Seventy years ago today, Cleveland Buckeye Sam Jethroe, Kansas City Monarch Jackie Robinson, and Philadelphia Star Marvin Williams walked into Fenway Park for a tryout with the Boston Red Sox. There had been a discussion about integration for several years, and Jethroe’s name had come up on multiple occasions. Even though there were a number of formal and informal tryouts before this point, this one seems to get the most attention. Unfortunately, there was almost no chance that any of the three players would be actually signed by the Red Sox.
A politician by the name of Isadore Muchnick threatened a Sunday baseball ban for both the Red Sox and the Braves (then in Boston) unless the teams held tryouts for African American players. So Wendell Smith, reporter with the Pittsburgh Courier, helped orchestrate the tryout for Jethroe, Robinson, and Williams. This wasn’t unusual, as African American journalists (and Smith in particular) often took an activist role in the attempt to integrate baseball. The Red Sox never even bothered to tell the three men they didn’t make the team; not surprising since the tryout was primarily to remove the political heat from the ball club. According to Howard Bryant in his book Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, Wendell Smith said in frustration, “We’ll hear from the Red Sox like we’ll hear from Adolf Hitler.”
Speaking of World War II, the tryout was just four days after Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed away in office. In fact, when asked about the tryout in later years, the players remembered discussing FDR’s death as they left Fenway Park. Even though the Red Sox blew off the three players, it wouldn’t be long before someone signed Jackie Robinson. Branch Rickey would ink him to a deal in October of 1945.
As for Jethroe, it would take a bit longer for him to make it to the major leagues. In 1950 Jethroe returned to Boston, this time with the Boston Braves. His great season earned him the title of Rookie of the Year, making him the oldest player to earn the award.
While many fans know Jethroe’s name because of his 1950 season, the outfielder had a great career with the Negro League Cleveland Buckeyes. His name was first mentioned as a potential major leaguer in 1942, when the African American weekly Cleveland Call and Post advocated that the Indians look at Jethroe, third baseman Parnell Woods, and pitcher Eugene Bremmer. Indians owner Alva Bradley tended to drag his feet a bit in regards to offering the three men a tryout. Major League Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis had said that same year that there was nothing formal from baseball itself banning African Americans from the game. This left the onus for integration on the owners; it was up to them to be bold and sign the first African American player since the nineteenth century.
Jethroe, Woods, and Bremmer eventually got a “tryout” with the Indians, but it’s tough to tell just how serious Bradley was at this point. Each year, the Negro Leagues had a marquis event – the East-West All Star Game. It was usually the most publicized and the best attended event, and was held each summer at Comiskey Park in Chicago. However, there were some years that the Negro Leagues held a second East-West game, often at Griffith Park in Washington, D.C. In 1942 that second game just happened to be at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, and lo and behold, Jethroe, Woods, and Bremmer were all on the “West” roster. All three men had one of the worst games of their career; the sure-handed Jethroe even committed an error in the field. After the game, Bradley came out and said he attended and saw the terrible performances. In his opinion, none of the three were worthy of the majors. It’s quite possible that Bradley was seriously considering the three, and was completely put off by the way they played in the East-West Game. It’s also possible that their poor performance afforded him a good excuse to say no. Jethroe would make East-West Game appearances in four different seasons after that.
Jethroe stayed with the Buckeyes until 1948, when he left to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Montreal Triple-A team, where Jackie Robinson spent the 1946 season. He was eventually traded to Boston, setting up his famous 1950 season. Before all of this, Jethroe was one of the Buckeyes’ star players. So fast he was nicknamed “The Jet,” Jethroe won the 1945 Negro League World Series with Cleveland when they beat the Homestead Grays, and appeared in the 1947 World Series when the Buckeyes lost to the New York Cubans.
So why talk about this tryout, and about Jethroe in general? As yesterday was “Jackie Robinson Day,” major league baseball players all wore the number 42, and Robinson’s contribution was honored. But what doesn’t often get discussed – the other players that came after him (like Sam Jethroe or Larry Doby) or the difficult road leading up to April 15, 1947. The effort to integrate baseball started a number of years before, and met a number of failures before Branch Rickey signed Robinson. We talk about the day that baseball did the right thing; but we pay less attention to the times they got it so very wrong.