High and Inside Out: Bill Veeck Integrates Baseball

Baseball maverick, Bill Veeck, watches pitching legend Satchel Paige throw warmup pitches. Image courtesy of Like Success.com

We know that it was Brach Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers who broke baseball’s color barrier permanently. That was in 1947 and baseball was forever changed. But it almost unfolded in a completely different manner. Travel with me, if you will, to 1944, as we encounter a young, aspiring baseball owner named Bill Veeck Jr. who attempted to change baseball and make himself a ton of money at the ticket booth. High and Inside Out explores the “what if” and spins the tale of Veeck’s integrated Philadelphia Phillies.

After the 1943 season the son of a journalist and general manager bought the lackluster Philadelphia Phillies and soon promised to build a winning team. The loud, flamboyant and all around charismatic Bill Veeck seemed to be promising the impossible. The Phillies were flat out horrible and nothing short of a miracle could change that. But Veeck had a secret, something he kept close to the vest during the entire process of buying the team. Veeck was going to integrate baseball and, in the process, make the Phillies World Series Champions.

Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a strict defender of segregated baseball, was furious when news of his new owner’s plans reached his office. He tried everything to deter it. Landis fined Veeck heavily, but Veeck simply paid them off with a smile. He bad mouthed him to the press and, in response, Veeck had the headlines framed and hung on his office wall. When goons under the pay of Landis’s office threatened him and his players, Veeck either bought some off or ushered them away with a wave of the hand. To Landis’s pure rage, Veeck’s Phillies began the 1944 season with a roster of almost all former Negro League stars. The Opening Day staff read almost like the previous year’s East vs. West Game.

Martin Dihigo

Pitcher/infielder Martin Dihigo is the only player to be inducted to a Hall of Fame in three different countries, Cuba, Mexico and the United State. Image courtesy of Verdun2’s Blog

On the mound stood the ageless right hander Satchel Paige, fresh off a stint with the Memphis Red Sox. He’d be throwing to Roy Campanella, a personal favorite of Veeck’s who had played with the Monterrey Sultans of the Mexican League in 1943. Buck Leonard, nicknamed the “Black Lou Gehrig“, stood on first base at the age of 37 years young. Cuban born Martin Dihigo, who was courted by Veeck himself while the eccentric owner was on vacation in Mexico, was the starting second baseman. After paying a heavy ransom to the Newark Eagles, Veeck slotted Ray Dandridge in at third base. Veeck would later recall the steep price he paid for Dandridge saying, “It was either the best move I ever made or the dumbest. The verdict is still out.” Glen Stewart, a holdout from the previous season, remained at shortstop. “I would’ve gotten rid of him, too, but who has the time?” Veeck told the press.

In centerfield stood another holdout, Ron Northey, sandwiched by two shiny new acquisitions. In right field was Luke Easter who Veeck was able to coax away from the Homestead Grays. Veeck was even able to convince Monte Irvin to forgo military service in order to play leftfield for the Phillies. To do that, Veeck made Irvin the highest paid ballplayer in the game of baseball. “That,” Veeck would later say, “I’m certain was well worth the cost.”

Throughout the season Veeck lived up to his promise of building the game’s best team. The Phillies were a sight to behold. They excelled at everything, pitching, hitting and fielding. Led by Satchel Paige and Leon Day the Phillies rotation proved to be one of the most dominant anyone had ever seen. Two white players, Bill Lee and Ken Raffensberger, were effective but couldn’t match the dazzling ability of Paige and Day. Veeck’s fifth pitcher didn’t spend a day in the Negro Leagues. He had originally signed a contract to play for the Negro League Newark Eagles before Veeck got wind of him. For what could be described as a mere bargain, even by pre-free agency standards, Veeck added an ace as his number five pitcher. His name was Don Newcombe.

The league was unhappy with this new, trailblazing team. The black players were making the rest of them look bad and very few white players welcomed the integration of Major League Baseball. Pitchers threw at Phillie batters, base runners spiked the fielders and umpires ignored it all. “We brushed ” Veeck recalled, “Because in the end we were better than them and winning was what mattered.”

To keep order on the field, Veeck employed two managers. The first was Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons, the 19-year veteran pitcher. The second, told to report directly to Veeck and his brass, was the former manager of the Kansas City Monarchs, John Jordon “Buck” O’Neil. Altogether, the team would reach the World Series against the powerhouse New York Yankees. The series would last seven games but the Yankees bested the Phillies. It would be the last time the Phillies were denied their banner.

Grumpy_landis_medium

Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the first Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Image Courtesy of SB Nation.com

Veeck’s powerhouse club would continue to befuddle opponents for years, putting together the greatest dynasty since Babe Ruth and Colonel Jacob Rupert’s Yankees in the ’20’s. The Phillies would win the Series in 1945, 1946, 1947 and 1949 before they finally saw an end to their reign as baseball’s best team. By that time the Negro Leagues had disappeared entirely, their best players pouncing on big league contracts and losing popularity with fans. Veeck was hailed as a hero to the black community and praised as an American pioneer for his breaking of the color barrier.

Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis died in 1944. Those among the baseball hierarchy joked that it was Veeck’s “Black Phillies” that killed him. Former big league general manager Branch Rickey narrowly edged out United States Senator, Happy Chandler to replace Landis as Commissioner. Veeck’s vote became the deciding factor citing Rickey’s open attitude towards black players. Veeck openly credited Landis’s death for allowing his dynasty to thrive. “If he hadn’t died, I’m convinced he would have found some way to destroy my masterpiece. Thank God for sending me Branch Rickey.”

That’s how it was. Veeck broke the color barrier, ending the long accepted “Gentleman’s Agreement” and integrating the league in 1944 and building one of the most prolific dynasties in history. That’s how it happened… at least, that’s how it could have happened.

 

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