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April 18, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

Breaking Barriers

by Larry Granillo

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The fog of early-season sample sizes continues to linger. In a world where two good, but hardly memorable, games can raise Albert Pujols' slugging percentage over 150 points (from .313 to .468), conclusions are tough to come by. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, for example, are destroying the ball thus far for the Brewers, but an 0-for-4 game from either of them could drop their average by 30 points and their slugging percentage by 50 to 80 points. Lance Berkman may have had the week of his career, but two bad days would bring his stats back to a human level.

Trends are easier to identify, but even those are lacking. The National League Central is tightly packed, with four of the six teams in the division starting Sunday no more than one game above or below .500. The Reds and Cardinals are easily outdistancing their division rivals in runs scored per game at about six R/G each, but they need suffer only one shutout to knock a half-run off that average. Until we see teams and players maintain these starts for a longer period of time, we can't say much about the division's true talent that we couldn't already say before the season started.

It seemed like a good idea, then, to spend this week looking at the past. Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day on Friday, recognizing the day that Robinson officially broke the color barrier. The Dodgers were, of course, ahead of the game when they allowed Robinson to debut in 1947, but it's sometimes hard to realize just how far ahead they were. By the time Robinson won his MVP award in 1949, only three other teams had followed suit. On the day "The Giants [won] the pennant! The Giants [won] the pennant!" in 1951, two additional teams (making five total) had followed the Dodgers' lead. Despite the success of Robinson, Don Newcombe, and other African-Americans, teams across the league were reluctant to follow suit.

Of the six National League Central teams, the first to integrate was the Chicago Cubs. The rights to Gene Baker, the team MVP of the 1953 Los Angeles Angels, were purchased by the Cubs on September 2, 1953, and as the Modesto Bee reported, he was expected to report to the club immediately. An injury of some sort prevented that from happening; he did not make the trip out to Chicago until the Angels' season ended nearly two weeks later. In the meantime, the Cubs also signed a player named Ernie Banks from the Kansas City Monarchs, and Banks and Baker arrived in Chicago at around the same time.

The Cubs officially broke the color line on September 17, 1953, when Banks started at shortstop in a Thursday afternoon game in front of 2,793 fans. Banks went 0-for-3 with a walk and a run scored. He also committed one error and took part in a double play. Baker made his debut three days later, in a Sunday afternoon game in St. Louis. Baker pinch-hit for pitcher Don Elston and struck out. He made his first start on September 22. Baker, as the older, more experienced player, was asked to move from shortstop to second base, making Banks and Baker the first African-American double-play combination in history.

Banks, of course, went on to have a Hall of Fame career as one of the greatest offensive shortstops in history. Baker would amass nearly 2,500 plate appearances in parts of eight seasons (and as a full-time starter in four). He even made the All-Star team in 1955. Unfortunately, his career was shortened due to a knee injury suffered in 1958.

The 1954 season saw five more teams integrate, with four of them doing so in the season's first few games. Three current Central division teams were part of that group.

Curt Roberts integrated the Pirates as their Opening Day second baseman. Branch Rickey, the executive responsible for signing Jackie Robinson, had by this time taken a job with Pittsburgh. He signed Roberts out of class-A Denver over the offseason. In his first career at-bat, facing Philadelphia's Robin Roberts at Forbes Field, he tripled to right field. The Montreal Gazette described Roberts' hit as "dropping a triple into the rightfield corner pocket." He was stranded at the corner, though, and he did not reach base again before being lifted for a pinch-hitter as part of a double-switch.

Roberts' career was not nearly as successful as his debut. He was Pittsburgh's starting second baseman for all of 1954 but batted only .232 with a .302 slugging. His lone career home run came in June in Sportsman Park off of St. Louis pitcher Joe Presko. After playing six games for Pittsburgh in the first week of the 1955 season, Roberts spent the rest of the year in the Pacific Coast League. His fluency in Spanish is said to have been a big help in Roberto Clemente's transition to the major leagues. Roberts appeared in 31 more games for the Pirates in 1956, ending his major league career with a .223/.299/.301 line and a .969 fielding percentage. He stayed in the minor leagues until 1963.

The Cardinals broke their own color line on the same day in 1954. Tom Alston, a first baseman who had spent the 1953 season with the PCL San Diego Padres, batted sixth in St. Louis's Opening Day lineup. He went hitless, striking out in his second at-bat against Chicago's Paul Minner. Alston's start was even more inauspicious than that. During Chicago leadoff hitter Bob Talbot's first-inning at-bat, he fouled the ball to the right side of the infield. Alston, only five minutes into his big-league debut, muffed the foul ball, earning an error on the play. Talbot would go on to strike out in the at-bat, but Alston certainly wasn't feeling too great.

Alston played 66 games in the first half of the 1954 season as the everyday first baseman. The Cardinals were hoping to start a youth movement, but Alston's .246 batting average, four home runs, and seven errors weren't cutting it. He was sent down to the International League in June, where he finished the season. Over the next three years, Alston would appear in only 25 games at the big-league level, recording six hits in 27 at-bats between 1955 and 1957. His final game as a professional baseball player was September 29, 1957, when he went hitless against Chicago's Moe Drabowsky.

Cincinnati's integration story is slightly confusing. On April 17, 1954, the Reds were playing in Milwaukee against the recently relocated Braves (who were also recently integrated, following Hank Aaron's April 13 debut). In the seventh inning, with the Reds down 5-1 and the catcher and pitcher spots coming up, manager Birdie Tebbetts sent in Nino Escalera to pinch-hit. Escalera singled to lead off the inning, and with pitcher Corky Valentine due up, Tebbetts sent in pinch-hitter Chuck Harmon. Harmon flew out to the first baseman before Cincinnati's next two hitters singled and grounded into a double play. Cincinnati would lose the game 5-1, but the color line had been broken. The question, though, was by whom.

Escalero was born in Puerto Rico but was of African descent. Harmon was an African-American born in Indiana. Depending on how the feat is described, either Escalero or Harmon could be considered the man who broke Cincinnati's color line. As Harmon told the Reds Hall of Fame when asked about it in 2010:

"I was the first African-American; Nino was the first black," Harmon said. "I don't know what difference it makes, but for history's sake, they might as well get it right."

Neither Escalero nor Harmon had much of a career, though Harmon's was the much longer of the two. Escalero made 77 plate appearances in 73 games in 1954, with nearly all coming as a pinch-hitter. He batted only .159 in his chances, though, and he didn't play in the majors again. His minor-league career lasted through the 1962 season.

Harmon played in 94 games in 1954 and in 96 in 1955, batting .244 with seven home runs in the two seasons. In 1956, he went hitless in 33 games and 19 at-bats. He did a little better in 1957, but he couldn't manage more than a .258/.267/.326 line in 90 plate appearances. Harmon's career continued for a few more years in the minor leagues, but he never again made it to the majors.

By the time the expansion era began in 1961, every team in the major leagues was integrated. The Astros, who joined the league in 1962 as the Colt .45s, were integrated from day one, as were the Brewers, who joined the American League as the Seattle Pilots in 1969.

Major League Baseball is more integrated than ever today, with players from all over the world on every roster. The fight to get here, though, was long and hard. In these early weeks of the season, when so many people are saluting Jackie Robinson for his starring role in making all of this possible, it's only fitting to remember everyone else who helped bring the cause along.

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