Can’t use ’em

I’m a huge fan of the old sportswriter Wendell Smith. If you get a chance to read any of his stuff, take the time. Being black, he was very concerned about the integration of baseball in the 1940s. He championed Jackie Robinson and he wrote eloquently. He also put his money where his mouth was.

On 16 April 1945, Smith managed to get the Boston Red Sox to have a tryout for 3 black players at Fenway Park. The idea was that in the war-ravaged major leagues, black players of quality could give a team an edge and that white owners would do anything to win. He’s supposed to have chosen Boston because it was the cradle of American liberty and of abolitionism. Don’t know that’s true, because Smith never said it, at least that I can find, but it sounds like Smith.

So who’d he choose to represent black baseball? He took 3 players: Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams. If you know much about baseball history you know Robinson won both a Rookie of the Year award and the MVP and became a Hall of Famer. Jethroe was older, had a shorter career, but also won a Rookie of the Year award.  Williams was a Negro League second baseman/third baseman who never made it to the majors.

Again if you know much about baseball history you know that the Red Sox turned down all three players saying they couldn’t use them. Smith went back to Pittsburgh, Jethroe and Willams back to black baseball, and Robinson went on to glory. But what happened to the Red Sox in 1945?

Here’s the starting lineup for the Red Sox in 1945 (everyone who played more than 80 games): Catfish Metkovich at 1st (he led the team with 19 steals); Sketter Newsome at 2nd; Eddie Lake at short; Jack Tobin at 3rd; an outfield of John Lazor (who led the team in hitting at 310), Leon Culberson, and Bob Johnson (who led the team with 12 home runs); Bob Garbark as catcher; and Tom McBride a backup outfielder and first baseman who played 100 games and his 305. No other position player appeared in 80 games.

How’d they do? They finished 71-83 in 7th place (in an 8 team league) 17.5 games behind the pennant winning Tigers. So let’s see now, let me get this straight. The Sox couldn’t use a future Hall of Famer and a future Rookie of the Year (actually 2 of those) but could use Culberson  who hit 275 with 6 home runs, 45 RBIs, and 4 stolen bases in Jethroe’s normal position; Newsome who hit 290 with 1 home run, 48 RBIs, and 6 stolen bases in what was to become Robinson’s normal position; and Tobin who hit 252 with no home runs, 21 RBIs, and 2 stolen bases in what was Williams’ normal Negro League position. I guess that makes sense to somebody, just not me.

Despite some earlier posts on this site that might have led to other conclusions, I’m not a particular Red Sox fan. This kind of thing is part of the reason why. It would take Boston until 1959, 12 (count ’em 12) years after the Brooklyn Dodgers brought up Jackie Robinson, to finally integrate their Major League team. Between 1918 and 2004 the Red Sox never won a World Series. Part of the reason may have been the “Curse of the Bambino”, but there was certainly at least one other reason.

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2 Responses to “Can’t use ’em”

  1. sportsphd Says:

    This should be the starting point of Wendell Smith’s Hall of Fame case. Anyone who could get as deeply racist a team as the Red Sox to hold a tryout deserves recognition.

  2. verdun2 Says:

    Something I’ve always found interesting is that Ted Williams began, in his Hall of Fame speech, the push for Negro League players to get into the Hall. Now that alone isn’t interesting, but Williams playing for the Red Sox and feeling this way is. Bet he had some moments that made him terribly uncomfortable when race came up.

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