SAN FRANCISCO -- One day after Bobby Thomson hit his memorable ninth-inning home run to lift the New York Giants past the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1951 National League playoff finale, another historic baseball event unfolded -- albeit with a little less drama.
The Giants opened the World Series against the New York Yankees on Oct. 4 with a lineup that featured the Majors' first all-black outfield: left fielder Monte Irvin, center fielder Willie Mays and right fielder Hank Thompson.
Though this development obviously reflected the slow yet steady process of integrating the Major Leagues, it didn't immediately become an enduring symbol of racial progress like Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers in 1947. Mainly, Giants manager Leo Durocher needed a right fielder, because Don Mueller was sidelined by an ankle injury, which he sustained the day before while running the bases in the fateful ninth. Thompson, who played exclusively third base in the 1951 regular season, appeared in 11 games as an outfielder during the previous year, including eight starts in right.
The coalescence of an all-black outfield on a team managed by Durocher may have been coincidence. It also was entirely fitting. Suspended as manager of the Dodgers shortly before the 1947 season began for associating with gamblers, Durocher was around long enough to express solid support for the pioneering Robinson: "I don't care if he is yellow or black or has stripes like a zebra. I'm his manager and I say he plays."
Along those lines, Thompson told Durocher biographer Gerald Eskenazi that Durocher introduced himself by saying, "I'm only going to say one thing about color: You can be green or be pink on this team. If you can play baseball and help this team, you're welcome to play."
Bigots seized the opportunity to have their vulgar say after surveying the Giants' lineup in the Series opener -- which they won, 5-1, as Irvin lined four hits. The Yankees ultimately recovered and captured the Series in six games.
News photographers assigned to cover the game recognized the novelty of Durocher's personnel move and shot numerous posed, pregame pictures of Irvin, Mays and Thompson.
They comprised not just a singular trio, but also a talented one.
Mays won that year's NL Rookie of the Year Award and evolved into one of baseball's greatest players, if not the finest ever.
Irvin led the NL with 121 RBIs in 1951 to go with 24 home runs and a .312 batting average. A highly respected Negro Leagues star who was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1973, Irvin was widely regarded as the best candidate for the prestigious yet pressurized distinction of attempting to become the Majors' first African-American player. But his U.S. Army stint in World War II delayed his reacclimation to baseball. So did a disagreement over compensation between the Dodgers and the Newark Eagles, Irvin's Negro Leagues club. He ultimately signed with the Giants and, along with Thompson, shared the experience of breaking the franchise's color barrier on July 8, 1949.
"He always had a smile on his face," said former infielder Joe Amalfitano, a teammate of Irvin's with the 1954 World Series-winning New York Giants. "What a great, great human being. I can still see him smiling."
That was one in an intriguing series of "firsts" recorded by Hank Thompson. He broke into the Majors with the St. Louis Browns as their first black player on July 17, 1947, and three days later, he and Willard Brown became the initial pair of African-Americans to appear in a Major League lineup, playing second base and center field, respectively. On Aug. 9, Thompson and Cleveland's Larry Doby became the first blacks faced each other on a big league field.
Primarily a third baseman, Thompson continued forging his unique trail after the Browns released him and the Giants signed him. He was the first African-American to play in both the American and National leagues and the only one to integrate two different teams. When he led off against Brooklyn's Don Newcombe in his aforementioned Giants debut, it marked the first time in Major League Baseball that black players confronted each other as pitcher and batter.