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Ending Jim Crow in the Preseason:
The Heroic Spring Struggles by Jackie Robinson
and Others at West Point

In this three-part series, Paul Dickson examines the less well-known struggle to integrate Major League Baseball: spring training. To begin the series, Dickson relays how Jackie Robinson took part in Brooklyn’s 1945 spring training at the US Military Academy at West Point.

By Paul Dickson, February 2, 2018
Branch Rickey saw the positives that integration of baseball would bring to Major League Baseball and their parks

The story of the heroic integration of Major League Baseball will be recalled again and again during Black History Month in 2018. It is a story worth retelling if for no other reason than such men as Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and Roy Campanella became the spark for a larger civil rights movement. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, Jackie Robinson was “a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”

A less well-known subplot in this grand story is the struggle to integrate the game during the preseason in the North at the end of the Second World War and later in spring training in both Florida and Arizona. As the latest version of spring training is about to begin, it is a less well-known, but equally dramatic, story worth recalling.

The very first time that racial integration and spring training appeared in the same sentence was in 1942 when Jackie Robinson requested a tryout at a White Sox spring training camp in Pasadena, California. Robinson, then a student at Pasadena Junior College, impressed White Sox Manager Jimmy Dykes, but nothing came of the event.

The issue of preseason integration lay dormant until April 1945 when it was brought to the fore.

Because of wartime travel restrictions that were still in effect, the Brooklyn Dodgers held spring training at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1945. Before the war the Dodgers had trained in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers—along with Manager Leo Durocher and members of the scouting team—had begun their search for the first African-American baseball player. Durocher had been on record since 1939 saying he wanted to recruit black players, but he claimed he had been restricted by the powers that be. For all of his many faults, Durocher was virtually colorblind when it came to baseball. A black man named David Redd had actually pushed him into trying out for the Hartford Senators. Not only did he make the team but he was drafted before his first season was over by the New York Yankees.

Much to the surprise of the Dodgers, shortly before noon on April 6, 1945, Joe Bostic, sports editor of Harlem newspaper The People’s Voice, arrived at the Dodgers camp unannounced and accompanied by two other journalists. The three newspaper men, all advocates of baseball integration, presented two Negro League veterans, pitcher Terris McDuffie and first baseman Dave “Showboat” Thomas, to the Dodgers demanding that the men be given a tryout.

Bostic told Harold Parrott, the Dodgers’ traveling secretary, that he wanted to speak to Team President Branch Rickey about scheduling the tryout for these uninvited and unannounced ballplayers. Parrott said that Rickey couldn’t be disturbed, because he was watching a game at another practice field at the Academy. Parrott then returned with Bob Finch, Rickey’s top assistant, who said the team gave tryouts only to players who had invitations. Bostic asked why the team had never invited a black player. Finch had no answer. He told Bostic that Rickey would discuss the matter over lunch.

Terris McDuffie was a three-time All-Star in the Negro League.

At about 2:30 p.m., Bostic and the ballplayers were escorted to a dining room where they were met with a tirade from Rickey, who said that he would grant the tryout but that he forbade other writers from attending. He also made it clear that showing up without notice was a bad idea. “I’m more for your cause than anybody else you know,” he said, “but you are making a mistake using force.”

Rickey asked that nobody in the room discuss the particulars of the meeting with the press. But both the Associated Press and the United Press were on the story immediately, and Rickey gave no details, but he said unequivocally “that I will look at any ball players of any age, color or creed,” adding that he was ready to hire talent from the Negro Leagues, and that he was already thinking of bringing Negro League teams into Brooklyn to play at Ebbets Field. Bostic later recounted to historian Jules Tygiel that “Rickey went berserk almost, with fury” and chewed him out.[1]

Bostic was immediately on the phone to sports columnist Al Laney of the New York Herald Tribune with the full story. In his “Views of Sports” column the next morning, Laney took delight in writing how Bostic had surprised Rickey, leaving speechless the loquacious Rickey whose long news conferences had been dubbed “the cave of winds” by sportswriters. “It would have been a real pleasure to be at Bear Mountain yesterday,” Laney wrote in his column. “To catch Brother Rickey thus with his guard down was an extraordinary achievement. The situation had elements of immortal comedy.”[2]

It was anything but comedy.

Bostic’s noon meeting with Rickey the next day was no more pleasant than the first meeting. “I was thoroughly raked over the coals for breaking the agreement not to tell anybody about the tryout so that it would be held in comparative privacy,” Bostic said.

Leo Durocher ended up suspended from managing during 1947—Jackie Robinson’s debut year in the Major Leagues.

To Durocher came the unenviable task of trying out two journeymen who were old and seemed to lack the skill to make it in the Major Leagues. Although the ballplayers had strong Negro League records, they were clearly on the downside of their careers. After the workout, Rickey issued a personal report, as he did for all prospects. McDuffie’s control is “very good,” wrote Rickey trying to be kind. “His fast ball is good and his curve is good. I believe he can get a better change.” The report also included Durocher’s comment that he had a dozen kids with more stuff and was not interested in a 32-year-old with no Major League experience. Their take on Thomas was even more lukewarm. “He showed power. But on a change of speed was very weak. I would not be interested if he were 24 instead of 34.”[3]

Then, and in the future when the story of baseball integration was re-told, Durocher was cast in an unfavorable light because of the frankness he used in dismissing these two. The reality was that Durocher and Rickey and several trusted members of the Dodgers staff were already looking at African-American athletes, including Durocher’s pick Silvio Garcia, a Cuban whom Durocher said would be worth a million dollars if he had only been white. Durocher described Garcia as “coal black.” Leo had spotted him in Cuba in 1942 when Garcia was part of a Cuban All-Star team that played five games against the Dodgers.

While Bostic was confronting Rickey at Bear Mountain, a Boston city councilman, Isadore Muchnick, told the Red Sox he would revoke their license to play games on Sundays if they did not consider at least one black player. Pittsburgh Courier sports editor Wendell Smith, who had been calling for the integration of baseball for nearly a decade, recruited three high-quality ballplayers: Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams. The Red Sox agreed to look at the ballplayers.

Whereas Rickey treated McDuffie and Thomas like any other prospect, the Red Sox assigned high school pitchers to throw batting practice to Robinson, Jethroe, and Williams. Whereas Rickey scrutinized the abilities of McDuffie and Thomas, Red Sox officials said nothing to the players, dismissing them with instructions to put their home addresses on postcards that would be mailed to them if and when they were needed.

Smith called Rickey, now back from West Point, from Boston to tell them how Robinson had excelled in his tryout. He asked Rickey if he could detour to Brooklyn to discuss Robinson. “Jackie Robinson! I knew he was an All-American football player and an All-American basketball player,” Rickey explained. “But I didn’t know he played baseball.” The two met, talked about Robinson and other African-American players, and promised to keep in touch. Rickey began to scout Robinson, who would play the 1945 season for the Negro American League Kansas City Monarchs.

On August 28, 1945, Robinson met with Rickey and agreed to join the Dodgers Organization. On October 23, Jackie Robinson was signed by the Dodgers. The historic first signing of an African-American player, which took place in Montreal, called for Robinson to play with the Montreal Royals of the International League for the 1946 season. He was to be paid a $3,500 cash bonus and $600 per month in salary.[4]

Wartime restrictions on spring training were lifted, and the Dodgers arranged to set up camp in Daytona Beach for the 1946 season.

Jackie Robinson would go on to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.



[1] AP, Springfield Republican, April 7, 1945, 11; Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press), 45–46.
[2] New York Herald Tribune, April 7, 1945, 12.
[3] Neither Thomas nor McDuffie ever made the Majors. Thomas had one last splendid season with the Cubans in 1946, hitting .393 and retiring. McDuffie had several more good years and finished his career in 1954 with one season in the minors, going 3–4 for Dallas of the Texas League.
[4] UP, The Repository, Canton (Ohio), October 15, 1945, 12.

 

 

 

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