An All-Star Game without All of the Stars

The first Major League Baseball All-Star Game took place in 1933, which was about 15 years too late.

Granted, that All-Star debut didn’t lack spectacle or star power – seven of the nine starters for the American League were eventual Hall of Famers, while four National League starters later earned Cooperstown entry.

Even the managers carried legend with them.  John McGraw and Connie Mack led their respective teams for 86 years between them, collectively winning 19 pennants and 8 World Series titles.  Both earned Hall of Fame honors and are still considered two of the greatest managers in the history of the sport.

So, as debuts go, the 1933 All-Star Game was, indeed, gold plated and diamond encrusted.

1933 All Star

Still, if the All-Star tradition had started a decade or two earlier, the 1933 edition would have still been played in all of its magnificence, it just would have been the latest in a string of great games leading up to it.  Earlier contests would have also allowed a whole slate of star players the chance to shine in such an elite showcase – a chance not afforded in 1933 because they had already left the game.

Consider 1919 – yes, the year of the Black Sox and the eternal tarnishing of baseball’s soul.  However, if there was an All-Star game that year, the American League could have matched the 1933 roster with seven Hall of Famers in the starting nine. And that magnificent seven would have included top-tier talents like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, George Sisler, and Walter Johnson – all of whom had retired by 1933.

For good measure, the American Leaguers could boast about having Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest left-handed hitters in baseball history, on the team and having the version of him before he decided to corrupt himself and his sport in the World Series that fall.  Harry Heilmann would also be available to them – the only big league player to crest .400, win four batting titles, be selected for the Hall of Fame, and yet remain shamefully invisible in the public’s collective memory.

Harry Heilmann Detroit Slugger

And if the game was close and the team needed an immediate offensive dividend, they could use a 24- year old outfielder from the Boston Red Sox named George Ruth, who was on the cusp of changing the sport forever by tethering the age of power hitting to his booming bat and sling-shotting it forward.

Ruth1918

In 1919, Ruth hit 29 home runs, 17 more than anyone else in the majors.  He also won nine games on the mound with an ERA under 3.00.  So, if the American League needed it, Ruth was capable of launching a homer to grab the lead and then pitching an inning or two to protect it.

As for the National League, they weren’t exactly sacrificial mutton, either.  They could roll out five Hall of Fame starters themselves, including second baseman Rogers Hornsby, a two-time Triple Crown winner, and pitcher Grover Alexander, whose 90 career shutouts are still the second most All-time after Walter Johnson.

Alexander

Coincidentally, the managers for the hypothetical 1919 game likely would have been the same ones who oversaw the actual 1933 contest, John McGraw and Connie Mack – except they would have been 14 years younger and strategically devoted to the more nuanced “dead ball” aspects of play at that time.

Since the “Dead Ball” era (circa, 1900-1920 and so named because of the lack of carry of the ball) emphasized pitching and base running above all else, the 1919 version would have been more stealing than slugging, more spitballs than fastballs, and much more bunting than anyone has ever seen since.  That is, such strategy would permeate until Mack decided to play his trump card, Ruth, and then the big fellow would try to put a hole in the outfield grandstands with one swing of the bat.

That mythical 1919 All-Star Game would have been an extraordinary thing to behold, for sure.  There would be a few things missing, though – namely, diversity and equality, along with some truly remarkable players.

If the times were more enlightened and the people who ran the majors – as well as the fans who watched – in 1919 had been more accepting and progressive in their thinking, this hypothetical All-Star game would have surpassed the actual 1933 debut in most ways imaginable.

Had star players from the Negro Leagues been allowed to play in the majors in 1919 the infusion of talent and innovation would have been enormous and transformed the sport in ways that might well still be felt today. Such integration would have also allowed two full generations of players to shape big league identities, preserving their baseball legacies in ways only Major League notoriety seems able to do – fair or not – and cast them forward.

But integration didn’t happen in 1919 or 1929 or 1939, it took Major League baseball until 1947 to finally tear down the invisible fence it had built on ignorance and stupidity and fear.  And that fence had deprived the big leagues of decades’ worth of historical impact and memorable matchups – not to mention the utterly unnecessary insult and vitriol it directed at hundreds, if not thousands, of faultless players.

The failure to integrate baseball in 1919 is especially galling, because America was only a year removed from its participation in World War I.  Among the soldiers sent to fight for flag and country were 40,000 African-American troops.  They served honorably, fought with tenacity, and died courageously.

Soldiers

When the fighting stopped and the soldiers returned, African-Americans collectively hoped that the battle sacrifices of black troops abroad merited social progress at home. Sadly, that did not happen.  Not much changed – in the factories or political arenas or on baseball fields.

Black men could take a bullet in France fighting a faraway war but could not take the field alongside white players in America.

It was a great shame, not just from a social equality perspective but from a sporting standpoint, too, because many of the best players in the world at that time were black.

To underscore this, if the American League could have fielded seven Hall of Fame players with their best starting lineup in 1919 – a rather impressive number – the African-American community of the time could have done even better.  Comprised of black players playing in their own professional leagues that year, an African-American All-Star team would have included eight Hall of Famers.

Centerfielder Oscar Charleston could do it all – a power-hitting, defensive wizard with speed.  And he did it with the kind of competitive edge that bordered on rage but stayed just controlled enough to be considered productive fury.  In 1919, he was 22 and hit a whisper under .400, while belting eight home runs in just under 180 at bats.

Charleston Oscar_FL w bat 6545.76 PDCharleston’s outfield mates would have included Pete Hill – a lean base stealer with a slashing, line drive-making swing, and Cristobel Torriente – a stocky Cuban power hitter with surprising stealth.  Defensively, the trio’s superb athletic range would have swallowed would-be hits like few others ever could.

As for defense, few players had better reputations for glove work than third baseman William “Judy” Johnson and shortstop John Henry “Pop” Lloyd.  Johnson had remarkable defensive reflexes.  His ability to charge and field bunts became a trademark of his Hall of Fame skills.

Even though he was 35 years old in 1919, Pop Lloyd could still play.  In fact, Lloyd played another 13 seasons after 1919.  Like Oscar Charleston, Lloyd had all-around brilliance to his game.  On defense, he earned the nickname “El Cuchara” when he played in Cuba for his ability to dig out tough grounders, scooping them to nab base runners as though served up on a tablespoon.  At the plate, his tremendous hands allowed him to place the ball all over the diamond and, when needed, he could lengthen the bat and send a booming drive for extra bases.

Lloyd

First baseman Ben Taylor was a gentleman first and ballplayer second.  That he had Hall of Fame baseball talent speaks as much or more to his grace and integrity off the field than his magnificent skills on it.  As a player, he was a smart hitter with a penchant for getting big hits and a nimble defender recognized for his agility around the bag.  As a mentor and teacher, he guided young players for decades after his playing days.  His most famous protégé, Hall of Famer Buck Leonard, credited Taylor with not only teaching him how to play first base but also how to be a professional.

Behind the plate, William “Biz” Mackey was everything a great catcher is supposed to be – tough, smart, fearless, and strong armed.  When he called a game, pitchers followed him, because he knew the psychology of hitters as well as he knew the physics of pitching.  It was a lethal combination.  Add to that, a .300 bat and a towering but classy presence, and the result is one of the great catching careers in baseball history.

Mackey Biz 1052.86_FL_PD

On the mound, Joe Williams – appropriately nicknamed “Smokey Joe” – had a fastball that rivaled any of the time for sheer speed and intimidation.  From Seguin, Texas, Williams had the classic look of a power pitcher – tall, broad shouldered, and deadly serious with a baseball in his hand.  Soft spoken off the field, Williams let his searing fastball tell the story.  And when it did, that story included a 27-strikeout, 12-inning shutout, a string of 20 straight wins early in Williams’ career, and a poll naming the tall Texan the greatest pitcher in Negro League history.

Williams

Like their Major League counterparts, a 1919 Negro League All-Star team could also supply a Hall of Fame manager.

Andrew “Rube” Foster had an aura – an impressive mélange of confidence, defiance, and ambition.  As one of baseball’s greatest managers, Foster also had an impressive range of vision.  He saw things as they might happen, how they should happen, and how best to narrow the distance between the two.

Foster

Above all else, Foster’s vision of the game emphasized speed and precision.  The synchronicity of runners flashing from base to base and the hitter putting the ball in play at the just the right moment and location required immense discipline.

Under less demanding leadership, such a bold strategy would have disintegrated into chaos.  However, Foster demanded attention and obedience because of his supreme confidence in himself and his players.  Subsequently, those players succeeded largely because they simply believed they could not fail.

In 1910, Foster and his players perfected the concept.  Compiling an astonishing 123-6 record that season, the Leland Giants may have been one of the greatest teams to ever take the field.  Led by Pop Lloyd, the Giants were a blur on offense and seamless on defense, executing Foster’s demanding game plan flawlessly.

During one brilliant stretch, Foster’s teams won 12 championships in 13 seasons (1910-1922).  So, in 1919, Foster was still at the apex of his managerial genius.

After he left the dugout, Foster organized the Negro National League and became one of the most visible African-American entrepreneurs in the country.  When he was finished, Foster built some of the greatest black baseball teams in history, built the first black baseball league, and, finally, built a legacy which is still regarded as one of the most innovative and successful in the game.

So, if in some parallel universe, the powers that be organized an All-Star game in 1919 and were impartial and decent enough to allow all players of all races to participate, it would have been one hell of a show.

Consider some of the unforgettable showdowns.

Ty Cobb, sharpened spikes and all, racing into second on a steal attempt, in a virtual dead heat with Biz Mackey’s rifle-armed throw to the bag. Walter Johnson trying to sling his legendary fastball past Oscar Charleston, whose lightning fast reflexes rivaled those of any hitter that Johnson had ever seen. 

Johnson

George Sisler belting a ball deep into one of the outfield gaps then waiting to see if Pete Hill could run it down before it hit the turf.  And Joe Williams, with his cap pulled down taut, staring down brawny Babe Ruth with the game on the line. All the while, Rube Foster would match strategic wits with John McGraw or Connie Mack – three of the sharpest baseball minds in history.

As icing, all of this could have happened at the rollicking and rowdy Polo Grounds, right on the edge of Harlem in New York City.  It was the longtime home of the New York Giants and, with its enigmatic but fascinating oblong dimensions, would have been the perfect cathedral to house this perfect jewel of a game.

Polo Grounds

The fully integrated 1919 All-Star contest was the greatest game that never happened.

But if it had, it would have had a tremendous ripple effect by the time the American and National Leagues squared off in 1933.

Assuming integration continued – and thrived – the 1933 All-Star Game would not only have included big league greats like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Carl Hubbell, no fewer than 16 Negro League stars and eventual Hall of Fame players would have been available as well.

Catcher Josh Gibson, widely considered the greatest power hitter in Negro League history, and outfielder James “Cool Papa” Bell, similarly regarded as the fastest man to play in the league, would have provided remarkably dangerous levels of muscle and quickness to whichever side was fortunate enough to have them.

Gibson hit so many home runs and hit them with such force that the sheer volume – both in number and decibel level – seems overwhelming.  Some sources credit him with over 900 homers in his 17-year career, including one launched completely out of Yankee Stadium.  While debate may linger on the exact number of home runs he hit, few squabble over the devastating kinetics of his swing.

Gibson

Bell’s speed could not be reduced solely to the art of the steal – using the number of bases he took over his career as the only metric to evaluate his historic quickness.  He learned how to weaponize his speed, turning into as much psychological dagger as strategic windfall.  He often beat out routine grounders for hits and would sometimes score from second on a sacrifice fly.  And that consistent ability to take an extra 90 feet not available to ordinary players made Bell especially worrisome to opponents, because – as the cliché goes – speed never slumps.

Bell2

Pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige named his pitches, called out hitters, and then backed up all of that bluster the moment the ball left his hand.  Paige pitched for 25 seasons, hopping from teams and leagues like a symmetric stone skipping across a lake.  Everywhere he went, though, he entertained and impressed.  In exhibition games against white Major Leaguers, Paige garnered respect for his considerable abilities from a string of big league stars, including Joe DiMaggio and Babe Herman.  They all knew he could play at an elite level; it was only his circumstance that determined where.

Paige

To prove the point, when integration finally came, Paige signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and became an important part of the team’s championship season. Even at the age of 42, he still had enough left in his arsenal to go 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA.

In 1933, though, Paige was 27 and still in the prime of his career.  Had he played in the All-Star Game that year, he would have undoubtedly pushed Lefty Gomez and Carl Hubbell for the starting pitching nod.

Speaking of Hubbell, his extraordinary run of five consecutive strikeouts against five Hall of Fame hitters (Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin) in the 1934 All-Star Game remains one of the most impressive moments in baseball history. 

Hubbell C 1498.68 = 68 NBLIt is fascinating to ponder whether or not he would have been able to accomplish the same extraordinary feat if Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston (even at 37 years old) had been swapped in as part of that fearsome sequence.

As for fearsome clusters of hitters, the Home Run Derby did not become a staple of All-Star festivities until 1985, five decades after the inaugural All-Star contest.  However, since hypotheticals are ruling the day (or at least this blog post), imagine an integrated Home Run Derby in 1933.

The American League quartet of Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, and Al Simmons – Hall of Famers, all – combined to hit over 2,000 career homers in the big leagues.  Even today, Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx remain in the top 30 on the All-time home run list.  Foxx, in particular, was so physically intimidating at the plate that pitcher Lefty Gomez once mused, “He wasn’t scouted; he was trapped,” coinciding neatly with his nickname, “The Beast”.

Foxx

National League representation wouldn’t have quite the same pedigree, but the foursome of Mel Ott, Chuck Klein, Joe Medwick, and Wally Berger includes three Hall of Fame hitters and an aggregate career home run total of more than 1,200.  And Ott’s distinctive swing, which featured a prolonged and high-altitude leg kick, would have added a little panache to the proceedings.

Ott

Not to be outdone, the African-American contingent would have been comprised entirely of Hall Famers – Gibson, Charleston, Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, and Jud Wilson.  Despite a relatively ordinary baseball frame (5-foot-11, 175 pounds), Stearnes won seven home run titles in the Negro Leagues and once led his league in stolen bases, for good measure. Wilson was barrel-chested and massively strong.  Despite only being 5-foot-8, many considered him one of the hardest hitters in the history of black baseball.  His nickname, Boojum, was derived from the sound his crushing drives made when they struck outfield walls.

Wilson

The modern day Home Run Derby is – as most modern entertainment pieces are – a glossy, overblown thing designed to fascinate momentarily before being forgotten entirely.  It’s laden with product placement and players who bask in the flash and worship of the moment.

Derby

Mind you, there’s not wrong with it – as fun, fluffy events go.  In fact, most notably, participants are as varied as the international amalgam of the game itself in the 21st century.  In that respect, maybe, the derby isn’t all that fluffy and inconsequential, after all.

Still, a home run contest involving the Bambino, the Beast, Boojum, and a power-hitting “Turkey” would have been far more compelling.  In it, twelve sluggers – all but one in the Hall of Fame – would unleash their celebrated torque, sending an endless stream of great, big soaring drives out of Comiskey Park in Chicago with the wind howling.

No sips of Gatorade or glitzy scoreboard odometer readings.  Just twelve guys in wool uniforms knocking the holy living hell out of baseballs. 

Gehrig Derby

And if it came down to Babe Ruth squaring off against Josh Gibson to see who claimed the home run crown, it would have settled an awful lot of arguments that are now forever in dispute.

So, yes, the debut of the All-Star Game came a few years too late, while the integration of baseball came decades too late.  And all of the remarkable moments that would have come with better timing of both are left in the regrettable place that all other hypothetical triumph resides.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/heilmha01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/ruthba01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/1919-batting-leaders.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hornsro01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.cgi?id=charle001osc
http://baseballhall.org/hof/hill-pete
http://baseballhall.org/hof/torriente-cristobal
http://baseballhall.org/hof/johnson-judy
http://baseballhall.org/hof/lloyd-pop
http://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.cgi?id=lloyd-001pop
http://www.thebaseballpage.com/history/john-henry-lloyd-0
http://baseballhall.org/hof/taylor-ben
http://baseballhall.org/hof/mackey-biz
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/williamsj.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/fostera.html
http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-world-war-i.html
http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL/1933-batting-leaders.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/NL/1933-batting-leaders.shtml
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/gibsonj.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/bell.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/paige.html
http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/HR_career.shtml
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/stearnes.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/wilsonj.html

Photos:

http://jolietlibrary.org/sites/default/files/1930sa/All-Star%205%20-%203.jpg
http://f.tqn.com/y/detroittigers/1/L/K/0/-/-/Harry-Heilmann.jpg
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dc/Ruth1918.jpg
http://sports.mearsonlineauctions.com/ItemImages/000053/53381a_lg.jpeg
https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/46/9b/09/469b097580af2e7985f14bf230aefd1a.jpg
http://baseballhall.org/sites/default/files/styles/fullscreen_image_popup/public/externals/cb1e797507872e6cf1c0285af52acaa0.jpeg?itok=xdSXRkZk
http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/pressofatlanticcity.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/4/6e/46e9288a-982e-5ac6-93c2-55ddc174c077/571407ecd8204.image.jpg?resize=300%2C331
http://s.hswstatic.com/gif/biz-mackey-1.jpg
http://www.blackpast.org/files/blackpast_images/smokey_joe_williams.jpg
http://sports.mearsonlineauctions.com/ItemImages/000017/0280fb46-4019-4e2a-b3e3-191424bea192_lg.jpeg
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ef/Game1_1912_World_Series_Polo_Grounds.jpg
http://dailydsports.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/20150807-2-johnson.jpg
http://baseballguru.com/jholway/image001.jpg
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https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-VznPJDAh68g/TWxuim1_4jI/AAAAAAAAAPg/gl1u07TPI0w/s1600/db_Jud_Wilson_20071.jpg
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The Second Pioneer

All they ever wanted was the opportunity, simply the chance to showcase their abilities.

However, for sixty-three years, Major League Baseball stubbornly refused. So, African-American players – many among the greatest to ever play the sport – were forced to participate outside of the game’s brightest spotlight. And they had to collectively endure this ignominy knowing that their rightful notoriety, the records they would have set and the glory they would have earned, was given to others for decades.

When the moment finally came for integration, two men faced the monumental task of proving the worthiness of those denied the opportunity and of confirming the promise of those who would get the chance if the duo succeeded. And the two pioneers essentially led parallel baseball lives – their courage tested by unprecedented pressure and resistance over the same nerve-wracking season. However, only one of them is universally recognized for the achievement.

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson leapt into the abyss.

He was the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues since Fleetwood Walker appeared in 42 games for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884. When Robinson stepped on the field that spring afternoon as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he had no way of knowing what would be waiting for him. So, he just laced up his spikes and went out and played – a black man on a green field and as alone in those spikes as any player ever on any baseball diamond in history. One small step for baseball, and one giant leap for social justice.

Some make the claim that 1947 marked the year that Major League Baseball opened its doors to African-American players. However, be very clear on this. No one ever opened any door for Jackie Robinson. At best, that door was grudgingly left unlocked. And even that action required some measure of chance.

Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey had to risk his professional standing and reputation, which he had spent decades building, to unlatch the game’s segregation deadbolt before anyone could stop him. It was up to Robinson to kick that door open and walk through. And the ugliness and vitriol he found on the other side was stifling. Jackie Robinson played baseball in a furnace that season.

He was jeered relentlessly by opposing players and fans, and the words had barbs – jagged racial claws designed to penetrate the psyche. The worst of it came in Philadelphia. In an early season game against the Phillies, Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman unleashed a torrent of vile epitaphs at Robinson all afternoon. And he did so with such fervor it was as if he had lost his mind – which, in a way, he had. After all, unfettered racism requires at least a touch of insanity.

However, Chapman’s vulgarity stunned even Robinson’s Brooklyn teammates, some of whom had circulated a petition before the season started urging management not to allow a black man to be part of the team – friendly fire that hadn’t an ounce of friendliness in it. Now, though, they became incensed at the insults blaring from the Philadelphia dugout. Perhaps hearing such intolerance in the extreme finally brought clarity to what Robinson was truly up against.

Although he eventually earned the acceptance of his teammates from that ugly afternoon onward, Robinson was still principally alone. Meals and lodging could be denied with a shoulder shrug but no remorse. Venomous letters snaked their way through the mail system, threatening violence and death but lacking the senders’ identities – the anonymity confirming the cowardice of the authors.

Robinson braved it all knowing that the world was watching everything he did. Judgements would be passed and futures would be built based on how he carried himself on and off the field. As it turned it out, his pioneering moments in baseball weren’t really about the game at all. The diamond was just a proving ground for a much larger audition – the role of a social and professional equal. And he was the only one who truly understood what pressures and obstacles challenged him every moment of every day he underwent that relentless scrutiny. The utter sense of isolation must have been overwhelming.

However, on July 5, there was another player who walked through Major League Baseball’s most unforgiving doorway and also somehow found the strength to keep playing.

Lawrence Eugene Doby made his Major League debut precisely 82 days after Jackie Robinson made his. Signed by the Cleveland Indians, Doby became the first black player in the American League, while Robinson remained the lone African-American in the National League.

And like Branch Rickey in Brooklyn, Cleveland owner Bill Veeck had to be willing to accept whatever personal and professional consequences came his way by signing Doby.  Still, it was entirely up to Doby to withstand the inevitable storm once he put on a big league jersey.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the history books. While Jackie Robinson’s groundbreaking efforts are justifiably lauded for the courage and strength he showed the world during that simmering summer of 1947, Larry Doby has inexplicably faded from view despite going through a similar trial.

After all, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for things to have been made substantially easier for Doby than Robinson in the space of those 82 days. The ugly racial anger did not stop at Jackie Robinson’s feet. So, when Larry Doby stepped onto the field as a Major League player for the first time, he also wasn’t immune from the glares and humiliating insults. Nor was he readily accepted in his own locker room. When he extended his hand to introduce himself to his new teammates, some of them refused to return such a simple courtesy.

The abuse and anger must have hurt just as much in a Cleveland uniform as they did in Brooklyn flannels.

But Doby just kept playing baseball. Like Robinson, he did so with such resolve and dignity that his detractors appeared all the more bitter and small-minded for belittling him. And both men knew that their accomplishments on the field would not only inspire others to follow them but also definitively put to rest the notion that their race was in any way an intrinsic hindrance to their abilities. So, the pressure to succeed was enormous, because the consequences of failure would have been devastating.

However, each dealt with that unenviable burden in vastly different ways. Robinson channeled his understandable rage directly into his game, playing with a fury and fearlessness that hadn’t been seen in the big leagues before – and, perhaps, hasn’t been seen since. He used his speed to intimidate defenses, daring them to try to throw him out on the base paths. Stealing home is widely considered the riskiest base running move in the game, and Robinson achieved the feat 19 times in his 10-year career. In fact, his steal of home in the opening game of the 1955 World Series remains one of the iconic images of the sport.

Conversely, Doby took a steadier approach, fluid and patient at the plate. However, when the moment was right, he could flash his considerable power. He led the American League in home runs twice and drove in over 100 runs five times in his 13-year career.

And it was there for everyone to see – power and speed, thunder and lightning on a baseball field. Both players thrived when it was imperative that they succeed. Robinson finished his brilliant career as a six-time All-star, a National League MVP, and a two-time batting champion. For his part, Doby was named to seven All-star teams and hit 253 home runs. And both men were eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame, recognition that they were each among the very best to ever play the game.

More than that, they helped to change the way America treated its differences. For those who think sports are superfluous – and, admittedly, they often are – there are moments when they transcend the playing field and create lasting impact, like the summer two men demonstrated how grace and honor could trump selfishness and hate. It was that rare instance when sports heroes truly did something heroic.

For that, they should be inexorably linked to one another – a pair of solid gold cufflinks on baseball’s most elegant tuxedo.

However, one has, unfortunately, been separated from the other along the way. And the meager space between their big league debuts hardly explains how differently each man has been regarded by history. While there is an undeniable tendency to place a premium on the first to accomplish anything, it remains a mystery why, in this case, that premium has all but erased the historical memory of the next in succession.

Perhaps, geography played a part in the disparity of recognition. Fair or not, headlines in New York tend to overshadow headlines from just about anywhere else in the country. Maybe the electrifying style of Robinson’s game, his irresistible energy on the diamond, captivated social stenographers to such an extent that Doby’s more understated persona was steamrolled by the time the story of 1947 was ready to be committed to record. Or it truly could be as simple as celebrating who was first and casting the rest into the shadows.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that, save 82 days, the two men counted on to legitimize the principle of equality on a baseball field – and the whole of American society, for that matter – did so at the same time and under virtually the same hostile circumstances. And the way they are collectively remembered should reflect that symmetry and not the imbalance of lionizing one but ignoring the other.

The honored spotlight given to Jackie Robinson need not be dimmed in any way, just widened enough to include the strong and steady power hitter from Cleveland who co-authored one of America’s most important chapters. Certainly, Larry Doby is owed at least that much.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/robinja02.shtml

http://articles.latimes.com/1997-04-03/local/me-44858_1_jackie-robinson

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/dobyla01.shtml

http://www.jockbio.com/Classic/Doby/Doby.html

http://www.baseball-almanac.com/recbooks/rb_stbah.shtml

Photos:

http://images1.variety.com/graphics/photos/_storypics/jackie_robinson_batting.jpg

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A Beautiful Dream

In 1943, flamboyant baseball owner Bill Veeck was on the verge of turning the Philadelphia Phillies into one of the greatest teams in Major League history.

Only, it never happened.

Depending on whose account is to be given credence, this tantalizing transformation failed to materialize either because the lords of baseball and their petty prejudices wouldn’t allow it or that it was merely another tall tale from Veeck’s sizable imagination.

Still, the premise for this transformation, even if only imagined by Veeck, is fascinating.  So much so, it has held the attention of baseball history aficionados for decades, largely for its delicious promise. As the story goes, Veeck, the freewheeling owner of the minor league Milwaukee Brewers, wanted to purchase the floundering Philadelphia Phillies prior to the 1943 season. After securing finances to make the deal, he made a rather curious decision. As a courtesy, he told baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis of his plans for the team – he intended to fill Philadelphia’s roster with as many star players from the Negro Leagues as he could secure.

Of course, 1943 was four years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and fast talking, faster thinking Bill Veeck not only admitted his intention to bring down that barrier but his desire to smash it to pieces by bringing not just one but several black players into the league all at once. And he disclosed this salacious plan to one of the biggest crusaders against the integration of baseball. For decades, Landis made it no secret that black players would not be welcomed in the majors during his watch. So, Veeck’s decision to tell one of the most powerful men in baseball that he intended to break one of the policies Landis held most sacred at the earliest opportunity was curious, indeed.

Predictably, Landis, fueled by his notorious racism, stopped the deal in its tracks and made certain that the team would never be sold to anyone who had the unmitigated gall to bring black players into the league en masse. End of story.

Well, not quite.

The fascination over Veeck’s wildly noble scheme never really ebbed. If anything, the distance of decades seemed to magnify the nobility and ramifications of his plan had it ever been allowed to blossom. There was a problem, though.

Despite growing numbers of sources retelling the story of Veeck’s lost bid to shatter Major League Baseball’s segregation policy as unquestioned fact, others were beginning to discover serious credibility issues. Chief among those issues was the unsettling absence of anyone other than Veeck who could or would corroborate any of the key events. In fact, Veeck, himself, was somewhat questionable on a credibility basis.

After all, Bill Veeck was P. T. Barnum with a cigar in one hand and a scorecard in the other. He was baseball’s most ostentatious promoter whose considerable ability to publicize his teams was only exceeded by his even greater ability to promote himself. So, when the full story of the failed baseball revolution of 1943 was finally told, it should have come as no surprise that it was Veeck who did the telling in his 1962 autobiography, “Veeck as in Wreck.”

And Veeck’s version of the events was riveting. Abe Saperstein, eventual founder of the Harlem Globetrotters and longtime Negro League agent, and Fay Young, sports editor for the Chicago Defender – one of the country’s leading black newspapers, were at the starting line with a list of desired players and briefcases full of contracts. They were waiting only for Veeck to fire the starter’s pistol and send them on their way on the wildest talent sprint in baseball history. Veeck was on a mad dash of his own. He needed as large a bag of cash as he could collect to present to strapped Phillies owner Gerry Nugent in exchange for the deed to the team. Negro League stars Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, and Satchel Paige continued to practice their glorious baseball magic on the diamond, unaware that they were on the precipice of being teammates and eternal pioneers. All the while, Landis and National League president Ford Frick stewed in smoke-filled rooms concocting their own nefarious scheme to stop the unwanted interlopers and preserve the porcelain hue of the game for good.

Without doubt, it was an exquisite narrative – told by Veeck, chiefly involved Veeck, and reminisced by Veeck. However, as intriguing as was the cast of characters and as compelling as was the plot, the singularity of the story’s voice began to raise more and more questions about what really did (or did not) happen in 1943.

Highly respected baseball researchers David Jordan, Larry Gerlach, and John Rossi tackled this in 1998 when they jointly put together a rather detailed and painstakingly sourced paper refuting nearly all of Veeck’s claims. They focused once again on the utter lack of corroboration for Veeck’s version, particularly from contemporary sources at or near the time of the events in question. No one, it seems, ever spoke a word about what should have been a very public and speculation worthy topic except Veeck. Jordan, Gerlach, and Rossi also took a hard look at some of the details of Veeck’s story which, to them, defied logic and damaged the tale’s credibility even further.

However, even skeptics have skeptics. In 2007, noted baseball historian Jules Tygiel fired back. While acknowledging some of the larger points of the trio’s findings, Tygiel suggested the difficulty in disproving something on the basis of what did not happen. That no one other than Veeck offered up any details of the events of 1943 did not, in itself, mean that Veeck was deceitful in his recollection. Further, Tygiel also cited acknowledgement by Saperstein and Young in support of Veeck’s plan, but neither mentioned any direct participation themselves. However, this acknowledgement does provide an important counter to the notion that Veeck, and Veeck alone, was the only one who knew of the plan. So, perhaps, he was not entirely alone in that quixotic tale of 1943, after all.

Ultimately, though, the exchange of munitions within baseball academia over whether Veeck actually attempted this historic notion or merely dreamt it up is secondary to the dream itself.

Consider the reality of the 1943 Philadelphia Phillies. Taking the field on Opening Day that season, they were as lily-white as half the keys on a piano and played just as poorly – discordant, aesthetically vacant, and absent the necessary balancing keys to supply harmony. They finished seventh in the National League with a 64-90 record, while the greatest black players on the planet were stubbornly left on the outside of the majors looking in.

However, had Veeck truly orchestrated and successfully completed his takeover of the Phillies that season, somehow avoiding the vindictive gavel of Landis, he and his lieutenants – Saperstein and Young – still wouldn’t have been home free. Certainly any influx of talent from the upper echelons of the Negro Leagues would not only have made the pedestrian play of the ’43 Phils that much better it would have given the team a style and electricity nowhere else to be found in the league.

1943 was a complicated year, though. War was raging at a terrifying rate all over the globe, and the impact of the conflict was felt everywhere, even in the seemingly safe haven of sports. American ballplayers in their baseball prime, Negro League and Major League players alike, were also of prime military service age. As such, most served dutifully and honorably but were, therefore, unavailable on the diamond that season and beyond.

This meant that the crown jewel of the Negro Leagues at the time, 24-year-old superstar Monte Irvin, was destined for basic training rather than spring training, and Veeck’s likely number one signing priority was unquestionably off the board. Irvin, whose dazzling combination of speed and slugging powered the Newark Eagles for nearly a decade, finally got his chance to showcase those abilities at the Major League level in 1949. However, he was 30 years old by then.  His talent was still unmistakable, but it no longer had the same radiance as it had six years earlier. Even so, Irvin summoned one more glorious season in 1951 to cement his place as one of the great players of his generation. At 32, he belted 24 homers, drove in a National League-leading 124 runs, and stole 12 bases.  He also mentored a rookie center fielder named Willie Mays for the pennant-winning New York Giants. Still, one can only imagine what sort of eye-popping big league numbers Irvin would have produced had he been given the opportunity in his prime.

Another exceptional athlete, Jackie Robinson, whose military service also made participation in the major leagues impossible in 1943 was thought to be more suited for greatness in track or on the gridiron than baseball. In fact, Robinson did not play baseball professionally until 1945. So, in 1943, he likely wasn’t on anyone’s baseball radar, available or not. Funny how quickly that would all change just four years later, though.

However, even with a diminished wish list, Veeck, Saperstein, and Young would have still have had plenty of tantalizing choices from which to choose in 1943.

Even though Satchel Paige and Buck Leonard were 37 and 35, respectively, both could still play and had long been considered two of the greatest players the Negro Leagues had ever produced.

Paige could deliver a seemingly endless variety of pitches with different speeds and breaks, many with uniquely corresponding arm angles and windups as well. Peers and fans alike thought him to be a magician with a baseball, making it contort and hiss in ways they’d never seen or heard before. And he was nearly as great a showman as he was a pitcher, naming each of his pitches and playing up to the crowd directly from the mound.

There was no mistaking the devastating quality of his stuff. As proof, when he was finally provided an opportunity in the majors – at the age of 42, no less – he became a key contributor on Cleveland’s 1948 championship pitching staff, going 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA. Even after all of those pitches over all of those years, carrying the burden of and anger at exclusion all the while, he still had enough magic in his arm to vex hitters nearly a generation his junior. Like Monte Irvin, though, there’s little doubt that Paige would have been all the more brilliant in the majors had he pitched there sooner. By the way, the owner who extended the opportunity in Cleveland in 1948? None other than William Louis Veeck.

In contrast to Paige, Buck Leonard was a quiet personality. His bat, however, spoke loudly. In fact, it roared. Playing for the famed Homestead Grays, the soft-spoken first baseman with the loquacious bat helped to lead the Grays to nine consecutive championships. Teaming with one of the greatest home run threats in history – Josh Gibson, Leonard was part of a truly lethal offensive duo. Unfortunately, neither of them ever put on a Major League uniform and the league was and always will be poorer for it.

In 1943, Gibson was 31 and still possessed a ferocious home run swing. Though, age was creeping up on him as well, and the frustration of being denied the chance to showcase his talent for all to see began to wear on him even more. It must have been especially maddening to know that he was as skilled a power hitter as any in the game but was deliberately and stubbornly kept out of the big league spotlight. And many, if not all, who were familiar with his ability knew he was every bit that good – a historically great player left to shine at dusk while others were allowed to bathe in sunlight.

Every athlete knows their physical skills have an expiration date. With each day, week, and month that passes, they all know that those skills incrementally ebb. In Gibson’s case, the relentless ticking of the clock must have been ear-splitting. He knew he was running out of time to get to the Major Leagues, but he also knew that he just needed one chance, one door opened just a sliver, and he would do the rest. Though his prime years were gone – the glorious seasons during which he could have etched his name into Major League lore forever – he still had time to make them notice, but it would take something historic to bring him the opportunity.

And the 1943 Phillies could have been the vehicle to do that. Certainly, any team that could boast having Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson in the heart of the lineup and Satchel Paige as the staff ace, albeit in aging incarnations, would have been able to compete with anyone – and the entire baseball world would have been able to see it happen.

As a complement to the trio of aging greats, two intriguing but largely unproven neophytes would have also been available. In Newark, a 19-year-old second baseman began to show some dazzling ability. However, he was still as raw as an uncooked porterhouse, and Veeck’s reconstituted Philadelphia roster likely would have tilted heavily toward the known rather than the unknown, especially considering what was at stake. By 1947, he definitely caught Veeck’s eye and made history as the first African-American in the American League. His name, of course, was Larry Doby, and his stellar career with Veeck’s Cleveland ballclub eventually led to the Hall of Fame.

In Baltimore, a 21-year-old catcher of both Italian and African heritage most certainly had shown enough by 1943 to attract attention. A rising star for the Elite Giants, the powerful young slugger also displayed exceptional defensive ability behind the plate. If he had been given the chance to team up with Josh Gibson on the ’43 Phils, the two would have formed the most remarkable catching tandem ever. The young player’s name was Roy Campanella, and he, too, would embark on an eventual Hall of Fame career after joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948.

Paige, Leonard, Gibson, Doby (had Veeck decided to take a chance on the youngster), and Campanella would have given the Phillies five Hall of Fame talents to lead the team. Still, as stunning as that transformation would have been in 1943, consider an even more spectacular scenario had an attempt at mass integration been made just a decade earlier. Of the thirty players currently in the Hall of Fame based on their accomplishments in the Negro Leagues, no fewer than sixteen of them would have been between the ages of 18 and 36 in 1933.

By comparison, the 1927 New York Yankees, widely considered the greatest team in Major League history, had six Hall of Fame players on the roster.

Besides Paige, Leonard, and Gibson – who would have been 27, 25, and 21, respectively, in 1933, the amount of talent that could have been transferred from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues that season was jaw dropping. James “Cool Papa” Bell – one of the fastest players ever to step on a baseball diamond, Oscar Charleston – an intense bundle of power, speed, and uncommon baseball savvy, and Biz Mackey – a power-hitting defensive genius and master strategist behind the plate were all Negro League royalty.

While third baseman Judy Johnson and shortstop Willie Wells were not quite on that same regal level, they were exceptional defenders and marvelous hitters in their own right. Norman “Turkey” Stearnes and George “Mule” Suttles were two of the most dangerous power hitters in Negro League history. And Bill Foster and Martin Dihigo were brilliant pitchers, with Dihigo also having the added dimension of being an outstanding hitter. All of them, of course, were eventual Hall of Famers.

Unfortunately, Major League baseball did not integrate in 1933 or 1943. The idea meandered – logistically, circumstantially, and socially – until 1947. Even then, the introduction of black players into the majors was a trickle and not Veeck’s grand vision of a deluge. In fact, of the potential “Dream Team” of 1933, only Satchel Paige – well past his prime – would ever play Major League baseball.

Truthfully, integration should have happened from the very advent of the game, because there was no earthly explanation for such exclusion in the first place. And if only that wisdom – the simple practice of compassion and of valuing the dignity of others – had prevailed, the baseball world would have been so much richer for it. Sadly, those who should have embraced their stewardship of the Major Leagues with honor – the commissioner, team owners, and league presidents – never allowed such nobility to penetrate the myopic and self-serving circle in which they operated and protected with the ferocity of lions.

So, legions of Negro League stars who were deprived of even belated opportunities to play in the majors reside only in the direct memories of the select few who saw them play in person, solidly obscured by the walls of segregation. They haven’t even been afforded the privilege of allowing numbers – baseball’s bedrock for preserving greatness – to carry their legacies forward.

The considerable economic challenges facing most Negro League teams had a domino effect on virtually every area of these franchises. Compiling and maintaining consistent, detailed individual player statistics certainly fell under that umbrella.  Understandably, such record keeping was considered a far lesser priority than the more critical logistics of running a baseball league.

On the other hand, Major League stats – even those from over a century ago – were kept because the league always had the economic resources or strong enough media connections to do so.  And such stats are still being used to assess the ability and accomplishments of players from that era. The exclusion of Negro League players by the majors not only deprived those players of the chance to compete on the game’s biggest stage it also deprived them of statistical identities.

In a sport that demands quantitative metrics to determine greatness (a decidedly qualitative distinction, by the way), these unfortunate star players have been left to drift, statistically, without that anchor to moor them to baseball history. Although the Hall of Fame has done a wonderful job in helping to recognize the greatness of the best Negro League players by inducting dozens of them, the lack of a statistical base for these players has rendered any detailed celebration of their stellar careers moot and made any comparative conversion of their play in Major League terms impossible. However, for at least a few of them – like Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard – any attempt at integration prior to 1947 could turned those vagaries into the detailed records of their greatness they deserved.

So, perhaps what did or didn’t happen to the 1943 Philadelphia Phillies wasn’t really about Bill Veeck after all. Rather the true meaning of what might have been that season belongs to the players who could have shown the league what it had been missing all of those years and spoken for those who were never given the chance.

Though many would do precisely that, slowly but surely, over the decades starting in 1947, imagine the magnification of that statement if it had been allowed to happen all at once in 1943. It would have been a beautiful thing, indeed. Short of that, it still remains a beautiful dream, one of the most beautiful in baseball history – whether or not Bill Veeck actually tried to make it happen.

Sources:

Bill Veeck with Ed Linn (1962). Veeck as in Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press.

Jordan, David M., Larry R. Gerlach and John P. Rossi, “The Truth About Bill Veeck and the ’43 Phillies,” SABR’s The National Pastime, No. 18, 1998.

Tygiel, Jules, “Revisiting Bill Veeck and the 1943 Phillies,” SABR’s Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 35, 2007.

http://www.nlbpa.com/irvin__monte.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/i/irvinmo01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/p/paigesa01.shtml

http://www.nlbpa.com/leonard__buck.html

http://www.coe.ksu.edu/nlbemuseum/history/players/doby.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/NYY/1927.shtml

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