Harrison Dillard training for the 1948 London Olympics
Prior to the Indians’ Thursday night game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the team plans to honor Olympic track and field star (and Cleveland native) Harrison Dillard. It’s obviously a good time to recognize the four-time medal winner, in the midst of the Rio Olympics. Dillard won a gold medal in the 100 meter dash in the 1948 London Olympics, as well as a gold in the 4 x 100 meter relay in 1948, and a gold in the 110 meter hurdles in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, and was again a part of the gold medal-winning 4 x 100 meter relay in 1952. The now 93-year-old Dillard is the only man to win an Olympic gold in both the sprints and the high hurdles.
So while most people think of track and field events when they hear Dillard’s name, he actually has a connection to Major League Baseball as well. The Olympian went to work for the Indians in the late 1940s after they integrated by signing Larry Doby. It raises some larger issues that are not often discussed when it comes to integration – that even as teams started to add African American players on the field, there were still instances of deep segregation not just throughout the league, but also when it came to the front office and game day staff. The Indians were pioneers when it came to integrating some of the off-field aspects of the organization, and that’s where Dillard comes into play.
1949 article from the Cleveland Call and Post on Dillard’s position with the Tribe
In 1949, Dillard went to work in public relations in the Indians’ front office, with a promise of time off in order to compete in track and field events. This was a pretty big deal when many teams were still pretty segregated when it came to non-player positions. The Indians also integrated the press box during Bill Veeck’s ownership tenure, which was a big deal to African American reporters that covered the team for the black press. I had some issues with the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, particularly where Wendell Smith (the writer for the Pittsburgh Courier) was concerned, but one part I really liked was when Smith pointed to the grandstand seats and told Robinson that was where he was forced to sit because he was not welcome in the press box. This is something very basic that you need to perform your job – it’s a pain to hold a typewriter on your lap in the middle of a crowded stadium full of screaming fans. It is much better to sit in a place that was meant for that intended purpose; a press box with a place to sit your typewriter and ample room to take notes on the game. The Indians also started to hire African Americans to work as vendors around the ballpark, a position basically solely reserved for white workers throughout much of baseball’s history to that point.
Bill Veeck gets a lot of credit for signing Larry Doby, and later signing Satchel Paige and other younger black players during his tenure as owner from 1946-1949. He also deserves recognition for hiring African Americans in non-baseball positions throughout the organization. By pointing out that the Indians hired men like Dillard, and that they integrated the press box and the vendor staff, it raises a somewhat uncomfortable topic – that even though teams were slowly adding black players to their rosters, it took much longer to integrate management positions and non-playing positions. While Dillard is primarily known for his contributions to track and field, we should not forget that he played an important role in baseball during the 1940s through his work with the Indians. It also probably did not hurt to have a popular Olympian working in your public relations department.