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How The St. Louis Browns Integrated Major League Baseball In The Region

February 18, 2020 Ed Wheatley
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Jackie Robinson famously integrated Major League Baseball, taking the field for the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947. And the American League followed a few months later, when the Cleveland Indians put Larry Doby into the lineup.

But right behind Cleveland were the St. Louis Browns. Just 12 days later, the team played its first black player. And two days after that, the Browns became the first club to put two black players into a game when Willard Brown and Hank Thompson took the field. That milestone was all the more remarkable in light of this fact: It would take the St. Louis Cardinals another seven years to integrate. 

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, author Ed Wheatley explained what led the Browns to break the city’s Major League Baseball color barrier. 

“It’s really a compliment to Bill DeWitt Sr., who is the father of the current Cardinal owner,” Wheatley said. Then general manager of the Browns, DeWitt would soon assume the team’s ownership. “He was looking for the best players possible. Just as the Dodgers had looked to the Kansas City Monarchs, he looked at the Kansas City Monarchs.” 

DeWitt’s reason for hiring two Negro League players was simple, as his son Bill DeWitt Jr. later explained to Wheatley: He thought it would be easier for the two players not to be alone in an all-white ballclub.

DeWitt Jr. was a batboy for the Browns on the day the two players first took the field. Wheatley later talked to him about that historic day.

“He said, ‘I looked out and saw the two of them standing in left field, and I thought it was nice they had someone with each other, where they could talk,’” Wheatley recalled.

Neither Brown nor Thompson made it past a short tryout with the team, but Thompson went on to record a series of firsts while playing for the New York Giants. And in 1951, the Browns would ink another big Negro League star, the immortal Satchel Paige. 

Wheatley is president of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society and the author of “St. Louis Browns: Story of a Beloved Team.” His new book, “Baseball in St. Louis,” will be published April 1. 

Related Event

What: St. Louis and the Integration of Baseball

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020

Where: Maplewood Public Library (7550 Lohmeyer Ave., Maplewood, MO 63143)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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