The Pacific Coast League’s First Black Stars, Part III
This is the last part of my series on the Pacific Coast League’s first black stars in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. You can find the first two parts of this series and a related article on John Ritchey here, here and here.
Once the Oakland Oaks had found success with Artie Wilson in 1949, the Oaks were as quick to add more black players as the San Diego Padres had been only months earlier. Later in the 1949 season, the Oaks brought in the already 37 year old Parnell Woods. While Woods only played 40 games for the Oaks, he hit a respectable .275 with a .751 OPS, solid numbers indeed for a 3Bman in his late 30’s.
In 1950, the Oaks brought in 31 year old catcher Ray Noble. He hit .316 with power for the Oaks and was purchased by the New York Giants in the trade that also sent Artie Wilson (briefly) to the majors.
Noble hit .234 with a .648 OPS for the National League champion Giants and even got two at-bats in the 1951 World Series (he didn’t get a hit). While his numbers were acceptable for a back-up catcher, the Giants wanted stars in the roster spots they willing to give to black players, and the team didn’t see a future for a player Noble’s age. He went back to the Oaks in 1952 and had another good season. However, he was apparently on a one-year assignment from the Giants (the Oaks were still an independent club), because Noble played for the Giants’ top farm club, the Minneapolis Millers, in 1953.
Half way through the 1951 season, the Oaks brought in Piper Davis, yet another over-30 former Negro League star. Although Davis was already 33 years old when he joined the Oaks and wasn’t quite a hitter of the caliber of Artie Wilson or Ray Noble, Davis was an extremely useful jack-of-all-trades player who could fill in at just about every position on the diamond. As such, he was able to play successfully for the Oaks for all or part of five seasons. He effectively finished his professional career with the Los Angeles Angels in the years immediately preceding the Dodgers’ move to the West Coast.
In 1949, the Los Angeles Angels signed former Kansas City Monarchs and Mexican League ace, Booker McDaniels, who was already 35 years old. McDaniels went 8-9 with a 4.21 ERA for the ’49 team. The Angels brought him back in 1950, but he went 3-4 with an ugly 6.49 ERA mostly in relief and that ended his organized baseball career.
In mid-1950, the Los Angeles Angels, a team owned by Phil Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs, were assigned Gene Baker, a 25 year old 2Bman who had gotten off to a good start that year at the Cubs’ Western League affiliate in Des Moines. Baker was a rangy 2Bman who hit well for the position, but he made a lot of errors, and the Cubs’ management wasn’t quite ready to bring a black player to Chicago unless he was a can’t-miss player.
As a result, Baker spent parts of four seasons in L.A. until the Cubs called him up to room with fellow rookie Ernie Banks in September 1953. Baker was the Cubs starting 2Bman for the next three seasons playing along side Banks at SS. Banks, of course, played 19 seasons for the Cubs and became “Mr. Cub.”
Two more Coast League teams, the Sacramento Solons and the San Francisco Seals, introduced black players at the start of or early in the 1951 season. The Solons brought in Bob Boyd, another veteran Negro Leaguer, who was known as “the Rope” (or “El Roppo” in Latin America where he played winter ball) because of his exceptional ability to hit “frozen rope” line drives.
Boyd was quite possibly a pure hitter of the caliber of Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and Ichiro Suzuki, or at the very least of the caliber of his contemporary Ferris Fain, a two-time major league batting champion. Although Boyd was already past age 30 when he began his career in organized (white) baseball, he hit .321 in nearly 3,500 minor league at-bats, almost all of it in the high minors, and .293 in more than 1,900 major league at-bats, mostly after the age of 35. He’d have spent more time in the majors during the 1950’s except for the facts that he was a old 1B/LF with no power — line drive singles and the occasional gapper were Bob Boyd’s game.
Signing initially with the Chicago White Sox and assigned to Sacramento, Boyd hit .342 in 1951 and led the Coast League with 41 stolen bases. After a very short trial with the White Sox late in the year in which he went 3-for-18 in 12 games, the White Sox, who were no longer affiliated with the Solons, assigned Boyd to the Seattle Rainiers, where he joined Artie Wilson as the team’s first black players at the start of the 1952 season. Boyd hit .320 that year and stole 33 bases, second only to the Hollywood Stars’ Carlos Bernier, who is discussed below.
Also in 1951, the San Francisco Seals obtained Bob Thurman, a big, strong left-handed hitting LF/1B probably bigger than his listed 6’1″ and 205 lbs, who had originally been signed by the New York Yankees in July 1949. Thurman was 32 years old then, but he told the Yankees he was only 26, much as Luke Easter had done with the Indians around the same time.
Despite a promising half-season at Newark in 1949, the Yankees moved Thurman to the Cubs. Thurman didn’t have as good a season at the International League’s Springfield (Mass.) team in 1950, and the Cubs assigned him to the Seals in the PCL in 1951.
Thurman batted .274 and .280 in his two seasons in San Francisco, but he didn’t hit with nearly as much power as everyone had been hoping for. He then dropped out of organized baseball entirely, instead spending two years playing in a new summer league in the Dominican Republic. Thurman then returned to the U.S. and spent four successful seasons as a platoon player and pinch-hitter for the Cincinnati Reds from 1955 through 1958.
The Sacramento Solons and the Hollywood Stars in 1952 became the last two PCL teams to integrate. The Stars’ first “black” player was Puerto Rican center fielder Carlos Bernier, whose complexion was only slightly lighter than the more famous Puerto Rican ballplayer Roberto Clemente.
Bernier began his organized baseball career in 1948 at age 21, originally as a St. Louis Browns’ farm-hand. The Pittsburgh Pirates obtained him the next year, and Bernier gradually worked his way up through the Bucs’ system.
In 1952, he was assigned to the Stars, which had become a Pirates’ affiliate that year. Bernier immediately became a star, batting .301 with a league-leading 65 stolen bases and scoring 105 runs in 171 games played.
The Pirates promoted Bernier to the parent club in 1953 and made him their regular center fielder. Bernier responded with a horrible year in which he batted only .213. While he stole 15 bases that year, good for sixth in the Senior Circuit, but he was caught stealing 14 times which tied with fellow rookie Junior Gilliam for the league lead.
Bernier’s .332 on-base percentage was actually fairly good for a center fielder, but OBP wasn’t a statistic anyone was paying attention to in 1953. The ’53 Bucs went 50-104 with the 26 year old Bernier in center, and that was the only season he played even one game in the majors.
Bernier was sent back to Hollywood in 1954, and he became a great minor league star, ultimately playing all or most of eleven PCL seasons, the first five with the Stars, and after the Dodgers moved to L.A., playing for Salt Lake City and Honolulu.
While Bernier continued to be a fine top-of-the-batting-order player in the Coast League, an on-field incident in 1954 contributed to his failure ever to be recalled to the majors. In August of that year, he punched an umpire in the face after arguing a strike call and was suspended for much, if not all, of the rest of the 1954 season. Major league teams of the 1950’s had little interest in an aging black player with a reputation as a trouble-maker.
At the time, Bernier was reportedly happy to remain playing in Hollywood. As a true star on the Stars, then one of the Coast League’s top-drawing teams, he made as much money playing there as he had in Pittsburgh. (Groucho Marx, one of the Stars’ many celebrity fans, famously joked that going from the first-place 1952 Stars to the last-place 1953 Pirates constituted an undeserved demotion.) Further, the summer weather was better in California than in the Midwest, and Bernier perceived less racism playing on the West Coast than he had playing in the major leagues.
However, the long-term consequences were less sanguine. Because Bernier played only one season in the majors, he wasn’t entitled to a major league pension after he retired. Players who last played in the major leagues before the 1980 season needed four full years of major league service to get a pension, at least until a couple of years ago when MLB and the players’ union renegotiated pension benefits for pre-1980 retirees; even then, the changes applied mostly to those players who played in the majors after the union was formed in 1966.
By then, however, it was too late for Bernier. Back home in Puerto Rico, he committed suicide in 1989 at age 62, in part (but only in part) due to financial problems he was having.
A few final notes — Hall of Fame 3Bman Ray Dandridge played briefly in the Coast League in 1953 at age 39 — a total of 87 games split between the Oakland Oaks and the Sacramento Solons. He batted .268 but didn’t hit for power or draw many walks. He retired from organized baseball after that season.
Also, almost all of the early black players in the PCL seem to have been position players. The next black pitcher to have pitched in the Pacific Coast League after Booker McDaniels pitched for the L.A. Angels in 1949 and 1950 (at least that I have found so far) was Brooks Lawrence, who went 5-1 with a 2.37 ERA for the Oakland Oaks late in 1955, the last season of the Oaks’ existence. Lawrence then returned to the major leagues with the Cincinnati Reds, where he won 19 games against ten losses in 1956.
Finally, the fact that the PCL integrated so much more quickly than the major leagues or the eastern minor leagues did meant that West Coast baseball fans got to see a caliber of baseball that was nearly major league level and certainly better than what any other fans who didn’t live close to a major league team got to see.