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Put these Black minor league pioneers on a pedestal | Column
Everybody knows of Jackie Robinson, but what of these other brave players?
Dave Hoskins, left, is far less remembered than are icons such as Jackie Robinson, who broke the major league color barrier, and Hank Aaron, who long held the home-run record.
Dave Hoskins, left, is far less remembered than are icons such as Jackie Robinson, who broke the major league color barrier, and Hank Aaron, who long held the home-run record. [ Photo illustration by Ron Borresen | Times , Photos by Associated Press ]
Published Sep. 26, 2020

While I may not be in full agreement with the methods, I do understand the reasons behind the Black Lives Matter movement’s uprooting of Confederate statues. It is time for their removal. It is past time. Furthermore, I understand that if “proper” channels were followed, those hurtful symbols might never come down.

I believe, however, there is a missing piece here. Since we’ve erased the chalkboard, let’s start teaching. Where are the discussions about replacing those monuments of hate with shrines to those who inspire us and future generations? Shouldn’t there be?

Rick Vaughn is the executive director of former Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s Respect 90 Foundation.
Rick Vaughn is the executive director of former Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s Respect 90 Foundation. [ Provided ]

I don’t think you can have enough statues of true heroes like Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman or Eleanor Roosevelt, but how many of those exist below the Mason Dixon line? Just asking. I’m not necessarily talking about household names. Since I am a baseball guy, here’s a start. Ever hear of Percy Miller, Dave Hoskins or Felix Mantilla? How about Horace Garner, Junior Reedy, Elbert Israel or Nate Peoples?

Jackie Robinson’s story never gets old and never will. Breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 remains one of our country’s most important landmarks. My friend Don Zimmer was a teammate of Jackie’s. He told me he was one of the finest men he had ever met. Playing golf with Jackie Robinson one off-season provided one of Zim’s proudest memories In a life filled with enough special moments to last 10 lifetimes.

Jackie’s career was into its fifth season before some of the southern most minor leagues accepted men of color. Jim Crow law remained solidly entrenched.

In 1951, a 19-year-old outfielder named Percy Miller became the first African American to play in the Carolina League. Aside from the endless taunts he received from angry fans around the league in his only season with the Danville (Va.) Leafs, there were other indignities. Miller wasn’t allowed to dress with his teammates. He did so at home or in the car, or in the hall outside the Leafs clubhouse. He was given one pair of pants, size 48. Miller had a 31-inch waist. Take it, or leave it, they said. When the team traveled, Percy, like every player mentioned in this story, ate his meals and lodged alone.

Pitcher Dave Hoskins broke the Texas League color barrier in 1952. On one day, he received three letters threatening his life if he suited up. He not only pitched and won that day’s game, he went on to win 21 more games for the Dallas Eagles. The following year he reached the major leagues, winning nine games for the Cleveland Indians.

In 1953 the South Atlantic League was finally integrated when two franchises spearheaded the effort. Jacksonville, the Braves entry in the Class A league, introduced Puerto Rican infielder Felix Mantilla, and a pair of African Americans: outfielder Horace Garner, and a second baseman named Henry Aaron. Savannah, the affiliate of the Philadelphia Athletics, counted African Americans Junior Reedy, an infielder, and outfielder Elbert Israel among their numbers. Aaron, in Bruce Adelson’s book Brushing Back Jim Crow, summed up the experience this way: “I couldn’t put my finger on which city in the league was the worst for me to play in. I would say all of them. In fact, at the beginning, even Jacksonville could be included.”

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And in 1954, Atlanta Crackers owner Jim Mann, himself a racial pioneer, signed 27-year-old Nate Peoples, cracking the Class AA Southern Association’s seemingly impenetrable color barrier. After just two weeks, however, Peoples was demoted to Class A by the Crackers, likely to avoid a confrontation with league officials who were pressuring Mann and the club to remove Peoples, thus preserving the league’s reputation as the nation’s most racially intolerant baseball organization . The power-hitting outfielder never returned.

“It took all the fire out of him for the rest of his career,” said a teammate. I had the pleasure of working with four-time major league All Star George Hendrick after his 18-year playing career was over. Sixteen years after Peoples' two-week stint in the Southern Association, George played for Birmingham in that same circuit. A stoic figure, he remains emotionally scarred from his time there.

Like Jackie before them, these men had to be much more than great athletes. They had to be mentally disciplined enough to endure everything thrown at them, not only from outraged fans but, in their case, from league officials as well, or their careers would be over. No second chances.

They performed on smaller stages and under a lesser spotlight than Robinson, for sure. They didn’t have millions of Americans rooting for their failure. But the crowds these men played before were perhaps more focused on tightening their grip on the racist tentacles of the south’s segregationist ways. And, there were people in those crowds who didn’t hesitate to display that hatred. I was around Major League Baseball for 30 years and other than Aaron and Mantilla (who enjoyed an 11-year career in the big leagues), I had never heard of Peoples, Hoskins, Miller, Garner or Reedy. Isn’t it about time we all have? Shouldn’t they be recognized? I believe some spaces just opened up.

Rick Vaughn is the executive director of former Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s Respect 90 Foundation. He served as vice president of communications for the Rays from 1996 to 2016.