John Ritchey Pacific Coast League Pioneer
For a number of reasons, I’ve been trying lately to determine who was the first “black” player to play in the Pacific Coast League (“PCL”), by which I mean first player who would not have been considered sufficiently “white” to play in the white professional leagues before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1946/7.
The answer is trickier than it might at first appear. A player named Jimmie Claxton reportedly pitched in two games for the Oakland Oaks in 1916 until his African ancestry was discovered. He was then forced to continue his professional career in the Negro Leagues.
Claxton’s mother was of English and Irish descent while his father’s heritage was a mix of African, French and Native American. Claxton identified his Native American ancestry only when trying out for the Oaks, because Native Americans, even if their skin was dark, were for some reason excepted from the bar on “black” players . Similarly, light skinned Latin American players, particularly “white” Cubans and Chicanos, routinely played in the major leagues if they had sufficient talent.
Further, numerous websites erroneously identify Artie Wilson, a great star for the Oakland Oaks in 1949 and 1950, as the first black player in the PCL, probably because he was the league’s first long-term black star.
The first black player in the Pacific Coast League following Jackie Robinson was John “Hoss” Ritchey, a catcher who broke in with the San Diego Padres in 1948. Ritchie was the ideal man for the job, because he was born and raised in San Diego and attended college at San Diego State.
Ritchie was born in 1923 and made a name for himself in local baseball at an early age. As a teenager, he played on an integrated San Diego American Legion team so good that it made the national finals in South Carolina in 1938 and in North Carolina in 1941. However, given where the tournament was played, neither Ritchie nor teammate Nelson Manuel were allowed to play in the national championship game either year.
Ritchie enrolled at San Diego State College in 1941 and attended until he was drafted in 1943. After the war, he returned to San Diego State, where he met his future wife. In 1947, he signed to play for the Negro Leagues’ Chicago American Giants.
While Ritchie played well enough for the American Giants to receive a try-out with the Cubs, he ultimately signed with the Padres on November 22, 1947. He pinch hit on Opening Day, March 30, 1948, making the PCL the first minor league without a franchise owned or controlled by the Brooklyn Dodgers to integrate.
Ritchie played in 103 games for the 1948 Padres, but only 55 games at catcher, third most on the team, suggesting that he was one of the Padres’ top pinch-hitters that year but not the team’s best defensive catcher. He batted .326 that year with an .847 OPS, and he was one of the Padres’ two main catchers the next season in 1949.
Ritchie remained a West Coast star through 1955, playing for Portland, Sacramento and San Francisco in the Coast League and Vancouver in the Western International League after the 1949 season.
Despite a career minor league batting average of an even .300 and very high on-base percentages for a catcher, Ritchie never played in the major leagues. He didn’t hit with much power, and he was already 25 years old when his PCL career began. Also, while Ritchey likely would have made a fine major league back-up catcher, the early-to-mid-1950’s was a time when those major league teams even willing to sign black players wanted only future stars.
Once Ritchey broke the taboo, the PCL integrated quickly, much more so, in fact, than the major leagues, even in spite of the tremendous successes newly signed black players brought to the Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians. By early in the 1952 season, all eight Coast League teams had fielded an African American or dark Latin player, before more than half of the major league teams had done so.
Here’s a list of the first black player on each major league team from wikipedia. Earlier this evening, I added the note regarding Carlos Bernier, a Puerto Rican player who played for the Pirates in 1953 and was probably too dark to have received an organized baseball contract before Jackie Robinson changed things. Bernier was a star for the Hollywood Stars for five years between 1952 and 1957.
You will also note that the last three major league teams to get with the program, the Phillies, Tigers and Red Sox, didn’t bring up their first players of color until 1957, 1958 and 1959, respectively, many years after every PCL team had integrated.
In my next post, I’ll write more about early black Pacific Coast League stars. You can learn more about John Ritchey here.