Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

January 3rd, 2003:

The color line in other sports

Want to win a bar bet some day? Ask someone to identify the following people: Earl Lloyd, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, and Willie O’Ree. Give up? They are, respectively, the first black players in the NBA, NFL, and NHL.

The NBA integrated in 1950-51. While Lloyd was the first black man to play in a game, Chuck Cooper was the first black player drafted (by the Celtics), and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first to sign a contract (with the Knicks). The impetus for NBA integration was the Harlem Globetrotters, who beat the National Basketball League/Basketball Association of America champion Minneapolis Lakers two games out of three in 1948 and 1949. Many innovations in dribbling and passing can be traced to the Globetrotters as well.

(I saw the Globetrotters live as a kid a couple of times. They were tons of fun to watch. I can totally relate to this quote from that ESPN article:

Said longtime Globetrotter “Sweet Lou” Dunbar: “Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal were so popular because they were on TV. We’d be on ABC Wide World of Sports, although you had to endure a little bowling first.”

I happily endured bowling any number of times in the 70s to catch a few minutes of the Trotters.)

An interesting commentary on integration and competitive advantage can be found on this page, which has photos of all of the Celtics’ NBA championship teams from the 1950s on. Start at the top and count the number of black players on the team each year for the 11 seasons that Bill Russell was their center. Equally interesting to contemplate is that the recent influx of players from Europe and Asia likely means that NBA champions of the near future (such as, perhaps, the Sacramento Kings or Dallas Mavericks) will feature more non-black faces than champs of the near past. The circle we’ve come is so full we’re on our second or third lap.

The NFL has a longer history of integration, as the precursor leagues of the early 20th century featured black players. The NFL was integrated when it was founded in 1922, but it adopted a no-blacks policy in 1933. That lasted until 1946, when the league faced competition from another league, the All-American Football Conference, which was integrated. The AAFC folded after four seasons, partly because they had one team, the Cleveland Browns, that thoroughly dominated the rest (the Browns won all four AAFC championships, going 52-4-3 overall). Absorbed into the NFL in 1950, the Browns served notice of their abilities right away, defeating the NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles 35-10 in their first game, on their way to winning the Eastern Conference for six straight years.

The NHL has been a mostly white league for its entire existence. Though they never had an official color line, they also never had a black player until O’Ree debuted in 1958. Unlike the other pioneers, O’Ree did not lead a wave of black athletes into his league. The NHL reverted to being all white from O’Ree’s departure in 1961 until 1978.

For what it’s worth, when Grant Fuhr came up in the 80s, the explanation I always heard about hockey’s whiteness was that the vast majority of players came from Canada, which presumably had a lower proportion of blacks in its population. Regardless, the NHL is more American and international now, and while Willie O’Ree sees more blacks and Hispanics making it in pro hockey, it wouldn’t surprise me to see players from Asia make an impact some day.

As for baseball, I just want to mention that the first black player in the major leagues was Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker, who played with Toledo in the American Association in 1883. His brother Welday also played a few games with Toledo that year, but the infamous color line in baseball was erected after that season. Eighty-eight years later (twenty-four years after Jackie Robinson broke in), the Pittsburgh Pirates played a game in which all nine of their starters were black. The Pirates were one of the most integrated teams in the 1970s. They also won two World Series titles and four other divisional titles from 1970-1979.

(Though the idea for this post was my own, I took some inspiration and information from Tony Pierce.)

Baseball, the international game

A bunch of interesting baseball articles out there right now. We’ll start with Dr. Manhattan’s look at how the breaking of the racial barrier in baseball was not just the correction of a grievous moral failing, but also an opportunity for smart franchises to gain a competitive advantage:

All this was, or should have been, understood at the time by those whose primary priority was to win. While Branch Rickey certainly deserves tremendous moral credit for providing the means for Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the major leagues, he was just as undoubtedly interested in the competitive advantage his team would derive. When the Dodgers combined black players such as Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcome and Junior Gilliam with white players like Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo, the result was a team that won six pennants in Robinson’s ten seasons. As Adam Smith might have predicted, the Dodgers’ self-interest was a moral force.

The National League generally followed the Dodgers’ example to a greater extent than the American League did, with the expected result: according to Bill James’ Win Shares method, there were 11 National League players in 1963 that were better than any American League player that year. (The contrast is especially stark because Mickey Mantle was injured for most of that season, but the general point remains true.). Probably not coincidentally, the National League dominated the All-Star Game in that era.

Dr. Manhattan goes on to tie the slothfulness of the Red Sox and the Yankees in scouting and signing black and Latino players to their respective woes in the post-Jackie Robinson era (it took awhile for the Yankees to feel this effect, but feel it they did from 1965-1975). David Pinto and Eric McErlain also have some thoughts on this. McErlain makes the following point:

Simply put, the Yankees lead in acquiring talent over the rest of the Major Leagues was so great, that their opponents in the National League had little choice but to stock their rosters with talented African-Americans. In the end, they really had no other option if they wanted to close the yawning talent gap with the most successful franchise in baseball history.

Once the Yankees fell out of contention for that decade-long stretch, the American League teams that were the most successful were the Orioles (who featured Paul Blair, Frank Robinson, and Mike Cuellar) and the Oakland A’s (with Vida Blue, Bert Campanaris, and of course a fellow named Reggie). The Yankees have learned their lesson with a vengeance, pursuing Japanese and Latino players with all the usual Steinbrennerian vigor and money. They may get Irabued on occasion, but signing an Alfonso Soriano more than makes up for it.

In a way, with the lack of a worldwide draft, getting a leg up in finding talent today is similar to how it was back in the days of DiMaggio and Mantle. Joe DiMaggio was purchased from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, which served as a nearly-major league for people on the wrong coast in the pre-TV days. He was already a hot commodity thanks to a record-breaking hitting streak (62 games). Mickey Mantle was signed by a scout who saw him play a game in high school in tiny Commerce, Oklahoma. It’s safe to say that no one had ever heard of him at the time of his signing. As it is now, a combination of buying established stars from other leagues and getting lucky with out-of-nowhere phenoms is a pretty good road map to success.

Where will the next untapped talent source be? According to David Pinto, it could be Malaysia. You can bet that the Yankees will monitor this closely.

Sylvia and Gabriel

Here’s a nice article about newly elected County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, the first Latino and the first woman to serve on this court. As noted, this makes her one of the more powerful Hispanic politicians in the country.

Garcia has her work cut out for her in the insular old-boys club that the Court is, as Greg Wythe notes. She’s taking over her seat from a man who’d been greatly slowed by Parkinson’s disease and who apparently left things in some disarray, so I wouldn’t expect her to get much of a honeymoon. Still, she’s already overcome some odds to win this election in the way of well-organized opposition and a district that is not particularly favorable to her demographically (though it is trending that way).

Meanwhile, in Houston, there’s already a lot of jockeying going on for the city election that will occur in November. The mayor’s race already has a crowded field, while a number of term-limited politicians are looking around for the next office to run for. One person who’ll likely be in the same place is my City Council member, Gabriel Vasquez. Vasquez can run for his office one more time. I’m not sure what he’ll do next, but I am sure he’ll do something.

Vasquez lives a couple of blocks away from me. We’ve had a few encounters with him, all of which have been positive. The city has scheduled a major repaving of the main road into our neighborhood for later this year, which will cause all kinds of pain. Vasquez has held a couple of question-and-answer sessions for residents regarding this. The one I attended was at 6 PM at a school. Vasquez, who’d clearly come straight from work, had brought members of the city’s planning department as well as representitives from TxDOT. They answered questions for over an hour.

More recently, we had a trash pickup problem. Tiffany called Vasquez’s office, and the problem was solved in a few days. You better believe that even if I didn’t already like this guy, he’d have my vote for as long as he wants it.

I bring all this up because rumor has it that Kay Bailey Hutchison wants to retire from the Senate and run for Governor in 2006. Rick Perry will presumably run for KBH’s vacant seat. Who would run against Governor Goodhair after his impressive showing in 2002? One person who I hope will consider it when and if it happens is Sylvia Garcia. If she can succeed as a Commissioner, she’ll have a natural base of support to build on, and I think she’d make a race of it.

As for Vasquez, I’m not sure what his career path should be. I’d love to see him run for Mayor, but the timing is not favorable to him. What might work would be if the 2003 race is fractious and the new mayor has a rough go of it, he could make a successful challenge in 2005. Congress is not an option unless he moves or Sheila Jackson Lee gets out of the picture.

Whatever happens, keep an eye on these two. You’ll be hearing more from them.