Today, Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, commemorating the day that Robinson crossed baseball’s color line. Robinson is as revered an athlete as you will find in any sport and has become a symbol for how a single person can change a powerful institution for the better. While Robinson himself has survived the magnifying glass of history the way few individuals can, his legacy is still susceptible to reexamination—specifically, it is worth examining what integration truly means.
As important as Robinson’s debut was, it certainly did not signal that any racial reconciliation or equality had been achieved. Robinson was but one player in a league otherwise full of white men, and his presence did not result in an integrated Major League Baseball in 1947. Instead, integration happened in a long, slow march over the course of more than a generation, with many individuals playing their own barrier-breaking roles. It would take a dozen years after Robinson’s debut before the Boston Red Sox became the final team to sign its first black player, inking Pumpsie Green in 1959. Jackie didn’t live to see Frank Robinson become the first black manager in 1975.
One of the defining features of baseball’s early steps toward integration was the standard of exceptionalism that the first black players were held to. Jackie was an immediate superstar. He won the inaugural Rookie of the Year award, and his 1949 MVP season remains one of the finest ever by a second baseman. Had he played a full career in MLB (he entered at age 28), his cumulative numbers would place him among the all-time greats. Many other early black players followed his success: Larry Doby, the second black player in the Majors, hit over .300 in his second season, and went on to make seven All-Star teams; Roy Campanella became Robinson’s teammate in 1948 and was named an All-Star in each of his first eight full seasons; every year from 1949 to 1953, a black player was crowned the NL’s’s Rookie of the Year, including Willie Mays in 1951.
But not every early black player immediately produced at an elite level, and baseball had no place for those who did not. Willard Brown, who is enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame for his contributions in the Negro leagues, was given only 67 at-bats to prove himself in 1947 with the St. Louis Browns. Failing to do so, he was unceremoniously cut. Brown went on to lead the Negro American League in home runs and won two triple crowns in the Puerto Rican Winter League, yet he was never given a second chance in MLB. Similarly, pitcher Dan Bankhead was given a mere four-game audition with the Dodgers in 1947, and he did not pitch well. He was then relegated to the minors, where he remained for the next two seasons despite winning 20 games each year.
These players’ stories paint a more nuanced picture of the barrier itself: it was Robinson’s immense talent (and good fortune at having that talent manifest immediately) at least as much as any actual racial tolerance that led to baseball’s integration. This should be obvious and is something that Robinson himself understood. As Leo Durocher purportedly told Dodgers players who were skeptical of Robinson, “he can make us all rich.”
One definition of integration would be the point at which black players no longer had to be exceptional to survive; when players whose performance was close to that of an average (white) player were allowed to remain in the big leagues; when MLB finally had black journeymen. This would be a more accurate picture of a player whose presence truly represented a broader racial inclusion, rather than exceptional talent alone.
The list of the first black Major League players is littered with Hall of Famers like Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, and Monte Irvin, and stars like Minnie Miñoso (a nine-time All-Star) and Don Newcombe (one of only two players in history to win an MVP, a Cy Young, and a Rookie of the Year award), alongside washouts who were given only the shortest chance to succeed. It was not until the mid-1950s that the first players emerge who fit into neither category. Two players in particular, Harry Simpson and Bob Boyd, accomplished the outstanding feat of having relatively long careers (880 and 696 games, respectively) despite being black and, statistically, only average ballplayers. These two men had different career paths, but both displayed resilience and achieved their own type of remarkable success that deserves to be celebrated alongside other pioneers like Robinson.
In 1949, a scout labeled a young outfielder and first baseman named Harry “Suitcase” Simpson—then with the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro National League—“the tan Ted Williams.” Lean and nimble, with a smooth swing, Simpson had up-and-down success in the Negro leagues but impressed enough to be offered a tryout for MLB teams. On April 21, 1951, the fourth game of the 1951 season, the 25-year-old Simpson made his major-league debut for the Cleveland Indians, entering as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the eighth, making him the 16th black player in Major League Baseball. This would begin an eight-year, five-team, almost 900-game career in which Harry Simpson achieved the incredible: he built a career as a black man in Major League Baseball despite almost never being better than a serviceable starter.
Far from the 67 at-bats that Willard Brown received, Simpson was given more than 1,000 at-bats with the Indians over the course of the 1951, ‘52, and ‘53 seasons. He failed to live up to his scout-bestowed nickname, however, batting a very un-Williams-like .246. As a result, he spent the entire 1954 season in the minors. But Simpson persevered, thanks in part to the expanding role for black players in the Major Leagues. Where only five of baseball’s 16 teams had fielded a black player before the 1953 season, that number had risen to 12 by the beginning of 1955. Simpson was traded to one of those teams—the Kansas City Athletics—where he stuck as a starter. Modern statistics rate Simpson’s performance with the Athletics as decidedly below average, and he never recorded more than one Win Above Replacement in any season with them. But he did lead the league in triples twice, and even played in one All-Star game. Simpson was given further opportunities with the Yankees, White Sox, and Pirates before his career petered out at the age of 34. Near the end of his career, a newspaper article stated what would have been unimaginable for a black player only a few years prior: “No player ever received more consideration, or a longer and seemingly endless trial, than Simpson did.”
On Sept 8, 1951, Bob Boyd debuted for the Chicago White Sox. Unlike the prospect Simpson, Boyd was a 31-year old veteran of the Negro leagues, where he became known as a line-drive hitting first baseman. Boyd was the first black player to sign a contract with the Chicago White Sox, but he had bounced around the minor leagues and Minnie Miñoso had beaten him to the White Sox by four months. After accumulating a mere 18 at-bats in 1951, Boyd never saw the big leagues in 1952, despite leading both the AAA Pacific Coast League and the Puerto Rican Winter League in batting average that year. But unlike some earlier black players, he got another chance. He made the most of another shot with the White Sox in 1953 by hitting .297 in 55 games, yet was sent back to the minors, where he languished for most of 1954 and all of ‘55. But, persevering as strongly as Simpson (or indeed, as Robinson), Boyd was signed by the Baltimore Orioles before the 1956 season, where he finally earned a regular spot on a major-league roster. He spent five seasons with the O’s, batting over .300 in four of those years, albeit with very little power. He remained in MLB until he was 41 years old.
Both Simpson and Boyd had long careers defined by the perseverance that we attribute to many more famous pioneers. Each carried the additional burden of being black non-stars, constantly having to justify their professional existences. Consequently, by one important set of criteria—long careers characterized by performances basically equivalent to that of an average white player—they were unmistakable pioneers of integration. They hung around the big leagues in a way that previously only white men had.
To acknowledge the careers of Simpson and Boyd is not to diminish the importance of Jackie Robinson. Instead, this reframing should highlight the enormity of Robinson’s talent, and the absurd fact that black players had to be transcendent in order to receive an opportunity. More broadly, Simpson and Boyd can teach us an important lesson: If we are ever going to have responsible conversations about barrier-breaking in any paradigm, then exceptional individuals like Robinson can never be the only focus. We must not conflate the excellence of individuals who appeared first with institutional inclusion. They are not the same. Inclusion, maybe the buzziest workforce concept of our time, should instead be measured by how we treat the Harry Simpsons and Bob Boyds among us. We should ask whether everyone in our setting is allowed equal access to mediocrity. If the answer is “no,” then that institution is not inclusive, even if it has a Jackie Robinson.
C. Brandon Ogbunu is an academic computational biologist, data scientist and sportswriter. Follow him on twitter @Big_Data_Kane.
Ben Odell suffers the double misfortune of being an attorney and lifelong Mets fan.