While Jackie Robinson’s 1947 season with the Brooklyn Dodgers made him the first African American to play in the Major Leagues in the modern era, the rest of Major League Baseball was slow to integrate while its Minor League affiliates moved faster. The Pacific Coast League (PCL), a Minor League with its own social customs, practices, and racial history, and the only legitimate sports league on the West Coast, became one of the first leagues in any sport to completely desegregate all its teams. Although far from a model of racial equality, the Pacific Coast states created a racial reality that was more diverse and adaptable than in other parts of the country.
The Integration of the Pacific Coast League describes the evolution of the PCL beginning with the league’s differing treatment of African Americans and other nonwhite players. Between the 1900s and the 1930s, team owners knowingly signed Hawaiian players, Asian players, and African American players who claimed that they were Native Americans, who were not officially banned. In the post–World War II era, with the pressures and challenges facing desegregation, the league gradually accepted African American players. In the 1940s individual players and the local press challenged the segregation of the league. Because these Minor League teams integrated so much earlier than the Major Leagues or the eastern Minor Leagues, West Coast baseball fans were the first to experience a more diverse baseball game.
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Baseball, the Color Line, and the Pacific Coast League before World War II
I had been with Oakland about a month when I got notice I was released. No reason was given, but I knew.
— Jimmy Claxton, interview, 1964
He held many jobs during his lifetime: elevator operator, laborer, longshoreman, stevedore, asphalt raker, janitor, and coal miner. He was also a baseball player. He played baseball for many years, mostly in small towns across the Pacific Northwest and in California. He pitched for barnstorming teams, all-black teams, and company teams. For one day in May 1916, he pitched two and one-third innings for another team, the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. Records label James Edgar Claxton a man of mixed parentage, both black and white, during his lifetime. Not all in Oakland welcomed the lineage that Jimmy Claxton traced through his father back to Africa, and manager Rowdy Elliott released Claxton from the team. Claxton later recalled that it was because of his race. While some would mark Claxton as the first African American in the Pacific Coast League, he did not integrate the league. Called a Native American by the Oaks for convenience and playing for the team for only one day, Claxton is a noteworthy figure, but not one who changed society. That change would not come to the Pacific Coast League for another thirty-two years.
On March 30, 1948, a young African American catcher joined the roster of the San Diego Padres. Born and raised in San Diego, John Ritchey became the first African American to join a Pacific Coast League team. He would not be the last. The process of integrating the eight teams of the PCL took five seasons. The PCL was not the first Minor League to integrate, but it was the first Minor or Major League to integrate all of its teams. As an organization professional baseball segregated in the late nineteenth century. Individual players and teams would challenge that color line. Efforts to sign players of color began in the early 1900s when two different team PCLteams, the Portland Beavers and the Oakland Oaks, attempted to change the practice of segregation in the PCL by signing nonwhite players. Players of color, including Native Hawaiians, Asians, and Asian Americans, who played, or attempted to play, in the Pacific Coast League before 1948 were excluded because, for the PCL, the definition of nonwhite seemed to center on whether the player appeared to be black.
Founded just after the turn of the twentieth century, the Pacific Coast League traced its roots to the nineteenth century. Baseball came to California with the gold rush of 1849. The first team organized in San Francisco in 1859. After the Civil War a variety of leagues came and went throughout California and the Pacific Coast. In 1903 teams from California joined with teams from the Pacific Northwest to create the Pacific Coast League. The original teams were in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Portland, and Seattle. The league continued, with some variation in teams and locations, through the 1957 season, the year before two Major League teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, moved to California, supplanting the popular Minor League teams.
The Pacific Coast League continued a tradition of professional baseball begun in the East during the nineteenth century. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the National and American Leagues agreed to a governing body. The National League had formed in 1876. After its founding in 1901 the American League challenged the National League for control of professional baseball. In 1903 the two leagues signed the National Agreement for the Government of Baseball Clubs, also called the National Agreement. It was an agreement that resolved their conflicting business interests and formed complementary practices. The National Agreement set out territorial rights, recognized the contracts of each league with its players, and established a three-member commission that would settle disagreements between the leagues, impose fines, and arrange for the best team from each league to play against one another in the World Series, which began in 1903. The National Agreement also formally established the hierarchy of Major and Minor Leagues that placed the Major League teams as the better skilled and better paid. In 1902 the various Minor Leagues had formed their own organization, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, or National Association. In the first year fourteen different Minor Leagues participated in the agreement that established a hierarchical structure of classifications within the Minors based on playing ability. Through the twentieth century the rankings included, from highest to lowest, Triple-A, Double-A, A, and, at times, B, C, D, and Rookie levels. In 1903 the signing of the National Agreement established an overarching umbrella structure that would govern all of professional baseball, but the Major and Minor League teams would conduct business separately. Major and Minor League teams may have been part of the same professional sport, governed by the same rules, but each team had its own management that oversaw the business of its team. Other teams or leagues also existed, but unless they participated in the National Agreement, professional baseball labeled them as independent and not part of their organization or administrative structure. Organized baseball is a term used by baseball historians to describe the Major and Minor Leagues. Amateur leagues, independent leagues, and the Negro Leagues are not included in this definition.
The Pacific Coast League was one of three leagues at the top of the Minor League hierarchy. It had its own league management, including a Board of Directors composed of a president and the owners of each team. The PCL season lasted longer than other leagues, sometimes up to two hundred games a season. After 1930, when night baseball was introduced, in most years clubs played a six-day series from Tuesday to Sunday with a day game on Saturday and a doubleheader on Sunday.
A more direct connection between the business operations of the Major and Minor League teams began in the 1920s, when Branch Rickey, then both president and general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, created a new idea for Major League teams, a farm system. By contracting with Minor League teams, a Major League team could develop their future players. The Major League teams owned the contracts of the players rather than the Minor League team. The management of the Major League team made decisions about the placement of that player within its system of teams, from the Major League team down through the various skill levels of the Minor League teams, selecting a level of play that best suited the player and the Major League team. Minor League teams owned their stadia and hired their own management but did not have a say in the decisions related to player contracts. Today, almost all Minor League teams have a Major League team affiliation, which gives the Major League team control of the contracts of each player. These affiliations cross national boundaries and include teams in Canada and Mexico.
In the 1940s leagues across Latin America found many players from the United States joining their teams. Established as an amateur league, the Mexican League expanded and professionalized in the 1930s. During this period players from the United States began to leave their contracts and "jumped" to teams in Mexico. Mexican teams offered players more money and, for African Americans, greater acceptance in society. Satchel Paige, the famous Negro League pitcher, was the first African American player to head south in 1938. In 1940 the Mexican League divided into two six-team leagues, and owners actively recruited players from the United States to fill their rosters. After World War II, as the Mexican Leagues increased their recruitment of white players from the United States, the Mexican League rosters became a mixture of black, white, and Latino players from both sides of the border. In 1946 owner Jorge Pasquel offered better-paying contracts to players from the Major Leagues as well as the Negro Leagues. Major League Baseball commissioner A. B. "Happy" Chandler instituted a five-year suspension for any player who abandoned his contract to play in a foreign league. The practice quickly ended.
In the off-season winter months many professional baseball players traveled to the Caribbean or South America to play baseball in warm-weather climates. Leagues formed in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, as well as Cuba and Venezuela. The ability to play in Latin America offered black players the opportunity to improve their baseball skills as well as to experience life outside of the segregated United States.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, as the system of Jim Crow developed across the South, racism also found its way onto the baseball diamond. In the decades after the Civil War, black players such as Moses Fleetwood Walker and Bud Flower played on integrated teams until a color line, first attempted in the 1860s and formalized across professional baseball by the 1880s, prevented blacks from playing on teams with whites. All-black teams formed to allow black players to continue playing baseball. Segregation in baseball challenged the basic notion of fielding the best team to win the game. Owners supporting segregation decided to overlook superior players who were African American, or who appeared to be African American, and instead enforced society's color line that excluded them.
The first attempt at segregation in baseball began just after the Civil War, in 1867, at the organizational level. The National Association of Base Ball Players passed a resolution refusing admission to the league any team with "one or more colored persons." The provision ended when the organization did in 1871.
On July 14, 1887, the board of the International League, a Minor League trying to compete with the National League, approved a ban on contracts with black players. During the same period some white players began to refuse to participate with black players, including Adrian "Cap" Anson. In 1883 Anson challenged the inclusion of Fleetwood Walker, a black player, on the lineup of the opposing team, but did not succeed in getting Walker removed. Just four years later in 1887, with the International League, a Minor League in the East, now accepting a color line, Anson, the manager and star player of the Chicago White Stockings, threatened to refuse to field his team against a team with a black player. This time he succeeded, thus marking the first time a manager openly supported segregation. The refusal of any team to sign an African American began a period of collusion by the owners in support of segregation.
African Americans formed their own teams and leagues, with the greatest success coming in 1920 when Rube Foster founded the Negro National League. The National Agreement of 1903 and the organizational structure of baseball did not include Negro League teams, which professional baseball considered outside of their purview. Segregation, already established across professional baseball, became part of the Pacific Coast League from its founding.
During the period of segregation in professional baseball, teams attempted to circumvent the practice of segregation by adding Native Americans to their rosters, although some of the players were Native Americans in name only. Between 1897 and 1945 Major League Baseball included forty-five Native American players and eighty-five players with some Native American ancestry and hundreds more in Minor League Baseball. Professional baseball and fans judged these players using stereotypes and called them "Chief." In 1897 Louis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot tribe in Maine, joined the Cleveland Spiders. Historians note that although he played in only ninety-four games during three seasons at the Major League level before alcoholism took over his life, Louis Sockalexis was the first Native American to play in professional baseball. In 1901 Baltimore Oriole manager John McGraw renamed African American Charlie Grant as Chief Tokahoma and presented him as a Cherokee Indian. Others discovered the false portrayal when the team traveled to Chicago, a place in which Charlie Grant had played previously with the Columbia Giants, a professional black team.
The 1910s saw three well-known players of Native American ancestry: Charles "Chief" Bender, John "Chief" Meyers, and Jim Thorpe. Born in Minnesota, Charles Bender attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Bender pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1903 to 1917. In 1910 in an interview with the Chicago Daily News, Bender said he had not faced discrimination and had "been treated the same as other men," but he remembered hearing war whoops from the crowds. Catcher John Meyers, born in Riverside, California, had a nine-year career in the Majors, including seven seasons with the New York Giants from 1909 to 1915. Later in life during several interviews, he remembered the struggles with race as a player: "And I don't like to say this, but in those days, when I was young, I was considered a foreigner. I didn't belong. I was an Indian." Although accepted to a certain point, Native people still faced discrimination by whites. After a successful football career at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the Oklahoma-born Thorpe, of the Fox and Sac tribes, won gold medals at the 1912 Olympics in Sweden for the decathlon and pentathlon. In 1913 the Amateur Athletic Union revoked Thorpe's amateur status after a newspaper reported that Thorpe earned money playing on semipro baseball teams. Jim Thorpe joined the New York Giants in 1913, the beginning of a six-year Major League Baseball career.
None of the previously mentioned players had Native American ancestry from both parents. In 1921 the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Moses YellowHorse, a full-blooded Pawnee. YellowHorse pitched in thirty-eight games for the Pirates over two seasons. In 1922 the Pirates traded YellowHorse to the Sacramento Senators of the PCL, with whom he played for two seasons. His professional baseball career ended in 1936 with the Omaha Robin Hoods. Through the 1920s and 1930s other players of Native American ancestry played in the Majors, but without as much success. The Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee elected two Native Americans to its hallowed halls, Charles Bender in 1953 and Zack Wheat in 1959. These players lived during a time when whites accepted the assimilation of Native Americans, but in a limited way. They may have had some Native ancestry, but each would still experience differing levels of acceptance throughout professional baseball.
In the Pacific Coast League attempts to sign players in Portland and Oakland in the 1900s and 1910s demonstrate that blackness defined the line of segregation in baseball. The issue for those who supported segregation was not that the player was nonwhite; the issue was whether others perceived the player to be black. Two Hawaiian players identified as having dark skin played in the PCL. In the 1910s the custom of skin-colored segregation restricted two players, whom other people identified as black, from playing. While these owners and managers did not express a desire to reinforce or change the system, Barney Joy, John Williams, Lang Akana, and Jimmy Claxton are players whose experience demonstrates the color line was about blackness.
During a barnstorming trip to Hawaii in the winter of 1914–15, Portland Beaver owner Walter McCredie signed Lang Akana, a player with native Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry. Akana was not the first but the third player with Native Hawaiian ancestry signed by a Pacific Coast League team. The first, Barney Joy, a half-Chinese and half-Hawaiian pitcher, played in forty-nine games for the San Francisco Seals in 1907. On March 8, 1907, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle described Joy as "dark, but not so dark as the average native Hawaiian." Described by the San Francisco Chronicle throughout the season as Hawaiian, Joy appeared to be accepted by the team and the Pacific Coast League. The San Francisco Examiner described Barney Joy as a "husky brown-skinned lad." Although they were highlighting his skin color, they did not label Joy as black. The distinction between black and brown skin would allow Barney Joy to play for the Seals.
A second Native Hawaiian pitcher, John B. "Honolulu Johnnie" Williams threw for the Sacramento Sacts in 1911. With one-quarter Hawaiian ancestry coming from his maternal grandmother, Williams would be the first Hawaiian to play in the Major Leagues. Although the majority of his six seasons in professional baseball would be spent in the Minors, Williams pitched in four games in the Major Leagues with the Detroit Tigers in 1914. The Sacramento Bee called him "Dusky" Williams. As with Barney Joy, the newspaper noted the color of Williams's skin color. Later, Williams would become "Honolulu Johnnie." With Williams's acceptance into the Major Leagues, reference to his skin color becomes a geographical one. By including "Hawaiian," this moniker explains why his skin color was not white while also clarifying that he was not black, and thus could cross the color line. Although these players were sometimes darker skinned, the Native Hawaiian categorization allowed them to play in organized baseball. That categorization would not be true for Lang Akana.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Integration of the Pacific Coast League"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Introduction 1. Baseball, the Color Line, and the Pacific Coast League before World War II 2. Baseball, the Color Line, and the Pacific Coast League in the 1940s 3. John Ritchey Integrates the San Diego Padres, 1948 4. Momentum and Challenges, 1949 5. The Pacific Coast League Integrates, 1950–52 Afterword Appendix Notes Bibliography Index