Chris Wertz is a freelance baseball writer and historian living in New York City. He is a contributing author to the recently-released Pumpsie & Progress: The Red Sox, Race, and Redemption, by Bill Nowlin, which was published by Rounder Books.
David Laurila: Pumpsie Green became the first African-American player in Red Sox history in 1959, but who was the first African-American to play a big-league game at Fenway Park?
Chris Wertz: A lot people might think it was Larry Doby, who Bill Veeck signed as the American League’s first black player, but it was actually Willard “Home Run” Brown of the St. Louis Browns, on July 25, 1947. Interestingly, it wasn’t the first time Brown had played at Fenway Park, as he had been there barnstorming in 1943 when he was a star slugger for the stalwart of the Negro Leagues, the Kansas City Monarchs. Satchel Paige was on the mound that day for the Monarchs.
DL: Who was Willard “Home Run” Brown?
CW: Brown was born in 1915, in Shreveport, Louisiana, and in 1934 he began playing professional baseball with the Monroe Monarchs of the Negro Southern League. The very next year, J.L. Wilkinson, owner of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League, recognized his ability and brought him to Kansas City, and it took Brown just one year to make his first All-Star team. In 1937, he won his first home-run title, and he repeated in 1938, 1941, 1942, and 1943. So devastating was his natural power that Josh Gibson, considered by some the greatest home-run hitter to ever play the game, gave Brown his nickname “Home Run.”
After anchoring the Monarchs in 1942 and 1943 with his heavy hitting and fine fielding, Brown was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to serve in Europe. While there, he got his first taste of integrated baseball when he played for an Army All-Star baseball team, the OISE All-Stars, in the 1945 European Theater of Operation World Series. Along with Negro League pitcher Leon Day, he helped lead their side to an improbable victory over the 71stInfantry Division Red Circlers, a team filled with major-league players.
At the conclusion of the war, Brown returned to the Kansas City Monarchs for the 1946 season and was with them again briefly in 1947 before he and teammate Hank Thompson were called to the major leagues on July 16 to play with the struggling St. Louis Browns. They became the first black teammates in big-league baseball history.
DL: How did fans in St. Louis receive Brown and Thompson?
CW: The reaction in St. Louis, a border city between North and South, was mixed. A few star players greeted their new teammates at the park. Vern Stephens, Johnny Berardino, and Jeff Heath had played together for the traveling Bob Feller's All-Stars team in 1946 and already knew Brown and Thompson, who had played against them as teammates with Satchel Paige's All-Stars. They gave positive reports of the talent of their new teammates.
Not all were so welcoming in Missouri, though. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed some trepidation at adding two black players to the roster at the same time. Sportswriter Dent McSkimming marked the historic occasion with a column which stated "two white players would be dropped from the roster" to make room for Brown and Thompson. McSkimming then went on to describe in detail how "depressed" the talented young slugger Jerry Witte, one of the demoted Browns, was to be sent back to Toledo.
The owner of the Browns, Dick Muckerman, released a statement on the day Brown and Thompson were signed but chose not to be at the ballpark himself. Manager Muddy Ruel was left to face the media. Ruel begrudgingly accepted the task, referring to the signings several times as a "club decision.” He said, "The club believes that something had to be done to strengthen. It happens that there is no acceptable player in our farm system at this time." With that tepid endorsement from their manager, the support of a handful of teammates and little else, Brown and Thompson set out to make history.
DL: When and where did they debut?
CW: Thompson was first to appear in the St. Louis lineup. His debut came on July 17, against the Philadelphia Athletics at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, making him the third black ballplayer in the major leagues.
Two days later, Willard Brown's first game in the majors came against the visiting Red Sox in front of 2,434 fans. He was 0-for-3 with three putouts in center field in place of regular center fielder Paul Lehner, who had been outspoken against having black players on the team and spent much of the year being fined by Ruel and ultimately suspended. Earl Johnson of Boston threw a shutout; the Sox won 1-0 when Ted Williams drove Johnny Pesky home with a single. It was the first time the Boston Red Sox had played against a black player in a major-league game.
The next day, history was made again when Brown started in right and Thompson started at second base in the first game of a doubleheader against Boston. It was the first time two black players had played together in any major-league game. Brown got his first hit, a single, and a stolen base, and the Browns beat the Sox, 4-3.
Coming off the doubleheader sweep of Boston, the Browns then took the train to New York to face the powerful Yankees in the Bronx. On July 22, Thompson and Brown became the first black American Leaguers to appear at the Stadium.
Yankee Stadium became the site of Brown’s career-best game, the second game of the series, which saw him go 4-for-5 with three RBI. The rookies had invigorated the Browns, whose next stop was Fenway Park to again take on the defending American League champion Red Sox.
DL: What happened when they got to Boston?
CW: An unusual amount of anticipation accompanied their arrival. Boston Evening Globe writer Roger Birtwell dedicated his preview of the series entirely to the two former Negro National League all-stars. Flamboyant St. Louis radio announcer Dizzy Dean spoke highly of Willard Brown before the game. While with the Cardinals, Dean had more than once been beaten by the Monarchs in exhibition games and knew well Brown’s power. He told the Boston Evening Globe, “I’m looking for him to tee off one of these days. He can get distance.”
Several players gathered around the batting cage to watch "Home Run" Brown take his hacks in batting practice. Ted Williams, ever the student of hitting, was there. In the short time he was in the majors, Brown’s batting practice power had attracted notice. Williams’ teammates were goofing around about raising money to get Ted a haircut when, according to the Boston Herald, he hushed them: "Don't bother me. I got to watch Brown hit that ball." Brown proceeded to smack a 500-foot home run over the center-field wall past the flagpole. "Huh, look as if he has plenty of power all right," said Williams to anyone listening.
In the second inning, the 32-year-old Brown walked to the plate for the 24that-bat of his major-league career when it happened. The nearly sold-out Fenway Park, 34,059 strong, gave him, a visiting player, applause. He responded by hitting a line-drive double off the center-field fence, later scoring on a single by first baseman Wally Judnich. When he trotted out to right field at the end of the inning, they applauded again, as they did when he batted for the second time. Brown responded with his second double of the night, the second of his career. With each plate appearance and each time he took his position in right field, the Fenway faithful greeted Willard Brown with cheers which grew as the game progressed.
According to Jack Barry of the Boston Evening Globe, "[Brown] received a fine ovation from the crowd as he trotted to his right-field position at the close of each round."
The next day the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, "Willard Brown, the cat-walking Negro right fielder of the Browns, who runs like a hurried panther, last night earned some of the loudest cheering Boston has given to a visiting ball player here in years."
The overwhelming turnout and warm welcome given to the black ballplayers at Fenway could have been interpreted by Red Sox ownership as a clear sign that integrating the home team would not result in low attendance. The firebrand of Boston sportswriters, Dave Egan, writing in the July 28 Boston Record, seized on the fanfare and prodded the baseball owners of the town to integrate the sport locally. “The time has come to talk of many things,” he said, invoking Lewis Carroll and the perverse world of Wonderland. He spoke in the voice of Carroll’s Walrus in challenging the Boston Braves and Red Sox to use the example of the St. Louis Browns to allow Boston not to be “traitors to our heritage.” He noticed how perfect a fit Brown’s right-handed swing would be for Fenway’s wall and wondered if Sox owner Tom Yawkey heard the applause.
Three years after Willard Brown’s debut and Dave Egan’s call to arms, Boston finally got its first black major-league ballplayer. Sam Jethroe made his debut against the Red Sox with the Sox’ cross-town rival Braves in the annual preseason City Series. The 32-year-old went on to be named Rookie of the Year and led the National League in steals.
It would be almost 12 years to the day of Brown’s Fenway debut before the Red Sox promoted Elijah Jerry "Pumpsie" Green, their first black player, to their major-league roster on July 21, 1959. Boston fans were finally able to cheer for a black player in a Red Sox uniform when he made his own Fenway Park debut two weeks later on August 4.
DL: What happened to Brown and Thompson after the Boston series?
CW: On August 13 against the Detroit Tigers, down two runs with a runner on, Brown pinch-hit in the bottom of the ninth inning. He smashed a ball off of the 426-feet sign in center field, and before the ball could be returned to the infield he had already rounded the bases, tying the game. His inside-the-park home run was the first home run hit by a black player in American League history.
On August 23, Brown and Thompson were both released after just five weeks in the majors, a period manager Muddy Ruel considered a "fair trial." Speaking for the ballclub, Ruel said they were released because they lacked big-league talent. Dejected, both returned to the Kansas City Monarchs confident that they would return to the majors one day.
Thompson returned to the Monarchs in 1948, where he finished third in batting and led the league in steals. He was called to the majors again in 1949 by the New York Giants after a brief stint with their Jersey City farm club, making him one of the first black players on the Giants, along with Monte Irvin, and the first black player to play in both leagues. When Willie Mays joined him and Irvin on the Giants in 1951, Thompson was part of the first all-black outfield in the majors.
The man Josh Gibson dubbed “Home Run” Brown proudly played professional baseball for more than 20 years then retired to Houston, Texas where he died of Alzheimer's disease in 1996. He never returned to the major leagues after his one month “trial” with the St. Louis Browns.
On February 27, 2006, Willard Brown was one of 12 former Negro Leaguers elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by a special committee of baseball historians.