Wednesday February 14, 2018
Who's Who (and White) in Baseball?
I suppose this is less trivia question than history lesson. But it's still a trivia question.
About a year ago I bought a copy of the book, “100 Years of Who's Who in Baseball,” a compendium of the annual baseball magazine's covers from 1916 to 2015—with the cover of the very first issue, a one-off in 1912, tossed in. The only cover missing is the final one in 2016, featuring Bryce Harper. The magazine stopped publishing after that.
For the kids: “Who's Who...” had a distinctive red cover and included the relevant stats of every active Major Leaguer. I think I bought it every year between 1971 and 1975 when there wasn't much else to go on, and when its appearance, like the appearance of baseball cards, signaled spring was finally here.
Those “relevant stats” are interesting, by the way. The very first issue in 1912 included only three: games, batting average, and (of all things) fielding average. By 1928, according to Marty Appel in his foreword to the book, readers could peruse six stats: games, at-bats, runs, hits, stolen bases and batting average. Appel writes: “The readers would know that Babe [Ruth] had seven stolen bases in 1927, but not 60 home runs. Crazy.” Home runs were finally added in 1940.
Flipping through the book, I began to notice something odd, and it led to this trivia question.
Who was the first African-American/person of color on the cover of “Who's Who in Baseball”? And in what year?
The answer has several gradations, which I‘ll get to by and by.
Since the cover of “Who’s Who...” featured a dynamic player from the previous season, the first year an African-American could have been on the cover was 1948—the year after Jackie Robinson's debut. He wouldn't have been a bad choice, either: Rookie of the Year, fifth in MVP voting, changed the game forever. But not to be. WWIB opted for another good choice, “The Home Run Twins of 1947,” Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize, both of whom hit 51.
Year to year, cover subjects often switched leagues, since you didn't want one league dominating too much. For the ‘49 cover, for example, WWIB went with 1948 AL MVP winner Lou Boudreau. And if they’d switched back to the NL for the following year, Jackie Robinson, again, wouldn't have been a bad choice. He won the 1949 NL MVP, hitting .342 and slugging .528, while leading the league in stolen bases (37). By modern metrics, too, he was the best player in baseball, with a 9.6 WAR. But he didn't make the cover. (Jackie never made the cover.) Instead, WWIB stayed in the AL. It didn't highlight the AL MVP winner, either, Ted Williams (.343/.490/.650), who'd graced the cover back in ‘43, but his teammate, pitcher Mel Parnel, who went 25-7 with a 2.77 ERA. I guess they didn’t want to double up on Ted. Plus you gotta get pitchers in the mix, too.
Next year, another pitcher: NL MVP Jim Konstanty of the Phillies. The year after, they skipped over the NL MVP (Roy Campanella) for Stan Musial, who'd finished second in MVP voting, and who'd already been on the cover in ‘44. He’d certainly had a great season (.355/.449/.614), but you can begin to see a pattern emerging.
For the ‘53 cover, apparently someone on the WWIB staff thought, “Hey, why not both MVPs?” So it was done: A’s pitcher Bobby Shantz (24-7, 2.48 ERA) and Cubs slugger Hank Sauer (37 HRs, 121 RBIs). That idea (both MVPs) lasted but a year. For the ‘53 season, Al Rosen won the AL MVP, and Roy Campanella (again) the NL, and WWIB opted for ... just Rosen.
But it’s the next year that blows the lid off things. They'd just featured Rosen so the likely cover would be a National Leaguer. Maybe even the NL MVP, Willie Mays, who'd just had a season for the ages. He led the league in hitting, slugging, OPS and triples. He went .345/.411/.667. His WAR was 10.6. Plus there was that World Series catch, now known simply as “The Catch.” But they didn't choose Willie. Of course not. They didn't go AL, either. They stayed in the NL. In fact, they stayed on the same team. The ‘55 cover was Willie’s teammate, Al Dark, who hit a respectable .293/.325/.446, and finished fifth in the MVP voting. But he didn't exactly have a season for the ages.
By now the pattern has fully emerged.
I‘ll cut to the chase. Here is a list of NL MVPs from 1949 to 1963, along with the following year’s “Who's Who” cover choice. I‘ve highlighted the African-American players:
|YEAR||NL MVP||WWIB cover||Why?|
|1949||Jackie Robinson||Mel Parnell||Leader in W, ERA, IP|
|1950||Phil Konstanty||Phil Konstanty||NL MVP|
|1951||Roy Campanella||Stan Musial (2)||2nd in NL MVP|
|1952||Hank Sauer||Hank Sauer/Bobby Shantz||NL/AL MVP|
|1953||Roy Campanella||Al Rosen||AL MVP|
|1954||Willie Mays||Al Dark||5th in NL MVP|
|1955||Roy Campanella||Duke Snider||2nd in NL MVP|
|1956||Don Newcombe||Mickey Mantle||AL MVP|
|1957||Hank Aaron||Warren Spahn||MLB Cy Young|
|1958||Ernie Banks||Bob Turley||MLB Cy Young|
|1959||Ernie Banks||Don Drysdale||??|
|1960||Dick Groat||Roger Maris||AL MVP|
|1961||Frank Robinson||Whitey Ford||MLB Cy Young|
|1962||Maury Wills||Don Drysdale (2)||MLB Cy Young|
|1963||Sandy Koufax||Sandy Koufax||NL MVP/Cy Young|
In 15 years, 11 black players were voted NL MVP, and none of them wound up on the cover. In that same time, four white players were voted NL MVP and three of them wound up on the cover. Only Dick Groat, among white players, got the scroogie. Welcome to the party, pal.
The second half of that above list is particularly odd. Six pitchers in seven years? And four Dodgers and four Yankees in nine years? The Yanks, of course, were one of the last teams to integrate. The Dodgers had been the first, but somehow WWIB kept missing its black stars (Robinson, Campanella, Newcombe, Wills) but not the white (Snider, Drysdale, Koufax).
But at least we’re getting around to the answer to the trivia question. Or an answer. For the ‘64 season, Brooks Robinson won the AL MVP and Ken Boyer won the NL. And “Who’s Who” went with ... Ken Boyer.
No, Boyer wasn't black. But this was the first year that WWIB, along with its “in action” shot, included several headshots along the side of the cover. And in the ‘65 issue, those headshots included Larry Jackson (2nd in MLB Cy Young voting), Joe Torre (5th in NL MVP voting), Juan Marichal (15th in NL MVP voting) and Tony Oliva (AL batting champion/Rookie of the Year).
So that’s your answer. Tony Oliva and Juan Marichal in 1965 were the first people of color on the cover of “Who's Who in Baseball.”
At the same time, it's a bit of a cheat, isn't it? Since they‘re not the main cover subject? So that’s the follow-up: When did WWIB first feature an African-American/person of color as its main cover subject?
1966? Willie Mays had another season for the ages in ‘65, hitting .317 with 52 homers while leading the league OBP, SLG, OPS, TB, and winning his ninth Gold Glove and his second NL MVP. And he did make the cover—finally. But it’s a headshot. The bigger, dominant headshot belongs to Sandy Koufax.
1967? Frank Robinson won the ‘66 AL triple crown, and he’s one of four equal-sized headshots on the cover, sharing space with Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax and Jim Kaat. But he's not the feature.
The ‘67 season was all about Yaz, and WWIB made their cover all about him, too. There’s no one else on it.
And if ‘67 makes you think of Yaz, ’68 surely makes you think of Bob Gibson. And, along with Yaz and Pete Rose, he is one of three headshots on the cover. But the big “in action” shot belongs to 30-game winner Denny McLain.
Tom Seaver on the ‘70 cover makes sense, as does Johnny Bench on the ’71 cover. But ‘72? Gotta be Vida Blue, right? Dude won the 1971 AL Cy Young and MVP. He made the cover of Time magazine. He was the talk of baseball. But he’s just the headshot. The dominating photo belongs to NL MVP Joe Torre.
I‘ll cut to the chase for the second time. After ’73 (Steve Carlton) and ‘74 (Nolan Ryan), “Who’s Who in Baseball,” in 1975, finally made a person of color their main cover image. The irony is that this is one of the few seasons during these decades when no person of color won the MVP (Jeff Burroughs, Steve Garvey) or Cy Young award (Catfish Hunter and Mike Marshall). But this player performed a big feat in ‘74. He broke a record.
Not Hank Aaron. Yes, Aaron broke the most hallowed record in baseball in ’74, Babe Ruth's 714 homeruns, but he didn't make the cover. (He never made the cover—not even as a headshot.) The ‘75 cover belonged to Lou Brock, who stole 118 bases in ’74. And that's the answer to the second part of our question. The first African-American to be the featured cover subject on “Who's Who in Baseball” is Lou Brock in 1975—nearly three decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
As I said, this was both trivia question and history lesson. But the history is American rather than baseball; and the answer isn't exactly trivial.