Thursday, May 17, 2007

Carlos Paula: The Accidental Pioneer

Second in a series commemorating the 60th anniversary of the falling of the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

It was Spring Training 1954 -- the now legendary Ernie Banks was called up by the Chicago Cubs the previous September, making it nine clubs integrated in the seven full seasons since Jackie Robinson's 1947 debut. Of the four easternmost clubs in the American League, the Red Sox, Yankees, Philadelphia Athletics, and Washington Senators, only the A's had fielded an African-American player. While the Red Sox were waiting for God-knows what and the Yankees needed the incredible talent of Elston Howard to join the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers in the 20th Century, the Senators had what some would consider a legitimate "excuse."

You see, for nearly a generation, the Senators had been fielding players with a skin color not unlike present-day Twins pitcher Johan Santana or even outfielder Torii Hunter. Roberto "Bobby" Estalella, who wore a Senators uniform in 1933, for example, was a man of evident African features, who in Cuba might be referred to in slang as "jabao," which was loosely used to describe a light skinned person with some African ancestry, although in Cuba, "jabao" is not a pejorative or derogatory term. By listing the player as Cuban and acknowledging his limited English language skills, Clark Griffith satisfied the powers that be in Major League Baseball that he was not fielding a "Negro," for whom the door to the promised land remained closed.

While the registration of Estalella, who many cite as the first player of color to play in the majors, took some creativity on Griffith's part, it's clear that Clark was not prepared to be the first to challenge Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis' unwritten but iron-clad race barrier. To that end, there are reports that Griffith met with Negro Leagues' legend Josh Gibson, whose Homestead Grays played at least part of their home schedule in Washington, promising Gibson only that he would offer him a contract once someone else broke the barrier. By the time Jackie Robinson came around, Gibson had already died at the too-young age of 35.

So, on a team renowned by that point for fielding Caribbean (primarily Cuban) players, we are brought back to Spring Training 1954 for Washington's preparation to field an "official" black player in an American League game. His name was Angel Scull. Scull, a member of Cuba's Sports Hall of Fame, even appeared on a 1954 Topps' baseball card wearing the Senators' uniform. Fate denied Scull his chance at the majors however, as an ankle injury suffered at Washington's (and later Minnesota's) Orlando spring training facility prematurely ended his career. Without any other black players ready to seize a job with the Senators, the Pirates, Cardinals, and Reds joined the nine other clubs before them in beating Washington to the punch.

Still, 1954 was not without momentous moments for the Senators' franchise. Camilo Pascual made the team out of Spring Training on his way to a 174-win, 15 year career with the Senators and Twins that saw him make five all-star appearances. In mid-July, only one-month out of high school, future Hall-of-Famer Harmon Killebrew made his big league debut with the Senators as a result of the Majors' new bonus rule requiring signings of over $4,000 to go directly to the big leagues and remain on the roster for a minimum of two years. Finally, Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky, a man who spent 68 years in the game as player and manager and whom Fenway's right field foul pole is named, took his last major league at bat as a member of the Senators in September.

And finally, amid another losing season for the "first in peace, first in war, last in the American League" Senators, one September call-up is forever memorialized as breaking Washington's color barrier. In this highly segregated city with one of the nation's largest and proudest African-American communities, it was yet another Cuban, 26-year old veteran Carlos Paula, who swung the bat on September 6, 1954 and got into nine further games that month. Paula was, not surprisingly, a product of famed Senators' and Twins' scout Joseph "Papa Joe" Cambria, famous for signing some 400 Cuban ballplayers. Unfortunately for Cambria, Paula may not have been one of his best -- while he tied for the league lead the next year with seven triples, Washington baseball historian Phil Wood recalls stories of his defensive ineptness in the outfield being the stuff of legend. In fact, while he ended up just one hit short of .300 in 1955 and posted a respectable .779 OPS, he committed a remarkable 10 errors in the outfield. As a point of perspective, his .950 career fielding percentage stands some twenty points lower than that of current outfielders Chris Duncan of the Cardinals and Manny Ramirez of the Red Sox, regarded by many as some of the worst fielding outfielders in the game.

By 1956, Paula was out of baseball and it took another year until former Dodger pitcher Joe Black was brought in on an flyer by manager (and former Dodger coach) Cookie Lavagetto to become the Senators' first African-American player. Arguably, the team didn't have a black "star" player until its move to Bloomington and the likes of Tony Oliva in the mid-60's and Rod Carew in the early 70's.

While fanfare surrounded many of the barrier-breaking entries into baseball, such as with Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, and Ernie Banks, the Senators' penchant for Cuban talent resulted in a barrier-breaker whose impact on the game didn't last much longer than the decade in which he played. Nonetheless, while Carlos Paula's story is not terribly well-documented, one can be sure his personal journey had its share of difficult moments. Washington, D.C. is, after all, a city which still suffers from the incredible disparity between the fortunes of its white and black citizens. When Paula made his debut in Griffith Park, a stadium situated very near to that economic boundary on Georgia Avenue and W Street in Northwest Washington, he might well have been made to understand his place or lack thereof. Or maybe, we can hope, he was cheered as much then as when he broke up Whitey Ford's no-hitter a year later. Or as much as the franchise's most famous black player, Kirby Puckett, was on countless occasions from the Metrodome to Cooperstown. After all -- whether or not history chooses to discuss his legacy in any depth -- he was still the Twins' first black player, something no one else will ever be able to say.

Cory Caouette thanks baseball historian Phil Wood for teaching him about the Twins' early days in Washington. Next month: Minnesota's own black baseball pioneers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice article! I suppose history should be paid attension to or at least I believe it should. However I think we loose track of the great strides America has made with race relations in the the last 60 years.

I was born in 1952 and went to school with black kids from day one for the simple reason that our county was too cheap to pay for for two school systems. The black schools were closed when I was about 4 or 5. I suspect the black teachers got shafted. This was in southwest Virgina.

Later on I lived in Alabama and when I was in the 9th grade attended the first integrated class at Auburn High School. Frankly it wasn't a big deal by then.

I married late in life and have a 15 year son. He has learned about the civil rights movement in school but he doesn't really get it. It was the WW2 generation that opened the doors for integration and then my generation. He's actually the 4th generation in an integrated America.

I often think we older folks should keep ours mouth shut and look to the future. I believe the kids and young adults comming up today will wipe out racism because they just don't understand what it is.

A good story is a nice reminder though.