The Pacific Coast League’s First Black Stars, Part I
After local boy John Ritchey joined the San Diego Padres in 1948, played well and didn’t cause any major riots or scandals, the Pacific Coast League (“PCL”) began adding black players quickly. San Diego again led the way, but by the end of the 1949 season, the Oakland Oaks and the Portland Beavers had also signed and fielded black players.
Before the 1949 season, the San Diego Padres became affiliated with the Cleveland Indians, who under owner Bill Veeck had quickly followed Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers and began stocking his organization’s rosters with African American and Afro-Caribbean ballplayers. I assume that the Indians-Padres affiliation came about in part because the Padres had been the first team to integrate the PCL and Veeck wanted another top-tier minor league team at which to play former Negro League stars before bringing them up to the Indians.
Bear in mind that for most of the first decade of organized baseball’s integration process, major league teams, as they integrated, were initially unwilling to have more than two or three black players on their major league rosters at any given time, and the same considerations (fear of alienating their existing white fan bases by playing too many black players at the same time) likely applied to a major league organization’s minor league teams as well.
The Padres, however, had four different black players play for them for at least some time during the 1949 season. Aside from Ritchie, these players were Luke Easter, Artie Wilson and Minnie Minoso, all of whom had played in the Negro Leagues the year before.
The biggest star at the time of these signings was Luke Easter, a famed Negro League slugger. Easter was already 33 years old in 1949, although he had told Bill Veeck he was six years younger. In any event, Veeck signed Easter in February 1949 and assigned him to play for the San Diego Padres, either because Easter injured his knee in Spring Training or because the Indians already had two proven black players on their major league roster, Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. [By the end of the 1949, five African American and Latin ballplayers had played for the Indians for at least some part of that season, not counting light-skinned Chicano Mike Garcia, who had started in organized baseball in 1942.]
Easter’s prowess as a slugger of long home runs preceded him, and from the start of the 1949 season, he was possibly the biggest draw in PCL history. Teams sold out their stadiums to fans coming to see Easter hit, with some teams adding standing-room-only tickets in roped off sections of the outfield. In one three-game series in Los Angeles, Easter hit six home runs, and fights broke out at the gates as fans tried to get into the sold-out stadium to see Easter hit. [Wrigley Field, where the Los Angeles Angels played, seated about 22,000, while Gilmore Field, where the Hollywood Stars played only seated about 13,000 — I don’t know at which of the two parks the episode occurred.]
Easter was probably one of the strongest men in the professional baseball of his day. His listed measurements of 6’4″ and 240 lbs would make him a big player even by today’s standards, when players as a group are much, much larger than they were in 1949.
West Coast baseball fans, particularly in Southern California, were highly knowledgeable about the abilities of Negro League stars, because the warm-weather region was a favored location for post-season barnstorming tours and also because black players played in the California Winter League soon after the death of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a strong opponent of integration in baseball, in 1944.
Despite his knee injury, Luke Easter batted .363 and slugged 25 HRs in only 80 PCL games, as the small ballparks of the Coast League couldn’t contain his long drives, before being called up to the Cleveland Indians in early August.
Another black player who almost instantly became one of the PCL’s best players was 28 year old middle infielder Artie Wilson. Like Easter, Wilson had been a Negro League star for years before 1949.
In late 1948, the New York Yankees began acquiring their first black players. The Bombers purchased Wilson’s contract from the Birmingham Black Barons and assigned Wilson to one of their top farm teams, the Newark Bears in the International League. However, when Wilson learned that he would be paid less to play for Newark than he had been making in the Negro Leagues, he jumped ship and instead signed a contract either directly with the San Diego Padres or with the Cleveland Indians with the understanding he’d be assigned to play for San Diego.
Some background is appropriate here. One of the reasons why the integration history of the Pacific Coast League in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s has any significance at all today is that between 1946 and 1955, the PCL still retained an element of independence not enjoyed by the other top minor leagues, the International League (“IL”) and the American Association (“AA”). By 1946 every single team of the IL and the AA was a farm team for a major league club.
For the decade between 1946 and 1955, a majority of PCL teams remained unaffiliated with major league clubs. While PCL teams were still required to sell off their best young players after two or three seasons to avoid major league teams from drafting these players at a small, fixed price under the national agreement that governed the major and minor leagues (PCL teams could, in turn, draft players from lower minor leagues), most Coast League teams could at least prevent the major league teams from taking away their players the moment the parent club wanted them on the major league roster. As a result, the Coast League pennant races still had real meaning for West Coast baseball fans.
Further, the Coast League played in major league caliber cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, and all of its teams were nearly 2,000 miles away from the nearest major league franchise. The Coast League thus drew more fans to its games than any other minor league of the era by a wide margin. The West Coast’s milder climate also allowed for playing seasons of between 188 and 200 games. These factors meant that PCL teams could pay much higher salaries than any other minor league teams could, and many players could make more money as stars in the Coast League than they could make as bench players in the majors.
Wilson only played 31 games for San Diego at the start of the 1949 season before Baseball’s Commissioner Happy Chandler voided his contract on May 12th and awarded Wilson back to the Yankees. However, because it was clear that Wilson didn’t intend to play for a Yankee farm club that wouldn’t pay him a reasonable salary, the Yankees sold Wilson to the Oakland Oaks only five days later.
Wilson and the Oaks were a great fit. The San Francisco Bay Area had seen a huge influx of African Americans during the Second World War when large numbers of black southerners mostly from Louisiana and East Texas were recruited to work in the ship yards of San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond and Sausalito.
Wilson was a solid defensive shortstop for the Oaks, and while he had no power, he hit for average, got on base and stole a lot of bases, a skill that had been lost in organized baseball until black players brought it back. In 1949, Wilson batted .348, leading the PCL among players who played in at least half of the league’s 188 game schedule that year. He also led the PCL with 47 stolen bases, and he scored 129 runs.
Wilson was only just getting warmed up. In 1950, although his batting average fell to .311, he played in 196 of the 200 games the Oaks played that season and accumulated an astounding 264 hits. Wilson’s 31 stolen bases was only good enough for second in the league behind black Puerto Rican Luis Marquez, an outfielder for the Portland Beavers, but Wilson’s 168 runs scored led the PCL by a wide margin.
Wilson’s 1950 hit total was the highest in the PCL in fifteen years and his runs total was the highest in more than ten. Including walks and hit-by-pitches, Wilson reached base 358 times that season, which explains why he was able to score so many runs even though he hit only one homer that year.
On the eve of the end of the 1950 PCL season, the Oaks sold/traded Wilson and two other players to the New York Giants for four players and $125,000. Although Wilson started the 1951 season with the major league Giants, he was already 30 years old and wasn’t given much of an opportunity to prove himself. Wilson was used mostly as a pinch-hitter, going 4-for-22 with a couple of walks in 19 games before being sent down to Minneapolis in late May. His major league roster spot was taken by a 20 year old outfielder named Willie Mays.
The Giants sold Wilson back to the Coast League, this time to the Seattle Rainiers, where he picked up pretty much where he left off. He hit .316, .332 and .336 in three seasons while playing all four infield positions for the Rainiers, as needed. He was then traded to the Portland Beavers, where he hit .307 in 1955, his last year as an every day player. However, he continued to play in the Coast League with the Beavers, the Rainiers and the Sacramento Solons in 1956 and 1957.