Deep to Right: MLB's First All-Black Outfield
On Thursday, October 4, 1951, Major League Baseball broke another barrier. During Game 1 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants, the Giants started three black players in the outfield: Hank Thompson in right, Monte Irvin in left and a rookie by the name of Willie Mays in center. The vaunted Yankees had no black players. It would be another four years before an African American appeared in their lineup.
Between 1947 and 1951, there were more “firsts” in the Major Leagues than one can count, almost all involved race. An all-black starting lineup in a World Series would not happen for another 20 years, but on an unusually warm day in October, the underdog Giants not only beat the Yankees on the field, but off it as well. New York’s other team had made an important statement.
Baseball’s Peculiar Institution
In the 1880s, African Americans were completely banned from both the major leagues and minor league play. Baseball’s apartheid would last for over 60 years; a sad chapter in the history of America’s pastime. But by the 1950s, this had changed, particularly in New York City. With three teams, and lots of money, the pressure to start signing some of the best Negro Leaguers was overwhelming.
Baseball mattered in post-WWII America. It was the country’s biggest sport. If it changed, the nation would change. The NFL barely registered nationwide and the NBA was in its infancy. College football drew huge crowds as well, much bigger than the NFL. But it could not match the power of Major League Baseball. Black players would not be recruited in large numbers by white colleges for at least another decade. Boxing was the only other sport where African Americans could compete equally. Men like Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Ezzard Charles helped white America see the black champion as an equal.
Negro League player Hank Thompson became the third African American to break the color barrier in 1947 when he started for the St. Louis Browns. Although he was released before the end of the season and spent one final year in the Negro Leagues, a second chance would come.
Thompson, born in Oklahoma City and raised in Dallas, had a troubled childhood. With segregation in full swing, opportunities were few and trouble was easy to find. His abusive dad eventually left the family and his mom had to work 10 hour days just to survive. So the kids were left on their own.
A regular truant, Hank wound up in juvenile detention at 12 and never went back to school. When he wasn’t running with a bad crowd, he played fast pitch softball at church and recreational leagues, impressing everyone with his athleticism. His swing was so fast, he earned the moniker, ‘machine gun.’ A young Ernie Banks used to watch the games growing up and was awed. In a scene right out of a movie, a scout from the Negro Leagues showed up and offered him a contract.
He began his playing career with the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the Negro Leagues most famous franchises. At the end of his first season, he was drafted into the Army as WWII was in full swing. After his discharge in 1946, he returned to the Monarchs.
Unlike Robinson and Doby, Thompson struggled in his first few games with the Browns. Eventually he was released towards the end of the season and returned to the Monarchs. However, teams still respected his skills. He was only 22. While playing for the Monarchs, MLB scouts kept their eye on him. By the beginning of the 1949 season, he had been signed by the Giants to a minor-league contract.
Whenever there was downtime, trouble found Hank. Between seasons he had too much time on his hands and reverted to old habits. One night it nearly cost him his life. In March 1948, while on his way to San Antonio for the Monarchs spring training, he stopped in Dallas to visit his sister. His brother in law took him out for a drink. One of Hank’s old teammates was in the bar and decided to berate the one-time major leaguer for his perceived failure. A knife was pulled. Hank had a gun and shot the man dead. Despite fleeing, he later turned himself into the police. In a rare instance of justice for a black man, the case was dismissed on the grounds of self-defense. But the incident haunted Thompson the rest of his life. For a brief time, it may have been the impetus to succeed in the Majors.
The Old Man
In 1949, another highly touted Negro League outfielder, 30-year-old Monte Irvin, was signed by the New York Giants and called up as their first black player, beating out Thompson by just a few weeks. Born in Alabama but raised in New Jersey, Irvin’s family was close knit and supported him every step up the baseball ladder. After leaving Lincoln University, a traditionally black college, he signed with the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues. He tore up the league just prior to his WWII service, hitting .400 and .396 during his first two seasons.
Both Thompson and Irvin were called up from the farm team in early July. On July 8, 1949, they took the field at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to make history. Irvin pinch ran late in the game while Thompson played third base. Thompson also became the first African American to play in both leagues.
While their solid play helped keep the Giants respectable, the Dodgers and Phillies dominated the National League. The team needed a superstar; one that would help them get past the loaded Dodgers and into the World Series.
Alabama native Willie Howard Mays Jr. was the son a local baseball player. His mother had also been an exceptional dual-sport athlete in high school, a very rare feat for women in the early 20th century. Young Willie showed excellent athletic ability from his earliest days and by high school was a multi-sport star, playing baseball, football and basketball.
While attending the famed Fairfield Industrial High School, Mays quietly began his pro baseball career, playing over the summer of 1947 with the Chattanooga Choo-Choos. He did it again the following summer and into the fall, playing for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. However, his amateur status was needed to keep playing high school sports, so he returned full time to Fairfield.
Major League scouts remained ever present at all of his remaining games. The Milwaukee Braves, Dodgers and Giants all battled for his attention. The Braves were the early favorite, where he would have been part of an outfield with Hank Aaron. However, it was a last-minute push by the Giants that got him to sign for $4,000. Upon graduation in 1950, Mays reported to the Giants’ minor league affiliate in Trenton, New Jersey. After a good season, he was promoted to AAA in Minneapolis and then in May 1951, he was called up to the big club. Despite missing the first month of the season, he would go on to win the National League Rookie of the Year award. It was the start of a career that would last for 22 years.
In an ironic twist, it was another African American who was sent down to the minors to make room for Mays. Artie Wilson, who became the third African American to play for the Giants, was called up at the beginning of the season. But he struggled at the plate. In May, Duroucher gave him the bad news. Wilson never returned to the Majors.
1951 - The Season
The 1951 season was not just an amazing year for the New York Giants and the growing number of black players throughout the Major Leagues. It would go down as one of the most incredible years in baseball history. Two future superstars, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, emerged. Another, Joe DiMaggio, played his final game. The National League pennant race between the Giants and Dodgers is now considered the greatest of all time.
It had been a remarkable turnaround for the team. Playing in the antiquated Polo Grounds, they had become a forgotten franchise. Lost in the spectacular success of the Yankees and Dodgers, they had not been to a World Series since 1937. That began to change in the late 40s as they began laying the groundwork for what became their first pennant winning season in 14 years.
The Giants came into the season as the favorite along with their perennial rivals, the Dodgers and the previous year's NL Champs, the Phillies. New York had won 86 games the year before and with the anticipated call up of Mays, their fans were daring to dream of a World Series. However, things did not start out well, ending up 12 games back by late July. But then the Giants went on an unprecedented streak, winning 50 of their last 62, ending the season with 98 wins and in a tie with the Dodgers.
Per National League rules, they had to play a best of three-game playoff for the right to go to the World Series. This was a rare occurrence being only the second time in National League history. The first one occurred in 1946 between the Cardinals and Dodgers. In the days before the expanded postseason and television, many fans had never seen a 3-game playoff.
Mays and Irvin had great seasons, with Irvin leading the National League in RBIs. Hank Thompson platooned at third base with another Giant legend, Bobby Thomson, for most of the year. Towards the end of the season, Leo Durocher had the inspired idea of moving Hank to the outfield. Besides his solid fielding, Durocher wanted him to get more at bats. He had only 264 at bats in the regular season with 8 homers. The year before he had 20 and hit .289 in 512 at bats. But they already had a solid right fielder in Don Mueller. Whatever the concerns, they still needed to get by the Dodgers first.
Miracle at Coogan's Bluff
After splitting the first two games, the excitement for Game 3 was at a fever pitch. The game was dominated by the Dodgers and starting pitcher Don Newcombe. Willie Mays had gone 0 -3, Monte Irvin had one hit earlier in the game and Hank Thompson came in to pinch run. As they started the bottom of the 9th, Brooklyn was up 4-1. Things looked bleak.
But the Giants rallied and cut the score to 4-2 with one out. With the struggling Mays on deck, Dodger Manager Chuck Dressen made the still controversial decision to bring in reliever Ralph Branca and pitch to third baseman Bobby Thomson.
Thomson stepped in the batter’s box and into history. He drove the second pitch into the left field stands in what became known as the “shot heard ‘round the world.” Branca has had to relive that for 65 years. However, the two men went on to become great friends and made hundreds of appearances until Thomson's death in 2010.
That final inning also led to Hank Thompson's change of position for the upcoming Series. While sliding into third base, Don Mueller severely sprained his ankle. He was done for the season. Durocher now had his chance to get Hank in the lineup everyday.
Thrill of Victory...
Despite the euphoria of beating the Dodgers, the Giants now had to face one of the greatest teams ever assembled, the 1951 New York Yankees. This was their third World Series in a row and fourth in five years, having won the last two. They featured five future Hall of Famers on the field (DiMaggio, Mantle, Rizzuto, Mize and Berra) along with two in the dugout: Manager Casey Stengel and bench coach Bill Dickey. Between the two teams, umpires and broadcasters, there were 13 Hall of Famers working the Series. The press box was also filled with legends like Red Smith and Dick Young.
Before a crowd of 70,000, including President Truman's daughter, the Giants beat the Yankees handily in Game 1, 5-1. But they would go on to lose the Series in six games. DiMaggio hit the last homer of his career in Game 4. The Giants lacked power in their lineup, hitting only two homers the whole Series. Monte Irvin rose to the occassion, going 11 for 24, hitting .458. He became only the 27th player in World Series history to get 4 hits in a game, even stealing home in Game 1. Mays and Thompson struggled, going a combined 6 for 36. Thompson did set a record by walking 7 times. He also made a spectacular diving catch to rob Joe DiMaggio of a hit in Game 1.
Regardless of the outcome, permanent change had arrived. The three men would remain with the Giants and play major roles in New York’s next World Series appearance, a four-game sweep of the Cleveland Indians in 1954. It would be the franchise’s last in New York. Mays would make what is arguably the greatest catch in baseball history off Vic Wertz in Game 1. The legend just kept growing. Thompson had a great series, getting a hit in all four games.
The Game Goes On
By the mid-50s, Mays was an established star. He became known as the “Say Hey Kid” and an idol to every black kid in New York City. Even after missing nearly two years due to military service in 1952 and 53, he picked up right where he left off in 1954. Along with Mickey Mantle and the Dodgers’ Duke Snider, he ruled baseball in the city.
He didn’t miss a beat when the Giants moved to San Francisco, finishing his career as one of the greatest players of all time. A lifetime .302 hitter, with 660 home runs and over 1900 RBIs; and he stole over 300 bases too. Famous for his basket catches, he won 12 Gold Gloves. Fittingly, he ended his career with the Mets in the early 70s. Hobbled by injuries and diminishing skills, he was still welcomed back to the City. The Mets kept him on the roster for the 1973 World Series and he went 2 for 7. Although he probably should have retired in 1972, he left the game a beloved figure on both coasts.
Monte Irvin became the “old man” by 1955. His game showed it. In the days before weight training and performance enhancing drugs, a player in his mid-30s was usually finished. The Giants sent him down to the minors in 1955, but the Cubs signed him for one last year in 1956. He finished his career with 99 homers, 443 RBIs and batted .293. Just think what he could have done if allowed to have started his MLB career at 20 instead of 30.
He was able to transition into various executive positions for both Major League Baseball and its sponsors. Not only was he elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame and the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame as well. The always smiling Irvin became a fixture at baseball’s big events and remained a fan favorite. He passed away was at the age of 96 in January 2016.
Hank Thompson struggled after baseball. Demons that were present while he played came to the forefront after leaving the game.
During his time with the Giants, his off hours were spent falling prey to the trappings of fame in places like Harlem. There were not a lot of places a black man could go to just be himself. But that famous part of Manhattan, just a few minutes away from the Polo Grounds, provided that outlet. Alcohol, drugs and women became his hobby. While Mays had a mentor in Irvin, Thompson had no one else in his life to show him a better way.
As his career ended, so did his marriage. At the end of 1956, alone and with no job prospects, he became a cab driver; bar-tended as well. But he eventually ended up back in prison. That final stint in the penitentiary changed his life.
In the early 60s, he was convicted of armed robbery and received a 10-year sentence in a Texas penitentiary. Many did not think he would survive this time. He not only survived, he thrived. Something finally changed within him. Acceptance is the first step on the road to recovering from addiction. Hank did just that; accepting responsibility for past problems and setting goals for the future.
Thanks to his change of heart, he was released in 1967 and got a job as a recreation director in Fresno, California. With its close proximity to the Bay Area, Hank began going to see the Giants again and renewed old friendships. The Giants invited him to the 1969 Old Timers game. The future looked bright.
Despite his renewed zest for life, the years of abuse finally took its toll. In September of ’69, Hank suffered a seizure and fell into unconsciousness. He never recovered, dying the next day.
Thankfully, he has not been forgotten by fans and writers alike. A biography was released in 2009, Hank Thompson’s Blues, to great reviews. Due to his association with the 1951 season, he will always be remembered. He was a pioneer of desegregation, who like Robinson and Doby, endured racial epithets hurled at him but persevered. His place in the game is secure.
Times to Remember
The New York Giants moved to San Francisco at the end of the 1957 season. The Dodgers left for Los Angeles at the same time, leaving a void in the hearts of New York’s National League fan base. But those last 10 years were some of the most exciting in history. From 1947 to 1957, a New York team was in the World Series every year except 1948. The Giants were a franchise in decline at the start of the decade but engineered an amazing reversal of fortune. They not only made it to two World Series, but helped change the world for the better. Segregation was ended. Stars were born. People in New York always like to remember Willie, Mickey and The Duke, but they will also never forget Willie, Monte and Hank.
The Polo Grounds, located at the northern edge of Manhattan, was home to the New York Giants baseball team from 1883 to 1957. There were four incarnations of the complex, with the last renovation done after a fire in 1911. It hosted dozens of other sports franchises throughout its long history. The AFL’s New York Jets, then known as the Titans, was the last to use the facility in 1963. In 1964, it was demolished to make way for a public housing complex.
Sportswriters often used the term “Coogan’s Bluff” to refer to the stadium because of a ridge overlooking the stadium and the Harlem River. It then descends down into a hollow, which was where the Polo Grounds was built. It’s namesake was a prominent real estate developer of the 1890s and later Borough President, James Coogan.
- Nowlin, Bill and Rogers, Paul C. III. The Team That Time Forgot: The 1951 New York Giants. Society for American Baseball Research; December 2015.
- Robinson, Ray, The Home Run Heard ‘Round the World: The Dramatic Story of the 1951 Giants-Dodgers Pennant Race. Dover Baseball 2011.
- Hamm, Theodore. Hank Thompson’s Blues. Nobody Rocks Press via Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2009.
- Dawson, James. “Yankees Solemn and Silent After First Defeat in Series Opener Since ’36.” New York Times, October 5, 1951, Pg. 41. (King County Library System ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
- Effrat Louis. “Yanks, Giants Open Series Before 70,000 Today.” New York Times, October 4, 1951. Pg. 45. (King County Library System ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
- Doug Wilson’s Baseball Blog - http://dougwilsonbaseball.blogspot.com/
- BaseballReference.com - http://www.baseball-reference.com/
- National Baseball Hall of Fame
- Chicago Tribune Archives
- New York Times Archives (via King County Library System ProQuest)
- New York Daily News Archives
- Encyclopedia of Alabama