History Stories

Jackie Robinson wasn’t the only Black baseball player to suit up in the big leagues in 1947. After he broke the color line and became the first Black baseball player to play in the American major leagues during the 20th century, four other players of color soon followed in his footsteps. 

Like Robinson, these four men had to deal with unimaginable pressure. They had teammates who wouldn’t shake their hands, fans ridiculed and threatened them. None could stay in the same hotels as their teammates. And 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.

Larry Doby

Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians

On July 5, 1947, just three months after Jackie Robinson joined the National League, Larry Doby became the American League’s first Black player when he suited up for the Cleveland Indians.

On July 5, 1947, less than three months after Robinson’s first appearance in the National League, 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 on a low note with a strikeout, it ended triumphantly, with his bust in the National 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 played under the pseudonym “Larry Walker.” He eventually took his name back, and played for the Eagles for two years before shipping off to the South Pacific in World War II.

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 spent a year in the minor leagues before his 1947 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 how the Dodgers brought in Robinson, the Indians did not send Doby off to the minor leagues first. 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 player in 1948, Doby helped the Indians advance to a World Series championship, and became the first African American to hit a home run in the “Fall Classic.”

While playing with Cleveland, Doby made the All-Star team every year from 1949 until 1955, before being traded to the White Sox prior to the 1956 season. Although he was saddled with mounting injuries, Doby was productive for the White Sox, but returned to Cleveland for the 1958 season. He played part-time for the Detroit Tigers before returning to the White Sox. He retired in 1959 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 National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998, and passed away in 2003.

Although he may have been second to Robinson in baseball, he was the first African American to play in the American Basketball League (a predecessor to the NBA), when he joined the Paterson Crescents in the winter of 1947.

Hank Thompson and Willard Brown 

Hank Thompson and Willard Brown of the St. Louis Browns

Hank Thompson (left) and Willard Brown (right) sit in the dugout with manager “Muddy” Ruel just after signing with the St. Louis Browns, July 17, 1947.

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 St. Louis 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, Brown and Thompson 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.

Unlike with the signings of Robinson and Doby, Thompson and Brown were brought to the majors mainly 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.

When the time came for the St. Louis to decide whether or not to keep the struggling sluggers, the team was 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 then unofficially re-segregated and did not allow another Black player on the roster until they signed Satchel Paige in 1951. Paige was signed (coincidentally or not) after the team was purchased by Bill Veeck, who had 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 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 

Dan Bankhead of the Brooklyn Dodgers

Dan Bankhead, pictured during Spring Training in 1948, became the first Black pitcher in a Major League baseball game.

There was one more pioneer to break the barrier in 1947. Unlike the others, 27-year-old Dan Bankhead did not earn his standing as a batter, but as a pitcher. Four months after Robinson's debut, owner Branch Rickey signed Bankhead and brought him up to Brooklyn, making the Alabama native the first African American pitcher in Major League Baseball.

Bankhead, who was often compared to Hall-of-Fame pitcher Bob Feller, seemingly had all the tools to succeed at the big league level. He also came from a strong baseball background, as he and four of his brothers all played in the Negro leagues. Bankhead had a solid career with the Birmingham Black Barons and the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League before signing with the Dodgers.

The former U.S. Marine made his debut as a reliever in the Dodgers’ August 26 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates had jumped all over Brooklyn’s starter, Hal Gregg, knocking him out of the game with nobody out in the top of the second inning. When Bankhead came in to try to clean up the mess, the Pirates tagged him for eight more runs in just over three innings.

The one silver lining of Bankhead’s outing did not come on the mound but 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 Major League at-bat.

Unfortunately, things never improved on the mound for Bankhead. According to Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947-1959 by Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt, Bankhead was hampered by control problems, an old injury and an all-too-common disappointment. "Like many of baseball’s first Black players, he was thrown into white baseball with the physical tools to succeed but little or no emotional support,” write the authors. 

After only a few more appearances that season, Bankhead was sent down to the minor leagues, and didn’t return to the Dodgers again until 1950. After a 1951 season, Bankhead left the game for good at age 31. He passed away in 1976.

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