LADY AT THE BAT: What Might Have Been: The Yankees & The Color Barrier

Thursday, March 2, 2017

What Might Have Been: The Yankees & The Color Barrier

It's now March and, as spring training moves to a full month of activity, I want to think back on the month just finished. Black History Month was just observed in  February. Many men and women of color and of all walks of life  were duly honored for their contributions  throughout our history. But I also cannot help but think of the contributions of African American baseball players to the game. February appears to be the best month chosen for the event, just from a baseball perspective. In February we observed the birth dates of such great players as Hank Aaron, Monte Irvin and Elston Howard. Add two other players born on January 31st, the eve of Black History Month, Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks and the baseball part of the observance is well timed.

The Yankees also observe this history, though the early years lacked much action with integrating the team. The Yankees from 1947 (Robinson's first year in Brooklyn) through 1954 consisted of almost all white players (Allie Reynolds was Native American, at least in part). Back then, the Yankees ownership or management could boast six championships in the first seven years of integration and maybe their thinking was "Why rock the boat (with integration)?" Yes, it seemed like a successful formula for the thinking in the Bronx back then, and while the cross town Dodgers and Giants differed from the Yanks in their approaches, in my humble opinion that attitude of the Yankees eventually contributed to their demise in the 1960's. The  Yankees lagged behind many other teams in player development, passing on many black and Hispanic players with Howard, Al Downing and Hector Lopez being among the few exceptions.

Which brings up thoughts "what if" some of the rumors of the Yankees adding blacks and Hispanics over the years would have been true? Now these were strictly rumors I have read somewhere and may not have been all that close to reality. But, to me they are fascinating and they all would have served to make the great Yankees franchise even greater if any had happened.

Consider if you will:

1. Willie Mays was scouted by the Yankees
Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle each arrived in New York City in the spring of 1951 to play baseball. Imagine them in the same outfield. There are two stories I have heard. One is that the Yankees sent an unnamed scout to Mobile, AL to check on Mays. The scout was ever the bigot and reported that Mays "couldn't hit a curveball." In fact, I recently read a review of the book Mantle and Mays that made this point. The book is on my bucket list to read one of these days.

The other story was that super scout Tom Greenwade, himself, scouted Mays and sent the Yankees glowing reports, which the Yankees ignored. Not sure either version is true, but usually there is something in the context of a story that might be true. I recently read in the book 1954 the Red Sox had also considered Mays, but passed and would then become the last team to integrate in 1959.

2. Ernie Banks wanted to be a Yankee
I know I read this somewhere, but have only seen it the one time. The story goes, Banks sent a letter to the Yankees following the 1950 season saying he would like to play shortstop for the Yankees. Supposedly the Yankees replied with a no thanks, we have the American League All Star shortstop and league MVP in Phil Rizzuto, which was quite true. Of course, on that day in 1956, when Casey Stengel called Rizzuto into his office and showed him the team's roster, he asked the Scooter whom he (Stengel) should cut from the roster, as Bobby Richardson was through with military service and ready for a call up to New York. This is how Rizzuto found out he was being released. The following season, Rizzuto was in the broadcast booth with Mel Allen and Red Barber. As for Banks, in 1957 he was in Chicago winning the first of two consecutive National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) Awards.

There is a lot of irony here. When catcher Elston Howard arrived in NYC in 1955, it was on the heels of catcher Yogi Berra's 1954 AL MVP award. The Yankees found some at bats for Howard, using him as Yogi's backup and at other positions as well. But there could be some truth to the Banks story. Banks and Howard roomed together as players for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1950 when Howard first signed a contract with the Yankees, July 19, 1950. Howard's path to the big leagues was slowed by two years of military service in 1951 and '52, but it still took a long time from the signing to bring Howard to the majors.

3. Yanks almost traded for Frank Robinson
I do remember this rumor. Mantle was  gone in 1969 and the Yankees were looking for a star player to boost attendance. As I recall, the Orioles were willing to trade Robinson (they eventually did, to the Dodgers) but the asking price was first baseman Joe Pepitone (they were likely going to use Pepi in the outfield with Boog Powell at first base) and left hander Al Downing. The Yankees did in fact trade both Pepitone and Downing, acquiring Curt Blefary and Danny Cater, respectively in  two separate trades not long after. Frank Robinson instead of Blefary and Cater? A second rumor which followed the 1970 season had the Yankees trading 20 game winner, Fritz Peterson for Robinson. In either case, think of the possibility of Frank Robinson breaking the color barrier as a manager, which he did in Cleveland in 1975, but with the Yankees, perhaps at the end of 1973 when Ralph Houk made his exit. George Steinbrenner wanted a high profile manager and chose Dick Williams, who Charley Finley was not going to let go at that time. The second choice was Bill Virdon, who managed the Yankees until August 1975. Pepitone and Downing or Peterson for Robinson would have certainly changed the course of Yankees history.

4. Babe Ruth never became manager because he favored adding black players
This story has gained a lot of traction these past couple of years. In an interview, the Babe's daughter Julia Ruth Stevens. relayed the very same story. Most biographers of Ruth claim Jacob Rupert denied Ruth a managerial shot because Ruth "couldn't even manage himself. How could he manage 25 players?" This exact scene played out in the movie "The Babe" with John Goodman. But as the Babe's daughter said, Babe Ruth had settled down considerably following the marriage to his second wife. Babe made lots of friends among the Negro League players of his day, barnstorming with many players of color during his off seasons.

Imagine if Ruth had actually done such a thing? An outfield with DiMaggio and Cool Papa Bell? Satchel Paige, in his prime, in the rotation? Baseball owners, including the Yankees ownership and commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis weren't likely to stand by in the mid 30s and let this happen. Remember that Jackie Robinson was signed by the Dodgers following the death of Landis with a new commissioner in place.  

We cannot change history, but it's not difficult to imagine how our history could have been changed if some people had thought or acted differently. At the very least we have the real history which included Jackie Robinson becoming a star of the game and changing it forever. Elston Howard and many others followed in that tradition and it is a better game because of their contributions.

I think back to the story of Yankees great, Lefty Gomez who played baseball in the 1930's because he looked more like his mother of Welsh-Irish descent than his father who was Spanish and Portuguese. Lefty, like Jackie Robinson, like Elston Howard were there because they could play. And that is as it should be and as it also should have been.  

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