Cactus League Hall of Fame inducts four pioneering African-American players
By Charlie Vascellaro
Special to MLB.com |
The Major League Baseball landscape and the social fabric of the country were both going through a dramatic transformation when Spring Training baseball came to Arizona in 1947.
While the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson were preparing to break Major League baseball's racial barrier, the game was expanding to new western frontiers, with the Cleveland Indians and New York Giants moving their Spring Training camps to Arizona.
Mostly because of Robinson's presence on the team and the prevalence of Jim Crow segregationist laws and policies in the southern United States, the Dodgers conducted Spring Training in Havana, Cuba, prior to the 1947 season.
It was for similar reasons that Indians owner Bill Veeck decided to bring his team to Tucson, Ariz., in 1947.
In his autobiography "Veeck as in Wreck," he described an incident that occurred while he was sitting in the bleachers with African-American fans at a ballpark in Ocala, Fla., during a previous Spring Training season, when he was the owner of the Minor League Milwaukee Brewers. "Within a few minutes, the sheriff came running over to tell me I couldn't sit there. I said, 'I can't? I am … Why can't I?' He told me it was for Negroes only," wrote Veeck.
The mayor came over and also threatened to have Veeck removed from the ballpark citing a city ordinance, to which Veeck responded: "I don't know anything about that. What I do know is that if you bother me any more we'll move our club out of Ocala tonight. And we'll tell everybody in the country why."
Veeck added, "I sat there every day, just to annoy them, without ever being bothered again. Nevertheless, I had already made up my mind to get out of Florida."
Veeck also owned a ranch near Tucson, and prior to purchasing the Indians, he began talking with New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham about moving both of their teams to Arizona for the spring of 1947.
Stoneham was lured after being brought to the Buckhorn Mineral Baths, a precursor to the state's modern spa-therapy resorts, in Mesa by members of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce in the mid-1940s. Stoneham thought the rejuvenating effects of mineral baths and massage therapy could provide a nice way for his team to loosen up for the upcoming season.
In a harbinger of the Giants' eventual move to San Francisco and Major League Baseball's westward expansion, Stoneham agreed to join Veeck in Arizona.
In the years following Robinson's big league breakthrough, many of the first wave of African-American Major Leaguers arrived in the segregated cities of Tucson, Phoenix, Mesa and Scottsdale, where Spring Training served as the preseason proving grounds for the integration of Major League Baseball.
This year's fourth annual Cactus League Hall of Fame induction, the first to recognize players, honors four pioneering African-Americans who helped pave the way for others: Larry Doby, Willie Mays, Monte Irvin and Ernie Banks, all of whom were among the first handful of players to integrate Spring Training baseball in Arizona.
Willie Mays is the only living member of this year's induction class and was on hand to receive his plaque at the Cactus League's annual luncheon at the Embassy Suites by Hilton in Scottsdale on Wednesday.
Mays spoke on behalf of his fellow inductees, recognizing their shared place and unique status in the game's history.
"I wouldn't be standing here without three of my friends, Monte, Ernie and Larry," Mays said.
Created by the Arizona Spring Training Experience, an ongoing traveling exhibit (owned and operated by the Mesa Historical Museum), with its primary installation on display at the Scottsdale Public Library through April 4, the Cactus League Hall of Fame honors "those who played a key role in the growth and development of Major League Spring Training baseball in Arizona as well as a select group of players who helped to solidify the league's reputation as a premier showcase of Major League Baseball."
Doby became the American League's first African-American player, debuting with the Indians on July 5, 1947, just 11 weeks after Robinson. Doby was the first player to advance directly from the Negro Leagues to the Majors. After seeing very limited action in his half season, he joined the team in Tucson in the spring of '48, and upon arrival, he was informed that he would not be allowed to stay with his teammates at the Santa Rita hotel.
The Indians played home exhibition games at Randolph Municipal Baseball Park, and while Tucson may have been more hospitable than Florida, segregation was still prevalent in the region at the time.
"At Tucson, I discovered, the bleachers weren't segregated, but the hotel was. We weren't able to talk the management into allowing Larry to stay with us his first year, although we did make it clear -- and they agreed -- that in the future, they would take all of our players, regardless of race, creed or previous condition of servitude," wrote Veeck.
Doby later recalled that African-American players weren't allowed to stay with the team until 1954. In the meantime, he lived with the family of Chester Willis, the African-American foreman of the company that supplied the Santa Rita with its clean sheets and towels, at his home in Tucson's Dunbar School District, where the city's African-American children attended a segregated school.
In his first full season with Cleveland, Doby was instrumental to the team's success as the Indians won the 1948 World Series. Doby's .318 batting average in the World Series was the highest among Cleveland's starters, and he hit a game-winning home run in the team's 2-1 Game 4 victory.
A photograph of Doby and starting pitcher Steve Gromek hugging each other in the locker room after the game appeared on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer the next day and would become an iconic image.
"That picture of Gromek and Doby has unmistakable flesh and blood cheeks pressed close together, brawny arms tightly clasped, equally wide grins," wrote columnist Marjorie Mackenzie for the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper. "The chief message of the Doby-Gromek picture is acceptance."
This image, asserted Mackenzie, "is capable of washing away with equal skill, long pent-up hatred in the hearts of men and the beginning of confusion in the minds of small boys."
Doby remained eternally aware of the photo's social significance.
"The picture finally showed a moment of a man showing his feelings for me," he said. "But the picture is not just about me. It shows what feelings should be, regardless of differences among people. And it shows what feelings should be in all of life, not just in sports. I think enlightenment can come from such a picture."
Doby spent eight spring seasons with the Indians in Tucson from 1948-55, and returned in '58 after spending 1956-57 with the Chicago White Sox.
When his playing days were through, Doby worked in numerous capacities as a scout and coach before becoming the Major League's second black manager, following Frank Robinson.
One of the first pair of African-American players signed by the New York Giants, Irvin made his big league debut on July 8, 1949, joining team in Phoenix the following spring.
During the first few seasons, Irvin and a handful of African-American players who came to Phoenix with the Giants for Spring Training were not permitted to stay at the same hotel with the team. Irvin was accompanied by his family and had to find his own accommodations.
"My mother and sister and I would go out to Spring Training with dad and drive from New Jersey to Arizona," said Irvin's daughter Patricia Gordon, adding, "I was just so young, I think I didn't really understand the relevance [of what he was doing] -- it was a phenomenal time that dad lived in. They say there are no extraordinary men, just people who lived in extraordinary times. But he was extraordinary. He really was special."
Longtime reporter and sports editor of the Baltimore and Washington D.C. Afro-American newspapers, Sam Lacy roomed with Jackie Robinson on the road during his 1947 breakthrough season and also ventured out to Arizona to follow the progress of the first black players for the Giants and Indians in Phoenix and Tucson.
"I was stepping up my part of the campaign to get all the teams to find a way to house players together. …Those segregated living quarters were extremely distasteful to me, but the situation did provide me greater access to the black players, because I lived where they did," wrote Lacy.
Eventually, the Giants and the presence of the team's African-American players were able to persuade the operators of the Adams Hotel at First Ave. and Washington Street to reconsider its policy of segregation.
"We Negro Giants desegregated the Adams Hotel at our Arizona Spring Training base in Phoenix. At first, the dining room and swimming pool was closed to us. Phoenix was then an almost completely segregated city," said Irvin, in Jackie Robinson's 1964 book "Baseball Has Done It."
While Irvin and other African-American teammates on the Giants like Hank Thompson, Willie Mays and Bill White were allowed to stay at the Adams Hotel, they were not allowed to fully utilize its accommodations.
White was invited to Spring Training as Minor Leaguer in 1953. A five-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove Award-winning first baseman during his 13-year Major League career with the Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies, White was also a longtime television broadcaster for the New York Yankees and the first African-American president of the National League. White roomed with Irvin at the Adams hotel during his first spring with the team.
"When I got there in 1953, it [the Adams Hotel] wasn't segregated. In '53, I was just a kid out of high school. I was only 19 years old -- I don't know what happened prior to that. I roomed with Monte Irvin at the Adams Hotel. We had use of the dining room, but very seldom did we have dinner there. Willie never stayed there as far as I know," said White.
When Mays joined the Giants in Phoenix for Spring Training in 1952, he did not stay with the team at the Adams Hotel, even after it became integrated, opting to rent a residence on the south side of town.
Mays and some of the other Giants players stayed at private residences like the one belonging to Blanche McBroom and her husband Granville at 917 Seventh Avenue in South Phoenix, and they often hung out at The W.H. Patterson Elks Lodge, a center of social activity open to members of the African-American community located on the 1000 block of South Seventh Ave.
"I would have breakfast at the Adams, where I stayed, and then we would go to the ballpark. And then we would go to the black area, where Willie lived, and the Black Elks Lodge in Phoenix. They had a pool table and food there and camaraderie and a social network. It was a nice place for us," said White.
Mays returned to Phoenix for every Cactus League season until he was traded to the New York Mets in 1972, prior to the final season of his career. He was named an honorary lifelong g member of the Elks Lodge in 1992, and according to current members who were there then, he continued to make return visits on an almost annual basis until as recently as 2014.
Perhaps no other player in baseball history is so readily identified as a member of one team as Mr. Cub, who spent all 19 years of his big league career in the Windy City.
The first African-American player signed by the Cubs, Banks played for the same Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League franchise where Jackie Robinson played in 1945, as well as Negro Leagues legend Satchel Paige.
Banks made his big league debut with the Cubs on Sept. 17, 1953, and he hit .314 with two home runs and six RBIs in his first 10 games. He joined the Cubs the following spring in Arizona. The Cubs conducted Spring Training operations at Rendezvous Park in Mesa from 1952-65.
While segregation was still the norm, it didn't take long for the presence of Banks and the other African-American players on the Cubs to win the people of Mesa over and instigate societal changes.
Outfielder Billy Williams was also one of the Cubs' early African-American players, arriving six years after Banks. He signed as an amateur free agent in 1956 and made his big league debut on Aug. 6, 1959.
During Banks' and Williams' time with the Cubs in Mesa for Spring Training in the mid-1950s, the team's hotel was still segregated.
"I came to Spring Training in 1957, and I stayed in the barracks at Rendezvous Park with the Minor Leaguers for those first few years. I made the big league roster in 1961. There was an old, old hotel in Tempe, Arizona, where we were allowed to stay. But I never did stay there. I rented a little place in Mesa, Arizona, which was a doctor's office," recalled Williams of his temporary living quarters located in the office of the city's first African-American physician, Dr. Lucius Alston. Williams stayed in Dr. Alston's office near the intersection of Center and University Street, just three blocks from Rendezvous Park.
Eventually, the Cubs' team hotel in Mesa did become integrated.
Banks seldom mentioned race-related issues.
"Not everyone will agree with me -- and I consider this their privilege -- but I've always said the only race we have in baseball is the run to beat the throw," said Banks.
However, Banks did speak about the living conditions during Spring Training in Mesa in "Baseball Has Done It:"
"A few years ago, we had a little housing problem in Mesa," said Banks. "We stayed at a white hotel with the team, but when we tried to bring our families to Arizona with us, we couldn't rent a place for them. We brought this situation to the club's attention. They made an issue of it, threatening to move the team to another site. As a result, we now bring our families to Mesa; mine has spent the last two Spring Training periods there. We were able to rent a house two years ago and an apartment in an all-white building last year. Mesa has a nice climate and a relaxed sort of living. Our being there has opened up the question of segregation in the entire area. The Chamber of Commerce and civic leaders … all have turned tail and are now fighting against discrimination."
While all four of this year's Cactus League Hall of Fame inductees shared in the growing pains of both baseball and the country's integration process, they were also pioneers among the first to integrate institutions like hotels, bars and restaurants in their Spring Training locales, and they can be seen as forerunners in the civil rights movement.
Charlie Vascellaro is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.