Back in November I posted some work at the Hall of Merit on Negro Leaguers who went to Mexico in the mid-to-late 1940s, at the same time that Jorge Pasquel was raiding the white major leagues.
I’ll rehearse it briefly. With the help of a Mexican League database compiled by Eric Chalek from Pedro Treto Cisneros’s statistical encyclopedia, I found that of 68 Negro Leaguers who played in Mexico from 1945 to 1948, not a single one (to my knowledge) signed with an organized baseball team before Happy Chandler rescinded the ban on the major league jumpers in June 1949. Even when a large number of Negro Leaguers did not return to Mexico in the summer of 1948, not one of them signed with a major or minor league club. Instead, many played in Québec’s outlaw Ligue Provinciale, alongside some of the ineligible major league players.
There are two reasons for this. Most importantly, the Negro Leaguers who went to Mexico at this point—Ray Dandridge, Leon Day, Ray Brown, Booker McDaniels, etc.—were, with a couple of exceptions, older players. Younger black players stayed in the United States as the possibility of desegregation bloomed. But a second reason, I argue, is that black players in Mexico were, in effect, informally blacklisted by the major leagues.
I don’t have any direct proof of this. They were not placed on any formal ineligible list, and it may not have been the result of any kind of concerted action—thus the weasel words, “in effect.” Executives may just have been generally wary of signing these players. It might have seemed too provocative, against a backdrop of tension over racial integration, to ban whites for playing in Mexico, then turn around and sign black Americans who had played right alongside them in the outlaw league. Moreover, blacks who went to Mexico might simply have been regarded as too much trouble. Branch Rickey in particular was quite outspoken in his anger at the Mexican player raids, and it’s easy to imagine he wouldn’t have been well-disposed towards any player, black or white, who was assertive enough to jump his club and league.
And perhaps most importantly, several of the white players who’d been banned, (including Sal Maglie, Max Lanier, Fred Martin, and Danny Gardella) had taken legal action against the majors, challenging the reserve clause. There was an ongoing effort to persuade these players to drop their cases. One of the jumpers, Mickey Owen, became organized baseball’s point man in trying to win them over. And Owen was, by all accounts, one white player in Mexico who had trouble adjusting to the presence of black players, whether American or not. Most famously, he was involved in a brawl with the black Cuban outfielder Claro Duany on July 25, 1946. (It is said that in later years Owen regretted his problems with black players.)
As part of the effort to get the lawsuits dropped, Happy Chandler finally rescinded the ban on major league players on June 5, 1949. That very week Ray Dandridge became the first of the Negro League Mexican Leaguers to sign with an organized baseball club, Minneapolis of the American Association (I don’t have an exact date, but his signing was reported in the Chicago Defender on June 11, 1949).
As I said, generally speaking the Negro Leaguers who went to Mexico during these years were older. On the other hand, fully twelve of them, when they did join organized baseball, moved directly to the topmost level of the minors, at pretty advanced ages:
Ray Dandridge – 1949 (36 years old; Minneapolis, AA)
Art Pennington – 1949 (26; Portland, PCL)
Booker McDaniels – 1949 (37; Los Angeles, PCL)
Bus Clarkson – 1950 (35; Milwaukee, AA)
Marvin Williams – 1950 (27; Sacramento, PCL)
Leon Day – 1951 (34; Toronto, IL)
Héctor Rodríguez – 1951 (31; Montreal, IL)
Bonnie Serrell – 1951 (29; San Francisco, PCL)
Pedro Formental – 1952 (39; Havana, IL)
Theolic Smith – 1952 (38; San Diego, PCL)
Lonnie Summers – 1952 (36; San Diego, PCL)
Jesse Williams – 1952 (39; Vancouver, PCL)
As a group, I would tend to think that in their primes, these were major-league quality players. Certainly they would have been collectively better in 1947-48 than they were when actually signed by these AAA clubs. Only two ever played in the major leagues: Héctor Rodríguez (a Cuban) and Bus Clarkson, both in 1952.
This is still just a hypothesis, really. I just wanted to give it another airing to see what people think. Even if it did happen, it was probably only a minor factor in the failure of some players to make the majors. I do think it could have been important in the cases of Bus Clarkson (who was scouted by the Dodgers in 1946 along with Doby and Irvin, but skipped to Mexico soon after) and Ray Dandridge, who was famously never called up by the Giants. In fact, Stew Thornley, an expert on the Minneapolis Millers, has noted that “[t]here was speculation that [Dandridge’s] chances were hurt because of his involvement in the Mexican League.”
One man who might have something to say about the whole issue is Art Pennington, one of the younger players who would have been affected by this (possible) informal ban (though he has probably got his mind on other matters at the moment).
UPDATE 3:19 p.m. John Virtue’s recent book, South of the Color Barrier: How Jorge Pasquel and the Mexican League Pushed Baseball Toward Racial Integration, doesn’t mention the possibility of Mexican League involvement actually hurting the careers of specific Negro Leaguers in organized baseball.
UPDATE 7/10/2008 Three additional points/clarifications: 1) I’m only talking about Negro Leaguers who played in the Mexican League in 1946-48, alongside or against the players who jumped from the majors. (I also extended the study back a year, to 1945.) 2) The Negro Leagues themselves also slapped five-year bans on players who jumped to Mexico, though this appears to have been unevenly enforced. At any rate I’m certain it played no role in the decisions of major league teams about signing or not signing these players. 3) Branch Rickey, it should be noted, both deplored the actions of Pasquel and the Mexican League in raiding the majors and refused to compensate Negro League teams for their players.