The focus for my blog posts during this COVID 19 shortened 2020 Major League baseball season is a baseball time capsule from the 1950s. During that decade, the pace of integration in the Major Leagues slowly, but steadily went forward. As a consequence, the talent pool for the Negro Leagues decreased setting it on a journey towards extinction by the early 1960s. All of this with the early Civil Rights movement as a back drop.
This week’s post is about Ozzie Virgil, who accomplished two milestones in the integration of the Major Leagues during the 1950s. Virgil became the first Dominican Republic born player in the Major Leagues (1956) and he broke through the Detroit Tigers’ color barrier in 1958.
Born Osvaldo Jose Virgil on May 17, 1933 in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic, Ozzie moved to New York City (The Bronx) when 13 years old. After two years in the US Marine Corp., he signed with the New York Giants in 1953. Versatility became Virgil’s strength, he could play all infield positions including catcher and also in the outfield. Virgil made his Major League debut on September 23, 1956. The next season he made the Sporting News’ All-Rookie team as a utility player; seeing action when needed at four positions, including third base and catcher.
Of the dark-skinned Latinos who had played in the Major Leagues at that time, most were from Cuba or Puerto Rico. Virgil would be the first of many Major League players from the Dominican Republic including Baseball Hall of Fame inductees Juan Marichal, Vladimir Guerrero, and Pedro Martinez. By the mid-1950s, talented young African American and dark-skinned Latino players were bypassing the Negro Leagues and directly signing with Major League teams. Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Bill White, Curt Flood and others in addition to Virgil who began their Major Leagues careers during that time did not play Negro League baseball.
Before the 1958 season, the Giants moved to San Francisco and traded Virgil to the Detroit Tigers. Eleven years after Jackie Robinson erased the “invisible color line” in professional baseball (1947), Detroit and its American League counterpart Boston Red Sox were the only Major League teams never to have an African American or dark-skinned Latino on the roster. It had been a strong Negro League baseball city with the Detroit Stars in the 1920s and 1930s. However, the Tigers’ previous long-time owner Otto Briggs (1935 – 1952) had a bad relationship with African Americans due to the prejudice many of them experienced working at his automotive body factory. Also, African Americans were not allowed to sit in the box seats at Briggs Stadium.
The Tigers were World Series champions in 1945, but had finished no higher than fifth place since 1950 and efforts were being made to build the team around outfielder Al Kaline and pitcher Jim Bunning who would both have Hall of Fame careers. Jake Wood, the first African American to make his way through Detroit’s minor league system, played at the Class B level in 1958 and would not become the Tigers’ starting second baseman until 1961.
On June 6, 1958, at Griffith Stadium against the Washington Senators, Ozzie Virgil became the first nonwhite player to appear in a Major League game for the Detroit Tigers. He played third base and hit a double in the team’s 11 – 5 win. Virgil hit .244 in 49 games.
For the majority of the 1959 season, the Tigers were again at their pre-integration level. Virgil spent the entire season in the team’s minor league system (Double AA level). Newly acquired 35 years old Larry Doby, the first African American or dark-skinned Latino to break through the American League’s color barrier in 1947, played only 18 games before being traded to the Chicago White Sox in July. Also, the Tigers briefly promoted African American pitcher Jim Proctor, who appeared in only 2 games before being sent back to the minor leagues.
But, in 1960 Virgil appeared in 62 games as the Tigers used him as a key utility player. The Tigers traded him to the Kansas City Athletics In 1961 and he would spend the next seven years splitting time between the minor leagues and four major league teams. Virgil finished his playing career with the team that first signed him, the San Francisco Giants.
After retiring Ozzie Virgil coached 19 years in the Major Leagues and his son, two-time All Star catcher Ozzie Virgil Jr, had an eleven year Major League career.
All pictures via Google Images
For my daily historical notices go to Kevin L. Mitchell @Lasttraintocoop
There were three former Major League baseball players who died in 2017 that I would like to mention. None of them had their beginning in Negro League baseball. One is the first of many Major League players that would come from San Pedro de Marcois, Dominican Republic. The other two are Caucasians who were on one of the last Major League franchises that fielded African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players.
Why mention them? They played during the time when baseball consumed my life, my youth. I collected their baseball cards and remembered the events in their careers. Even though I will always retain good memories of that time, the death of these players still gives me a sense of lost.
Manny Jimenez – December 12, 2017
There had been no players of color on the roster of my hometown team Kansas City Athletics in 1960. However, Charlie Finley purchased the A’s in 1961 and the next season a group of African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players were added to the roster: Ed Charles, John Wyatt, Jose Tartabull, Diego Segui, Orlando Pena, and Manny Jimenez. A contact left-handed hitting outfielder, Jimenez came from San Pedro de Marcois in the Dominican Republic; the first of many Major League players that would come from that city. The list of players that would follow includes former Major Leaguers Sammy Sosa, Joaquin Andujar, Rico Carty, Alfonso Soriano, Pedro Guerrero, Tony Fernandez, and George Bell in addition to current active players Johnny Cueto and Robinson Cano.
Jimenez started the 1962 season with a hot bat, hitting .351 by the All-Star break. But Finley believed due to his physical stature, 6’1” and 185 pounds, Jimenez should hit with more home run power. Saying he did not pay him to hit singles, Finley ordered Jimenez to swing harder to hit more home runs. Altering his swing, the outfielder experienced a batting slump the remainder of the season. Although he finished with a .301 batting average, Jimenez never again consistently regained the swing he had earlier that season. He had three injury-prone more seasons with the A’s and three as a pinch hitter in the National League before retiring in 1969.
Jim Bunning and Frank Lary
Teammates with the Detroit Tigers from 1955 – 1963, Bunning, who died May 26, and Lary, who died on December 13, were both All-Star pitchers. The Tigers were the next to last franchise to add African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players; the team’s first being Ozzie Virgil in 1958. The Boston Red Sox, the last team to integrate, added Elijah “Pumpsie” Green the next year.
From 1949 – 1964 the New York Yankees won the American League pennant every year but two; 1954 and 1959. With me being a young baseball fan in Kansas City, an American League city, you can understand how I became a “Yankee hater”. I rooted for any team who had the potential to beat the Yankees and surprisingly the Tigers in 1961 came close to doing it.
Detroit finished the 1960 season in 6th place (71 – 83), with the high point acquiring 1959 American League home run co-champion Rocky Colavito from the Cleveland Indians in a trade. He would be a factor in the team’s dramatic turn around in 1961. Colavito with 45, first baseman Norm Cash with 41, and future Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline with 19 combined for 105 home runs. The Tigers added more color to the line-up that season. Billy Bruton, a trade acquisition from the Milwaukee Braves, played centerfield. Starting shortstop Chico Fernandez had come over from the Philadelphia Phillies the previous year. Jake Wood, the first African-American to work through the Tigers’ farm system and earn a starting position on the team, played second base.
The pitching staff, led by Jim Bunning and Frank Lary, had a huge role in the team’s success in 1961. At that time, both had been mainstays of the starting rotation for years: Bunning winning 62 games since 1957 and Lary 94 since 1955. In the midst of what would be a 28 – 13 lifetime record against New York, Lary had been given the moniker “Yankee Killer” by the sports media. The number three spot in the Tiger’s pitching rotation went to Don Mossi, a seven-year veteran of American League campaigns. Combined the three won 53 games that season; Lary 23, Bunning 17, and Mossi 15.
The defending American League champion Yankees had a powerful hitting line-up in 1961 led by Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. They pursued the single season home run record of 60 held by Babe Ruth. Maris broke it with 61, while Mantle finished with 54. However, on July 24 the Tigers were in first place by one game ahead of the Yankees. Detroit certainly had my hopes raised high.
On September 1, the Tigers went to Yankee Stadium for a three game weekend series in second place trailing New York by only 1.5 games. However, Detroit lost all three games and ended the in season in a tailspin. They lost 14 of their last 29 games, finishing in second place with a 101 – 61, 8 games behind the Yankees.
Never again having his 1961 form due to shoulder problems, Frank Lary won only nine more games the final years (1962 – 65) of his career. The Tigers traded him to the New York Mets after the 1963 season.
Around the same time, the team traded Jim Bunning to the Philadelphia Phillies. He won 106 games the final years of his career (1964 – 71) in the National League. After baseball, he became a six-term US Congressman and two-term US Senator from his home state of Kentucky. In 1991, Bunning was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies on June 21, 1964, Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game against the New York Mets. His former Detroit Tiger teammate Frank Lary looked on from the Mets’ bullpen that day. Lary may not have been surprised at the pitching mastery shown by Bunning. He had seen it numerous times in their nine years together with the Tigers.