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On the Cardinals: No regrets, no bitterness for Negro Leaguer

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 20, 2009 - Last Wednesday, as Major League Baseball remembered the 62nd anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, Sam Taylor watched several of the celebrations on television from his Centreville, Ill., home.

Taylor is one of a vanishing number of Americans. He is a former player in the Negro Leagues. His mind is clear, his voice is strong and his love for his former teammates remains steadfast.

So does his respect for Robinson.

“It meant everything to me,” Taylor said of Robinson’s historic first game.

“It meant that I could make it in the big leagues. If Jackie could do it, I could do it, too.”

Taylor played for the all-black East St. Louis Colts as the war-torn 1940s became the 1950s.

Taylor and hundreds of other black men were denied the chance to play Major League Baseball solely because of the color of their skin. They had the skill to not only make MLB teams, but also be stars.

Some living Negro Leaguers remain bitter and many died with a grudge that I can’t blame them for carrying to their grave.

But not Taylor. Here’s a reason why.

“I could have been the St. Louis Cardinals’ first black player. It was 1951. They had a contract ready for me to sign and a uniform ready for me to wear,” he told me this week.

“But my wife, Dorothy, was afraid. She was so worried,” Taylor explained. Taylor, whose story I believe, said the stage was set for him to make St. Louis baseball history.

“I got a letter inviting me to a try-out camp. I thought it was joke. But I went,” he said.

When he arrived, he was utterly surprised to learn that several scouts and members of the Cards’ front office knew of his talent. After the workout, he said Redbirds’ reps told him they had good news and bad.

The bad news was that no Cardinals’ minor league team would take a black player. The good news was that the team was going to sign him to the big-league roster. “The Cardinals had put us up in a hotel, and the next day I was going to sign the contract. But I couldn’t stand to see my wife crying. She was so worried. We knew what Jackie went through. She was so scared.”

Taylor knew that he would also face racism in his own clubhouse, not just from the stands.

When the Cardinals acquired Tom Alston in a trade in 1954, the team became integrated seven years after Robinson took the field. In 1951, there were still members of the 1947 Cardinals on the team. During that epic ’47 season, some members of the Cardinals not only were ready to strike in rebellion against Robinson they were enlisting other players in the National League to do the same.

With the Cardinals in New York, a showdown was imminent.

Stanley Woodard of the New York Tribune witnessed what happened in the Hotel New Yorker.

He wrote that National League President Ford Frick and Cards’ executive Sam Breadon met with players and quoted Frick as saying, "If you do this you will be suspended from the league. You will find that the friends you think you have in the press box will not support you, that you will be outcasts. I do not care if half the league strikes. Those who do it will encounter quick retribution. All will be suspended and I don't care if it wrecks the National League for five years. This is the United States of America and one citizen has as much right play as another. The National League will go down the line with Robinson whatever the consequences. You will find if you go through with your intention that you have been guilty of complete madness.”

This atmosphere certainly still existed in 1951 as Taylor walked away from his chance at being a Cardinal.

“I’ll always remember that Stan Musial and Joe Garagiola came and shook my hand and said that there were only a few players that didn’t want me on the team. And they said they weren’t in that (group),” Taylor said. “They also said my wife would change her mind once that money started coming in.”

But Taylor took another path. After passing on the Cards’ offer, Taylor joined the famed Kansas City Monarchs. When his playing days ended, Taylor returned to a job he held at a Metro East chemical plant.

With Robinson entering the National League and Larry Doby joining the Cleveland Indians a few weeks later, the Negro Leagues were on the path to obsolescence. As the number of black players in Major League Baseball increased, the number of black leagues quickly declined.

By the mid 1960s, the Cardinals had one of the “blackest” teams in baseball. Many teams had multiple African-American stars and saw them lead franchises to World Series titles.

Now Taylor looks at the game and sees fewer black players.

“That needs to change,” he said.

Taylor has been honored along with many other living Negro Leaguers by the Chicago White Sox for the past three years, and Cards’ front office member Ted Savage invited him to a Jackie Robinson ceremony two seasons ago.

“The White Sox got us together to sign autographs and talk to (African-American) kids about baseball. I encouraged them to play because we were being phased out. I told them we need them and are depending on them to pick it up,” Taylor said. “We spoke to more than 500 kids. It was a heck of an enjoyment.”

Taylor and other Negro Leaguers were also recognized on the field before the game, something I think the Cardinals should do each season.

In fact, wouldn’t the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis be a great time to showcase every living Negro League Player?

Taylor said he enjoys being honored, but it is more important for him to be remembered as a good father and husband.

“I know I could have made it. But I don’t regret turning the Cardinals down,” he said.

He did get something from the Cards, though, in appreciation of his almost signing. “They said my wife and I would be a guest of the Cardinals when we came to a game. We always sat in the bleachers. We could sit anywhere, but we liked the bleachers,” he said.

If only today’s stars were so humble.

Alvin A. Reid is a weekend host on the new ESPN 101.1 FM. His weekly Major League Baseball - St. Louis Cardinals column, which is now published on The Beacon website, was honored by the Missouri PressAssociation as Best Sports Column in 2004 and 1999. He is co-author of the book, "Whitey's Boys: A Celebration of the 1982 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals" and was a member of the inaugural staff of USA TODAY Baseball Weekly. 

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