On September 28, 1955, the World Series returned to Yankee Stadium where it had been played every year since 1949. The previous year, the New York Yankees lost the American League pennant to the Cleveland Indians, who won a mind-boggling 111 games. At the time, only one team had ever posted more victories in a single season. Cleveland won with the help of the American League’s first Black player. Who?
The World Series
It was center fielder Larry Doby, the American League’s first Black player, who led that league with 32 home runs. Cleveland won with the help of the Yankees faced a familiar foe: their crosstown rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. 1955 was the sixth time the two teams had squared off in the Fall Classic, and the fifth time since 1947. And much to the chagrin of Dodger fans, their beloved ‘Bums’ had fallen to the Bronx Bombers each time. Not only had the Boys of Summer never beaten the Yankees, they also had never won the World Series—not once in 52 years. During that same stretch, the Yankees had won 16 titles.
Sixty-three thousand fans crammed into ‘The House That Ruth Built’ to watch game one of the ’55 Series. Many, if not most, rode the subway to the stadium. And with television sets now in 30 million homes, a tenfold increase in just five years, it’s likely that a few million more tuned in to the telecast, the first World Series broadcast in color.
The pitching matchup was almost too good to be true. It featured future Hall of Famer, Whitey Ford, a dominant left-handed hurler who would go on to become the winningest Yankee pitcher of all time. He faced ‘should-be’ Hall of Famer, Don Newcombe, who led the Dodgers with 20 wins that season. The next year, Newcombe won both the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award and the first ever Cy Young Award for best pitcher.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Don Newcombe and the Color Line
When Don Newcombe joined the Dodgers in 1949, he became only the third African American to pitch in a major league game; Dan Bankhead and Satchel Paige came before him. At six feet, four inches tall, the 29-year-old New Jersey native was an imposing presence on the mound. And he took no guff from racists, whether they were opposing hitters, teammates, managers, umpires, fans, or sportswriters. ‘Big Newk’s’ approach to the color line earned him few fans beyond the Dodger faithful and too few votes for induction into the Hall of Fame.
Catching the pair of pitching sensations were baseball’s best. Yogi Berra, the American League’s Most Valuable Player, crouched behind the plate for the Yankees. And Roy Campanella, the National League’s Most Valuable Player, caught Newcombe.
Roy Campanella, whose mother was African American and whose father was Italian American, first signed with the Nashua (New Hampshire) Dodgers, the franchise’s Class B affiliate. When he took the field for them in 1946, he integrated the minors. And when he took the field for the Dodgers in Brooklyn two years later, he integrated the catcher’s position in the majors. But on two teams stacked with boundless talent, one player stood head and shoulders above the rest: Dodger great Jackie Robinson.
Jackie Robinson and the Yankees
Jackie Robinson, who joined Brooklyn in 1947, was, of course, the first African American to play in the white professional league in the 20th century. And play he did! In 10 seasons, Robinson won the inaugural Rookie of the Year Award and the National League Most Valuable Player Award, was elected to the All-Star Game six seasons in a row, and led the Dodgers to six pennants. The only thing missing from his Hall of Fame resume was a World Series ring. And the only thing that stood in his way was the Yankees.
The Yankees led 6 to 3 when Whitey Ford took the mound in the eighth inning. With one out and one on, Robinson stepped to the plate. He hit a scorcher to third, which Gil McDougald mishandled, allowing the lead runner to advance to third and Robinson to reach second. A sacrifice fly to left center field plated one run and enabled Robinson to move up one base.
Due at bat for the Dodgers was relief pitcher Don Bessent; Newcombe had been pulled the inning before. But manager Walter Alston tapped right-handed hitter Frank Kellert to pinch-hit. As Frank Kellert dug into the batter’s box and Ford started his windup, swinging his hands high above his head, Robinson danced off third, feinting a dash home.
Baseball’s Legendary Black Players
Robinson was definitely a threat to steal. He had swiped 12 bases during the regular season and had led the league in stolen bases twice in his career.
But as Whitey Ford delivered the pitch—a ball, high and outside—number 42 skipped back to the bag. It was one thing to attempt to steal second or third, but a straight steal of home, in a World Series? That was unimaginable. Then, as Ford received the ball, rocked on his heels, and started his windup, Robinson broke for home!
As soon as catcher Yogi Berra spotted the hard-charging base runner, he hopped out of his crouch and straddled the plate. Ford’s pitch arrived first, but the daring Robinson angled his slide just as Berra dropped the tag. “Safe!” shouted home plate umpire Bill Summers.
Robinson popped up and jogged casually back to the dugout. He stole home 19 times during his playing days, but none was more dramatic and daring than that. It was the most iconic moment in the career of one of baseball’s most iconic players. Robinson had scored the Dodgers’ fifth run, as only he could. Sadly, it wasn’t enough. Brooklyn lost the game, but they won the series in seven games, giving Brooklyn its first and only championship.
Common Questions about How Black Baseball Players Broke Barriers
Center fielder Larry Doby led the league with 32 home runs.
When Don Newcombe joined the Dodgers in 1949, he became only the third African American to pitch in a major league game; Dan Bankhead and Satchel Paige came before him.
Jackie Robinson, who joined Brooklyn in 1947, was the first African American to play in the white professional league in the 20th century.