The Reds’ Forgotten Role in Integrating Major League Baseball

click to enlarge The 1939 Cincinnati Reds - Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Library
Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Library
The 1939 Cincinnati Reds
When it comes to the history of ending racial segregation in Major League Baseball, the Cincinnati Reds would appear to have an unexceptional past.

When the Reds brought two Latino players into Major League Baseball in 1911, they were light-skinned Cubans. As a 1984 article on Cuban baseball by Bruce Brown in The Atlantic pointed out, the Reds “had affidavits prepared to ‘prove’ that only Caucasian blood flowed in the veins of Cubans Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida, who were referred to by the Cincinnati press as ‘two of the purest bars of Castille soap that ever floated to these shores.’ ” For those African-Americans who hoped some darker-skinned Cubans would soon be accepted in baseball because of this, it was not to be.

It wasn’t until 1947 that Brooklyn Dodger rookie Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in Major League Baseball. And it took the Reds seven years after that breakthrough to introduce their first black ballplayers, Chuck Harmon and the Puerto Rico-born Nino Escalera. According to Greg Rhodes, Cincinnati Reds team historian, management in 1952 and ’53 acquiesced to the manager, Rogers Hornsby, who didn’t want them.

Even so, the Reds did play an integral role in the integration of baseball, dating back to the 1939 pennant-winning team. Players from this team were actually proponents of integrating the game, and their contribution is just coming to light. 

So what was that great Reds team’s role in possibly hastening integration? They spoke freely and supportively about it when interviewed by a critically important sportswriter, for a critically important newspaper series at a critically important time.

The banning of black players by Major League Baseball was a “gentleman’s agreement” among owners, and enforced from 1920-1944 by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. And one rationale was that the white players and managers, some from rural and Southern backgrounds, would refuse to play otherwise. Fans, too, might oppose it. Besides, there already were black players on the teams of the Negro leagues, including such legendary talents as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Even if they had no formal professional interaction with Major Leagues, they existed within their segregated milieu. 

For many white fans and writers, the issue was “out of sight, out of mind.” But to some sports writers in the nation’s thriving if segmented African-American press, this was a major issue well before Robinson finally took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. And they — with a few allies elsewhere, such as Washington Post writer Shirley Povich and Lester Rodney of the Communist Party USA’s Daily Worker — set out to pressure for a change.

click to enlarge Wendell Smith - Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Library
Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Library
Wendell Smith
One of the most important sports writers of the African-American press was Wendell Smith, a Detroit native and West Virginia State College graduate who in 1937 started covering sports for an influential black paper, the Pittsburgh Courier, which today publishes as the New Courier and maintains an archive. Smith worked to establish that Major League Baseball’s rationale for segregation was a falsehood promulgated by team owners. In early 1939, he had interviewed National League President Ford Frick, who explained that rationale. Smith decided he would survey those very players whom he was told opposed integration. When they came to Pittsburgh to play the National League’s Pirates, he asked what they thought. 

The resultant series started on July 15, 1939. In the first article, Smith announced that in the past two months he had tracked down all the managers and 40 “outstanding” players from the National League’s eight teams. And the team he chose to begin with was the Cincinnati Reds. Smith described them as “the once bed-ridden ball club of unwanted castoffs who, under the shrewd management of crafty Bill McKechnie, are now winging their way toward the National League pennant.” 

Besides McKechnie, Smith talked to catcher Ernie Lombardi, first baseman Frank McCormick, pitcher Bucky Walters, team captain and shortstop Billy Myers, Johnny Vander Meer (who pitched back-to-back no-hitters in 1938) and a player that Smith conceded was “not a star,” the “seasoned outfielder” Earl Cook. All the interviewed Reds had positive things to say about black ballplayers. (Reds Hall of Fame curator Chris Eckes, checking on Cook’s record for this story, said he was actually a pitcher who meets the definition of a Reds “ghost player” — someone who traveled with the team but appears to never have gotten into a game.) 

Smith was right in his estimation of that team’s quality, says Reds historian Rhodes, who had not previously seen this article until shown it by CityBeat. “Before the Big Red Machine, the 1939-40 Reds were the greatest team in Reds history,” he explains. “They won back-to-back National League pennants, and in 1940 won the World Series (against the American League’s Detroit Tigers). That was only the second World Series win the Reds had, and the 1919 win was somewhat tainted by the Black Sox team.” (The 1919 Chicago White Sox, whom the Reds defeated, were accused of having conspired to intentionally lose the World Series.) 

Rhodes continues: “And the 1939-40 team was outstanding. They had three MVPs in a row in 1938-39-40 — Ernie Lombardi, Bucky Walters and Frank McCormick.”

As a sportswriter, Smith had a reputation as a wordsmith. That shows in the introduction of the series — an article headlined “Cincinnati Reds’ Manager, Players Laud Negro Stars.” Before he got to the immediate subject at hand, he passionately explained what was at stake, first pointing out that baseball was celebrating its centennial year — as was widely believed at that time but not now — and then alluding to the perils facing the world beyond the U.S.’s borders.

Smith told his readers how lucky Americans were to have the freedom to get excited about baseball while a nervous Europe was worried about the murderous aggressions of Nazi Germany. (World War II began on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. The U.S. would become a combatant in 1941.)

“A war-frightened audience sits in the stands of Europe these days waiting for the inevitable to happen,” Smith wrote. “Some time soon, guns will roar and men will march. The vigorous young blood of Europe will paint a picture of horror, pain and death across a sky that is foggy with lethal dust.” 

But quickly, boldly, Smith moved on to his next point — the inconsistency, the hypocrisy, of an allegedly free country keeping black players out of the Great American Pastime.

“This closed-door policy of organized baseball could easily be called the great American tragedy!” Smith wrote. “Its existence is a blot on the Statue of Liberty, the American flag, the constitution … and all this great land stands for!”

After that buildup, Smith introduced his readers to the individual Reds who were at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, or nearby, on April 29 to play the Pirates. He entered the dugout just before the game to talk to the manager, “Wilkinsburg Bill” McKechnie, “regarded by baseball critics as the best pilot in the big leagues today.” McKechnie was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

When Smith asked him if he’d ever seen any black ballplayers good enough for the majors, McKechnie responded he had seen at least 25 and named some — Paige, Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Lefty Hamilton and more. “Some of the greatest ballplayers I have ever seen were Negroes, and those who I have named would have been stars on any major league team in the country,” the manager said. 

Smith then asked McKechnie a question that, he confessed to the reader, he was nervous to pose: Would the manager be willing to use a black player on the 1939 Reds? “Yes, if given permission, I would use a Negro player on my team,” McKechnie said. He also cautioned that it was up to league officials and owners to allow that. “I’m just a manager paid to run this club and win a pennant if possible.”

Smith was ecstatic and hit on that reply as if he had lofted a grand slam home run. “And there it was,” he emphasized. “The shrewd Cincinnati skipper had answered our volley of questions and without hesitating planted the question right back in the laps of those who had sent it to him — the owners and officials.” (The Reds owner at the time was Powel Crosley Jr.)

Following McKechnie’s comments, Smith wrote about his conversations with the players. Myers said he had played against black teams while appearing in offseason play in Puerto Rico in 1936. “I saw any number of Negroes there who played good enough to make the majors,” he said. 

Lombardi talked of once playing against an all-star team of black players in Oakland and facing pitcher Paige. “I said right then that he was as good as Dizzy Dean,” Lombardi told Smith, referring to a top Saint Louis Cardinals pitcher. “He’s as fast as Dean, maybe faster. When he whipped that fast one in there, you could barely see it.” Indeed, Lombardi confessed, he struck out facing Paige. Lombardi, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, had an impressive career batting average of .306.

McCormick, too, remembered playing against black players and being impressed. Walters recalled watching black players as he grew up in Philadelphia. “I saw any number of Negroes who should have made the big leagues,” Walters said. “They had some of the best players I have ever seen on those teams.”

And Vander Meer gave a ringing endorsement for integrating the Reds in 1939 — and Major League baseball — even while hinting that some players might disagree. “I certainly wouldn’t object to a good Negro ballplayer on our team,” he said. “I was born and reared in the North. I have a different viewpoint than some of the other boys. Although it’s none of my business, I don’t see why they’re barred. I wouldn’t care who we played on our team as long as we won ballgames and I received my paycheck on the first and fifteenth of each month.”

Not only were the Reds who Smith interviewed strongly in favor of allowing black players, but ultimately 75 percent of everyone he talked to felt the same way. It was a groundbreaking series that received coverage elsewhere, says Brian Carroll, a journalism professor at Georgia’s Berry College who wrote a book titledWhen to Stop the Cheering? The Black Press, the Black Community and the Integration of Professional Baseball.

“It really was that survey that enlightened white baseball fans that there even was a color line,” Carroll says. “The survey — the series — in parts and in whole was picked up by newspapers across the country. Even in its own market, the Pittsburgh Gazette picked up the results of that survey and made its readers aware of this unspoken rule, this unacknowledged color line. That was huge in activating public opinion.

“And what’s lesser known about that survey is the other 25 percent weren’t really actively opposed,” Carroll explains. “They either didn’t have an opinion or were neutral on the subject. Very few were opposed.”

Rhodes, the Reds team historian, says that, in hindsight, a great revelation of the series is that the Reds interviewed by Smith were basing their opinions on experience. While Major League Baseball was segregated, its players were finding ways to watch, and often play with, black players long before 1947. And the truth of what they saw trumped the prejudice of the day. The wall of segregation already was porous.

“They’re basing their views on things they had seen,” Rhodes says. “Guys would play on their own after the season was over, with no affiliation with Major League Baseball, to pick up pocket money. And certainly the Negro League players had a number of exhibitions against Major League players and fared very well. 

“I’m so taken with the attitudes and opinions expressed by these guys,” Rhodes continues. “It’s very telling. You can see the groundwork being laid here — a lot of players already were accepting. Clearly, people were starting to move in that direction well before it happened.” 

Crusading writer Smith did very well as integration belatedly arrived, according to archives at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He encouraged Major League owners to try out black ballplayers — including recommending Robinson to Dodgers owner Branch Rickey in 1945. He then worked for the Dodgers helping Robinson in 1946, when he was assigned to the Dodgers’ Montreal farm team, and in the big leagues in 1947. 

Smith subsequently continued in sports journalism, dying in November 1972 of pancreatic cancer at age 58. Robinson died of heart disease that year at age 53.

In 1993, Smith was posthumously awarded the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the group’s highest honor. And his widow donated his papers to the Hall of Fame where they are an ongoing resource of study.

The 1939-40 Reds also have an ongoing legacy. “When the Reds’ own Hall of Fame got going in the 1950s, many of the players elected the first few years came from those teams,” Rhodes says. “They’re not as well-remembered now because generations come and go and memories fade, but those guys were without question one of the great teams in Reds history.”

Now we know their greatness extended beyond the way they played, but also to their outspokenness as to who should be able to play the Great American Pastime. ©

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