Scholars discuss baseball pioneers

Scholars discuss baseball pioneers

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Not all the pioneers of integration in baseball are as familiar names as Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Frank Robinson. Some otherwise obscure figures as Tom Alston and Gene Baker had a hand also in transforming a sport in which only the ball was white.

That was the position of a panel of scholars discussing African-American pioneers in one of the various sessions of the three-day Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture that opened Wednesday at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. More than 60 participants are scheduled to make presentations and be involved in panel discussions on topics dealing with the game's position in society.

The keynote address of the 20th annual symposium, co-sponsored by the Hall and the State University of New York-Oneonta, was delivered by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ira Berkow, recently retired from The New York Times and author of 18 books, including one to be published next February on Lou Brissie, who pitched seven seasons in the Major Leagues after suffering severe leg wounds during World War II.

Brissie made it to the Majors, with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Twenty-five years later, Robinson threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 of the World Series and expressed his desire to see a black manager in the game. He died within the next two weeks, three years before another Robinson, Frank, was hired as manager of the Cleveland Indians.

Jackie Robinson's step has been hailed as one of the major steps in integration throughout American society. Frank Robinson's step was characterized by Brian Richards of the Cooperstown Graduate Program as a "hollow victory," supported by the fact that so few African-Americans followed quickly in the wake of his firing in 1977 and such obvious candidates of that era as Junior Gilliam, Elston Howard and John Roseboro, among others, were bypassed.

"It was a clear example of Major League Baseball's incomplete commitment to racial advances," Richards said.

Frank Robinson was making $180,000 as a player and expected to re-sign with the Indians for the 1975 season. He had managed in Puerto Rico in winter ball and had designs on a career in the dugout. The Indians offered him a job as player-manager for $200,000, which meant essentially Robinson's value as a manager was $20,000, but he took the role for fear that the door might continue to remain closed to blacks who hoped for opportunities to manage.

Alston and Baker are names from the earliest days of integration in the Majors. Lloyd Barrow of the University of Missouri spoke on the desire in 1954 of the St. Louis Cardinals, then the westernmost and southernmost franchise, to bring a black player to the team seven years after the Browns had done so at Sportsman Park, the last big league park to end segregated seating, in 1947.

Barrow sees the purchase of the franchise in 1953 by Budweiser beer baron August Busch Jr. as critical to the move. This was the first takeover of a franchise by a corporation, and Busch sold beer to everyone, black and white. It was time for the Cardinals to integrate.

Alston, a first baseman, was the first African-American signed to a Major League contract who had not played in the Negro Leagues (the last Negro Leagues player to sign with a big league club was Henry Aaron with the Milwaukee Braves). Alston was a college player from North Carolina A&T who did not achieve success with the Cardinals. He developed back problems and had a thyroid condition.

Barrow contended that despite Alston's experience, the Cardinals remained committed to making integration work in St. Louis through trades that brought Curt Flood, Bill White and Lou Brock to town and the signing of Bob Gibson, another college player. They were the core of the Cardinals team that won the World Series in 1964, their first postseason appearance in 18 years.

The saga of Gene Baker, as presented by Richard Puerzer of Long Island's Hofstra University, is an early example of an African-American attempting to remain in the game after his playing career ended. Baker was supposed to be the Cubs' first black player, but got hurt and didn't play until after Ernie Banks came straight to Chicago from the Kansas City Monarchs. Banks and Baker were the Cubs' double-play combination in the mid-1950s.

"Banks always said that Baker had the greatest influence on him in his career," Puerzer said.

Baker was traded in 1957 to Pittsburgh, and it was with the Pirates that he made the first advances by an African-American in positions of authority. While recovering from an injury in 1959, he was named instructional assistant to general manager Branch Rickey Jr. and was responsible for scouting and analysis. In July 1961, Baker became the first black manager of a Minor League affiliate, with the Pirates' then Class D club in Batavia, N.Y. A year later, he was a player-coach with Triple-A Columbus, and in 1963, was added to the coaching staff of Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh, a longtime supporter of Baker.

Former Negro Leagues first baseman and manager Buck O'Neil was the first black coach in the Majors, with the Cubs in 1962, but Puerzer pointed out that O'Neil's role was basically to ease Banks' transition from shortstop to first base. The Cubs then had the infamous "College of Coaches" rotating system rather than one manager, but the rotation did not include O'Neil.

Baker, on the other hand, occasionally coached third base for the Pirates and once was their acting manager for two innings of a game in which Murtaugh and one of his coaches were ejected by umpires. But he was dropped from the staff and returned to Batavia where the experience was not pleasant. After a 99-loss season, Baker returned home to Davenport, Iowa, where he served as a scout for the Pirates for 23 years.

Yet, not even Frank Robinson's hiring could lure Baker back into uniform to do any more pioneering.

Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.