Crossing the Color Barrier: Jackie Robinson and the Men Who Integrated Major League Baseball
On April 15, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers opened their season against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. Starting at first base was a 28-year old African American by the name of Jack Roosevelt Robinson. With the game’s first pitch, Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play in the modern major leagues, breaking the color barrier that had surrounded baseball for over a half century and symbolizing the racial integration of American society.
Robinson’s character, courage, and talent have secured his place in history. Less known are Larry Doby, Henry Thompson, Willard Brown and Dan Bankhead, the four other African American men who played in the major leagues in 1947. Like Jackie Robinson, these men used their talent and determination to overcome decades of racial discrimination in the sport that has stood as “America’s pastime.” The LA84 Foundation honors the five men who first crossed the color barrier of major league baseball.
Jackie Robinson: The First Man In
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born the youngest of five children near Cairo, Georgia on January 31, 1919. Soon afterwards, his sharecropper father left the family. His mother, Mallie McGriff Robinson, then moved the family to Pasadena, California to find work as a domestic.
Jackie Robinson excelled in four sports at Pasadena’s John Muir Technical High: football, basketball, baseball and track. He went on to Pasadena Junior College, where he set a National Junior College record in the long jump of 25′ 6 1/2″ before accepting an athletic scholarship to UCLA. There, he became the first Bruin athlete to earn varsity letters in four sports.
Robinson left UCLA in the spring of 1941 hoping to work to support his mother. Several months later, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and Robinson enlisted in the U.S. Army. He completed Officer Candidate School and received a commission as a Second Lieutenant. Robinson faced a court-martial in 1944 for refusing to move to the rear of an army bus. He was cleared of all charges and shortly afterwards received an honorable discharge from the army.
Jackie Robinson joined professional baseball in the spring of 1945 with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. He spent his rookie season touring the country with the Monarchs for $400 a month. In August he met with Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had been scouring the country to find a black ball player he felt could best withstand the pressure of being the first black man in the major leagues. Jackie Robinson crossed the threshold into white professional baseball at that meeting signing a minor league contract with the Dodgers’ farm club, the Montreal Royals.
The following season Jackie Robinson was promoted to the Brooklyn Dodgers. He entered the history books on April 15 as the Dodgers opened the 1947 season against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. In his first season he hit for a .296 average and was selected Rookie of the Year. Robinson won the batting title in 1949 with an outstanding .346 batting average. He was voted the League’s Most Valuable Player and led the Dodgers to the World Series.
Jackie Robinson, over a 10-year major league career, had a lifetime batting average of .311. He appeared in six All-Star Games and six World Series with the Dodgers. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Jackie Robinson died in 1972 at the young age of 53. His legacy is the inspiration he gives to athletes and people of all colors. His pathbreaking entry into the major leagues, seven years before the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown vs. Board of Education, stands as a brilliant symbol of America’s struggle with racism and the hope of racial harmony.
“I know that I am a black man in a white world. . . I know that I never had it made.” — Jackie Robinson
“Although he did not get a hit in three official times at bat, Jackie Robinson, first Negro to play in modern big-league ball, signalized his official debut as a Dodger by sprinting home with the deciding run…” — Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1947
“It was just another ball game and that’s the way they’re all going to be. If I make good – well that will be perfectly wonderful.” — Jackie Robinson, quoted in the The Sporting News, April 23, 1947.
Larry Doby: The First World Champion
Less than three months after Robinson’s major league debut, Larry Doby became the first African American to play in the American League. Larry Doby appeared as a seventh-inning pinch hitter for the Cleveland Indians against the Chicago White Sox only three hours after signing his contract on July 5, 1947.
Doby, like Robinson, was a superb all-around athlete. Born in Camden, South Carolina, he moved at age eight with his mother to Paterson, New Jersey. He starred in four sports at East Side High School and briefly attended Long Island University on a basketball scholarship before enlisting in the Navy.
Larry Doby returned to play for the Negro League Newark Eagles after World War II ended. Doby was leading the Negro National League with a batting average of .458 and 13 home runs when Cleveland owner Bill Veeck called Doby to the Indians.
The 1947 season was difficult for Larry Doby. He did not hit well, and it soon became clear that he was not best-suited as an infielder. He played little throughout most of his first season in the majors. He batted only 30 times, striking out 11 times for a poor .156 average.
The 1948 season was different altogether. The quiet Doby was determined to improve upon his disappointing first season. After hitting .356 in spring training, Doby took the field on opening day as the Indians starting right fielder. Doby batted an impressive .301 with 14 home runs and 65 runs batted in during the regular season to help the Indians win the American League pennant. In the World Series, Doby paced the Indians with .318 average as the Indians took the Series in six games over the Boston Braves. Larry Doby became the first African American to play on a World Series Champion team.
Doby played 13 seasons in the majors with the Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers, hitting a career average of .283 with 253 home runs. He served a short stint as manager of the White Sox in 1978 becoming only the second African American manager in the major leagues. He has not yet been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is the only black major leaguer from 1947 still living.
“Just remember that they play with a little white ball and a stick of wood up here just like they did in your league.” – Cleveland owner Bill Veeck to Larry Doby before his first major league game.
Willard Brown & Henry Thompson: The First Teammates
In July 1947 the St. Louis Browns were the worst team in major league baseball. In hopes of improving their fortunes, the Browns purchased the contracts of Henry Thompson and Willard Brown from the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs. The St. Louis Gazette-Democrat called the move “an eyebrow-lifting experiment.” Thompson and Brown became the first black teammates in the major leagues. The move provoked a mixed response in a city many considered part of the South.
Several observers considered the inclusion of Brown and Thompson on the Browns roster a desperate attempt to improve attendance without any real commitment to integrating the major leagues. A headline from The Sporting News read “Gates Rusting, Browns Rush in 2 Negro Players.” An afternoon home game a few days before Thompson and Brown arrived drew just 478 people.
Thompson, a 21-year-old infielder from Los Angeles, California, was ranked as a true major league prospect. Before coming to the Browns, he was hitting .347 for the Monarchs.
Willard Brown had already spent a legendary career as one of the best players in the Negro Leagues. A powerful and fast slugger with a 40-ounce bat, Brown had grown up in Shreveport, Louisiana and had once been the Monarchs’ spring training bat boy. He played his first games for the Monarchs in 1935. Although he had hit .353 for the Monarchs in 1946, some thought his best days as a player had passed.
Brown and Thompson, unlike Robinson and Doby, faced a mostly hostile reception by their fellow players and did not receive strong support from the white management. Many of the Browns players refused to speak to them. Thompson and Brown were greeted with silence when introduced to the team. The Browns refused to warm up with their new teammates on the field.
Henry Thompson made his first appearance in the majors on July 17. Willard Brown started in the outfield two days later on July 19. Neither of the two hit well in their initial outings; after a few weeks both had batting averages less than .200.
Still, Thompson and Brown had their moments of inspired play. Thompson continued to improve, raising his average to .256 and earning a place as the starting second baseman. Though Brown could not live up to his legendary batting skill, he did manage to achieve one measurable place in the history books. On August 13 he blasted a drive off the 426-foot marker at Sportsman’s Park and raced around the bases for an inside the park home run. It was the first home run ever hit by an African American in the American League.
Nonetheless, the club soon realized that Thompson and Brown were not the answer to sagging attendance at home. Thompson and Brown were dismissed from the Browns just over one month after being signed to the major leagues. When Thompson asked why, general manager Bill DeWitt simply replied “There are things I can’t discuss.” The first black teammates in the majors became the first black men cut from a major league roster.
Being cut from the Browns, though, didn’t end Thompson’s and Brown’s playing days. Less than three years after he played with the Browns, Henry Thompson joined the New York Giants making him the first black man to play in both the National and American Leagues. That year he set a major league record for the greatest number (43) of double plays started by a third baseman. Thompson spent 9 years in the majors hitting .267 with 129 home runs. He died at age 44 in 1969.
Willard Brown let his bat speak for him in the winter following his release from the Browns. In the Puerto Rican Winter League, Brown hit 27 home runs while winning the league’s Triple Crown. He won the Negro American League batting title in 1951 with a .417 average. In 22 years of professional baseball, Willard Brown hit for a combined average of .305 including .352 in the Negro Leagues. He is often considered the best home run hitter not included in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Dan Bankhead: The First Pitcher
Dan Bankhead, of Empire, Alabama, was one of five brothers that played professional baseball in the Negro Leagues.
He signed his first baseball contract with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1940. By 1947, he was a dominating pitcher for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League often compared to fireballer Bob Feller.
He also was an outstanding hitter boasting a .385 average that season.
Branch Rickey, in sore need of solid pitching for his Brooklyn Dodgers, purchased Bankhead’s contract from Memphis in late August.
On August 26, 1947, the 6’1″ right-hander took the mound in the second inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Unfortunately, Bankhead was hit hard yielding 10 hits in three innnings.
He salvaged some of his pride at the plate, though. Bankead smacked a home run in his first major league at bat becoming the only National League pitcher ever to do so at the time.
Dan Bankhead appeared in three more games before the Dodgers sent him down to the minor leagues. He was called back to the major leagues in 1950 and pitched in a total of 52 major league games.
He continued to play pro baseball in Canada and Mexico through 1965. He died in May, 1976 in Houston, Texas.
Links to Other Jackie Robinson & Baseball Sites
Library of Congress’ Featured Baseball Personality: Jackie Robinson
Materials on Jackie Robinson from our national library.
The Official Jackie Robinson Site
Site of the exclusive business representative for the Jackie Robinson estate.
Negro Leagues Baseball Page
Learn about the leagues where African American ballplayers competed before tumbling the color barrier.
Learn about the old ballparks where the first African American major leaguers played.
The National Archives Feature Document on Jackie Robinson
Fascinating information and lesson plans for teachers including correspondence between Jackie and Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson.
Sources & Suggested reading
Stealing Home: An Intimate Family Portrait by the Daughter of Jackie Robinson by Sharon Robinson, Harper Collins, 1996.
The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues by James Riley, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1994.
The Jackie Robinson Story by Arthur Mann, Grosset & Dunlap, 1951.
The Negro Baseball Leagues, 1867-1955: A Photographic History by Phil Dixon and Patrick J. Hannigan, Amereon House, 1992.
Wait Till Next Year: The Life Story of Jackie Robinson by Carl T.Rowan with Jackie Robinson, Random House, 1960.