Few teams integrated as slowly or reluctantly as the Yankees

9 10 2015

I should acknowledge the elephant in the clubhouse: Few teams integrated as slowly as the Yankees.

This post concludes a series on continuing racial discrimination in baseball, in a blog that normally focuses on the Yankees, so I have to acknowledge my favorite team’s part of that shameful history.

A 2013 Pinstripe Alley post by Steven Goldman details the Yankees’ initial resistance to integration of baseball, then its leisurely minor-league “development” of future All-Stars Vic Power and Elston Howard, who clearly were beyond ready for the big leagues. The Yankees traded Power and didn’t bring Howard up to the majors until he was 26, in 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.

In this context, it is no excuse that the Yankees won the World Series in 1947, the year Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and then won five World Series in a row from 1949-53. Maybe for a year or two you could say that the Yankees’ success excused their reluctance to integrate (if you’re looking past the moral aspect).

But I cut the Yankee leadership of that time no slack. They got a good look in four of those World Series at the dynamic impact on the Dodgers of such African Americans as Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. And in the 1952 Series, the Yankees saw the greatness that Willie Mays and Monte Irvin brought to the Giants. And they played in the same city with those guys. They should have seen that aggressive recruitment of African American and Latino players would help continue, strengthen and extend their dynasty. But they worried that attracting African American fans to the ballpark would turn away white fans.

From Manager Casey Stengel to executives Larry MacPhail and George Weiss, the Yankee leadership was slow to recognize the injustice of racial exclusion and the improvement that integration brought to baseball. All those great Yankee teams of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s achieved their records and dynasties without facing some of the best players in baseball: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Buck O’Neil and the other stars of the Negro Leagues.

Only the Phillies, Tigers and Red Sox were all-white longer than the Yankees.

Even when Howard broke in with the Yankees, he had the misfortune of playing at the same position as Yogi Berra, one of the best catchers of all time, who won his third MVP award the year Howard debuted with the Yankees. His first five seasons, Howard played backup catcher, but averaged more than 100 games a year, playing mostly in the outfield and at first base, hitting well enough to make his first three All-Star teams.

That all happened before I started following the Yankees. Howard and Berra had switched roles by 1960, the first year I paid attention to baseball. When I became a confirmed lifelong Yankee fan the next year, they were two of the six Yankees who hit more than 20 homers, led by Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, of course.

Panamanian Héctor López was a reserve Yankee outfielder that year and drove in seven World Series runs (Mantle was injured). And African American Al Downing was a rookie pitcher. I didn’t learn much about racism and racial issues for a few more years, but I don’t remember the Yankees not being integrated.

Nothing can erase the Yankees’ role in perpetuating baseball’s racial discrimination. And on one level, the Yankees’ color barrier hasn’t been broken yet: The Yankees have never had an African American or Latino manager.

Other than that, since the 1960s, the Yankees’ progress in diversity has been as strong as any team’s:

Many of the Yankees’ greatest moments of the last 40  years feature non-white players:

  • Jackson’s three homers to win the clinching Game Six of the 1977 World Series.
  • Rivera getting the final outs in four different World Series, plus a bunch more post-season series and setting the all-time saves record.

Looking at baseball’s shameful history of segregation and its slow pace of integration, the Yankees deserved more than their share of the game’s shame. But, as well as any team, they illustrate how much diversity has enriched and enhanced the game since it integrated.

Also in this series

This is the last of five posts I am writing about racism in selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame:

Source note: Unless noted otherwise, statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.

Starting pitchers series: I paused a series on Yankee starting pitchers for this week’s series on continued racial discrimination in elections to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I’ll resume posts on the pitchers next week with a post on Yankee 20-game winners.

Correction invitation: I wrote this blog post a few months ago late at night, unable to sleep while undergoing medical treatment. I believe I have fact-checked and corrected any errors, but I welcome you to point out any I missed: stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com. Or, if you just want to argue about my selections, that’s fine, too.

Thanks to newspaper partners

I offered a shorter (less stats-geeky) version of the first post in this series to some newspapers. Thanks to the newspapers who are planning to publishing the in print, online or both (I will add links as I receive them):

If you’d like to receive the newspaper version of the first post to use as a column, or would like a shortened version of any other posts in the series to publish, email me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.

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7 07 2016
The Negro Leagues Museum: Class in the face of bigotry | Hated Yankees

[…] Few teams integrated as slowly or reluctantly as the Yankees […]

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