The importance baseball history has in the current popularity of the sport was on display during this year’s Major League Baseball All Star Game played this past Tuesday night in Cincinnati. In conjunction with Major League Baseball, the communication company T-Mobile created the “Greatest Living Players” promotion that gave baseball fans the opportunity to choose the four greatest ballplayers still living. The four selected; Henry Aaron, Johnny Bench, Sandy Koufax, and Willie Mays were each brought unto the diamond at the Reds’ Great American Ballpark after this year’s All-Star players’ introductions.
Aaron and Mays, both former Negro League ballplayers, waved in response to the thunderous applause of the 43,656 fans in the stadium. They were the two selected by the promotion that were in professional baseball at the time of an All Star milestone in Cincinnati by another former Negro League player; Satchel Paige.
On July 14, 1953 at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, Paige became the first African American to pitch in the All Star Game for the American League. He pitched the eighth inning for the AL squad in the National League’s 5 – 1 victory. African American Don Newcombe had pitched for the National League in three All Star Games, 1949, 1950, and 1951. However, the slow pace of integration in baseball since Jackie Robinson erased the color line in 1947 had been slower in the American League.
Arguably the best and certainly the most well-known pitcher in Negro League baseball, Paige had already achieved one milestone in Major League history. In 1948 while with Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians, he became the first African American to pitch in the World Series. Both Paige and Veeck were no longer with the Indians after the 1949 season. However, they were together again in 1951 when Veeck was the new owner of the St. Louis Browns.
Named to the American League All Star team in 1952, Paige did not pitch in the rain shortened All Star Game won by the National League 3 -2. However, history would be made the next year when New York Yankee manager Casey Stengel summoned Paige to mound to pitch the eighth inning with the American League All-Stars trailing 3-0.
Gil Hodges first lined out against the forty-seven year old Hall of Fame pitcher. Roy Campanella singled and then Eddie Mathews flied out. Despite getting two outs, Paige had trouble finishing the inning. Duke Snider walked, both Enos Slaughter and pitcher Murray Dickson followed with singles. Campanella and Snider scored, but Dickson was thrown out at second base to end the inning. The American League scored one run in the ninth to avert a shutout, the final score being 5 – 1.
Mays, the 1951 National League Rookie of the Year, missed the entire 1953 season due to military service. Aaron in 1953 was battering pitchers while playing with the Braves’ Class A minor league level team in Jacksonville. They both would be on the 1954 National League All Star squad that included seven African American players, another baseball integration milestone at that time.