The Tale of Two All-Star Games, 1935–1962
In part 8, Dickson describes how Ted Williams's heroics in 1941 solidified the All-Star Game's midseason interest, and how Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Larry Doby starred in the 1949 game, which marked the beginning of the end of the East-West Classic.
The period from 1935 through 1962 encompassed a time when the Major League All-Star Game became an annual fixture of the American sports calendar, bringing together baseball’s best, brightest, and most beloved players each year. (World War II travel restrictions, however, prevented the game from taking placing in 1945.) It was also a time when the East-West Game at first flourished but then died as baseball—and the All-Star Game—became racially integrated.
With two All-Star Games now established by 1935, the standout performer during the 1930s for the Major Leagues was pitcher Lefty Gomez of the Yankees, an All-Star every year from 1933 to 1939 earning the victory in two of the first three games (1933, 1935). He pitched six innings in the 1935 game, allowing just three hits. The major footnote to this 1935 game was the newly retired Babe Ruth, accompanied by Mrs. Ruth, whose arrival highlighted the pregame activities. Photographers and ballplayers were drawn to him like a magnet. It marked the end of an era at a game that he had helped popularize.
In his last All-Star Game start in 1938, Ruth’s longtime teammate Lou Gehrig went 2 for 4 with four RBIs; he homered off Dizzy Dean to lead the American League to an 8–3 win at Griffith Stadium in Washington. The AL’s Earl Averill hit a line drive off Dean’s left foot. Dizzy suffered a fractured toe that shortened his career. The AL won 8–3.[i]
The July 8, 1941, All-Star Game at Briggs Stadium in Detroit probably had the greatest impact on the Major Leagues. The American League went into the ninth inning trailing by two runs. The National League owed its lead to Arky Vaughan, the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop who had hit two home runs. Claude Passeau, the Cubs’ right-hander, was on the mound and in a difficult spot. The American League had the bases loaded with one out on singles by Kenny Keltner of the Indians and Joe Gordon of the Yankees and a walk to Cecil Travis of the Senators. Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees then came to bat with the bases loaded. He hit what seemed like a certain double-play ball sharply to shortstop Eddie Miller of the Braves, who tossed the ball to second baseman Billy Herman. However, Herman’s throw to first was wide, enabling DiMaggio to reach first and Keltner to score. Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox came to the plate. Passeau had one strike and two balls on him when Williams tore into a pitch, and the ball crashed against the façade atop the third tier of the stadium. The men who scored ahead of Williams waited for him at home plate to gleefully pound him on his back.
Ted Williams swinging the bat, arguably the best hitter in baseball history.
The 1941 All-Star Game has arguably had a major role in making the game a major event in the baseball year. Decades later, Larry Millson, of Toronto’s Globe and Mail, wrote: “The game’s tradition, its obsession with its past, is important. Ruth’s two-run homer that provided the edge in the first game gave the all-star game an instant tradition. Ted Williams’ famous ninth-inning homer that won the 1941 game for the AL added to it.”[ii]
As the attention continued to be focused on the Major League All-Star Game leading up to and through the war years, the color line was underscored and displayed in a most unflattering light.
One of the clearest distinctions between the two All-Star Games was that East-West Games were, with few exceptions, invisible or nearly so to the white world around them, despite the fact that attendance for several games grew to over 50,000 and on occasion outdrew its Major League counterpart. Many newspapers gave these games either no coverage or a few column inches in the back pages of the sports section. The Chicago American, one of the most sports- oriented newspapers of its time, typically accorded the Comiskey Park contest a paragraph or two and an agate-type box score. Through the remainder of the 1930s and into the 1940s, as far as the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, and Washington Post were concerned, the games simply did not exist.
A few white writers—mainly columnists—wrote about black players who had the skills to play in the Major Leagues. For a sportswriter, especially a white sportswriter, to consider a “race” player, as Negro Leaguers were often called in the black press, good enough for the Majors was the ultimate praise. After watching shortstop Willie Wells in the 1938 East-West Game, Lloyd Lewis, a columnist for the New Jersey Herald-News, wrote, “I know 16 clubs in the major leagues who could use a man like Wells right now.”[iii]
Original ticket to the 1948 Negro League All Star Game.
African-American newspapers, however, not only covered the games, but they pointed out time and again how players from the East-West could help the other All-Stars. In 1936 when the National League beat the American League 4–3, an editorial in the Chicago Defender argued that the AL would have won the contest if Satchel Paige had been pitching instead of Lefty Grove, who gave up the winning runs. The Defender pointed out that in exhibition play Paige had faced the bulk of the star hitters in both leagues, giving up precious few hits.[iv]
Through the ’30s and during the war years, Major League teams scouted the Negro League stars knowing that by the time integration was achieved, great players like Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige would be old men and mostly gone from the game.
Other than the few occasions when Mayor Edward Kelly of Chicago threw out the opening ball at Comiskey Park, the games lacked recognition from the white world. This was true of all Negro Leagues games, including season openers. A 1936 request from the Washington Elite Giants of the Negro Southern League for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to throw out the opening ball for their season got a curt reply from an aide: “Thanks for the offer, but the president is too busy.”[v]
In 1945 Kansas City Monarchs rookie shortstop Jackie Robinson was named to the West All-Star Team. He went hitless in five at-bats, though he fielded flawlessly at shortstop. The other future Major League player, West catcher Roy Campanella, got two hits and drove in one run. At the end of that game the West led the East 7–6 in games won.
As the East-West Game played on without interference up to the point of integration in 1947, everything began to change with the acquisition of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League and Larry Doby by the Cleveland Indians in the American. Doby, like Robinson, had come up through the Negro Leagues, namely Effa Manley’s Newark Eagles.
In his drive to win the 1948 pennant, and despite knowing he would be criticized for doing so, Bill Veeck of the Cleveland Indians signed the legendary Satchel Paige. The loudest blast came from J. G. Taylor Spink, editor of The Sporting News, who blistered Bill for signing the “old man,” terming it a publicity stunt, pure and simple. “To bring in a pitching ‘rookie’ of Paige’s age casts a reflection on the entire scheme of operations in the major leagues. To sign a hurler of Paige’s age is to demean the standards of baseball in the big circuits.” Spink went on to rant for 18 paragraphs, even suggesting that American League President Will Harridge void the contract.[vi]
With the help of Doby and Paige, the Indians won the 1948 World Championship. By the beginning of the 1949 season, Veeck had 14 black players under contract, including former Negro Leaguers and future stars Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso and Luke Easter. The talent pool, thanks initially to Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck, was thinning the Negro Leagues, and the East-West Game began to lose its luster and its record-breaking crowds.
On July 12, 1949, when the first African-American players competed in the Major League All-Star Game played at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn before a crowd of 32,577 fans, the East-West Game and the Negro Leagues themselves had nowhere to go but down. The National League fielded Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe, all Brooklyn Dodgers; Larry Doby was selected for the American League’s squad. Significantly, Robinson had the most votes in the National League, second only to Ted Williams in the overall vote count.
Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers all had a great impact on blacks playing in the Major Leagues.
During that same summer of 1949, Major League Baseball finally fully acknowledged the East-West All-Star Game as part of the baseball universe when Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler threw out the first ball, which gave the game overdue sanction and recognition—albeit unofficial. But attendance was down as more African-Americans were drawn to the integrated Major League teams.
Attendance at the East-West Game continued to slip. The draw of 18,279 in 1952 was the lowest ever for East-West Game played at Comiskey Park. By 1956 only 8,567 fans turned out to see the game, and in 1959 only 3,000 showed up. In 1959 the Boston Red Sox became the last of 16 teams in the Major Leagues to racially integrate.
The game limped on until 1962 when it had become a shadow of its former self. The last East-West All-Star Game in the history of Negro Leagues baseball was played at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City on August 27, 1962. Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and others were honored in a pregame ceremony on the field.
Gone but not forgotten in terms of baseball history, Larry Lester wrote in his 2001 work on the game, Black Baseball’s National Showcase: “Generally speaking, many historians, players, and fans argue that the overall success of the Chicago All-Star games was one of the most important factors in the integration of Major League Baseball.”[vii]
Although Hank Aaron’s brief stint in the Negro Leagues playing for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1951 did not land him a position on the East-West roster, he went on to typify the impact of the Negro Leaguers at the Major League All-Star Game. From 1955 through 1975, Aaron was an NL All-Star for 20 seasons and an AL All-Star for one season. He still holds the record for the most seasons as an All-Star.
Outstanding slugger Hank Aaron toppled Babe Ruth’s home run record.
[i] Supposedly when told that his big toe was fractured, Dean responded, “Fractured, hell, the damn thing’s broken!”
[ii] Larry Millson, Globe and Mail, July 7, 1983.
[iii] Bob Luke, Willie Wells: “El Diablo” of the Negro Leagues (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 11.
[iv] Chicago Defender, July 1936.
[v] William B. Mead and Paul Dickson, Baseball: The Presidents’ Game (New York: Walker, 1997), 199.
[vi] The Sporting News, July 14, 1948.
[vii] Larry Lester, Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game, 1933-1953 (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2002), 1.
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