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.
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.