It was a emotional experience watching the Washington Nationals take the field Friday for Jackie Robinson Day with Robinson’s number 42 in “Dodger Blue” on the back of their jerseys.
The tributes were touching, and it was great to see how today’s ballplayers live out Robinson’s legacy.
Robinson’s debut on April 15, 1947 did not, however, instantly wipe out decades of segregation in baseball or centuries of institutional racism in the United States.
It’s just as important to remember the stories of other Black players who broke the unwritten color barrier in other cities but who did not have the same success or fame as Robinson.
In addition the vitriol of teammates, opponents, and fans, these players faced sports writers who mocked their speech, colored their coverage with racist tropes and stereotypes, and portrayed their humanity as ignorance or naiveté.
Robinson broke the color barrier a year before President Harry S. Truman ordered integration of the U.S. military and seven years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling desegregated U.S. public schools.
It was a dozen years before every major league team had signed at least one Black player and even longer before teams dropped unspoken quotas. For decades, Black players could not stay at the same hotels with or eat with their white teammates. The death threats against Hank Aaron in 1974, when he became baseball’s career home run leader, weren’t the end of it, either.
Baseball also must do more to recognize that Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the federal judge hired as first commissioner to “clean up” the game after a 1919 gambling scandal, was Jim Crow incarnate. Baseball should also do more to uncover the accomplishments of the Black players who Landis kept out of the majors, toiling in obscurity in the Negro Leagues.
Robinson is remembered for enduring racism while leading the Dodgers to the NL pennant and winning the NL Rookie of the Year award. But he faced bigoted taunts and other cultural oppression throughout his career, as did his Black temporaries. The others who became the first Black players for their respective teams suffered even colder receptions from all sides and did not meet as much initial success.
It’s wonderful and appropriate that April 15 is an historic date, but what about July 5? That’s the day Larry Doby became the first Black player in the American League with Cleveland.
Doby got the attention of Washington Senators star Mickey Vernon when both served in the Navy in World War II. But Washington owner Calvin Griffith rejected Vernon’s appeals to sign Doby years earlier, while renting his stadium to Negro League teams and segregating the crowds at Senators games.
Cleveland owner Bill Veeck had armed guards accompany Doby to his major league debut in Chicago, and Doby was shunned by many of his teammates. He played in only 33 games in 1947 and collected just five hits. He was not listed in Rookie of the Year voting.
The next season, Doby broke through with a .301 average and 14 home runs to help Cleveland win the American League pennant and was 29th on the ballot for AL MVP, behind teammate and manager Lou Boudreau.
But even after a career that included seven straight All-Star games and going on to become baseball’s second Black manager with Veeck’s Chicago White Sox in 1978, Doby was not elected to the Hall of Fame until 1997 by the Veterans Committee.
Washington was one of the last teams to sign a Black player, Carlos Paula, whose legacy is even more complicated. Paula’s debut on Sept. 6, 1954 was barely mentioned in the newspaper, and his short career was eventful, although not very successful.
Paula was Cuban, signed by Griffith’s famous scout, Joe Cambria, a pioneer in signing Latin American players and an owner of a Negro League team, the Baltimore Black Sox.
Unlike Robinson, Doby, or some other players who broke the color barrier, Paula was not brought to the major leagues with fanfare but kept in the minors, where he showed prodigious power and good base-running ability.
Hall-of-Fame manager Bucky Harris did not seem to eagerly anticipate Paula’s arrival in the big leagues, either, complaining to reporters of a “hitch” in his swing and that he chased pitches.
Paula went 2-for-5 with a double and two RBIs in his major league debut, the first game of a doubleheader, and went hitless in the second, yet was mentioned only in the last paragraph of the game story in The Washington Post.
He appeared in 26 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter, and finished with a .167 average.
In 1955, new manager Chuck Dressen was reluctant to play him, but Paula found his way into the lineup and wound up hitting .299 with 6 homers, 20 doubles, 7 triples and 45 RBIs. He also committed 10 of the 11 errors he would compile in his three-year career. Newspaper coverage focused on his fielding and base-running mistakes.
A Post profile called Paula a “character” and implied that his accounts of growing up and playing baseball in Cuba were fantastical. His attempts to communicate in English were spelled phonetically, making him seem uneducated.
During Spring Training 1956, Paula left the team to be with his mother in Cuba after she had a heart attack. He returned to the team before Opening Day, but was sent to the minors.
That season was Paula’s last in the majors. He played in just 33 games, and while he remained with the organization for two more seasons, Dressen complained Paula’ was “not very smart” and “doesn’t pay attention,” and that Paula showed up late to Spring Training and stayed out too late at night.
Paula was, in fact, remembered for decades, but not for integrating a major league team or any of the good things he did on the baseball field. Paula became the personification of poor fielding, base-running gaffes, and negative stereotypes as the punch line of cartoonish quips ridiculing players’ mistakes well into the 1980s.
Doby, Paula, and the other Black players who were the first to play for their respective teams in the majors, don’t get their own day to be remembered. But they deserve more recognition for their legacies, as do the Negro Leagues players whose stats and accomplishments are only beginning to be recognized by the major leagues.
Teams have paid tribute to their cities’ Negro Leagues legacies sporadically in the past, but now that we have a federal holiday and a weekend commemorating the end of chattel slavery in the United States, baseball can acknowledge and start to atone for its role in the decades of institutional racism that have followed.
On the weekend of Juneteenth National Independence Day, June 19, the Nationals and all major league teams should wear uniforms commemorating the Negro Leagues. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum owns the trademarks and licenses for those uniforms, and putting them on major leaguers would benefit the museum’s mission of documenting and educating about the achievements of Negro Leagues players.
The Nationals have already scored a big fashion hit with their City Connect uniforms featuring D.C.’s famous cherry blossoms. Now they can take fashion leadership as seriously as it can be taken in baseball and honor a part of the game’s past that is still not getting enough attention.
The reason this hasn’t happened already is most likely because the licensed manufacturers of various major league uniform apparel don’t have licenses to produce Negro League logos and trademarks.
Baseball’s business arrangements are myriad and confusing, but they would also be a poor excuse for not honoring the legacy of the Negro Leagues and players who may not otherwise be remembered but owe Jackie Robinson their careers.