Was it harder for black players to excel in the '50s?

Was it harder for black players to excel in the '50s?

Published Feb. 9, 2015 3:33 p.m. ET

I've been reading this new book about Joe Black, 1952's National League Rookie of the Year. As it happens, a) Sahadev Sharma just wrote about Joe Black, and b) I just read the chapter in the book where Joe Black received this letter:

Joe Black: I have bet my life savings on the Giants winning the pennant. I consider you to be the main reason why they are eight games out of first place. If you come in to pitch at the Polo Grounds Saturday, Sunday, or Monday, Sept. 6, 7, 8, it will be the last time you ever appear on any baseball mound. I live in a project over looking the Polo Grounds and you would be an easy target standing alone on the mound. I will watch your every move.

Black was hardly the first or last player to receive a death threat, and white players too. But this was on my mind when a special edition of Scott Simkus's tremendous Outsider Baseball Bulletin newsletter arrived, after a long hiatus. The headline: Performing Under Pressuring During Integration Era.

It's long been suggested that black players in the late '40s and '50s faced two significant obstacles. First they had to get a chance to play in the majors ... and once there, they had to somehow cope with the prejudices and abuse of hostile fans, teammates, coaches, and managers. Which by all accounts was considerable. 

But did all that abuse actually hurt their performance? Simkus figured a way to check. Basically, he looked at the first 225 plate appearances -- what he calls the "transition phase" -- of 100 black players in the majors, and the first 225 of 100 white players. Then he simply checked to see how each player's transition-phase performance compared to both his minor-league performance and his career major-league performance.


Results? Both black and white players hit almost exactly the same in those first 225 appearances as they would in their entire careers. If there's some sort of "transition phase" for hitters, it just doesn't show up for any group of players.

The real problem, as Simkus points out, was opportunity. The average age of white players in the group was 23 years and two months, while the average age of the black players was slightly more than 26 years.

The threats and the abuse were real, and terrible. In 1952, an ex-Negro Leagues outfielder named Dave Hoskins integrated the Texas League, and was a huge drawing card around the league. He also got a letter threatening his life. Somehow, he still went 22-10 in just his first full season as a pitcher. The next season, he jumped to the majors with the Indians and went 9-3.

Someone, I'm sure, will object to not only to Simkus's methodology, but to his line of inquiry itself. But we don't honor our heroes by sparing them from the same scrutiny to which we subject everyone else. We honor our heroes by treating them as we would treat anyone else, with emotional respect and intellectual honesty.