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

http://www.mearsonlineauctions.com/LotImages/23/21bbc4a7-7175-44c0-8bf0-f7f14260f39e_lg.jpeg

http://courageouscharacterofjr.org/myPictures/jackie_robinson_hate_mail.jpg

http://www.mlbclubhouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/jackie-robinson-history-mlbclubhouse.jpg

http://governors.rutgers.edu/njgov/byrne/images/JackieRobinson_LarryDoby.jpg

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/94/Larry_Doby_1953.jpg/200px-Larry_Doby_1953.jpg

http://www.baseballsblackheritage.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Jackie-Robinson2.jpg

http://i.cdn.turner.com/si/multimedia/photo_gallery/1104/sports-greatest-moments/images/jackie-robinson-m.kauffman.jpg

http://baseballhall.org/sites/default/files/photos/qkzTzVp2.jpg

Videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XY-XshGhMU

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Sitting in a Pumpkin at Midnight

Perhaps, pining for what was is not as difficult as longing for what never comes.

For fifty-two years, the St. Louis Browns and their fans sat in a pumpkin waiting for it to turn into a royal carriage, but it never happened.

Most Cinderella stories in sports regale that one moment of triumph, however fleeting – that one instant when the years of futility and disappointment are washed away with one perfect wave. Unfortunately, that glass slipper never found its way onto the foot of the chambermaid living in the grand shadow of Sportsman’s Park and of its perennially successful co-tenants, the Cardinals. And no one sat more patiently or deserved that splendid carriage ride more than the Browns’ greatest player, first baseman George Sisler.

However, such was the curse under which Sisler played baseball. Though there have been decades of hand wringing over the notion of billy goats and bambinos hexing franchises in Chicago and Boston, the St. Louis Browns had it worse. From 1902 to 1953 – the fifty-two seasons the Browns plied their trade in St. Louis – their supposed ill-fated brethren in Chicago and Boston captured sixteen pennants and seven World Series titles between them. In contrast, the Browns won precisely one pennant in all of that time and never sipped championship champagne.

Instead, they lost so consistently and so thoroughly the drumbeat of those defeats paced their movements on the field. They butchered the sport with the brutal consistency of men in leather smocks separating porterhouses from sirloins. Still, amongst all of that carnage on the diamond, George Sisler played beautifully. He was a top-tier superstar, a true jewel of the game, buried under an avalanche of misery.

Consider the 1920 season.

During that remarkable year, he batted .407 with a league-record 257 hits. He also lashed out 49 doubles, 18 triples, and 19 homers, drove in 122 runs, and stole 42 bases. The man they called “Sizzler” scorched that small patch of Missouri real estate like few others ever had or ever would. And Sisler’s record for hits was so stunning that it would last for another 84 seasons until Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki eclipsed it with the rather mind-boggling total of 262.

As if to punctuate his unshakeable hold over the baseball world that year, he even collected a save on the final day of the season by striking out a pair of batters without yielding a hit.

Yet, the Browns finished fourth in the American League, 21 ½ games behind the pennant-winning Cleveland Indians.

Through it all, Sisler played with disarming modesty and admirable effort, nobly unfazed by his circumstances and powered, almost entirely it would seem, by his devotion to the game and to his craft. Despite another lagging and morale draining finish in 1920, there was hope stirring in St. Louis, because help for the team’s resident superstar finally seemed to be on the way. And that hope hinged on a trio of outfielders who were finally making good.

Aside from an odd nickname, center fielder William “Baby Doll” Jacobson had surprising nuance to his game. At 6’3″ and 215 pounds, the burly Jacobson had the build of a power hitter but relied on punchy contact rather than the long ball to do his damage at the plate. And in 1920, he maximized that approach as never before, hitting .355 with 122 RBI’s.

Although right fielder Jack Tobin was the physical antithesis of Jacobson – at 5’8” and 145 pounds, a mere water bug – they both played remarkably alike. However, for Tobin, the approach fit his appearance like a glove. Pesky, slashing liners led to wild dashes on the bases, and his .341 average produced its share of scampering, along with 94 runs.

However, the left fielder ended up being the true catalyst of the bunch. He was a wiry, deceptively powerful hitter from Grants Pass, Oregon and an odd physical blend of his two outfield mates. At 6’0″ and 170 pounds, Ken Williams was taller and heavier than Tobin but not nearly as beefy as Jacobson. The three made for a strange baseball version of “The Ascent of Man.” However, Williams was the most evolved player of the three – power, speed, and high average, all in the same dangerous package. While he had a solid year in 1920, it took him two more seasons to become the snarling, fang-bearing slugger that George Sisler so desperately needed as a complement. And, in 1922, Williams howled at the moon all season long.

Batting a robust .332, the lanky Oregonian led the American League in homers with 39 and RBI’s with 155. He also stole 37 bases to become the charter member of what has become the exclusive marker of speed and power in the game, the “30-30 club.” In fact, Williams would remain the only player to record such a combination for another 34 years. And it took a true legend, Willie Mays – arguably, the greatest blend of power and speed to ever play – to finally join him in 1956.

With Jacobson and Tobin continuing to thrive and the emergence of 22-year-old second baseman Marty McManus as yet another offensive weapon, the Browns were, at last, taken seriously. They played magnificently in 1922, leading the American League in both batting average and runs scored. The moment finally seemed at hand for their pumpkin of a franchise to transform into something less gourd and more glory.

And Sisler, as always, made things go. In his finest season, amidst a string of stellar campaigns, he hit .420, drove in 105 runs, stole 51 bases, and was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player. That batting average is worth repeating, .420. It remains the seventh highest single-season average in Major League history and represents a 20-point markup over the gold standard for hitters everywhere.

From the very start of the season, St. Louis cut a swath of destruction through the American League with the fury and pent-up rage of the tormented finally able to turn the tables on their tormentors. By mid-June, they had claimed first place and started to take on the look of a ball club that believed in the substance of its success. However, the one team the Browns could not seem to shake, could not bludgeon away with their formidable offense, was the defending American League champs, the New York Yankees. And New York had this fellow named Ruth who, as the baseball world would come to discover, turned out to be one of the great equalizers in the game.

So, the Browns and Yankees stared each other down all summer long – paupers and princes warily sizing the other up, hoping to detect that one fatal, exploitable flaw. And it was a taut face-off, with only a game or two separating them nearly the entire time.

On July 25, St. Louis finally landed the one big punch they had waited weeks to slip through, beating the Yankees at home to take a 2 ½ game lead. After so many years of being vanquished and having to stare up at their conquerors, it must have been electrifying to finally have the opposite vantage point, if only for a moment.

However, the view didn’t last long. The next day, New York rose from the canvas – angrily. Ruth launched a pair of home runs in an 11-6 drubbing, and it didn’t stop there. Of the next nine games between the two, the Yankees won seven. After the Browns dropped three of four to New York in late August, they were sinking fast. And the sag to second was magnified even more by the circumstances – the season was fading quickly and the demotion had been administered directly by their unshakeable nemesis in front of a delighted enemy crowd.

However, Sisler and his teammates had come so far and were so close to redemption. They couldn’t let the opportunity simply evaporate, but their magical season was slipping away. Admirably, the Browns didn’t panic or wilt down the stretch. Instead, they reeled off six wins in their last seven games of the year and chased the Yankees with remarkable resolve all the way to the final out of the season.

In the end, they finished one game – perhaps a quirky hop or two of the ball – away from the American League pennant.

Still, their thrilling year had resonance. The idea of a Browns championship, laughable for nearly all of their lackluster history, now seemed starkly viable. And George Sisler’s lonely, unrequited baseball journey had finally taken a promising detour. If ever there was a time for the stars to align, 1923 was it.

However, the alignment of stars – or, more accurately, the mercurial blend of fate and fortune – is remarkably fragile, and the cold, hard truth of most of life’s events is not. So, a single incident can trump a multitude of harbingers.

For the Browns, the rosy outlook for the 1923 season gave way to just such a hard truth the day their best player literally could not see straight. Suffering from what was later believed to be a sinusitis – a severe nasal infection – George Sisler lost the one tool indispensable to a hitter, his perfect eyesight. The infection caused double vision and did not improve all year long.

So, St. Louis played without him. Of course, a team cannot subtract a .400 hitter from the heart of its lineup and expect a winning equation to stay intact. Baseball math simply doesn’t work that way. Subtracting a superstar from the roster requires the addition of an equivalent player to maintain mathematical equilibrium. However, finding a hitter of Sisler’s caliber throughout the history of the game would be difficult enough. Finding such a player among the Browns’ meager backups in 1923 proved impossible.

Nonetheless, Dutch Schliebner drew the short straw and, predictably, could not fill the void. Sisler’s absence left a crater, and trying to replace him with a 32-year-old rookie with modest ability only provided fractional back fill, if that. The remainder of that empty space became a vortex and pulled the rest of the lineup into it. Jacobson and Tobin both suffered sizable drop offs. Even Williams, whose stellar .357 average led the team, couldn’t match his output from the year before in virtually every other category.

Accordingly, the Browns dropped nineteen wins from the prior year, slid to fifth place, and finished a full two dozen games behind the three-time American League champion Yankees. All the while, Sisler had to stand by idly as his team and the optimism of 1922 disintegrated. He also had to witness this painful regression not knowing if or when his eyesight would clear enough to allow him back on the field, let alone return to his former glory. And, at the age of 30, he had already lost one of his prime seasons – just after he put together one of the greatest years in the history of the sport. The abrupt halt of momentum and the nagging questions of what might have been for him and his team in 1923 must have been maddening.

And those questions never went away.

In 1924, Sisler was back on the field, but the long layoff was telling. Although he again crested .300 that year, there was something missing in his game. The aura that he carried while annihilating pitching in near record proportions in 1920 and 1922 was gone. Whether it was the sinus infection that had robbed him of it or merely the vestiges of athletic aging that eroded it, he had been pushed past the razor thin line dividing good from great. And whatever faint hope the Browns had in recapturing the magic of their thrilling chase of the Yankees seemed to die the moment Sisler crossed that line.

He played another three years in St. Louis and put together seasons that would have looked good on just about anyone else’s stat sheet. However, within the context of Sisler’s career – particularly at his peak, they seemed slightly hallow, ringing with the echo of his brilliant past and the uncertainty of what his lost season had truly cost him.

In 1927, he hit .327 with 97 RBI’s, but the Browns inexplicably decided they had seen enough. Although he was just 34, Sisler was unceremoniously let go that off season, sold to the Washington Senators. There was no gold watch for meritorious service, just a tepid handshake and a rather firm shove out the door. Business was, after all, business. So, management placed a $25,000 price tag on the heart and soul of their franchise and called it good enough.

The Senators, in turn, wasted little time in reinforcing the ruthless pragmatism of the business of baseball. After just 20 games, Washington sold Sisler again. This time, he went to the lowly Boston Braves of the National League, another historically awful franchise. Between the Browns and Braves, the legendary first baseman toiled for some of the worst teams to ever take the field and must have wondered what he had ever done to be subject to such lousy baseball karma.

As with most of his days in St. Louis, his three seasons in Boston were personally successful but competitively barren. He hit over .300 each year while the team failed to finish higher than sixth. Sisler’s tremendous career ended after the 1930 season but lacked commensurate closure. During his fifteen Major League seasons, he carried a .340 lifetime batting average with 2,812 hits. And had it not been for 1923, the year everything was turned upside down, he would have easily finished with over 3,000 hits. That his big league playing days ended with little to no fanfare on an invisible team did not seem at all fitting. However, such is the hard reality of sports. Happy endings are forever conditional to the unyielding forces of athletic competition.

In St. Louis, the Browns, too, were deprived of a happy ending.

They drifted listlessly through the remainder of the 1920’s and the entirety of the 1930’s, losing more games than they won in all but two of those seasons. Star players would occasionally wander through the locker room, mostly on their way to bigger and better things. The majority of St. Louis’ rosters were filled with mediocre talent, little more than sacrificial lambs for the lions of the game in New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit. The likes of Ski Mellilo, Beauty McGowan, and Stubby Overmire – colorful names with pedestrian games – were routinely annihilated by Ruth and Gehrig, Foxx and Grove, and Cochrane and Greenberg.

When an American League pennant finally did come in 1944, there was a caveat. There had to be. The team’s troubled astrology practically required it.

In 1944, World War Two was still raging and most Major League rosters had been depleted to assist in the war effort. Since nearly all of the game’s greatest stars had traded in their jerseys for fatigues, the remaining big league talent pool turned into an odd stew of those either past military service age (and their baseball prime), designated 4-F and unfit for military duty, or not yet drafted or volunteered. This patchwork approach to putting teams together that season left a lingering residue on the results. Although the Browns parlayed one legitimate star, shortstop Vern Stephens, and stellar performances by pitchers Jack Kramer and Nels Potter to finish first, there were whispers over who they had not beaten to get there rather than who they had.

St. Louis edged out Detroit by one game to capture the American League pennant. However, the Tigers were without their great slugger Hank Greenberg, who was halfway across the world serving in the Air Force. And Detroit wasn’t alone. The third place Yankees were missing Joe Dimaggio, and the fourth place Boston Red Sox played without the great Ted Williams in the lineup. Fair or not, it was as if the Browns had waited for the elite talent to leave the stage and then ambushed the understudies for their first and only pennant.

In the World Series, the Browns faced off against their stadium roommates, the Cardinals. In contrast, the Redbirds left little doubt as to their dominance of the National League, finishing 14 ½ games ahead of their nearest competition. And the Cards didn’t have any whispers to quiet, because 1944 marked their third straight pennant.

With the Cardinals considered prohibitive favorites, the underdog Browns stunned everyone by taking two of the first three games of the Series. Baseball’s eternal long shot was just a few furlongs away from the roses. However, there was still a sizable chunk of the home stretch ahead, and the Browns could hear something gaining on them – fast.

In Game Four, Stan Musial, who batted .347 for the Cardinals during the regular season, hit a towering two-run homer in the first inning. That single crack of the bat changed everything. With the lead in hand, the Cardinals trailed only once over the next twenty-six innings, winning all three games. Harry Breechen, Mort Cooper, and Max Lanier all threw gems, holding the Browns to a lonely pair of runs for the remainder of the Series.

Just like that, the long shot’s brief flirtation with winning was over. The Cardinals celebrated in the winner’s circle, and the Browns retreated back to the paddock, wondering how things went so wrong so close to the finish line.

And they never got that close to a championship again.

The following year their spiral out of contention was punctuated by an exclamation point that only the St. Louis Browns could have dotted.

All Pete Gray wanted to do was play baseball. And he did it well enough in 1944 to be named the Most Valuable Player of the minor league Southern Association. He should have been precisely the kind of player big league teams wanted when they skimmed the minors for talent during the war years. However, it wasn’t how well he played the game that anyone cared about. It was that he played the game at all that caused jaws to drop and scared them all away from giving him a chance, except the Browns.

A horrific childhood accident had required his right arm to be amputated above the elbow. So, he played the game – and conducted the entirety of his adult life – with one arm. To many, Gray’s mere presence in the Major Leagues represented triumph, an undeniable victory of the human spirit. The rare skill required to play the game well enough to succeed at any professional level was already impressive. That Grey was able to do so facing the monumental challenges mandated by his physical condition was athletically heroic.

Unfortunately, there was also an unsettling air of exploitation surrounding his presence on the roster – a one-armed ballplayer on a perennial doormat with chronic attendance issues. The only thing missing was the din of carnival barkers.

And Gray hated it. He had hoped that he could define his big league identity through his playing ability alone. That naivete quickly gave way to the realization that his one big chance, his dream opportunity, to play Major League baseball had only arrived because a flailing team in a talent-depleted environment needed a human curiosity piece to draw in fans. And the crowds watched him relentlessly, amazed that he could swing a bat with proficiency and field a ball smoothly. Routine things other players did on the field – the ambient noise of the game – were suddenly focal points when Gray performed them. And when the fans were unable to come to him, newsreel cameras brought him to the fans.

Some of his teammates resented the unwanted spotlight as well, and Gray’s taciturn demeanor didn’t help. For all of their struggles in the standings and for professional respect over the years, they still carried the pride of being in the big leagues. And Gray cheapened that. To them, he appeared little more than a walking publicity stunt who was given a shortcut to the privilege they had worked so hard to earn.

What they hadn’t realized was that Gray paid a penance as well. With every lingering stare and excitable whisper, each slight – intended or not – chipped away at his trust and his self-esteem. However, the further such things drove him into social exile the more he channeled that fury into the game. And if such a tumultuous exchange could be considered a shortcut, it would seem unimaginable that anyone would deliberately choose it or feel like a beneficiary because of it.

On the field, despite early difficulty adjusting to the speed and power of the Major Leagues, Gray was hitting over .250 by June, and his defensive play in center field was exemplary. Under the circumstances, it was a remarkable debut. However, the merciless nature of sport is predicated on finding weaknesses. Once found, those vulnerabilities are pressed and exploited until the weakened either correct them or can no longer protect themselves. Evolve or die.

Unfortunately, Gray knew what his greatest baseball weakness was but had no way to correct it. He could time his intricate one-armed swing to catch up to a fastball and could even hit an occasional breaking pitch. However, once he started his swing it was etched in stone. Other hitters could check their swings or make timing adjustments in the middle of them, using both hands to stop or alter those hacks. Ultimately, that difference doomed Gray.

Breaking pitches became the bane of his existence. His inability to check or change his swing ended any hope of a lasting stint with the Browns. He finished the year hitting .218 in 77 games and when the cadre of players returned from the military late in the 1945 season Gray’s Major League career was finished.

Just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any stranger in St. Louis, Bill Veeck bought the team in 1951 and they did.

Veeck, of course, was baseball’s greatest maverick, seemingly living for moments when he could turn baseball convention on its ear. Not surprisingly, he also had a penchant for showmanship. So, in many ways, the blank canvas that was afforded by owning the Browns was a perfect fit for a free spirit like Veeck. After all, dreamers dream big, and there was no more sizable aspiration in baseball than to turn St. Louis’ loveable losers into winners. But he had to increase the gate to provide the capital necessary to field a winning team.

So, Veeck did what he always did when he needed publicity. He opted for spectacle over substance, hoping that his brand of bread and circuses would be enough to feed the masses. And leave it to Veeck to find the smallest player in the history of baseball to cause one of its biggest uproars.

In August, 1951, he signed 3-foot, 7-inch entertainer Eddie Gaedel, and, before the league could void the contract, sent him into a game as a pinch-hitter against Detroit. Wearing a jersey with the fraction “1/8” on the back, Gaedel stepped up to the plate, and – depending on which side of the purist line one is on – drew the most famous – or infamous – walk in baseball history.

Veeck, of course, was delighted. The crowd roared its approval, and Gaedel stopped twice along the way to first base to take bows. After he was removed from the game for a pinch-runner, the little man with the unusual uniform number received a standing ovation.

Even the Tigers were good-natured about the whole thing. Pitcher Bob Cain merely chuckled. Really, there was little else he could do. After all, trying to throw a pitch in Gaedel’s microscopic strike zone was like trying to fit a baseball into a shot glass from sixty feet away. However, Detroit had the last laugh winning the game, 6-2.

American League president Will Harridge found no humor in the incident, though, and voided Gaedel’s contract the next day. As befitting a curmudgeon of his magnitude, he also attempted to have the diminutive player’s appearance removed from the official records altogether, as if Harridge believed he could actually unring a bell.

Ultimately, though, there was only so much Veeck could do to disguise how poorly the Browns played. They finished last in 1951 and next to last in 1952. No matter how much promotional makeup he applied, the simple truth remained that they were a bad team with a largely uninteresting roster. By 1953, time and money had run out on them.

After a miserable 100-loss, last place finish, Veeck sold the team to a group who moved them to Baltimore, where they were renamed “the Orioles.”  In typical Browns’ fashion, the new team essentially disowned its Missouri roots. To make matters worse, it took the Orioles less than fifteen years in their new home to win the World Series. As further salt in the wounds, Baltimore won six pennants and three world championships from 1966-1983. Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, and Cal Ripken Jr. all achieved greatness for the O’s.

All the while, those who followed the Browns and suffered through the decades of struggle and mediocrity had to watch this embarrassment of riches from afar, knowing that all of those star players and those championship seasons could have been theirs.

Still, for all of the disappointment and historically bizarre moments, the St. Louis Browns did have one rare chapter of lasting greatness in an otherwise pedestrian chronology.  They had George Sisler in his prime, smashing the rest of the league to pieces. 

And that’s not a bad legacy to carry, even if there never was a championship carriage ride for them.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/BAL/

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/sislege01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/w/willike01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/j/jacobba01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/t/tobinja01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1922.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL/1922.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1922-schedule-scores.shtml

http://www.docstoc.com/docs/51138164/Recent-Advances-in-Brain-MR-Imaging

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1938.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1944.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/1944_WS.shtml

http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-15

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1945-schedule-scores.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/graype01.shtml

http://espn.go.com/page2/tvlistings/show73transcript.html

 Photos:

http://cf.juggle-images.com/matte/white/280×280/st-louis-browns-primary-logo-8-primary.jpg

http://www.baseballdigest.com/wp-content/uploads/George-Sisler.jpg

http://blog.prorumors.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Ichiro-Suzuki.jpg

http://static.howstuffworks.com/gif/george-sisler-hof.jpg

http://img.fanbase.com/media.fanbase.com/8/15326/35fca0bc9a9b36333e1122674c090c561e04899b.jpg?x=175&y=250&sig=a85c40aef05ba12a8f0510df6686e4c1

http://www.baseball-reference.com/bpv/images/thumb/8/84/34847r_jack_tobin.jpg/250px-34847r_jack_tobin.jpg

http://www.oregonsportshall.org/images/kenwilliams.jpg

http://www.ballparktour.com/Babe_Yankee_Stadium.jpg

http://www.raykolp.com/resources/1922browns.jpg

http://img.fanbase.com/media.fanbase.com/8/15326/6153eb44f999daaf6e412a5ab2d86110afef93ff.jpg?x=175&y=250&sig=41fe1c6d0b09f10168a44fa30de0ce7c

http://theoutfieldivy.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Stan-Musial-300×233.jpg

http://www.grandstandsports.com/images/10982.jpg

http://www.nypost.com/rw/nypost/2011/06/09/sports/web_photos/eddie_gaedel–300×300.jpg

http://www.palmbeachpost.com/multimedia/dynamic/00716/Brooks_Robinson_716082e.jpg

http://www.famouswhy.com/pictures/people/george_sisler.jpg

 Videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UG6bxkq5L4

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

Photos:

http://hchsfoundation.org/images/hof_photos/2001/BillVeeck2001.jpg

http://www.mearsonlineauctions.com/LotImages/26/44212a_lg.jpeg

http://cdn2.iofferphoto.com/img/item/192/086/524/BAHC.jpg

http://www.chron.com/photos/1998/03/02/21514256/260xStory.jpg

http://images.marketworks.com/hi/49/49499/p4948.jpg

http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/aroundthemall/files/2010/08/scurlock.jpg

http://library.thinkquest.org/3427/data/gibson.gif

http://www.coe.ksu.edu/nlbemuseum/images/players/campanella.jpg

http://www.biography.com/blackhistory/images/photo-gallery/jackie-robinson/jackie-robinson-playing-ucla-football-1945.jpg

http://www.coe.ksu.edu/nlbemuseum/images/players/bellJ.jpg

http://static.howstuffworks.com/gif/oscar-charleston-hof-jpg.jpg

http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk/media/images/41917000/jpg/_41917212_mackey220courtesy.jpg

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2165/2163057989_d5dfd88574.jpg

http://images.checkoutmycards.com/zoom-back/6f88b510-bfb3-4f48-a566-69a3f70942fb.jpg

http://images.checkoutmycards.com/zoom-back/b36ca24a-c9ce-45cd-903a-a927a2361403.jpg