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The five players who broke MLB’s color barrier in 1947

Let’s retire all of their numbers

Dodgers’ Infielder Jackie Robinson Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We are getting near the end of our special month long coverage of the Negro Leagues to commemorate Black History Month. So far, topics we have covered include the best hitters, the best pitchers, women of the Negro Leagues, the relationship between the Negro Leagues and Latin America, and so much more.

1947 was the year that the color barrier was broken. After nearly six decades of segregation from Major League Baseball, the high level of talent and and the distinct style of play—both of which often drew crowds the rivaled MLB games—made integration necessary for the game to grow.

With that said, five players from the Negro Leagues competed in Major League Baseball in ‘47. Despite what they faced on and off the field, they dared to make a name for themselves among baseball’s best. And the best part? They remained among baseball’s best players.

Jackie Robinson - 2B

57.2 fWAR, 135 wRC+, Hall of Fame

Anyone who knows anything about the history of baseball knows about Jackie Robinson. After all, his jersey number is retired among all MLB organizations. But even for the non baseball historian, Robinson is a fixture in American history in general. I, for one, remember learning about Robinson’s impact in my 4th grade elementary school classroom.

Known for his ability to get on base as evidenced by his career .409 OBP and 12.8% walk rate, Robinson was dually known for his ability to score runs as well. from his rookie year in ‘47 through 1953, Robinson touched home plate no less than 99 times in any one season. During his career, he also stole 197 bases.

On July 23, 1962, Robinson was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame

Larry Doby - CF

51.1 fWAR, 137 wRC+, Hall of Fame

Unlike Robinson’s rookie season in ‘47, Doby’s talent didn’t quite take the league by storm. Starting in 1948, however, Doby absolutely raked. For that year and the next decade thereafter, Doby never had a wRC+ below 127. In contrast to Robinson, Doby was known for his power. During his peak years of 1950-54, Doby totaled 30.8 fWAR—a respectable career’s worth in just five seasons— along with 138 long balls and a 148 wRC+.

Doby and teammate Satchel Paige were the first Black players to win a World Series championship when they both helped Cleveland win the title in ‘48. With the help of Doby and Paige, Cleveland won a franchise-record 111 games. Along with being one of the first Black players in Major League Baseball, Doby became one of the first to play in Japan when he and Don Newcombe signed with the Chunichi Dragons.

Larry Doby was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.

Hank Thompson 3B

23.4 fWAR, 120 wRC+

Thompson did not break out in his rookie campaign with the St. Louis Browns. His first great year came in ‘50 when he slashed .289/.391/.463 en route to a 126 wRC+. Coupled with the impeccable defensive metrics he had that year, he tallied his first and only 5.0 fWAR season. Interestingly, it was during this season when he became the first player to record two inside the park home runs in one game.

After signing with the New York Giants before the ‘48 season, Thompson became the first Black player to play in both the American and National Leagues. Before eventually becoming a staple at third base, he, along with Giants teammates Monte Irvin and Willie Mays, comprised Major League Baseball’s first all Black outfield. Though Thompson did not eventually become a hall of famer, he had a very respectable baseball career in his own right.

Willard Brown - CF

Hall of Fame

Brown’s time in Major League Baseball was brief. After leading the Kansas City Monarchs to six pennants in 10 seasons, a 21 game stint in ‘47 as Thomas’s teammate in St. Louis was the extent of his big league career. After being released by the Browns after that year, Brown went on to win two triple crowns in Puerto Rico, earning the nickname ‘Ese Hombre,’ translating to ‘That Man.’

After his short stint in the majors, Brown returned to the Monarchs of the Negro Leagues and continued to play professional baseball until 1958. Brown was the first Black player to hit a home run in Major League Baseball when he hit an inside the park homer off of future Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser.

Off the field, Brown fought in World War II, and was among the many present during the D-Day Invasion in 1944. In 2006, Brown was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame as well as the Caribbean Baseball Hall of fame as part of its inaugural class.

Dan Bankhead - P

Bankhead was the first Black pitcher to appear in a Major League Baseball game, and was also Robinson’s first Black teammate when he made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in ‘47. Bankhead was known for having electric stuff that caught the eye of Branch Rickey. He could never quite harness it, however, due to the fact that he was afraid of the ramifications of hitting white batters.

After pitching for two years in the minors after his rookie campaign, Bankhead was back up in ‘50 and pitched 129.1 innings in 41 games. In his only year which he earned substantial time on the mound, he pitched to a respectable 5.50 ERA and 4.80 FIP. After the 1951 season, he would never get back to the Major Leagues, but continued his professional baseball career in Mexico, playing for various teams until 1966.


Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.