Integration And What If Bill Veeck Did Buy the Phillies In 1943?
One of the things I enjoy most about baseball is reading about the history of the game ranging from entire books revolving around a single memorable moment, to those about a well-known or infamous era of the game. With baseball’s extensive history you can easily find yourself getting caught in a specific genre where you find what seems like a never ending line of books feeding your specific interest. Once you start down this road it is easy to cheat yourself from appreciating other aspects that can easily get overlooked.
Jackie Robinson has always held my fascination for a myriad of reasons. Much of it has to do with my being unable to mentally comprehend what he had to go through, and the level at which he had to play, along with everything that was at stake going forward for an entire race because of ludicrous misconceptions of that time. Not to mention his ultimate success, or failure, would resonate beyond a baseball field, and the ripple effects would go out to all areas of the country where these biases that were held against him and others, that would exist either openly or through the quiet actions of the ignorant, would be challenged.
Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson by Jonathan Eig, is a book that really got the runners in my head going like a successful hit and run play coming together, asking one of the “what if” questions that could have taken a sport and a franchise in a revolutionary, and maybe even an evolutionary, direction in that no one knows what this could have lead to for the game and society. Back in the early 1990’s I read my first book on Jackie Robinson and did a report on him for school for a social studies class where we were studying about Civil Rights and discrimination. It had been a good twenty years since I had read my original Robinson book so I viewed the Eig book as a nice way to reacquaint myself with arguably the most important pioneer the game has ever had. To admire all that he had accomplished with an updated story and research. I was not disappointed with Eig’s work as I got to see once again all that Robinson had to do to overcome so much and persevere to practically re-invent the game with his style of play.
Living right outside of Philadelphia, one of my favorite parts of the book was when the legendary owner, and one of the true mavericks of the game, Bill Veeck, decided he was going to buy the pathetic Philadelphia Phillies in 1943 and integrate the team, and then turn the team loose on baseball in 1944. I loved seeing this idea. According to Veeck, he had planned to acquire Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, Luke Easter and Monte Irvin to name a few and dive right into making the team better as opposed to the more measured process that Branch Rickey would adopt years later. Veeck supposedly visited Commissioner Landis to tell him what he had planned, along with his offer to buy the Phillies, and Veeck believed he had a deal in place when he left their meeting. The next day Veeck found out that Landis decided to have the National League take control of the Phillies themselves, and soon after sold the Phillies to a lumber dealer. Oh, and the amount the Phillies went for? About half the price Veeck supposedly offered to buy them for. Not even money at that time could tempt baseball to do what was right for the game.
This piece of the story, though, was what got me thinking—can you imagine what that team would have been like had Veeck pulled off that purchase? It could have been almost like a Negro League “Dream Team” with the integration and the legends he might have acquired, but probably a nightmare for the rest of the National League who would have to play this suddenly talented team from Philadelphia. These were great players who were told “no” when they wanted to play against, and measure themselves against, what they were told were the best baseball players in the world based simply on the color of their skin. No other reason, just color.
I personally envision a team coming together and just plastering some teams, and not just for the level of talent they had, but the purpose they would be playing with. Tired after a long road trip or the second game of a double header in the heat of July? You think anyone from that team is taking a day off or giving up an at-bat? You think anyone from that team would mail it in for a game no matter the score or the circumstance? Not a chance that would happen. Why? Because it would have fed into every misconceived stereotype that practically all of the major league owners, executives, managers and players had. Every error, whether fielding or mental, and every loss on the field would have been met with the phrase “see I told you they…….(and fill in a prejudiced statement)”. I believe most of the players on that team would have played for what they were making in the Negro Leagues at the time, and probably would have played in the majors for less just to have the chance to prove themselves and set the record straight.
I was wondering what that 1944 team would have looked like. Paige, Campanella, Easter and Irvin were already mentioned by Veeck, but you could also have had your choice of other future Hall of Famer’s and greats such as Ray Dandridge at third, Piper Davis playing first or second, the legendary Josh Gibson, “Double Duty” Radcliffe (earned the nickname because he caught Paige in game one of a doubleheader and pitched a shutout himself in game 2), Willie Wells at shortstop and a starting rotation that would begin with Paige and be rounded out using any combination of Leon Day, David Barnhill and Hilton Smith. To put this team together I went back and looked at some of the Negro Leaguers who played during the 1940s, and from the list I just gave, eight would be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and none of them had any clue how close they came to getting their chance of a lifetime, playing in Philadelphia.
If Veeck had made this happen, obviously it would have turned the game on its head for a number of reasons. I picture the MLB owners whose heads would have figuratively, and maybe literally, exploded at the fact that all of the lies they had been feeding society were wrong about the talent level that they kept out of the game, and was now in turn, very well running rough shod over their precious teams. The major league players, and to be fair not all of them, having to come to grips with the fact that they were not as talented as they had believed simply because they were white, and the players they were facing were every bit as good as they were.
Unfortunately though, this 1944 Phillies juggernaut never came about. The Phillies, even after Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947, would be the last National League team to integrate and would be labeled as one of the more racist organizations in the game itself. It would be a full 10 years before they broke their color barrier in 1957 with John Kennedy. Meanwhile the Dodgers, who lead the integration charge, would play in six World Series during this stretch of time. Make no mistake either, the Phillies teams in this era were nowhere near the type of team the Phillies put on the diamond today talent wise.
The end of the 1943 season marked the 11th straight of what would become 14 seasons under the .500 mark. Between 1918 and 1948 the Phillies had ONE winning season. The magic year of 1932 where they went 78-76, and I simply say magic because it is the only way I can see how to explain how they avoided 31 straight seasons of playing below .500 ball. This was a string of terrible seasons that make the Pirates fans of today actually feel good about themselves. Basically the Phillies came within one loss in the 1932 season from going three plus decades without finishing with a winning record. Despite, what is safe to say, was a putrid franchise at that time, the powers that be in baseball would not entertain any idea of integration, even if it meant more money in their pockets.
Nineteen-forty seven would eventually come and the game would be changed forever and for the better. You have to wonder, though, what the game would be today if integration came three years sooner. Would the Phillies franchise have had to wait until 1980 and be the last of the original NL cities to win a championship, and how many people in the “City of Brotherly Love” today realize how close the city came to being the place that started it all?
– Be sure to follow me on Twitter now @MLBOutsider. I tweet everything and anything baseball: majors, minors, collegiate summer league, cards and memorabilia news. Don’t follow me if you want a critical look at world events and hard- hitting commentary on the political landscape, I only tweet relevant topics of everyday life…..I only tweet baseball.
– I may be the only one, but I am stoked for the World Baseball Classic, which is going to get underway this fall with the qualifying tournament and then the event itself in March of 2013. Maybe it is just the idea that next March I’ll be able to watch games with meaning a little sooner than April.
– On Saturday, January 28th SABR is having a national SABR Day event across the country held by the different chapters in each region. If you have ever been curious about SABR itself then hit up a chapter meeting. Check out sabr.org for the chapter nearest you.
– I enjoy World Series press pins as collectibles so I found it interesting when I read that the Phillies did not have an official World Series press pin made for the 2009 World Series. Evidently someone within the organization dropped the ball and they were never ordered, so they had to use the dual logo pins with them and the Yankees being sold at their Majestic Clubhouse store and give them to the press. Yankees on the other hand did have press pins made and they were sharp, a Yankees hat with “40th World Series” written on the brim.
Matt Aber is a baseball enthusiast who needs baseball to resume ASAP so he can stop watching “Finding Bigfoot” on the Animal Planet channel. Matt is an advocate of the national organization called The Miracle League which allows special needs children to play baseball. He encourages you to support this worthy cause and learn more at http://www.facebook.com/l/1AQG9QQinAQHKmPuxPPwJDVoxn_M9ljyb6u_UUoynD9WFdg/www.miracleleague.com. Follow Matt on Twitter @MLBOutsider.