They Could Have Been Jackie Robinson

Sixty-five years after he integrated Major League Baseball, a look at others who had a shot at history.

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    Breaking Baseball's Barrier

    On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson made his debut as a Brooklyn Dodger, becoming the first black player to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey wasn’t just looking for the best black player; he wanted someone who had the temperament to withstand the brutality of racism. Robinson stoically faced the harsh treatment on his way to becoming one of baseball’s greatest players. Our list of 10 players includes two who deserve praise for their pioneering ways and eight others who could have been tapped to be Major League Baseball’s historic first black player.

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    National Baseball Hall of Fame

    Moses Fleetwood Walker

    In a different world, we would refer to Robinson as the next Fleet Walker. The catcher is widely considered to be the first African American to play for a major league, as a member of the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884. He and his brother, Welday, who was also on the team, are believed to have been the only blacks to play in a major league until Robinson in 1947. After the team folded, Walker returned to the minors, where most African Americans were allowed to compete until the 1890s, when baseball’s unofficial agreement banned black players from all leagues.

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    Bud Fowler

    Fowler, a fleet-footed base stealer with enough talent to play every position on the field — including pitcher — was the first African American to play professional baseball with whites. Fowler made his debut in the minor leagues on May 17, 1878. Despite his abilities, he faced racial discrimination and would be released from teams when white players complained. On the field, Fowler, whose primary position was second base, had to wear homemade shin guards to protect himself from the intentional spiking of hard-charging base runners.

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    Larry Doby

    Just 11 weeks after Robinson broke the color barrier, Doby signed with the Cleveland Indians, becoming the second black player in the majors and the first to integrate the American League. Doby, a star centerfielder in the Negro Leagues, was on Branch Rickey’s radar before he signed Robinson. He also caught the eye of Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck, who was eager to sign a black player without placing him in the minors first. Doby was the perfect candidate. In 1948 he became the first African American to hit a home run in the World Series.

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    John Wright

    It’s widely known that Branch Rickey signed Robinson to the Montreal Royals (the minor league affiliate of the Dodgers) to ease his transition into the majors. But what’s been lost to history is that Rickey also signed Wright, a right-handed pitcher from the Negro Leagues. Wright’s role was simple: Since black players weren’t allow to room with whites, he became Robinson’s roommate and travel companion. While Wright never made it to the majors, he still deserves some shine for helping Robinson deal with the racial indignities encountered on the field and on the road — because he endured them, too.

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    Monte Irvin

    If not for World War II, Irvin likely would have been the first black player to break MLB’s color barrier. After the war, Branch Rickey reached out to Irvin to ask him to sign with the Dodgers, but Irvin, who served three years in the Army, felt he wasn’t ready and didn’t want to risk failing at the epic opportunity. The second baseman rejoined the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles, where he became a four-time all-star. By 1949 Irvin was ready for the big league and signed with the New York Giants, joining Hank Thompson as the first two African Americans to play for the team.

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    Ray Dandridge

    Dandridge was a star third baseman making good money playing professionally in Mexico when he received a call from Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck in 1947. According to author Paul Dickson, in a new book on the maverick owner, Veeck supposedly wanted to make Dandridge the first African American in Major League Baseball but they couldn’t agree on a salary. As Dickson notes, “if [Veeck] had made Dandridge an attractive offer, the names Veeck and Dandridge might now be as revered as those of Rickey and Robinson.” Veeck signed Larry Doby instead.

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    Satchel Paige

    By the time Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers, Paige was 40 years old and a pitching legend in the Negro Leagues. While his accomplishments were well-known to Rickey, Paige’s age and outspokenness likely hindered his chances of being the first black player in the MLB. Still, his age didn’t stop the Cleveland Indians from signing the 42-year-old Paige in 1948, making him the oldest rookie player in Major League history. In 1971 he became the first Negro Leagues player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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    Josh Gibson

    Sluggers who can hit balls out of the park are often called “Ruthian” in honor of Babe Ruth, the legendary Yankee who was famous for the long ball. Again, if history were fair, these players would be described as “Gibsonian,” a tribute to one of baseball’s greatest home run hitters. Legend has it that Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bill Benswanger signed the catcher to the Major League in 1943, but baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who opposed integration, killed the deal. That year, Gibson was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died at 36 in January 1947, three months before Robinson’s MLB debut.

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    Sam Jethroe

    Jethroe, a speedy centerfielder who was nicknamed “the Jet,” was one of three black players invited to a 1945 tryout with the Boston Red Sox, who were pressured into holding the event. After it was over, the Sox never contacted the players again, and it was, in fact, the last team in the Major League to sign a black player — so Jethroe returned to a stellar career in the Negro Leagues. In 1950 he signed with the Sox’s crosstown rivals, the Boston Braves, becoming the team’s first black player. One of the other players rejected by the Sox at that ’45 tryout? Jackie Robinson.

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    Roy Campanella

    “Campy” was one of several black players Branch Rickey brought to the Dodger organization to begin the process of breaking the color barrier. Before joining the Dodgers, Campy was an elite catcher in the Negro and Mexican leagues. In 1946 Campy, along with a young black pitcher named Don Newcombe, integrated the Dodgers’ Class B league team in Nashua, N.H. He joined Robinson in 1948, becoming the first black catcher in the majors. His career came to end in 1958 when a car accident left him paralyzed.