Detroit Tigers were slow to sign Black players: Why they were among last teams

Detroit Free Press
Joe Lapointe |  Special to the Detroit Free Press

Editor’s note: This column contains language used in a 1979 Detroit Free Press article, and other published works, that could be offensive.

In that this is Black History Month, this quiz is about the racial integration of the Detroit Tigers.

Which of the following statements is true?

1.    Ozzie Virgil was the first Black player on the Tigers.

2.    Virgil went 5-for-5 in his first game for Detroit.

3.    Virgil was the first player from the Dominican Republic in the majors.

4.    Detroit’s first Black player is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Answers: The first two are false; the last two are true. But as time passes, facts and legends sometimes blur and conflate in Detroit baseball’s most mythic moments.

Some specifics:

  • Yes, certainly, Virgil racially integrated the Tigers in June 1958. But he was a brown-skinned, bilingual, Dominican-born athlete of Puerto Rican descent from New York City. Virgil discovered Black fans in Detroit were looking for an American-born player to integrate the team. “They didn’t think I was one of them,” Virgil recalled in a 1979 Free Press interview.
  • Yes, Virgil went 5-for-5 in his first home game at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium. But he played in 11 Tigers games before that on the road. In battering the Washington Senators before 29,794 fans in a 9-2 Tigers’ victory, Virgil earned a standing ovation from the audience and a verbal salute from Frank Lary, a white pitcher from Alabama.
  • Yes, Virgil was the first Dominican in the majors and he led a parade. As of last season, the major leagues employed 170 Dominican players, enough to stock almost seven teams, the most players of any nation outside the United States. Last month, the Dominican-born David Ortiz was elected to the Hall of Fame. In an interview in 2006 with Spanish-language ESPN Deportes, Ortiz praised Virgil for his breakthrough. “I’d put his legacy up there with that of those who established our republic,” Big Papi said.
  • Yes, Detroit’s first Black player is in the Hall of Fame. He is Larry Doby, who started the 1959 season on the Tigers’ roster. But he played only 18 games with Detroit that season, his last in the majors.

Tigers were slow to sign Black players

Twelve years before that, Doby integrated the American League with the Cleveland Indians, three months after Jackie Robinson integrated the National League with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Doby entered the Hall of Fame in 1999.

When Robinson retired in 1956, 6.7% of major league players were Black. On opening day last season, the number was 6.8%, having peaked in 1981 at 18.7%.

The Tigers were the second-last of MLB’s 16 teams to integrate. Only the Boston Red Sox remained all-white until 1959 when Pumpsie Green joined the team. During the mid-1950s, the Tigers felt pressure to integrate from the Michigan Chronicle newspaper and from threats of a fan boycott. “We don’t allow anyone to tell us who to play,” said Harvey Hansen, president of the Tigers. “We will try and bring us a colored player as soon as possible,” Hansen told the Chronicle.

By 1957, John McHale was general manager and he supported integration.

“We were a little slow getting into the 20th century at that point,” McHale told the Free Press in 1979. “Getting a Black player was a priority of mine.”

After the Tigers acquired Virgil from the San Francisco Giants and then called him up from the minor leagues, the Free Press wrote: “If the Detroit Tigers ever drew a so-called ‘color line,’ they erased it Thursday by summoning Osvaldo (Ozzie) Virgil, a 25-year-old third baseman, up to the big time … The Tiger front office denied that Virgil was being called up as a result of pressure applied by Negro groups.”

The journalist who wrote those words, Hal Middlesworth, later became public relations director of the Tigers.

The misidentification of Virgil as a Black man began early. Writing about the 5-for-5 performance for the Associated Press, reporter Dave Diles — later a well-known television journalist — wrote incorrectly of Virgil: “It was the first time a Negro baseball player had appeared there (at Briggs Stadium) in a Detroit Tiger uniform.” That was true only if Virgil identified as Black, which he didn’t.

Reflecting on this in 2008 with the Free Press, the late federal judge Damon Keith said: “Ozzie was not white, but he wasn’t Black, and he was caught in between through no fault of his own.”

Virgil — a former U.S. Marine — reflected years after he played that he felt no hostility from any fans of any color in Detroit. He felt far more pressure, he said, as a rookie at the Polo Grounds with the New York Giants in 1956.

“I can still remember my blood streaming furiously through my veins,” Virgil told ESPN Deportes, “and adrenaline almost choking me.” Now 89 years old and living in the Dominican Republic, Virgil retired as a player in 1969. His son, Ozzie Virgil Jr., played in Major League Baseball from 1980 through 1990.

In his Briggs Stadium debut, the senior Virgil batted second in the lineup, ahead of Harvey Kuenn, Charlie Maxwell and Al Kaline. Playing shortstop and batting seventh was Billy Martin, the future manager of the Tigers and Yankees.

Willie Horton is still a Tiger

During the next two decades — the 1960s and 1970s — the Tigers only gradually expanded their diversity. Gates Brown, a deluxe pinch hitter and later a coach, said Black players thought Detroit’s unofficial quota in those years was four on a roster of 25.

“And if we saw another Black guy walk in the clubhouse door,” Brown said, “we’d look around at each other and say `Well, one of us is gone.’ ”

The first Black starters in the regular lineup for the Tigers were center fielder Billy Bruton and second basemen Jake Wood in 1961.

And their first Black superstar was Willie Horton, a slugging left fielder from Northwestern High School in Detroit who joined the team in 1963 and played 15 years at Tiger Stadium — the name having changed from Briggs in 1961.

For generations in Detroit, it was street wisdom that the Briggs family wanted the team to stay white. Coincidentally in 1957, a year before Virgil’s Tigers’ debut, Walter O. “Spike” Briggs, Jr., was forced to resign as executive vice-president after clashing with John Fetzer’s syndicate that bought the team.

More: Great grandson of former Tigers owner: Turning a racist legacy into one of hope

The 79-year-old Horton now works for the Tigers as “special assistant” to general manager Al Avila.

When he played for Seattle in 1979, Horton reflected on representing his race and his city in the first decade of Tigers’ integration. “If I’d been the white Willie Horton, I’d be all right,” Horton said then. “But I was a country kid out of the projects.”

Horton briefly walked out on the team in 1969 and said the pressure of being Black was one of his reasons.

More: Free Press Flashback: Sit-ins were an early tactic at Detroit civil-rights protests

“It bugged me early in my career,” he said. “If you’re Black in the organization, you’ve got to be just a little better than whites. Not as good, better. It’s a hard thing. You get to the point where you feel lost out there.”

However, even at that time, Horton stressed that he held no bitterness toward the Tigers as a franchise.

“I love the Tigers’ organization,” he said back then, “but those are the facts.”

Joe Lapointe is a metro Detroit journalist.

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