Although professional baseball’s color line that kept it segregated had been erased by Jackie Robinson in 1947, African American and Hispanic ballplayers still faced difficulties due to racial discrimination that hindered their development in the Major Leagues. The career of Frank Samuel “Pee Wee” Austin, born on May 22, 1917, is an example of the difficulties they faced.
Considered one of the best baseball players born and raised in Panama, Austin began his Negro League career in 1944 with the Philadelphia Stars. An excellent fielding shortstop who hit over .300 his first two seasons, the 5’7” and 168 pound speedster was the starting shortstop for the East squad in the 1945 Negro League All Star Game. Jackie Robinson was the West squad’s starting shortstop that year. Austin also made All Star Game appearances in 1947 and 1948.
After the color line was broken, the skills he displayed on the baseball diamond got the attention of Major League scouts. Austin was signed by the New York Yankees in 1949, but never played with the team due to a racially motivated decision. The Yankees and Cleveland Indians were involved in a contract dispute over two other Negro League players; shortstop Artie Wilson of the Birmingham Black Barons and Luis Marquez of the Baltimore Elite Giants. Believing the Indians would get Wilson, the Yankees signed Austin. But, Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler settled the dispute by allowing the Yankees to keep Wilson and gave Marquez to the Indians. This left New York with two African American prospects at shortstop.
With future Hall of Famer (1994) Phil Rizzuto the starting Yankee shortstop at that time, the team did not need two prospects at the position. But instead of choosing between the two, the Yankees sold both players to Pacific Coast League (PCL), Triple AAA minor league teams. Wilson went to the Oakland Oaks and Austin to the Portland Beavers.
In the early years of Major League integration, teams that signed African American players did not want them to room together with white players on road trips. If there were not two or more African Americans on the team, the one roomed alone which made him even more ostracized by the majority of his white teammates. The Yankees took it a step further and unloaded them both. It is a compliment to the fortitude of African American players in the early years of integration that they had success on the field despite these obstacles.
Austin and Marquez, who had been sent to the Beavers by the Indians, became the first black players in the Portland franchise’s history. A fan favorite, “Pee Wee” Austin played seven seasons (1949 – 1955) with the team; including 659 consecutive games. But he never hit over .300 as he had done with the Philadelphia Stars; he never got another chance to play in the Major Leagues before retiring in 1957.