By Paul Hagen / MLB.com
Baseball is justifiably proud of how the Brooklyn Dodgers’ signing of Jackie Robinson in 1947, breaking the unofficial color barrier, played an important role in promoting civil rights in this country.
Award-winning baseball writer Bill Madden makes a compelling case in “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever” that the real impact of that historic event on the sport wasn’t actually felt until seven years later.
It’s true that by then, Robinson was well-established in the big leagues. When Spring Training began that season, he had won a National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949 and had made the NL All-Star team each of the previous five seasons. And it’s also true that the Dodgers had already added other African-American standouts such as Don Newcombe, Joe Black, Roy Campanella and Junior Gilliam.
But integration in the sport was still the exception more than the rule.
That was the year, for example, that Ernie Banks became a full-time player for the Cubs and when Hank Aaron made his Major League debut for the Milwaukee Braves. It was the year when, for the first time, both teams appearing in the World Series, the Indians and New York Giants, featured black players.
It was the year that Willie Mays returned from military service and blossomed into one of the most magnetic players in history. His outsized impact on his team’s success is duly chronicled. It was the year that the Dodgers started five blacks on July 17, the first time in history whites had been outnumbered in the lineup.
That was also the year that the Supreme Court ruled in “Brown vs. Board of Education” that segregation in public schools based solely on race was illegal. Still, at the beginning of the season, half the 16 teams that existed at the time had yet to use a black player.