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