A Brief History
On February 9, 1971, baseball pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first player from the Negro Leagues so honored. Paige had starred in the Negro Leagues during the years before Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in major league baseball in 1947 when African Americans were not allowed to play in the major leagues. In 1948, Paige became the oldest major league rookie at the age of 42 when he debuted for the Cleveland Indians. In honor of Paige’s achievements and in recognition of February, the annual Black History Month in the United States, we salute those African American baseballers that brought so much entertainment to the American and Canadian baseball fans. (This article is not meant to list every single great African American baseball player and manager as the author would probably die before finishing the article!)
In discussing great African American baseball Hall of Famers, a name that jumps out that cannot be ignored is Frank Robinson, a slugger for several teams and the only player ever to win the League MVP award in both the American and the National League. He retired with 586 home runs and won the exceedingly rare batting Triple Crown in 1966 when he led the American League with 49 home runs, 122 RBI’s and batting an average of .316. A 14 time All-Star, Robinson played from 1956 to 1976, covering a time when Black players were often jeered and booed despite their on field performance. By 1975, the racial climate had improved markedly in the United States after the turmoil of the 1960’s, and in that year the Cleveland Indians made Frank Robinson the first African American Manager (actually a player manager for that first year) of a major league baseball team. Today we take it for granted that African Americans can be baseball managers or the head coach of other sports teams, but all these many Black managers and coaches today can trace their heritage to Frank Robinson. Robinson went on to manage the Giants, Orioles and Expos/Nationals after leaving the Indians. Sadly, Robinson died on February 7, 2019, as this article was being written. (Cause of death was bone cancer.)
Getting back to Satchel Paige, this great pitcher rang up a major league record of 28 wins and 31 losses with an ERA of 3.29. While you may not be impressed, remember, Paige posted those numbers while playing in the major leagues from the age of 42 in 1948 until the age of 59 in 1965 when he made his last appearance! Paige twice made the All-Star squad and is an inductee to the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame. Although his Negro Leagues performance made him a candidate to be the man to break the color barrier, his age caused the younger Jackie Robinson to seem like a more sure fire bet to succeed in the majors. More than just a superb baseball player, Satchel Paige was known as one of the great personalities in baseball, outgoing and extremely personable, often joking and turning a colorful phrase. He died in 1982 at the age of 75.
While Jackie Robinson made history with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League as the first African American to play major league baseball (at least in the modern era), another great Negro Leagues player also made history with the Cleveland Indians by becoming the first African American to play in the American League. Lawrence Eugene “Larry” Doby made his major league debut on July 5 of 1947, going on to a stellar major league career until leaving the majors in 1959. Doby was a slugger, leading the American League in home runs twice and in RBI’s once, while making the All-Star Team 7 times. Doby was not only a pioneering major league baseball player, he also turned to the managerial ranks after Frank Robinson had paved the way for African American coaches to move up to the manager’s office. When Doby was appointed as manager of the Chicago White Sox, he became only the second Black major league manager in baseball history. Of course, Doby is an inductee to the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame and the National Baseball Hall of Fame (among others), and a street next to the Cleveland baseball stadium was named in his honor. He died in 2003 at the age of 79, another victim of cancer. In 2012, Doby was 1 of only 4 baseball players honored by appearing on a US Postage Stamp (with Ted Williams, Willie Stargell, and Joe DiMaggio).
You may readily think of great African American baseball players such as Hammerin’ Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, the 2 most prolific home run hitters in major league baseball history, but during Black History Month we would like to remind our readers of some of the pioneers that made the accomplishments of the great African American players of today possible. (Note: There is a Negro Leagues Museum in Missouri.)
Questions for Students (and others): Did you know Frank Robinson was the first Black major league manager? Had you previously heard of Satchel Paige and Larry Doby? Who is your favorite current and all time baseball players?
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For more information, please see…
Moore, Joseph. Pride Against Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby. Praeger, 1988.
Nelson, Kadir. We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. Jump At The Sun, 2008.
Skipper, John. Frank Robinson: A Baseball Biography. McFarland & Company, 2014.
Tye, Larry. SATCHEL: The Life and Times of an American Legend. Random House, 2009.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Paige (standing, 3rd from left) with the 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords from Heritage Autions, is in the public domain in the United States because it was published in the United States between 1924 and 1977 without a copyright notice. See Commons:Hirtle chart for further explanation.