On April 15 Major League Baseball celebrated the 64th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s historic first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. During 1947 a number of other African American players joined the majors, including the Larry Doby signing by the Cleveland Indians just eleven weeks after Robinson. While a great number of baseball fans are familiar with the names Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, few know of an unlikely integrator by the name Eddie Klepp. In 2011 we celebrate the 65th anniversary of Klepp’s integration of the Cleveland Buckeyes; the first white man to play for a Negro League team.
In 1945 the Cleveland Buckeyes won the Negro League World Series against the powerhouse Homestead Grays. Prior to the 1946 season, the team lost several players to injury and through defections to Latin America. Buckeyes’ General Manager Wilbur Hayes signed Klepp, a left-handed pitcher from Erie,Pennsylvania, with the hope that Klepp would fill a void on the decimated pitching staff. Hayes also considered the possibility that he could sell Klepp’s contract to a white Major League team mid-season if the pitcher was successful.
When the Buckeyes departed for spring training at the end of March in 1946, there was little fanfare or public acknowledgement of this groundbreaking integrated team. On April 13, almost exactly a year before Robinson took the field with the Dodgers, Klepp and the Buckeyes entered Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, to begin the on-field workout prior to their exhibition game with the Birmingham Black Barons. The team was greeted by Birmingham police officers, who refused to allow an integrated nine to play within city limits. Klepp was forced to remove his Buckeyes uniform and at first attempted to sit directly behind the team dugout with African American fans. The police soon forced Klepp to move and sit in the “whites only” section of the stadium.
The incident infuriated the Buckeyes’ team owner, Ernest Wright. Wright cited Branch Rickey and his signing of Jackie Robinson (Robinson was with Brooklyn’s minor league team in Montreal at this point). Wright believed that if Rickey could sign an African American player without repercussions, he should be allowed to sign a white player. What Wright failed to mention was the fact that Robinson played no games in Alabama; if so, he was likely to face the same fate as Eddie Klepp. Klepp returned with the Buckeyes to Cleveland at the end of spring training, but was hit hard in limited appearances with the Buckeyes. By June, the team released him.
The Cleveland Indians are known as the first team to integrate in the American League and the first team to win a World Series with an integrated roster. Before any of that took place, Cleveland had the unique distinction as host to the first integrated Negro League team, the Buckeyes. It’s just one of many fascinating events in the city’s rich Negro League history.