When Cleveland celebrated its sixth time hosting MLB’s All-Star Game last week, it might have seemed an odd event to commemorate baseball’s integration. But when Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform in April of 1947, becoming the first African-American to play in white organized baseball since the 19th century, it was the culmination of years of work by activists to integrate Major League Baseball. And one of the earliest battlegrounds for integration was a Negro Leagues all-star contest in Cleveland in 1942.
In the 1880s, organized baseball had featured a small number of African-American players—about a dozen, with brothers Moses Fleetwood Walker and Weldy Walker in the “major league” American Association. By all accounts, fans were accepting of black players, who instead faced harassment from other players, both opponents and teammates. By the end of the decade, all of the black players had been forced out and no new ones signed to replace them. There was no formal segregation policy in place with either of the major professional leagues at the time, the American Association and the National League. It was instead the result of a “gentlemen’s agreement”; team owners essentially agreed among themselves to force African-American players from the leagues. That agreement held strong even as ownership changed hands, and maintained its grip on the American League once it was formed in 1901.
There were sporadic calls to reintegrate baseball as the 20th century progressed, and they became more aggressive as the United States entered the Second World War. The war exposed contradictions in American society, because as troops fought for freedom in Europe and the Pacific theater, there were citizens in America that lacked basic freedoms. In 1942 the African-American weekly Pittsburgh Courier started what they referred to as the “Double V Campaign”—black Americans not only had to fight for victory in the war, but also fight for equality on the home front. Baseball was a popular target; one of the arguments for the integration of baseball was that it would lead to desegregation in other areas of society. (In fact, the military was desegregated a year after Robinson broke the color barrier.)
MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis inadvertently fueled the campaign when, during the summer of 1942, he claimed that there was no formal ban on African-Americans in baseball and that it was up to individual team owners to sign black players. This encouraged a number of African-American journalists to take the lead, but as had been evidenced by the prior half-century, no owners were exactly champing at the bit to be a trailblazer.
The writers at the Cleveland Call and Post, an African-American weekly newspaper in the city, used Landis’s statement as the basis for their sales pitch to Indians owner Alva Bradley, who had been team president since 1927. When the paper asked Bradley about the commissioner’s comments, he echoed Landis by saying any owner could sign a black player at any time, and added that the Indians would consider it. (The Call and Post also reached out to Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau, who said that he supported the integration of the team, but would ultimately leave that decision up to Bradley.)
Bradley managed to avoid and deflect specific questions about scouting Negro Leagues games, including the annual East-West All-Star Game. At one point Bradley claimed that “No Negro players have contacted me in any way,” and implied that he would not offer a tryout until a player formally asked for one.
Almost immediately, the Call and Post proposed three players on the Negro American League’s Cleveland Buckeyes that they believed could cut it in MLB: outfielder Sam Jethroe, third baseman Parnell Woods, and pitcher Eugene Bremer (whose family name has alternatively been spelled “Bremmer” in a number of accounts over the years).
John Fuster, one of the writers with the Call and Post, got permission from Buckeyes GM Wilbur Hayes to use the upcoming East-West All-Star Game in Cleveland as a “tryout” for Jethroe, Bremer, and Woods, since all three men would be on the roster. They penned a formal invitation to Bradley, and the request was signed by Parnell Woods, the only one of the three men who had a college degree.
In addition to their talents on the field, African-American players considered for integration were also examined for their personality and their background. According to the Call and Post, Woods was “generally accepted as one of the game’s real gentlemen,” and his education was considered a résumé booster as well. The Call and Post hyped their stats, mentioning that Jethroe was hitting .436 on the season, Parnell was hitting .326, and that Bremer had an 11-2 record. The paper could hardly hide its excitement as it claimed, “From all that has gone before, it looks as if Cleveland may be the first big league club to actually set a date for a tryout of Negroes … we hope Bradley comes through.”
The East-West Game was played from 1933 until 1962, and was typically considered the premier event in the Negro Leagues each summer. Marquee names like Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Josh Gibson gathered at Chicago’s Comiskey Park each year, in a game that often drew tens of thousands of fans. Due to the game’s popularity, there were a number of years where the league held a second contest. In 1942, that second game took place on August 18 at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. The three Buckeyes players were set to play for the “West” squad in a game where proceeds would benefit the Army-Navy Relief Fund.
It was a disaster. More than 10,000 fans were on hand at the cavernous ballpark to watch the East pummel the West 9-2 in what the Call and Post called “nine innings of listless baseball under the brilliant lights.” The game’s starter was Bremer, whom Fuster had compared favorably to Hall of Fame pitcher Stan Coveleski, who pitched for the Indians from 1916 to 1924. Bremer had a rough night, as he walked four and allowed five earned runs, and was knocked out of the game by the third inning, departing with the bases loaded. Jethroe and Woods managed to score the West’s lone runs, but only reached base due to a fielder’s choice and an error, respectively. Woods went hitless on the night, and let two balls past him at third base, while Jethroe dropped a routine fly ball and went hitless until a single in the ninth inning with the bases empty. If it was indeed a real tryout, it was truly the worst possible scenario for all three players.
After the game, Bradley addressed Fuster, an account that was published in the Call and Post, and said “We have scouted these men…we saw them play at the Stadium on the night of August 18th, and frankly, Mr. Fuster, they are not big-league material. Why, not one of them got a hit…and the pitcher, Bremer, was knocked out of the box. They just don’t stack up as material for the Indians.”
It is difficult to discern how sincere Bradley was about integrating the team in 1942, or about his claims of having seriously scouted the three. It would take a level of boldness to break decades of discrimination, and Bradley was simply not that bold. It is also possible that he had grown tired of the Call and Post’s persistent requests for integration, and he saw a ready excuse when Jethroe, Bremer, and Woods had bad nights in the East-West Game. The Indians would not integrate until after Bradley sold the team to Bill Veeck; they were the first American League to do so on July 5, 1947, when Larry Doby made his debut 11 weeks after Robinson first came up for the Dodgers.
That East-West Game was not the last time that Jethroe would participate in a tryout with dubious sincerity. In 1945, Isadore Muchnick, a member of Boston’s city council, threatened a Sunday baseball ban in the city if the Braves and Red Sox did not consider integration. Wendell Smith, a writer with the African-American Pittsburgh Courier, allied with Muchnick to arrange a tryout with the Red Sox. On April 16, 1945, Jethroe, Jackie Robinson, and Marvin Williams took the field in Boston, but it was fairly obvious that the Red Sox had no real intention of signing them. After the tryout, Jethroe joked, “We’ll hear from the Red Sox like we’ll hear from Adolf Hitler.” (The Red Sox would be the last MLB team to integrate, in 1959.)
Jethroe eventually signed with the Boston Braves, and in 1950 became the oldest player to win Rookie of the Year honors at the age of 33. Neither Woods nor Bremer made it to MLB. In 1946, Parnell Woods went to play in a Venezuelan winter league and decided to stay, later telling the Call and Post that he planned to spend the rest of his life there because he didn’t have to deal with the racism of the United States. However, he ended up coming back to play in the Pacific Coast League in 1949—that’s as close to the majors as he’d get. He ended up as the business manager for the Harlem Globetrotters for 27 years. Bremer stayed with the Buckeyes until the bitter end, when the team folded in 1950. Things got so bad for the team that year, Bremer went the first couple months of the season without being paid. He went to the media to try and shame the team into paying him, but it couldn’t pay him with money it didn’t have.
Because the East-West All-Star gambit did not lead directly to integration in 1942, it is typically forgotten history, even for serious fans of the game. But it was the pressure put on baseball by the African-American press during the 1940s that eventually led to Robinson’s debut, and the debuts of dozens of black players in subsequent years.
Fuster and the Call and Post did not consider their push for tryouts to be a failure. In the newspaper, they published a statement that claimed, “We have plugged and plugged, until at long last we have got the question out into the open, and into the news columns of the large white dailies, onto the air over important radio chains, into the minds of millions of white people who previously never had given it a thought either pro or con.”
In 1954 Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium hosted another all-star game. This time it was MLB’s, and both leagues featured integrated teams. Among the players selected, making his sixth straight all-star appearance, was the Indians’ Larry Doby.
Stephanie Liscio is the author of Integrating Cleveland Baseball: Media Activism, the Integration of the Indians, and the Demise of the Negro League Buckeyes. She has a Ph.D. in history from Case Western Reserve University and is on Twitter @stephanieliscio.