View Full Version : "The Tryout": Dignity Lost & Dignity Regained

01-07-2017, 08:37 PM
Sam Jethroe would simply call it “a sham.” Jackie Robinson would later say,“He felt exploited and humiliated.” Robinson would add, “We knew we were wasting our time.”

World War II in Europe may have just been coming to an end but efforts to end Major League Baseball’s color-line were just beginning.

It all started innocently enough. Every year, the Boston Red Sox would routinely get a waiver from the Boston City Council to circumvent Boston’s longstanding “Blue Laws” (strict observance of the Sabbath as a day of worship) that allowed the Red Sox to play baseball on Sunday.

However, in 1945, a social activist city councilor named Isadore Muchnick (he represented the Mattapan section of Boston), along with African-American sportswriter-journalist Wendell Smith, wanted to press the issue of allowing Negro athletes to join the ranks of Major League Baseball.

That spring, the then Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey (actually Austin Thomas Yawkey) was forced to make a concession in order to get a reprieve from the Sunday closings. He reluctantly agreed to hold a tryout at Fenway Park for three black baseball prospects. By all accounts, the Red Sox brass was simply “going through the motions.” In hindsight, one might have labeled the whole episode — a charade.

Even before the start of the tryout, the three black players ran into difficulties. First, their hotel reservation somehow got lost (they had the good fortune of having a white man, an ex-collegiate track star, put the them up in his house). Then, the tryout itself was delayed by the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Finally, on April 16, 1945, at 10:00 AM on a damp, dank, drizzly day, the three Negro League players; Robinson, Marvin Williams and Jethroe were ready to take the field. Robinson had just returned from serving in the army during World War II; he was about to begin play with the Kansas City Monarchs. Williams was playing the infield for the Philadelphia Stars and Jethroe was playing the outfield for the Cleveland Buckeyes.

The three African-American ballplayers were put through a one-hour workout. They took batting practice, fielded grounders and caught fly balls. Near the end of the tryout, one unidentified bigot called out, “Get those (racial epithet) off the field.” To this day, no one knows who shouted out that racially-insensitive remark.

When the tryout was over, little was said as to how the three players had performed. Robinson would say, “It was April,1945. Nobody was serious about black players in the majors, except maybe for a few politicians.” One of the two men who conducted the workout, 78-year-old Hugh Duffy (later that year he would be inducted into baseball’s The Hall of Fame) would only say, “You boys look like pretty good players. I hope you enjoyed the workout.” The Red Sox front office would never contact the players. The Sox would only say that the three were not ready for the Big Leagues. They further added that they felt the three black players would be uncomfortable playing at the team’s then Triple-A affiliate in Louisville, KY. (Louisville Colonels).

After that tryout at Fenway, the three players were supposed to work out the next day at Braves Field. However, Robinson, Williams and Jethroe decided not to hang around. As Robinson put it, “It would have been the same story.”

In 1945, Robinson would play shortstop with the Monarchs. He’d hit .387. In October of that year, Robinson’s contract would be purchased by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey assigned Robinson to play in Canada for the Dodgers' International League affiliate, the Montreal Royals. In his very first game, Robinson hit a home run and three singles; he would wind up winning the IL batting title with a .349 average. Robinson would eventually lead the Royals to the IL championship, and, in the process, break the International League’s color- line. The following year, he was promoted to the Dodgers where he would break MLB’s color barrier.

In his first Major League game at Brooklyn’s Ebbett’s Field on April 15, 1947, Robinson would go hitless in three attempts. However, he’d handle eleven chances at first base, flawlessly.

In Robinson’s first game back in Boston against the Braves in late May (two years after “the tryout”), he received an enthusiastic reception.

In August 1947, Robinson was joined by another black ballplayer, Dan Bankhead. Bankhead would become the first African-American pitcher in MLB. The Dodgers had purchased Bankhead’s contract from his Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League. That year, Bankhead appeared in relief in only four games. He had one save. He would, however, hit a home run in his first major league at-bat. Three years later, in 1950, Bankhead would become the third man in the Dodgers pitching rotation behind Don Newcombe and Preacher Roe. That year, he won 9 and lost 4. However, shoulder problems would shorten his MLB career. Yet, Bankhead had other problems, as well. In Moffi’s Book, “Black Major Leaguers, 1947-1959" Bankhead feels that much of his problems on the field stemmed from the financial woes he incurred off the field, principally in trying to find an apartment in Brooklyn that would rent to a family with children. Bankhead and his family were forced to live in an expensive hotel suite. Bankhead would say: “Nobody with an apartment would let me bring in my kids,” he said. “Nobody wanted them. But I did.”

In 1949, Robinson would become the first black player to be named to the All-Star Game. Two of his African-American teammates were also selected; they were Roy Campanella and Newcombe. Black outfielder Larry Doby, was selected to play for the American League squad. In addition to Robinson, Campanella and Newcombe, the Dodgers were also represented by Ralph Branca, Gil Hodges, Reese and Preacher Roe. The American League would win the contest, 11-7, in the first ever All-Star Game played at Ebbetts Field. That year, Robinson would win the NL’s MVP award. On six consecutive occasions Robinson was an NL All-Star.

Robinson would retire after the 1956 season citing problems with his legs. In 1962, Robinson would be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Robinson died on October 24, 1972 at the age of 53. In 1987, on the 40th anniversary of Robinson’s breaking of MLB’s color line, the Baseball Writers Of America would rename the Rookie of the Year award, “The Jackie Robinson Award.”

Robinson’s manager Chuck Dressen would pay him one his finest compliments: “Give me five players like (Jackie) Robinson and I’ll beat any nine-man team in baseball.”

If you’re a world-class traveler, you probably haven’t visited as many places as Marvin “Tex” Williams has played baseball in. Williams’ career spanned 19 years. In the course of his playing days, he hit more than 300 home runs and batted around .320. Williams started his professional career in 1943 at the age of 20. In that year, Williams would play the infield for the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro Leagues. He’d also play for the Stars in 1944 and 1945. In ‘45, the same year as his Fenway Park tryout, Williams batted .393. Williams would then play in the Cuban Leagues in 1947 and ‘48. In 1949, he’d rejoin the Stars. In 1950, he’d play for Jethroe’s old team, the Cleveland Buckeyes.

In addition to his years in the Negro Leagues and in Cuba, Williams also played in the Mexican League and in Venezuela (arm problems there would make him less attractive as a major league prospect). Back in this country, Williams played in the Triple-A PCL with Sacramento (he and pitcher Walt McCoy were the first two African-Americans to play for the Solons) and in Seattle. In the Northwest League, he played for Vancouver (he’d lead the league in hitting with a .360 average). During the 1950s, he’d also play in the Arizona-Texas League, the Gulf Coast League, the Sally League (he’d team with Frank Robinson while playing for Columbia, SC), the Texas League (Tulsa and Victoria), the Puerto Rican Winter League, and California Winter League. Williams continued to play in the minors until 1961. However, unlike Robinson and Jethroe, he’d never play in the Major Leagues.

Several years after Williams retired, he was asked if he had any regrets that he never played in the big leagues. Williams replied, “No, I don’t even feel bad ’bout not makin’ the major leagues ‘cause there’s so many others didn’t get a chance and I did get a chance.”

The third member of the group, Jethroe, would, after “the tryout,” continue his baseball career with the Buckeyes. He’d lead the Negro League in hitting in 1942, 1944, and 1945. Jethroe’s contract would later be purchased by Rickey in1948. He was assigned to the same Montreal Royals team that Robinson had played for in ‘46. Jethroe would join the Royals midway through the ‘48 season. He ended up hitting .322 and stealing 19 bases. He’d help the Royals win the IL championship. The following year, still with the Royals, Jethroe again helped the Royals to the championship while hitting .326 and stealing an International League-record 89 bases.

Yet, the Dodgers didn’t want to bring Jethroe to Brooklyn. He was subsequently dealt to the Braves in October,1949. It was a decision Rickey would later call “a bad mistake.” In hindsight, Jethroe may well have been a victim of what would today be labeled as “reverse discrimination.” Only in his case — it was too many blacks; if you consider three African-American players: Robinson, Campanella and Newcombe — too many. There’s a touch of irony in all this. Here’s a man, Branch Rickey, who had been so instrumental in breaking MLB’s color line, who was now afraid of alienating “white folks” by having too many blacks on his team.

Oh, it should be noted that Jethroe may have had some other factors working against him, as well. He wasn’t a college man like Robinson. He certainly wasn’t as polished. And besides, he drank and smoked. Did Rickey consider Jethroe too big a risk?

With the Braves in 1950, Jethroe would to win “Rookie of the Year” honors (the oldest man to do so). In a sense, Jethroe would not leave the team that had signed him: the Dodgers. When he patrolled centerfield for the Braves, he was stationed between right fielder Tommy Holmes, a Brooklyn Irishman and left fielder Sid Gordon, a Brooklyn Jew.

In his inaugural season, Jethroe would bat .273, smack 18 homers and knock in 58 runs. He also stole twice as many bases as any other Major Leaguer. In fact what’s truly amazing about Jethroe’s 1950 stolen base record was not just the fact that he pilfered 35 bases — but that he wasn’t thrown out once! One of his teammates said that Jethroe “could outrun the word of God.” Thus, his nickname, “The Jet” (he was called “Mercury Man,” "Larceny Legs,” and “The Colored Comet”).
Braves fans would chant “go, go, go” every time Jethroe got on base. Former Red Sox GM Lou Gorman would say that Jethroe was so fast that “he’d hit a two-hopper back to the mound and beat it out!”

Yet, in Boston, the flamboyant Jethroe was under a microscope. Even when “The Jet” got a speeding ticket it made national news. He was easily recognizable as he tooled around Boston streets in his orchid-colored Lincoln limousine.

Interestingly, Jethroe would room with another Boston celebrity-athlete, Chuck Cooper. Cooper would become the first African-American basketball player to be drafted by an NBA team. In 1950, Cooper would become the first black to play for the Boston Celtics.

In 1951, Jethroe’s second year with the Braves, he’d again hit well. He’d also equal the 35 stolen-base-mark he set the previous year (he’d again lead the senior circuit in steals). However, he continued to be among the National League’s leaders in strikeouts. In addition, his throwing arm was considered mediocre and he had trouble fielding ground balls hit into the outfield. Some were saying his eyesight was deteriorating.

Unfortunately, things “started going south” for Jethroe in 1952. Although he was among the League’s leaders in games played (151) and runner-up in stolen bases with 28 (he finished second behind the Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese). He hit only .232. Matters were further worsened by a falling out between Jethroe and Braves manager, Charlie Grimm. Jethroe would say, “Charlie Grimm was a prejudiced man and he didn’t like me.” Grimm allegedly called Jethroe, “Sambo.” After the 1952 season, “The Jet” would be sent down to the minors. For all intents and purposes, that would mark the end of his major league career. In 1954, he would get a two-game “cup-o’ coffee” with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Jethroe would later play several more seasons in Triple-A before hanging up his spikes in the late 1950s. He subsequently opened “Jethroe’s Bar and Restaurant” in Erie, PA. But over the years, especially after a shooting at his bar, he became financially strapped and ended up selling his “Rookie of the Year” trophy for $3,500.

Sadly, because he had only played three years in the majors, he did not qualify for a MLB pension. Thankfully, through his own efforts and the actions of others, MLB granted Jethroe and dozens of other Negro League ballplayers an annual pension of between $7,500 and $10,000 per year.

Near the end, as the shadows of Jethroe’s life began to lengthen, he would reflect on his career in baseball. “The Jet” would say, “Over the years, I gave baseball a lot more than it gave me.”

Yet, in the end, Jethroe would gain a measure of satisfaction against the team that had rejected him. Just as his own career was coming to an end, the Red Sox - the team that had given him a tryout but had chosen to ignore him - would at last bow to pressure by becoming the last Major League team to integrate. Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, the Red Sox’s first black player, would enter a game against the Chicago White Sox as a pinch-runner on July 21, 1959. Green’s appearance in the Red Sox lineup would come nearly a decade after Jethroe would play his first game for the Braves. In a ceremony held in Boston commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of Robinson’s breaking of the MLB color line, the then 63-year-old Green said, “Branch Rickey chose the right person (Robinson) for the job.”

In May,1993, Jethroe would come back to Fenway Park to take part in a tribute to Negro leaguers of old, some of whom never got the chance to perform in the Major Leagues. At the urging of former Cubs shortstop and Hall-of-Famer Ernie Banks, Jethroe would take one last swing in the Red Sox batting cage. It would come nearly a half-century after his ill-fated Fenway Park tryout.

Oh, one other thing, every spring before the start of the regular season, the Red Sox and Braves (before they moved to Milwaukee) would hold a “City Series” exhibition game at Fenway Park. In his very first at bat at Fenway since “the tryout,” the Braves’ Jethroe would clout a three-run homer over Fenway’s “Green Monster.”

At that 1993 ceremony at Fenway Park honoring the former Negro League players, Jethroe would say: “I’ve lived and learned, and I’ve always liked Boston as a place to come back to.” In hindsight, it’s a shame that his stay hadn’t started earlier and that his Negro league friends, Robinson and Williams, hadn’t been encouraged to stay, too..

01-07-2017, 08:45 PM