The Forgotten Men Who Broke Baseball's Color Line With Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson played alongside a pair of former Negro League pitchers in the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system, but the team—and baseball—never really gave them a chance.

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Apr 15 2015, 7:50pm

Photo via Baseball HoF

On March 4, 1946, Jackie Robinson took the field for the first time as a Montreal Royal. He talked to reporters, joked about his weight, and took practice swings. Robinson was the story, but he was not the only black player on the field. There was also John Wright, a lean right-handed pitcher who spent the day throwing batting practice and playing pepper. As he would be throughout spring training, Wright was in the background.

For the next few months, Wright would travel with Robinson, play with him, room with him, and endure every abuse Jim Crow threw their way. The night a white man came to Robinson's boarding house to announce, "We want the niggers out of town," Wright and Robinson left town in the same car. It was the first step on a journey that would take one man to stardom, and the other to obscurity.

Wright was a former ace for the Homestead Grays, the greatest team in the Negro Leagues. When he is remembered, it is as Jackie Robinson's roommate, the scrub brought in to take the pressure off Branch Rickey's chosen crusader. Along with Roy Partlow, another former Gray, Wright was one of the men who broke baseball's color line. Both were pitchers, and both had been stars. They were more than Robinson's roommates, and more than the footnotes they've become.

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The 1943 Negro League World Series was a sloppy affair. In an attempt to compete with the Grays juggernaut, the Birmingham Black Barons took on players from other teams—a violation of league rules that went unpunished. On the eve of the deciding game, the series was moved from New Orleans to Montgomery, to accommodate Birmingham players who had just been ordered to report to their draft boards. Only 4,000 people were in the stands to watch the Grays claim their title.

"The entire promotion of the World Series was a farce," wrote Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith. "Negro baseball's last and most potent kick in the pants—with the public on the receiving end."

An outspoken crusader for integration, Smith concluded his column with a warning: "If Negro baseball doesn't soon elect a commissioner and clean up its filthy house, it will kill the goose that laid the golden egg."

Despite the slapdash nature of the series, John Wright emerged as its star. On a team of sluggers—including Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell—Wright was the ace, a control pitcher with a sinister curve. His sinker, said Baltimore Afro-American sports editor Sam Lacy, "has been the despair of opposing batsmen." He won between 25 and 30 games for the Grays that year—sources disagree, as is often the case where Negro League stats are concerned—and lost only four. He pitched four games in the '43 series, including two shutouts. His pitching, Smith wrote, "was gilt-edged."

Way more Hall of Famers than future big leaguers in this photo. Way to be, 1940's. Photo Courtesy of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Tall and thin, with sharp features that had earned him the nickname "Needle Nose," Wright was well-liked by his peers but wary of the spotlight. Born in New Orleans, he had been pitching professionally since 1936, and was 25 when he led the Grays to the championship. In 1944, he joined the Navy, and went on to rack up the best ERA, according to Lacy, of any pitcher in the armed forces. He continued pitching for the Grays whenever he could, working under an assumed name to avoid reprimand from the Navy and the league.

In October of 1945, Dodgers coach Chuck Dressen organized a team of white all-stars to play five games against their Negro League counterparts. On a Sunday afternoon, in the second game of a double header, Wright took the mound at Ebbets Field. He pitched five scoreless innings, flustering Dressen's all-stars until the game was called on account of darkness. It was the only game of the series that Dressen's team did not win. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle identified the talented young pitcher as "Leroy Leafwich," but his name was Johnny Wright.

"My greatest thrill?" he said after he had been signed by the Royals. "It was in Ebbets Field."

In 1946, Wright would get the chance, as Smith put it, "to crash the hitherto lily-white ranks of organized baseball," and return to Ebbets wearing Dodger blue.

Whether named Leafwich or Wright, Dressen was impressed by the man who shut him out, and he made sure Branch Rickey knew about it. When the Royals (a farm club of the Dodgers) signed Wright in January, 1946, the white press gave the transaction far less attention than they had Robinson two months prior. The New York Times reprinted two short AP wire stories, and the ever-conservative Sporting News declared that Wright was there only to keep Robinson from "becoming homesick with none of his race around."

The Daily Eagle took the signing more seriously, writing: "As it develops, the second colored player is a real prospect, too. A righthander of considerable experience in Negro baseball. He turned in some tasty pitching performances as a member of coast guard teams."

The Courier printed a large picture of the new Montreal Royal, surrounded by his wife and family, celebrating the signing at their home in New Orleans' Lafitte Housing Project. Although known for being shy, even withdrawn, Wright was ready to be a pioneer. "I am a Southerner," he said. "I have always lived in the South, so I know what's coming. I have been black for 27 years and I will remain like that for a long time."

The only person affiliated with black baseball who did not cheer on the signing was Cum Posey, owner of the Homestead Grays, who was incensed that Rickey had not compensated him for taking his player. "Why, that dirty so-and-so," Posey told Sam Lacy in a profanity-rich interview that had to be "toned down considerably to meet journalistic standards."

"Let him go. He isn't going to amount to much. They'll run him to death up there. He doesn't know how to keep men on bases, he won't watch 'em. And on fielding bunts! Holy Mackerel, he's terrible. We worked overtime on him trying to make him learn the art but he just never was able to catch on. Besides, he throws too slow after he fields the ball. Oh, he'll have a tough ride, Sam, take it from me."

Better than anyone ever got to see. Photo Courtesy of Baseball Hall of Fame

John Wright made his spring training debut on March 23, 1946, with baseball commissioner Happy Chandler watching from the stands. It was a bad day. Wright's curve was flat, and he couldn't locate his pitches. In less than five innings, he gave up ten hits and eight runs.

"I just didn't have it," said Wright in the locker room afterwards. "My stuff wasn't working. I'll get another shot at them and you can bet I'll do much better."

"Oh, well, maybe he'll have better luck next time," said Chandler. Rickey was less forgiving.

"He's 28 years old and the Royals have twelve pitchers. If Wright can't make the Montreal staff he will be released."

That spring was tense for Lacy and Smith, who continued to cover the team. They watched as town after town forbade Robinson and Wright from playing there. They watched the game in Deland, Florida, where the chief of police came onto the field after two innings to eject the black players from the ballpark. Every time Wright pitched, every time Robinson stepped to the plate, the reporters felt the pressure.

"I felt a lump in my throat each time a ball was hit in [Robinson's] direction," wrote Lacy. "I experienced a sort of emptiness in the bottom of my stomach whenever he took a swing in batting practice. I was constantly in fear of his muffing an easy roller... And I uttered a silent prayer of thanks as, with closed eyes, I heard the whack of Robinson's bat against the ball."

He did not hear it often. Plagued by a sore shoulder, Robinson could hardly lift his arm, and he hit little during spring training. As March wore on, a dark whisper went around the press box: he was starting to look like a bust.

"Mr. Rickey has played up infielder Jackie Robinson," wrote Montreal Gazette columnist Dink Carroll, "but pitcher John Wright is the better prospect of the two colored boys."

"Wright, too, is doing a fine job of pioneering," Lacy wrote. "Like Jackie, he has asked nothing from the other men on the squad. He has taken his grueling running chores without a whimper, has worked seemingly endless sessions of covering first base from the pitching mound. He has chased bunts and sweated flies in the outfield, all with a zeal and determination that sooner or later must pay dividends."

Zeal and determination aside, Wright continued to be, in Smith's words, "wilder than an Egyptian zebra." Perhaps it was nerves, or ordinary pre-season rust. Perhaps the pressure was getting to him. Robinson thought Wright was trying too hard.

"Every time he stepped out there, he seemed to lose that fineness and he tried a little bit harder than he was capable of playing," Robinson later said, in Robert W. Peterson's Only The Ball Was White.

"Johnny was not like Jackie," wrote Monte Irvin in his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish First. "He was kind of timid, and you could hurt John's feelings. He would go into a shell and not pitch as well as he could."

"I got this far by plugging," Wright had said when he was signed in January, "and I expect to keep on punching. That's all it takes."

Only one of these dudes ever got a chance, but both got to rock these fly satin uniforms. Image via UniWatch

It was enough. When the Royals broke camp, Wright was on the train to New York. On April 18, Robinson made his legendary debut, going 4-for-5 with a home run and two stolen bases. In the dugout, Wright cheered him on.

If the pressure was getting to him, the press did not report it. Lacy and Smith were determined to paint their pioneers in the best light possible. In the past, they had never held back from criticizing black players, but the stakes were now too high. Although exhaustingly detailed—keeping readers updated on everything from Wright's new $14 glove to the magazine he read on the plane to Montreal—their reporting shied away from what was happening inside his head.

In the second Royals game at Jersey City, Wright pitched in relief, giving up four runs in less than four innings. It was a week before he took the mound again, when manager Clay Hopper gave him the ball during a blowout to the Baltimore Orioles. Entering the game with the bases loaded, Wright escaped the inning and no-hit the Orioles the rest of the way.

"Johnny Wright is apparently finding himself," wrote Smith. "His excellent relief job last Saturday night means that he is about ready for 'heavy duty' and in all probability the lean right-hander from New Orleans will get the call from Manager Hopper regular now."

He didn't. Every game, fans came to watch him, and every game he warmed up, but Wright never made it to the mound. Comparing his patience to Job's, Smith called his disuse "the big mystery of the Montreal team." Asked why he wasn't getting any work, Hopper would only say, "Johnny's not ready yet."

Robinson was famous for being able to take his anger out on the ball. When a pitcher tries that, he loses control. Used to starting games two or three times a week, Wright spent most of his time as a Royal on the bench, and never had a chance to find his rhythm. And while Jackie had Rachel Robinson by his side, Wright's family was back in New Orleans. He was more alone than Jackie Robinson, facing the same pressures, without Robinson's sublime talent to silence his critics. "Modest and inconspicuous," Smith wrote, "Wright has been more or less lost in the shadows."

On May 22, the Royals reassigned Wright to their Class-C team in Three Rivers. According to Smith, he "never showed an inkling of resentment or jealousy."

"John had all the ability in the world," said Robinson. "But John couldn't stand the pressure of going up into this new league and being one of the first."

"Wright did not have the chance many of us hoped he would have, nor did he prove any ball of fire when opportunity did present itself," wrote Sam Lacy.

As always, Lacy was quick to pivot from bad news to good. To replace Wright, the Royals had signed Roy Partlow, who had led the Negro Leagues in strikeouts in 1945. He was a lefty, with a hot fastball, and he was anything but shy.

On June 18, 1942, Satchel Paige was doubled over with stomach cramps in the locker room of Griffith Stadium, but he refused to see a doctor. 28,000 people had come to watch his Kansas City Monarchs take on the Grays, and Paige would not disappoint.

"Do you see all those people out there?" he said, according to the Washington Times-Herald. "Lot of them came out to see Satch pitch, and Satch has gotta pitch."

In the third inning, Paige vomited on the mound, and his teammates crowded around to block the sight from the crowd. He downed some antacids and went back to work. For five innings, the Grays "were handled like babies."

"He threw his famous fast one," wrote Smith in the Courier, "made his curve ball break like he wanted and where he wanted it to break, introduced his 'wobbly drop' and called his shots almost every time."

But as good as Paige was, Roy Partlow was better. For nine innings, he kept the Monarchs off the board, finally surrendering a single run in the top of the tenth. His teammates tied it in the bottom of the inning, and Partlow came to bat with one out and a man on first. The Monarchs' relief pitcher, Hall of Famer Hilton Smith, tried to beat Partlow with a slow curve, and didn't. Partlow hit it 405 feet into the left-field corner, securing his own win with a triple. As Brad Snyder writes in Beyond the Shadow of the Senators, it was the game that established the Grays as Washington's favorite team. For the next few years, they outdrew the Senators in their own stadium.

"It took the mob fully twenty minutes to stop shrieking and screaming," wrote Ric Roberts in the Afro-American. "Partlow, the hero, was carried off the field on the shoulders of a hundred admirers....[It was] the most beautifully contested baseball game ever seen on Griffith Stadium sod. It was simply terrific."

"Gosh, we had that game won," said Paige the next morning over ham and eggs. "Every one of those 28,000 fans was sure we were in."

Like Wright, Partlow was a southerner. Although the Dodgers announced his age as 30, he was 36 when signed in 1946, and a veteran of more than a decade in the Negro Leagues. His zig-zagging career path was typical of the era: a few years with the Grays, a few with the Philadelphia Stars, with stints in Latin America in between. Where Wright was withdrawn, Partlow was a showman, prone to moody outbursts.

"There's no man I can think of who had better stuff than Roy Partlow," said Don Newcombe, "when he wanted to pitch."

In Montreal, Partlow found himself glued to the bench. He pitched occasional relief innings before getting his first win, a five-hitter against the Jersey City Giants on June 24. "My colored boy looked pretty good last night," said Hopper. "He has been a little nervous. Now he seems to have overcome it. I figure he can be a regular starter now."

In his next start, Partlow was chased in the second inning. Four days later, he got knocked out in the third.

"Partlow has a great fastball," Hopper said, "but lacks control on his curve."

When he was told to report to Three Rivers, Partlow deserted the Royals, and reappeared two days later in Brooklyn, demanding an audience with Rickey. There is no record of what Rickey told him that day—perhaps he reminded him that breaking his contract would lead to blacklisting—but Partlow accepted the demotion and arrived at Three Rivers at the end of July. Wendell Smith devoted his entire column that week to blasting Partlow for not taking his demotion with the grace shown by Wright.

"It looks as though Partlow has turned out to be an eccentric 'prima donna' and a problem child of no small means," he wrote. "He needs to think about those 14 million Negroes from coast to coast who are pulling for him to make good in white organized baseball... and less about himself."

On one day, everyone's Jackie Robinson. The rest of the time, we're Johnny Wright. Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY

"Both Wright and Partlow are promising," Rickey told the press. "Against colored competition they are both cracker jack pitchers, but from all appearances they suffer a terrific inferiority complex when they are facing white boys." Whether Wright and Partlow actually felt inferior is unknown. None of the reporters, black or white, ever bothered to ask them.

An industrial town on the St. Lawrence River, Three Rivers was 70 miles north of Montreal and a galaxy from Ebbets Field. Partlow savaged the Class-C opposition, going 10-1 and hitting .404 in eleven games. Wright's first two months in Three Rivers had been mediocre, but he perked up when Partlow arrived, finishing the season 12-8. Three Rivers won the league championship, and Partlow was named tournament MVP.

The Three Rivers manager was Frenchy Bordagaray, who had taken over the club after a long career in Brooklyn. He forgave Partlow's ill-temper.

"I mean, here was a guy who had big league aspirations," he told Jules Tygiel, author of Baseball's Great Experiment. "My God, he was a big league ballplayer playing in C League. I was a big league ballplayer in a C League too."

"Pitched most of the year at Three Rivers, Quebec and had a swell time," Wright said after the season. "I would just like to get another chance at Montreal. I don't know just what I'll be doing next season, however. I haven't heard from Brooklyn yet and probably won't until after Christmas."

The call never came. Wright spent the winter barnstorming with Jackie Robinson in Latin America, and was released by the Dodgers in early 1947. He would never again pitch at Ebbets Field. Partlow was invited to spring training, but arrived late. There were rumors that he was holding out for a better contract. If that was true, he didn't get it. He was released at the end of March.

As the Negro Leagues died their slow death, Wright and Partlow bounced from team to team. After retiring, Partlow returned to Philadelphia, and spent the rest of his life working for the American Container Corp. Wright took a job as a porter in New Orleans, where he died in 1990. He rarely talked about the time he had a shot with the Dodgers.