Everyone knows of Jackie Robinson, many folks went out their way to make sure that Larry Doby was mentioned as well this past week as the honoring of Robinsons legacy came to its yearly day on the baseball calendar. This year honors the 60th anniversary of Robinsons emergence and the end of the color line in Major League baseball.
Also occurring that season was a sudden surge in the games popularity, every turnstile in the game was turning at a healthy click, except one place… St. Louis, but only when the Browns were the home team. In early July Bill Veeck the games biggest promoter followed Branch Rickey’s move and signed Larry Doby, to many it seems that the rest of the season involving breaking the color line stops there .
But they are wrong, they are missing a big story, one that shows the other side Robinson saga, one fraught with mis aimed plans and poor decisions. One that involves the third and fourth black ballplayers in MLB, one that involves the first black teammates, and the first black man to hit a home run in the American League.
It all begins with a seven game losing streak, a new owner and a Rickey protégée running a moribund club. To understand the move and it’s appearance from know where you would first need to scan the attendance figures of the Browns in July of 1947. It had been years since the Browns were the hot ticket in town and during the attendance surge it was becoming apparent that they were not the choice for many in town when it came to entertainment, a crowd of 428 for a weekday afternoon game sealed that opinion.
Bill Dewitt and his brother Charlie ran the team, and it was Charlie who noted the size of the crowds being drawn by the Dodgers as they (and Robinson) appeared throughout the National League, not lost to the Dewitt’s was the increased numbers of black patrons. Also not lost on the brothers was the fact that 1 out of every 7 of the St. Louis population was also black, feeling the pain of the cellar and the pressure of the lagging gate (some contests were so sparsely attended that paying for the lights became the main thrust of evening) the brothers put their heads together and decided to tap the Negro Leagues for some talent, talent that they really hoped would help them at the gate as much as it would on the field, they committed one major error though, they did it without consulting the manager or testing the teams demeanor when it came to bring black players to the border state, in a town that Fred Lieb said,On July 17th 1947 the DeWitt’s bought the contracts of three Negro League Players (Kansas City Monarchs) Willard Brown, Henry Thompson and Piper Davis. Davis was allowed to stay in the Negro League while the other two were sent to St. Louis and to the ballpark. Meanwhile at the ballpark manager Muddy Ruel had heard of the new players, just not their skin color, when they arrived he was just as surprised as his players, a mixture of men that were most likely not prepared to being confronted head on with the paradigm they were about to encounter. One player, Paul Lehner who was born and raised in Alabama “reportedly” threatened to jump the club and his late arrival to a contest following the signing of Thompson and Brown was high point of a clubhouse that was already termed by the press as possessing‘Still had Confederate Sympathies” and “Retained Old Prejudices.’“ a gloom thick enough to make one gasp for air.”
Thompson was a 21 year old former reform school child who allegedly always carried a gun and had a confirmed drinking problem even then, Brown was reported as a 26 year old slugger by The Sporting News, this was a typo, Brown had been a star in the Negro leagues for years (picked as Bill James Negro league Player of the year 1937)
In the Puerto Rico Winter League Brown had a pair of Triple Crowns and topped the .400-mark two times and earned the nickname “Ese Hombre” or “That Man”
He would be voted into the Baseball Hall Of Fame in a special election in 2006
As for the Browns, they wanted to win, Thompson was inserted at second base when he was signed and he made an error (to feel at home is the likely reason) in the Browns 16-2 loss that night. He was officially the 3rd black player in modern times. Brown meanwhile had left his bats in Kansas City and confronted with the overt hatred of his teammates he felt less then comfortable, he finally got a start after a few appearances as a pinch hitter, with him and Thompson in the lineup together they became the first black teammates in Major League history. However during the contest Willard came to the plate with the bases full twice and both time he grounded into a double play.
After a couple of weeks Willard was still struggling to find a good bat in his new surroundings. Brown (who liked heavy bats) finally found a discarded one once used by another recent acquisition, Jeff Heath.
Willard who was nicknamed “Home Run” Brown by Josh Gibson had been putting on impressive batting shows during BP, but had yet to find a pitch to his liking in eth American League. In this game with his new bat he stepped to the plate and got his best cut as a Brown, a home run, making Brown the first black man to hit a home run in the American League. Returning to the dugout Heath grabbed his “Discarded” bat and destroyed it against the dugout wall. Hostility was common and it extended to the field where Thompson was faced with no one to warm up with one day when Brown was not on the field, one by one many of his available teammates just shook their head and let the young player look for someone else. Success was short for both, while Jackie won the hearts of many, Brown and Thompson struggled in their appearances. Thompson eventually lost his starting job and Browns high came with a four hit day at Yankee Stadium. The bottom line was the Browns needed help, lots of it and most would involve more fannies in the seats at Sportsman Park. This however wasn’t happening, the team with it’s new black players drew well on the road, pulling in 250 K in a 12 game road trip in Philly, New York and D. C. but at home the team struggled, on the field and at the gate.
When Brown and Thompson were signed the Browns were 28-51 and 27.5 games back of 1st place, on August 23rd they were 42-77 and 35 games back of first place Brown was hitting .179 and Thompson .256 (with a .346 OB%) it had been over a month since the Browns had inked the duo, they had made baseball history when they became the first black teammates in the big leagues, and it was on this day they became the first black ballplayers to be cut from a major league team when the Browns decided to end their ill timed experiment and let the season that was already lost, choking in the dust it was creating as it fish tailed out of control. Concerning his release Thompson was told by DeWitt that “There are things I can’t discuss.”
Thompson would reemerge again and would catch on with the Giants in the early 50’s. Brown would continue to play baseball in the Negro and Winter Leagues and eventually finished his career in the Texas League in 1954, knocking 34 Home Runs out before calling it a career.
So when we remember Jackie we should also remember Willard Brown and Henry Thompson, for they also touched the game in 1947 and that’s a fact that gets lost in the rather large shadow of Mr. Robinson.