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Celebrating all the pioneers during Black History Month

Buck O'Neil

Jackie Robinson is rightly revered as a pioneering figure in baseball’s integration. But he was not alone and, as Jesse Goldberg-Strassler notes, pioneers like Buck O’Neil and Emmett Ashford deserve recognition from baseball fans during Black History Month.

In an AP story from March 18, 1962, titled innocently “Cubs Assign Coaches for Farm Clubs,” the last paragraph tosses out, “Also it was announced that scout John (Buck) O’Neil will remain in the major league camp to help with the first base instruction of Ernie Banks, Moe Morhardt and Mac Kuykendall.” And thus Buck O’Neil — player, scout, best friend of Satchel Paige, future heartbeat, voice, and soul of the Negro Leagues experience — was on his way to becoming the first African-American coach in the Major Leagues.

In umpiring, there was Emmett Ashford, who, Baxter Holmes would later write in the Los Angeles Times, “had style — French cuffs, gleaming cuff links and shoes buffed to a pristine shine. And he always brought a typewriter with him on the road so he could answer fan mail. He signed autographs before and after games.” Can you imagine an umpire signing autographs today?

On March 13, 1966, Ashford became the first African-American umpire to call a Major League game, handling balls and strikes for Cactus League action in Palm Springs, Cal., between the Cubs and the Angels.

From an Associated Press account of the game: “In the fifth inning, Chicago’s Ken Holtzman threw a pitch whistling behind [Willie] Smith’s back. Smith started for the mound where the Cub infield was establishing a defensive ring about Holtzman. But Ashford restrained Smith.

“When the Angels took the field, veteran Jack Sanford immediately pitched a ball behind Holtzman’s head. Ashford said, ‘I knew Holtzman’s pitch wasn’t intentional. It just got away from him. When Sanford back like that, I said to myself “okay, they’re even.” But one more and old Emmett would have jumped in there with both feet.’

“… At any rate, Ashford said, ‘I loved it.  It was a great game.  It did get a little hot out there.’ ”

In broadcasting, the Museum of Broadcast Communications credits Hal Jackson as baseball’s first African-American play-by-play man, delivering the call of Chicago-area collegiate and Negro Leagues contests. For national broadcasts, Jackie Robinson partnered with Leo Durocher on the ABC Major League Baseball Game of the Week in 1965. Then there was Cardinals All-Star Bill White, who transitioned to broadcasting and became both the first African-American MLB play-by-play man, hired as part of a three-man crew for the Yankees in 1971 and beginning an 18-season run in the booth, and the first African-American league president, serving atop the National League from 1989-1994.

“Deep to left,” begins White’s call of Bucky Dent’s 1978 playoff home run against Boston. “Yastrzemski will not get it — it’s a home run! A three-run home run for Bucky Dent, and the Yankees now lead it by a score of 3 to 2. Bucky Dent has just hit his fifth home run of the year into the screen, and look at that Yankee bench, led by Bob Lemon. Big Cliff Johnson out there. And a happy Bucky Dent!”

Earlier in the decade, not long before Bucky Dent swatted himself into iconic status, two other lines were crossed. Frank Robinson, the Reds and Orioles superstar, had been managing for several seasons in Puerto Rico. On October 3, 1974, he was announced as the new manager for the Cleveland Indians. He had not retired yet as a player, though, which allowed him to also DH and crush a home run to help win his first game as the Indians’ skipper in 1975.

“Braves Appoint Black To Post” blared the AP headline on September 20, 1976. “Bill Lucas, director of Minor League operators for the Atlanta Braves, was named director of player personnel for the National League club Sunday by owner Ted Turner. In assuming the position, Lucas becomes the first black in baseball history to hold what amounts to the general manager’s post.” The position ended suddenly and sadly; Lucas passed away of a brain hemorrhage in 1979.

And, lastly and most recently, who was the first high-level African-American owner of a Major League team?  Though Reggie Jackson tried his best in 1997 with the Dodgers and 2005 with the Athletics, the answer is Earvin “Magic” Johnson, in Los Angeles, the city he turned into Showtime on the hardwood.


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