25 March 2019

Howard & Power

Joe Posnanski posted a fascinating, albeit sad, story about Pumpsie Green, the first African American player to play for the Red Sox, which was the last team to integrate, more than a dozen years after Jackie Robinson's debut. The Red Sox, and owner Tom Yawkey in particular, were really, really terrible at the time.  I mean, by most accounts, Yawkey was just a truly awful person, short sighted, irredeemably racist, who ran the team like a rich man's toy.  Which, I guess it was.

Despite the Red Sox ill treatment of him (Green was forced to not just stay apart from the team, but to travel apart from them), he thrived in the spring of 1959:

And still, Pumpsie Green hit — .400 for the spring — and he played good defense anywhere they put him, and numerous reporters called him the star of Red Sox camp. Red Sox reporters later said that it was clear from background conversations that Red Sox GM Bucky Harris fully intended on keeping Pumpsie on the roster.
But quotes from our hero Tom Yawkey, who is in the Hall of Fame, were not as promising.

“The Sox,” Yawkey said, “will bring up a Negro if he meets our standards.”

Evidently the Red Sox standards for a Negro were that he be Caucasian, because Green didn't make the major league roster out of camp.  Still, he hit .320 at AAA, stole bases, walked twice as often as he struck out, played well all over the diamond, so eventually they had to bite the bullet (read: fire their racist manager) and bring him up.

One of Posnanski's commenters lamented that the Yankees at the time were just as racist, just less obvious about it:

The racism was indeed shameful. But the Yankees owners were just as racist, but they knew how to say the right things in public. They also refused to hire black players until the end of Jackie Robinson’s career. Nothing against Elston Howard, who was an excellent player, but the Yankee brass picked him as a token to shut up protesters, and deliberately looked for a player who would never complain about how he was treated. 
And in this time, the Yankees won 5 in a row. 
It would be nice to live in a world where doing the wrong thing meant you suffered the consequences. We usually don’t.

This got me looking into Howard and the Yankees' history, and I don't think it's as cut and dried as that.  While he didn't debut with the Yankees until 1955, Howard had been with them much longer than that, and was hardly a "token" player, as he got over 300 at-bats in 1955, mostly as an outfielder.  

In any case, it seems fairly clear, from the Red Sox failure to sign both Hank Aaron and Willie Mays when they had the chance, that at least some teams did suffer the consequences of doing the wrong thing, even if the Yankees weren't suffering so much.  I think if they had not been so good, they may have tried a little harder to find an African American for the major league team, but we'll never know.  

Anywho, Elston Howard was signed by the Yankees in July 1950, barely a year after Robinson won the MVP.  He did well enough in half a season at Class A Muskegon (.283 with 9 HR in 54 games) but got drafted and spent all of 1951 and 1952 in the military.  He hit well in AA in 1954 (.286, 10 HR, 70 RBI) then  tore the cover off the ball at AAA Toronto (.330, 22 HR, 109 RBI) while being converted to catcher.  The Yankees brought him to the majors in 1955 and he spent the whole year there.  Also the 13 years after that.  Evidently he was ready by then.  

Which is not to say the Yankees' record is impeccable in this regard.  Far from it.    

One early possibility for the First Black Yankee was a young pitcher named Frank Barnes, who played at Muskegon with Howard in 1950 and 51, but he had control issues.  He walked 121 in 179 innings, mostly in Class A in 1951, for example, so you could at least kinda justify holding him back from a purely baseball perspective.  He did eventually go on to have a few cups of coffee in the majors with the Cardinals in 1957, 1958 and 1960, but didn't do much there.  

But they also had a young first baseman named Vic Power, who hit like crazy everywhere he went: He hit .328 with a .501 slugging percentage in more than 400(!) games at AAA from 1951 to '53.  His reward for such prowess on the diamond, you ask?  Power was never even invited to Yankees Spring Training. And you thought today's free agents had a tough time of it!  

Part of the trouble was that the Yankees were loaded at the time, in the midst of winning five straight World Series, with 1951 AL RoY Gil McDougald at 3B, and an outfield consisting of Gene Woodling (who led the AL with a .429 OBP in 1953), perennial All-Star Hank Bauer and some kid named Mickey something in center.  

First base was manned mostly by decent-but-unspectacular Joe Collins and sometimes Johnny Mize or Bill Skowron.  Why they thought Joe Collins needed a yet another caddy or why they didn't think Vic Power could do it better than Eddie Robinson (more on him later) is not entirely clear, but you know: Racism.  

Apparently Power was not the humble, turn-the-other-cheek kinda "Negro" that then Yankees owners Del Webb and Dan Topping wanted to be the one to break the Color Pinstripe. He dated white women, played first base too "flashy" (i.e. fielding the ball with one hand instead of two) and quipped back at some of the racism he experienced in his travels.  When a waitress told him that her restaurant didn't serve Negroes, he told her, "That's OK.  I don't eat Negroes."  He was what the white establishment at that time might have called uppity, and that just wouldn't do for the straight-laced, starched collar Yankees of the 1950s. No sirree.     

So they traded him in an 11-player deal to the Philadelphia A's.  We're used to hearing of all the talent that went from the Athletics to the Yankees in those days for seemingly little return (Roger Maris, Bobby Shantz, Clete Boyer, Art Ditmar, Ralph Terry...the list goes on...) but here at least is one case where the A's clearly got the better of the deal.  

Anyway, the details of the trade are unimportant, but basically it was Power and a bunch of forgettable spare parts for the husk of what had once been 4-time All-Star first-baseman Eddie Robinson* and a bunch of different forgettable spare parts.  Robinson hit an occasional homer over the next couple of seasons, and he gave Yankees manager Casey Stengel the platoon options he loved so much, but otherwise, well...they coulda done without him.  

*Whom I discovered when researching this is 98 years old, the oldest living member of three different franchises (Yankees, Tigers and Senators) and the last surviving member of an Indians World Series winner.  Cool, right?

In Philly, and later in Kansas City, Vic Power kept up doing just what he'd been doing at Syracuse for the last two years.  He hit for average, nearly winning a batting title in 1955, and  (ironically only modest) Power.   He hardly ever struck out, just 14 times in 620 plate appearances in 1958, for example.  He slashed doubles and triples all over the place, scored and drove in runs, and when someone invented the Gold Glove, well, he won a bunch of those, too.  Seven in a row!  

So while Howard was seemingly not exactly held back by the Yankees, the real story is that Power was not there two or three years before that.  

Not that the Yankees could have been a whole lot better in that span!  They finished out of first place only once between 1949 and 1958, and that year they won 103 regular season games, finishing second to the 111-win Indians.  

But in a more "fair" world, one where (as Joe's commenter suggests) both the Yankees and the Red Sox get punished for their poor treatment of African Americans, maybe Vic Power debuts with the Yankees in 1951 or '52, becomes a hero the the city's huge Puerto Rican and black population, supplants Joe Collins at first and helps the Yankees overtake the Tribe in 1954, keeping that streak alive!  

As a Yankee fan, it's unseemly for me to be too greedy here. Let's just say it would have been nice for Power to have been given a fair shake in Yankee pinstripes.     

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