The Pacific Coast League’s First Black Stars, Part II
The last of the new black ballplayers to play for the 1949 San Diego Padres was Cuban star Minnie Minoso. Minoso was still a relatively young 23 years old when he started the 1949 season with the Cleveland Indians. He got off to a slow start, going 3-for-16 in only nine games before being assigned to San Diego in May. Minoso hit .297 with 22 HRs in 137 Pacific Coast League games that year and hit even better in 1950, batting .339 with 70 extra base hits in 169 Coast League games.
The Indians could no longer keep Minnie in the minors, and he began the 1951 season in Cleveland. However, after only eight games, the Tribe sent Minoso to the Chicago White Sox in a complicated three-team trade in which the Indians got precious little in return, at least compared to what the ChiSox and the Philadelphia A’s received. Minoso almost immediately established himself as a big league star with the Pale Hose and went on to a long and successful major league career.
In 1950, the Padres added two more fine young black players Al Smith and Harry Simpson. Simpson had a huge year in San Diego, batting .323 with 33 home runs and 93 extra-base hits, earning him a promotion to Cleveland in 1951. Smith played two full seasons with the Friars before eventually becoming a major league star with the Indians and White Sox starting in 1953.
The Portland Beavers were the next PCL team to sign black players, adding veteran but still reasonably young stars Art “Superman” Pennington and Puerto Rican Luis Marquez in 1949. Pennington, a slugging outfielder who had starred the three previous seasons in the Mexican (summer) League after starting his career in the Negro Leagues, got off to a horrible start in Portland, batting only .208 with no power in 20 games and was shipped out to Salem, Oregon in the Class B Western International League.
Pennington later said that he faced a lot racism in Oregon that year, leading him to quit halfway through the season and return to the Negro Leagues. On the other hand, Marquez, also an outfielder, had a successful season at Portland, batting .294. He returned to Portland in 1950 and had a terrific year, batting .311, compiling 241 hits, 136 runs scored and 69 extra base hits (mostly doubles and triples) and leading the Coast League with 38 stolen bases.
After the 1950 season, the Boston Braves drafted Marquez from the Beavers. He didn’t prove to be the next Sam Jethroe, however, batting only .197 in 68 games for the 1951 Braves and was sent back to the minor leagues, this time to the Midwest.
On the subject of racism, the first generation of black ballplayer in the PCL certainly faced prejudice in the early years of integration. According to one anecdote, veteran Portland Beavers’ pitcher Ad Liska threw at slugger Luke Easter multiple times in one at bat with two pitches sailing behind Easter before Easter in his next at-bat hit a line drive home run to center field that nearly took Liska’s head off as it flew through the infield. While this story appears to be greatly exaggerated (SABR’s biography on Easter claims that Liska threw at Easter eight times in a single at-bat, which is basically impossible given that four balls make a walk), it is almost certain that Easter was thrown at a great deal in 1949, given the way he was wearing out Coast League pitching and given the long-held myth/prejudice that black players didn’t have the heart to dig in and take their best cuts after being thrown at.
Artie Wilson‘s story in Oakland is more positive. The story goes that young Oaks’ 2Bman and local boy Billy Martin offered to room with Wilson on the road shortly after Wilson joined the team. Further, Martin allegedly let it be known that opposing players who abused or tried to injure Wilson would have to face Martin’s famous fists. Still, according to Wilson’s own words, Coast League fans called him “every name in the book” when he first came into the league.
It’s also worth noting that Wilson’s experience with the City of Portland was different than Art Pennington’s. Artie Wilson and his family moved to Portland, Oregon in 1955, and he spent more than 30 years working for a Portland Lincoln/Mercury dealership after his baseball career ended.