African-American impact detailed in new '1954' book
Author Madden showcases events of season seven years after color barrier broke
Baseball is justifiably proud of how the Brooklyn Dodgers' signing of Jackie Robinson in 1947, breaking the unofficial color barrier, played an important role in promoting civil rights in this country.
Award-winning baseball writer Bill Madden makes a compelling case in "1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever" that the real impact of that historic event on the sport wasn't actually felt until seven years later.
It's true that by then, Robinson was well-established in the big leagues. When Spring Training began that season, he had won a National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949 and had made the NL All-Star team each of the previous five seasons. And it's also true that the Dodgers had already added other African-American standouts such as Don Newcombe, Joe Black, Roy Campanella and Junior Gilliam.
But integration in the sport was still the exception more than the rule.
That was the year, for example, that Ernie Banks became a full-time player for the Cubs and when Hank Aaron made his Major League debut for the Milwaukee Braves. It was the year when, for the first time, both teams appearing in the World Series, the Indians and New York Giants, featured black players.
It was the year that Willie Mays returned from military service and blossomed into one of the most magnetic players in history. His outsized impact on his team's success is duly chronicled. It was the year that the Dodgers started five blacks on July 17, the first time in history whites had been outnumbered in the lineup.
That was also the year that the Supreme Court ruled in "Brown vs. Board of Education" that segregation in public schools based solely on race was illegal. Still, at the beginning of the season, half the 16 teams that existed at the time had yet to use a black player.
"Race wasn't something that was talked about much in baseball in 1954," Madden explained. "It was as though all the resistance to integration of the game and the accompanying taunts, slights, and verbal abuse toward black players from fans and other players and managers had mostly been played out in the first few years. ... But whether baseball and America realized it, 1954 was the launching pad for a new era, when the dominant players in the game were to be black and Hispanics."
The book deftly describes how a critical mass was achieved in 1954 and how the American League's relative reluctance to embrace the change put it at a distinct competitive disadvantage. The AL had won the World Series seven straight times before the Giants swept the Indians.
In most of those years, it was the Yankees who won it all. They were also one of the teams that had remained all white. And while that had been a point of contention, they were able to deflect some of the criticism by pointing to their success on the field.
That defense crumbled in 1954. The next year, Elston Howard became the first African-American to play for the Yankees. Before his career was over, he'd play in nine World Series, and in 1963, he became the first black player to win the AL MVP Award.
Wrote Madden: "By then, however, it had become readily apparent how the Yankees-led resistance to integrate in the American League had swayed the balance of power in baseball."
In subsequent years, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda, Bob Gibson, Willie McCovey and Maury Wills came into the NL. From 1949-62, 11 of 14 NL MVP Award winners were minorities. In the same period, the AL MVP Award roll remained all-white. It's not a coincidence that while Mays and the rest were in their primes, the NL won a majority of World Series and dominated All-Star competition.
The book ends with this quote from Aaron: "I guess we showed them pretty good what most of America was missing for the first seventy years of baseball."
That's especially poignant considering how the percentage of African-Americans in baseball has slipped in recent years and illustrates, once again, why MLB is so committed to doing everything it can to provide opportunity to learn and play the game.