MLB

After Jackie: Players who followed Robinson to MLB also faced ongoing racism

The painful stories of baseball players such as Dick Allen, Bob Gibson and Bill White aren’t as well known

T

he fans in Philadelphia booed and hurled racial slurs. The daily mail brought death threats, not just from Philadelphia, but from around the country.

The story of Jackie Robinson facing racist crowds in Philadelphia is well known. But this isn’t the story of Robinson, and the year isn’t 1947. It’s the story of Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Dick Allen, and the year is 1965 — almost two decades after Robinson broke the color barrier to become the first black MLB player in the 20th century.

Allen is among the scores of black baseball players, many of them largely forgotten, who followed in Robinson’s footsteps in the 1950s and ’60s. Fans attacked their homes, teammates shunned them, owners abused them. Yet there are no biopics about them, few schoolchildren learn their stories and, unlike Robinson, there is no day on the baseball calendar to celebrate and appreciate them as the trailblazers they are.

Every fan learns at an early age that Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. He earned his place as one of the most important athletes in American history — a Hall of Fame talent who opened the way for the many black players who followed. Yet our focus on Robinson has had an unfortunate side effect: It unintentionally obscures the difficult experiences of the players who came after him, and the obstacles they overcame in pushing for equal rights in baseball and beyond.

By the start of the 1960s, every MLB team had been integrated. And by 1965, more than 20% of MLB players were either black or Latino. From the perspective of many white fans and sportswriters, racism had receded into the background in the years after Robinson’s debut.

The reality, though, was very different for players like Allen. As a teenager growing up in Pennsylvania, Allen played on integrated basketball and baseball teams at Wampum High School. He was signed by the Phillies out of high school and received a $70,000 bonus — at the time a record for a black prospect. A gifted athlete from an integrated town in a northern state, his life changed abruptly in 1963 when he and two other black players were assigned to the Arkansas Travelers, becoming the team’s first black members. Allen ran smack into the brutal world of Jim Crow in his first game.

After winning National League Rookie of the Year in 1964, Dick Allen started off strong in 1965, hitting .335 through June. But a fight July 3 during batting practice with teammate Frank Thomas changed everything.

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Before Allen arrived at the stadium, a local white supremacist group was there, picketing outside, as recounted in Mitchell Nathanson’s biography of Allen, God Almighty Hisself: The Life and Legacy of Dick Allen. They held signs reading, “N—– Go Home,” and passed out leaflets alleging a “conspiracy” to “negroize” baseball (to which Allen would later respond, “I thought Jackie Robinson had ‘Negroized’ baseball 16 years earlier”). It was a brutal introduction for the 21-year-old, one compounded by the first pitch being thrown out by Arkansas governor, who was the team’s part-owner Orval Faubus. He had gained infamy for trying to prevent the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Allen had never experienced this kind of hostility before. Nor had the front office prepared him for what he was about to face. Years earlier, Robinson had been prepped in advance of his major league debut for the racism he was likely to face. Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ general manager and architect of what at the time was called the “Great Experiment,” even moved spring training to Havana so that the team wouldn’t have to face restrictive Jim Crow laws.

Allen, by contrast, was left on his own. He was a standout on the field — he hit 33 home runs and was called up to the Phillies in September. But he was the target of racist taunts and threats and subject to the same degradations as other Southern black people, including segregated housing. He would later say that he and his wife were so fearful of violence that they only “went out twice all summer.” As he wrote in his autobiography, “Maybe if the Phillies had called me in, man to man, like the Dodgers had done with Jackie and said, ‘Dick, this is what we have in mind, it’s going to be very difficult, but we’re with you’— at least then I would have been better prepared.”

More trouble lay ahead. After winning National League Rookie of the Year in 1964, Allen started off strong in 1965, hitting .335 through June. But a fight July 3 during batting practice with teammate Frank Thomas changed everything. Accounts of the fight vary, but most agree it started when Thomas, who is white, made a racist remark to Allen. That set off a scuffle that ended with Thomas slamming Allen on the shoulder with a bat. The Phillies released Thomas after the incident, but that created a different problem. Free from team rules, Thomas was able to talk to anyone who would listen. On radio and in print interviews, he insisted that Allen was the bad guy, the one who started the fight.

Jackie Robinson earned his place as one of the most important athletes in American history — a Hall of Fame talent who opened the way for the many black players who followed.

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Allen and his teammates, meanwhile, were muzzled. The players were threatened with a $1,500 fine — $2,500 for Allen — if they spoke to the media about the incident. “When he [Allen] said nothing, it basically let Frank Thomas create the narrative, and Frank Thomas made himself the victim,” Nathanson said in an interview. “Even though he was the one who instigated it, and he was the one who hit Allen with a bat.”

Phillies fans took their anger out on Allen. This wasn’t the first time local fans had turned on him; he had been loudly booed after the 1964 Philadelphia race riots. But now their vitriol rose to a new and more dangerous level. They yelled racial epithets and pelted him with garbage. The abuse overflowed in menacing ways outside of the ballpark. Fans called his home to threaten his life. Some showed up at his house and vandalized his yard.

Ultimately, Allen’s excellence didn’t translate into the respect that he deserved, on or off the field. Sportswriters weren’t sympathetic, either. They considered him to be a bad teammate, and his managers saw him as a distraction (he was a polarizing figure). “The expectation that people had back then was if you’re black, you can play in the major leagues, but you better be quiet,” Nathanson said. “It was a shock to white fans and it was a shock to white sportswriters that a black man wasn’t going to get in there and just talk about how appreciative he was to play Major League Baseball.”


When the Dodgers announced that Robinson would be joining the team in 1947, many of his future teammates made it clear they opposed the move. Dixie Walker even circulated a petition among teammates demanding that Robinson not be brought up from the minors. (Walker would say years later that it was “the stupidest thing he’d ever done.”) But Robinson had a powerful ally in his corner: Leo Durocher. After the Dodgers’ manager got word of this petition, he told the dissenters, “I don’t care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a f—ing zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays.”

When Bob Gibson was called up to the Cardinals in 1959, he quickly discovered he didn’t have that same level of support Jackie Robinson did from his manager.

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A dozen years later, when Bob Gibson was called up to the Cardinals in 1959, he quickly discovered he didn’t have that same level of support from his manager. Solly Hemus was the team’s player/manager, and as Gibson would learn, openly bigoted. As Gibson wrote in his autobiography Stranger to the Game, “Hemus’s treatment of black players was the result of one of the following …

“Either he disliked us deeply or he genuinely believed that the way to motivate us was with insults. He would goad us, ridicule us, bench us — anything he could think of to make us feel inept.”

Hemus mocked Gibson’s intelligence. He would discourage the future Hall of Famer from studying scouting reports, telling him instead to “just try to get the ball over the plate.” He would often tell Gibson to quit baseball and go back to playing basketball (he had played at Creighton University, and later for the Harlem Globetrotters). Hemus’ abuse became so intolerable that Gibson almost quit. Cardinals hitting coach Harry Walker — coincidentally the younger brother of Dixie — encouraged him to hang in there, telling him that Hemus “would be gone long before you will.”

Walker’s words proved to be prophetic. Hemus was fired in 1961 and Gibson’s career took off. He was the MVP of two World Series, won two Cy Young Awards and was named MVP in 1968 after a historic season in which he had a 1.12 ERA. Yet even after Hemus was gone, the racism didn’t disappear. Throughout his career, Gibson was harassed with hate mail and threatening phone calls. Vandals threw eggs and bottles at his house in West Omaha, Nebraska.

Gibson was one of the greatest pitchers in history. Yet a segment of the population refused to see him as anything but a black man who was unwelcome in their world.


Black players of the 1950s and ’60s weren’t just fighting for equality in baseball. They were fighting for equality off the field, too. One of the most influential was Bill White, who used his athletic talents as a springboard to integrate not just his teams, but sports media and the baseball business itself. As he wrote in his autobiography Uppity: My Untold Story About The Games People Play, “It’s not often recognized today, but in some ways, in the 1950s black baseball players in the Southern minor leagues — guys like Hank Aaron in Jacksonville, Florida, Curt Flood in North Carolina … were the point men in the fight for racial equality.”

Bill White was one of the players who fought for equality in baseball. He fought for equality off the field as well by speaking out, a rarity among black players.

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White’s path to the big leagues was similar to Allen’s. Growing up in Ohio, he played on integrated teams in high school and college. Like Allen, he got his first taste of Jim Crow while playing minor league ball in the South in 1953. In one early-season game in North Carolina, fans started off by spewing epithets, and as the game went on, the verbal abuse turned to death threats. “You’ll be lucky if your black a– makes it out of here alive,” White recalled one fan shouting. Rather than ignoring the vitriol, as many early black players did at the time, White faced it, flipping fans the middle finger. They responded by forming an angry mob outside his team’s clubhouse after the game.

White was just 19 years old. It was “the worst time of my life,” he would later recall. But it also powered his lifelong quest for equal rights and respect for black players.

Eight years later in 1961, when White was an All-Star first baseman for the Cardinals, he helped change baseball history. The team held spring training every year in St. Petersburg, Florida. For black players from the North, like White, “it was like suddenly being transported to apartheid South Africa,” he later recalled. Black players were strictly segregated and saw their white teammates only when on the field together.

The black players often found themselves at the house of Dr. Ralph Wimbish, a member of the local NAACP. “Bill White used to call my dad ‘The Devil,’ ” his son, Wimbish Jr., told The Undefeated. “Because he used to give hell to white folks for all these issues.”

Before spring training in 1961, Wimbish announced he would no longer help teams find housing for their black players, a move intended to force the teams to allow integrated housing. He was rewarded with a burning cross thrown on his front yard by the KKK. His actions were an inspiration to White, who already was infuriated by the degrading treatment of black players. So White did something almost unheard-of for a black baseball player at the time: He spoke out.

The breaking point for White was the St. Petersburg “Salute to Baseball” breakfast. Invitations went out to Cardinals teammates, to white major leaguers and even to white players who had never made it to the majors. But the black players, including stars such as White, Gibson and Curt Flood, were left off the list. White, furious, expressed his frustration in an interview with Associated Press writer Joe Reichler. “How much longer must we accept this without saying a word?” he said. “This thing keeps gnawing away at my heart. I think about this every minute of the day.”

At the time, these comments were considered revolutionary. Black players simply didn’t complain. According to white fans and media, they were supposed to be grateful that they were allowed to play professional baseball.

White’s comments provoked a firestorm of anger against the team. There were calls by some in the black community to boycott Anheuser-Busch, the company that owned the Cardinals. The St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce caved in to the pressure and invited White to the breakfast (he declined).

By the next season, the Cardinals insisted that all players and their families, regardless of race, be permitted to stay in the same hotel during spring training. The move was welcomed by white teammates. Cardinals legend Stan Musial, who usually stayed on his own at a beachfront house, moved into the newly integrated hotel as a show of solidarity.

For White, his notoriety and willingness to speak out helped propel him to leadership, not just among black players, but in the sport itself. He later became baseball’s first full-time black play-by-play announcer and, eventually, the National League’s first black president in 1989. He also persuaded the players union to vote unanimously to not play in any city that required players to use segregated living facilities.


In 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first MLB team to field an all-black and Latino lineup, and by the mid-’70s nearly 30% of the league’s players were either black or Latino. But racism has not disappeared from baseball. Incidents such as Adam Jones being berated with racial taunts at Fenway Park in 2017 are a stark reminder that there is still progress to be made.

Even though what players like Allen experienced is rarely discussed today, their efforts didn’t go completely unnoticed. When White helped lead the charge against segregation in St. Petersburg, he received an encouraging letter in the mail. It read:

Dear Bill,

I just wanted you to know that I appreciate everything that you’ve done for black baseball players. Keep up the fight.

 

The letter was signed, “Jackie Robinson.”

Andrew Distler has been with ESPN since 2016. He is a diehard fan of the New York Yankees, and a depressed fan of the New York Knicks.