Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Brews Break the Color Barrier

On July 15th, 1950, exactly three years and three months after Jackie Robinson made history at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the Milwaukee Brewers announced that they had signed their first black player, a first baseman named Leonard Pearson:

Like so many other black "rookies" of the time, Pearson joined Organized Baseball relatively late in life, after a long career in the Negro Leagues. He was a full decade older than the other rookies on the squad. He was, unfortunately, past his prime, and struggled in Milwaukee.

Shortly afterwards, the Brews picked up James Buster (Buzz) Clarkson to play at third. Like Pearson, he had already had a long career in the Negro Leagues. But even at the age of 35, Clarkson was an essential part of the powerhouse Milwaukee club. A third black player - George Crowe, a high school basketball star in his native Indiana - soon joined the club, and the 1951 Brewers would take the field with three black players.

Scan from 1951 Brewer yearbook. Courtesy Paul Tenpenny.

The Brewers weren't the only American Association club to sign black players. There were seven in the Association by the Spring of 1951; the three Brewers, three in Minneapolis (including a rookie named Willie Mays) and one in St Paul, so many that it warranted mention in the St. Petersburg Times. Not on the sports page, of course, but in a section called "News of the Negro Community":

Those 1951 Brewers took the American Association by storm, winning their first pennant since 1945, and then their first Junior World Series since 1936. Leonard Peason, on the other hand, continued to struggle. He went 1-for-9 in five games in 1951 before he was sent down to the Hartford Chiefs. Two years later, he was out of organized ball.

Buzz Clarkson was more successful, hitting .343 as . He was rewarded with a callup, joining the Braves in April of 1952. Unfortunately, Boston proved impatient with black rookies, and Clarkson was scarcely given a chance to prove himself. After only six games, in which he went 5-for-25, the Braves sent him back to Milwaukee. Reunited with the Brews, Clarkson hit .318 with 12 home runs in 74 games as the team rolled to an astounding 101 wins and a second consecutive American Association pennant. The next season, he fell to AA Dallas. After leaving the Braves organization, he plaed for the Los Angeles Angels, then the Chicago Cubs' Pacific Coast League affiliate, but never again saw The Show.

George Crowe had the best career of all three, starting with a .339 batting average and 24 home runs for Milwaukee during that 1951 season, and earning the league's Rookie of the Year honors:

He was hitting .351 for the Brewers in 1952 before being sent to Boston. His play was good enough to keep him in the Bigs, and when he moved back to Milwaukee it was with the rest of the Braves.

Crowe did have one more stint in the minors, spending most of the 1954 season at Milwaukee's new AAA club in Toledo (ironically enough, the displaced Brewers, which had become the Toledo Sox in the spring of 1953) before returning to the big leagues for good in 1955.

The Braves traded Crowe to Cincinnati in 1956, and as a Red he made the All-Star team in 1958. This honor was bestowed on him by baseball's players, managers and coaches, fans having lost the vote the year before in a ballot box-stuffing scandal (ironically enough involving the Reds). The Reds traded him to the Cardinals in 1959, and Crowe finished out his career with three years in St. Louis.

One has to wonder if Pearson and Clarkson would have been able to carve out similar major league careers had they been allowed to join the Brewers in their 20s instead of their 30s.

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