Jackie not the first

April 22, 2014

Major League Baseball has officially made April 15 “Jackie Robinson Day”. This to honor the former Brooklyn Dodgers star who first appeared in a major league baseball game on April 15, 1947. Every major league player wears Robinson’s #42 on their uniform on that day, which can get a bit confusing. Major League Baseball has also retired the #42 and, since Mariano Rivera has retired, no player on any team can wear the number throughout the remainder of the year. I never thought that was a good idea, but they never asked me what I thought.

Robinson, who had been a multi-sport all-star athlete at UCLA, went on to carve out a Hall of Fame baseball career and has been hailed as the first black to play in the major leagues. He was an exciting player who played mostly at second base, but did make a few appearances at third base. After a very difficult start he was accepted by his teammates and eventually the Dodgers’ fans.

Well, I have a surprise for you. According to the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), Robinson was not the first black to play in the major leagues. That honor goes to William Edward White, who played one game for the National League Providence Grays on June 21, 1879 at the age of 18. He was one for four and scored one run in the game. White, who was a former slave, claimed he was white and that is possibly why he was not considered the first black major leaguer until recently.

Then there was another black to play major league baseball. His name was Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played in a game on May 1, 1884. He played for the Toledo Blue Stockings in the American Association and they eventually became a member of the American League. Walker was a catcher and he caught without a glove or any of the normal protective gear.

Then a third black athlete became a major leaguer and played five games in the majors. He was Walker’s brother, Weldy Walker. Walker played under the same difficult circumstances as Robinson later did. He received death threats, personal and physical attacks, and opposing players refused to play in the game if Walker was allowed on the field.

So Jackie Robinson will have to take a back seat. He wasn’t the first black to play in a major league game. He was a great player but he wasn’t the first. And you know what? Jessie Jackson can’t do anything about it!

On another baseball note, this year marks the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s major league debut. He first appeared in a big league game on July 11, 1914. I have always contended that George Herman “Babe” Ruth was the greatest baseball player of all time. You take your Mays, Aaron, Williams, DiMaggio, Cobb and the others, but Ruth stands head and shoulder above them all. He was a man among boys!

We remember Ruth for his 714 career home runs, for his 60 home runs in 1927, for his “Called Shot Home Run” in the 1932 World Series, for his robust physique, and for his great Hall of Fame career. One great fact is that Ruth hit more home runs than every team in the American League in 1927.

But what may put Ruth above all other players is that he was a standout pitcher before he became a Hall of Fame hitter. Between 1915 and 1920 Ruth appeared in 163 games as a pitcher, all but five with the Boston Red Sox. His record was 94-46 with a 2.28 earned run average. In 1916 he was 23-12 with a 1.75 ERA, in 1917 he was 24-13 with a 2.01 ERA. Of the 38 games he started that season he finished 35. He pitched 29.2 consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series. He would have been a Hall of Fame pitcher. Could any of those other guys have done that?

Ruth was sold to the Yankees following the 1919 season and a great union was formed. His pitching was behind him and his slugging days were ahead. “The Sultan of Swat” —- “The Bambino” was about to be the first word on the tongue of every baseball fan in America! He was the greatest and there should be a day set aside for him!