The Class of '47
Major league baseball has rightly dedicated the 1997 season to Jackie Robinson, who 50 years ago became the first black major leaguer of this century. And though the tribute is more ceremonial than substantial—baseball executives, for example, were inexcusably absent from Sports in Black and White, a forum that Ted Koppel hosted on ESPN last Friday—baseball has gone to unprecedented lengths to honor the most important player in the game's history.
Throughout the upcoming season, all minor and major league players will wear sleeve patches bearing the inscription BREAKING BARRIERS; video clips on Robinson, produced by Spike Lee, will run on ballpark jumbo screens; games will be played with balls featuring a Robinson logo; and on April 15, the anniversary of the day Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, President Clinton will address the Shea Stadium crowd at a Los Angeles Dodgers-New York Mets game.
Robinson and his legacy deserve all of that acknowledgment. And the four blacks who followed in Robinson's footsteps in 1947 deserve tribute as well. On Independence Day of that year, infielder Larry Doby came to the Cleveland Indians from the Negro National League. The next afternoon he became the first black to play in the American League, striking out as a pinch hitter against Chicago White Sox reliever Earl Harrist. Doby went on to become one of the league's top players, and in '48 he and Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige led the Indians to victory in the World Series. The now 72-year-old Doby, who recalls being shunned by many of his teammates as a rookie, will be the American League's honorary captain at this year's All-Star Game in Cleveland.
The rest of the class of '47 made less of an impact. In mid-July, with hopes of boosting attendance, the last-place St. Louis Browns signed Henry Thompson and Willard Brown, who had been teammates on Robinson's old team, the Kansas City Monarchs. Thompson debuted on July 17, playing second base and going 0 for 4 in a 16-2 loss to the Philadelphia Athletics. Three days later, against the Boston Red Sox, he played second and Brown played rightfield, making them the first black teammates to appear in a game. Over the next month Thompson, then 21, hit .256. Brown, who had been an All-Star in the Negro leagues but, at 36, was past his prime, batted only .179. Attendance still lagged in St. Louis, and on Aug. 23 Thompson and Brown were released. Brown never again played in the majors. Thompson signed with the New York Giants in '49 and was a fixture at third base until he retired in '56.
Three days after Brown and Thompson were let go, Dan Bankhead strode from the Dodgers' bullpen and, amid loud applause at Ebbets Field, became the first black to pitch in a major league game. Though he yielded six runs in 3⅔ innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bankhead did hit a home run. He also plugged Wally Westlake with a pitch, and while the crowd gasped, fearing that Bankhead's hitting the batter might set off a racial riot, Westlake trotted to first. Bankhead pitched four games that season and then, after two years in the minors, returned to the Dodgers in 1950 and went 9-5 over the next two seasons.
Black players have continued to suffer discrimination in the half-century since Robinson's debut, and many have proved admirable for their stoicism and determination. But there was only one summer of '47, the summer that changed baseball forever, and only five black players were there.
Honk If You Hate Wildcats
Folks in Tempe, home of Arizona State, must be wondering if the city's new parking signs are part of a well-planned fraternity prank. The signs' red-and-navy color scheme is identical to rival Arizona's.
Your Show of No-shows
Pity the tennis fan who has bought an advance ticket to a tournament this year. At the Australian Open in mid-January, seven players—Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Richard Krajicek and Monica Seles among them—pulled out in the week before matches began. The field at the Italian Indoors in Milan last week also had seven late dropouts, including Boris Becker, who two weeks earlier had scratched at the eleventh hour from the European Community Championships in Antwerp. At every tournament, it seems, stars whose drawing power helped pump up ticket sales fail to play a set.