Monday, June 6, 2011
79. Willie Mays: Trenton Makes - The World Takes*
* Slogan painted on the side of a railroad bridge as you enter Trenton, New Jersey.
When you're talking about baseball's first years of integration after Jackie Robinson, you always hear about the black players experiences with being accepted by the other players. Many of Jackie Robinson's new Brooklyn teammates simply ignored him. After Willard Brown hit the first homer by a black player in the American League, his teammate, whose bat Brown had borrowed, took it back and broke it in half so it couldn't be used again. And even though Bob Feller barnstormed with black players for years, that wasn't enough to make his Cleveland Indians treat Larry Doby like an equal when he joined their club in 1947.
I'm not trying to defend anyone's racial intolerance, but it was a different time back then and that must be taken into account. Because of segregation, most white players simply never even met a black man before, and unfortunately, lack of knowledge breeds ignorance. Besides the racial aspect, this was immediately following World War II and many older ballplayers were trying to win their old jobs back from their wartime replacements and now there was the added threat of talented black players competing for those same jobs. It is amazing when you think about how far and fast much of that sick discrimination evaporated, and it is probably due to simply being placed into an integrated environment for a period of time. Exposure does wonders as a cure for ignorance. Even a guy like Bobby Bragan, who was so adament about not playing with Robinson that he demanded a trade, quickly evolved into a minor league manager known for his special talent developing black and Latino players. Sure there were still shit-kicker racists around, but by 1955 those guys were a low-class minority. Even the Dodgers who were well stocked with southern ballplayers quickly accepted Jackie Robinson when they were witness to immense his talent and drive to win.
It is during these breakthrough years, 1946-52, that lines were drawn and some players took a stand for what was right. Brooklyn's Pee Wee Reese, a southerner, made a small but bold statement during batting practice in Cincinnati when he posed with a his arm around Robinson's shoulder. That simple gesture did more to not only silence the great majority of bigots, but at the same time proved to Robinson that he was a part of the team. It's so much easier to focus on the seedier and distasteful events instead of the positive ones that in the long run made much more of a difference. Unlike the much reported Reese-Robinson incident, most of those stories remain forgotten or anonymous, but one I'm about to relate isn't, because it happened to a future Hall of Famer...
The 20 year-old kid who joined the class B Trenton Giants in the spring of 1950 was already a seasoned veteran. He'd put in 2 solid seasons with Birmingham, including their 1948 team which won the league championship. Brought up by his ballplaying father and tutored by some of the best veteran players around, this kid was as solid a prospect you could get and the New York Giants knew they were lucky to have scored such a talent-in-the-making. He was fast, smart and aggressive on the base paths, a solid hitter and his fielding was just inspiring to watch. He had such an accurate and powerful arm that the Giants organization's file on the kid included a note that said if his hitting didn't pan out, he could be easily adapted to become a starting pitcher. Yep, this kid had it all and then some.
The Giants organization would have liked to start him a little higher up their food chain except for one major logistical problem - this particular player was black. In 1950 there wasn't a whole lot of minor league teams that wanted to be at the forefront of the integration of profession baseball, even if the player was to become one of the greatest centerfielder's the game has ever known - Willie Mays.
Because of his youth and the team's decision to develop him gradually, the Giants didn't want to start him at the top, so their two AAA ballclubs at Jersey City and Minneapolis were off the table. Their first inclination was to send him to the Sioux City Soos of the Western League, but Sioux City had just went through a large racial disturbance - a Native American had been buried in the city's whites-only cemetery and a whole lot of people were pissed off. Surely that wasn't the right atmosphere to introduce the team's first black player. The Jacksonville Tars of the Southern League was the same level of ball as Sioux City, but the Southern league is, well, the Southern League, and that was out of the question for now. One rung below Sioux City and Jacksonville was the Trenton Giants of the Interstate League. With the exception of one team that was based in Maryland, all the leagues' teams were in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, places thought to be more tolerant of a black ballplayer. The only rub was that it was Class B ball, the equivalent of today's single A classification. Class B ball was a much lower level than Mays' former Negro League team, the Birmingham Black Barons. It was an unintended insult to Mays, but there really wasn't any other options. Trenton it was.
Mays joined the club on the road in Hagerstown, Maryland. Ed Monahan, a pitcher with Trenton, met Willie's train at the station and took him to the stadium where the game was almost over. While the night game played out its final innings, Willie drew his uniform and cap from the clubhouse man and joined the team in the dugout. The Giants manager Frank "Chick" Genovese was a career minor leaguer who never made it all the way to the bigs. Managing was his way of staying in the game and as an outfielder himself, he must have drooled over the organization's scouting reports on this new kid. When Mays introduced himself to Genovese, the skipper told the kid that starting tomorrow, he was the new centerfielder. After the game the team headed to their hotel but Mays was taken aside and told that he was to stay at a black-owned hotel, away from his white teammates. Already confused and insulted by having to play in a league that was a lower level of play than the Black Barons, now he was being separated from his teammates. Willie Mays' first taste of "organized" baseball wasn't going down too well.
Mays was booked into The Harmon Hotel in Hagerstown's colored neighborhood. Although he'd stayed exclusively at segregated hotels while with the Black Barons, the whole team had always stayed together. The camaraderie of lodging with your teammates helped build the team spirit and created a bond between players that showed in their play on the field. Now here on his first day Willie was isolated from his new team. Disappointed and angry as he was, Mays was from the south, was used to Jim Crow and quietly accepted his circumstances. He walked over to The Harmon, checked into his 3rd floor room and unpacked.
Unbeknown to Mays, the rest of the Trenton Giants were pissed. Suddenly having a black player thrust onto their team really brought out deep emotions in many of the Giants players. As the evening wore on, the simmering anger of the young players boiled over into action.
At midnight five of his new teammates left their hotel and trekked into Hagerstown's colored neighborhood. Fueled by anger and a deep feeling of what they thought was right, they climbed up The Harmon Hotel's fire escape and found the window of Willie's room. Huddled in the darkness they rapped on the glass. What must have been a hesitant Mays opened the window.
Willie Mays said later the midnight visitors wanted to “to check whether I was okay.” See, the Trenton teammates weren't angry about Willie's skin color, they were angered by the way he was forced to accept different accommodations than his teammates. To these young players, they were all ballplayers now, teammates. After being reassured the new guy was indeed ok, three of the players spent the night sacked out on the floor, returning to the team's white hotel in the morning.
It was this unexpected act of solidarity that instantly made Mays feel accepted and part of his new team and enabled him to endure all the sick heckling and actions he faced in the coming months. Whether the opposition liked it or not, Willie Mays was member of the Trenton Giants now.
Mays was right in thinking the Interstate League was below his level of play - he clipped the leagues pitching for a .353 average, second best in the circuit that year. Already an amazing outfielder, Trenton's manager, "Chick" Genovese, taught Mays the basket catch that he would soon make his trademark and Willie Mays was off to a long career that would see him become one of the most revered stars of the game as well as one of the great pioneering players that integrated the game.