had signed the 31-year-old Jethroe, who had starred for the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League, on July 11, 1948, and sent him to Montreal, where he joined Newcombe and helped the Royals to another International League championship. Though “The Jet” had elite speed — he set an IL record with 89 stolen bases in 1949 and was variously clocked at 5.9 and 6.1 seconds in the 60-yard dash, unofficially beating and matching a world record — Rickey’s concerns about his modest power and the presence of Snider in center field led to his trade to the Braves on October 4, 1949. Five players changed sides in the deal, with the Dodgers receiving at least $100,000 in cash, as well. Jethroe went on to hit .273/.338/.442 with 18 homers, an NL-high 35 steals, and 2.9 WAR, winning Rookie of the Year honors.

Though Jethroe lasted only three seasons in Boston, with a 4.0-WAR follow-up and a 1.4-WAR fade, the Braves’ integration continued, first with the addition of 31-year-old backup first baseman George Crowe (whom they had signed in 1949) in 1952, then the arrivals of 27-year-old center fielder Bill Bruton (who led the NL in steals in each of his first three seasons) and 29-year-old reserve outfielder Jim Pendleton (originally signed by the Dodgers in 1949) in 1953, and then the 20-year-old Aaron in 1954. The latter began his string of 21 straight All-Star seasons the following year, won the first of two batting titles in 1956, and then NL MVP in 1957, hitting .322/.378/.600 with 44 homers and 7.6 WAR (second in the league to Mays’ 8.4) while leading the team to a pennant and a World Series win over the Yankees. With Bruton in center and Wes Covington (signed in 1952, debuted in 1956) in left, the Braves regularly featured an all-black outfield. They would win another pennant in 1958 but fall to the Yankees, and then, at the tail end of a three-way race that also involved the Giants, lose a best-of-three playoff to the Dodgers in 1959.

The Pirates, starring Roberto Clemente (a 1954 Dodgers signee who was lost later that year in the Rule 5 Draft) and Reds, starring Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson, would interrupt the three teams’ dominance by winning pennants in 1960 and ’61, respectively. But in 1962, a very colorful Giants squad outlasted the Dodgers with a playoff win. Not only did the Giants feature Mays in his prime (10.5 WAR, a new career high), they had come up with back-to-back black Rookies of the Year in slugging first basemen/outfielders Orlando Cepeda (1958) and Willie McCovey (1959), whom they struggled to fit into the same lineup. The former, who was born in Puerto Rico, was part of a strong Afro-Latino presence on the team that included Dominican-born outfielders Felipe and Matty Alou, brothers who debuted in 1958 and -60, respectively (a third brother, Jesus, would debut in 1963), and Manny Mota, who arrived in 1963. As if that weren’t enough, they also featured Dominican-born staff ace Juan Marichal, who debuted in 1960. Alas, those Giants lost a seven-game World Series to the Yankees.

In 1964, the Cardinals finally returned to the top of the NL. Their lineup featured not only Flood but also newly acquired left fielder Lou Brock (who debuted with the Cubs in 1961 and was acquired by St. Louis on June 15, 1964) and first baseman Bill White (who debuted with the Giants in 1956 but soon got lost behind Cepeda and McCovey), with righty Bob Gibson (who debuted in 1959) their staff ace. They won the NL pennant and beat the Yankees in a thrilling seven-game World Series. With the exception of White, who was dealt to the Phillies in October 1965 and soon replaced by Cepeda, that core would fuel the team’s 1967 champions and ’68 pennant winners

That’s a story for another day. In addition to the 16 pennants and five championships won by the Dodgers, Giants, and Braves over the 1947-66 span, players from those three teams claimed nine of the 20 NL MVP awards — three by Campanella, two by Mays, and one apiece by Aaron, Newcombe, Jackie Robinson, and Wills. Three other black players, Ernie Banks (twice), Clemente, and Frank Robinson, accounted for three more in that span, and Cepeda, Gibson, and McCovey would go on to win in 1967, -68, and -69, respectively. Newcombe would represent the only black Cy Young winner until Gibson in 1968, but in addition to Jackie Robinson winning the first Rookie of the Year award, seven other black players from those three teams won NL Rookie of the Year from 1947 through 1966: Newcombe, Jethroe, Mays, Black, Gilliam, Cepeda and McCovey. Again, black players accounted for three more via Frank Robinson, Billy Williams and Dick Allen. In terms of WAR, 10 of the top 25 position players in the NL from that 20-year span were black, though none played throughout its entirety, including Mays (first, 123.4 WAR), Aaron (fourth, 90.2), Jackie (ninth, 57.2), Campanella (16th, 38.2), Gilliam (22nd, 32.7) and Cepeda (25th, 31.7) from the three teams in question.

Those players left an indelible stamp on the National League, and most of them are now in the Hall of Fame. Had Jackie Robinson not succeeded in such spectacular fashion to start that that incredible wave, who knows how it all might have unfolded, but that it did, in such resounding fashion, is one of the game’s greatest chapters.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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John W.
5 years ago

Thanks, this is an excellent read.