Over the weekend, The Times ran a piece on Willie Mays and the Yankees by John Klima, an author. Klima’s most recent book is entitled Willie’s Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, The Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend, and Klima is a member of both the BBWAA and the Society for American Baseball Research.
Klima’s piece on Sunday explored how the Yankees passed on Willie Mays:
Black Barons visited the Brooklyn Bushwicks, a white semiprofessional team whose general manager, Joe Press, was a part-time scout for the Yankees. Press booked Negro leagues teams like the Black Barons to play the Bushwicks and had a feel for the talent available. He liked Piper Davis, Birmingham’s second baseman, but he loved center fielder Willie Mays.
Press pleaded with Paul Krichell, the Yankees’ head scout, to see Mays. In a letter to Krichell, Press raved about players but expressed dismay that the Yankees had chosen to ignore black prospects. “You could have had practically all of them, just for the asking,” Press wrote, naming several players, including Davis and Mays.
When the Black Barons returned to play the Cubans at the Polo Grounds on June 11, 1950, the Yankees sent a scout, Bill McCorry, but again decided to not pursue Mays, who signed with the Giants nine days later.
The Yankees, as Klima writes, weren’t too serious about integration. They were signing old players from the Negro Leagues who would never see the light of the Bronx. It was not until the team saw the impact of Willie Mays on the Giants that they went out and snatched up Elston Howard.
Bruce Markusen at the Banter riffed on the Mays revelation. What, Markusen, pondered could the Yankees have accomplished with Willie Mays on the team? Markusen speculates that a few more World Series would have been forthcoming during Casey Stengel’s amazing run, and he marvels over a potential outfield of Mays, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
For me, Klima’s story about Willie Mays and integration led me to the current roster makeup of Major League Baseball teams across the country. Take a look at the Yankees. Only Derek Jeter, Jerry Hairston and CC Sabathia are black. The Red Sox, playing in a city not known for racial tolerance, have one black player: Joey Gathright. The Mets have Gary Sheffield. While rosters are replete with players from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, African Americans are wildly unrepresented in Major League Baseball.
Baseball has come along way since its days of segregation. Teams are now more integrated than every before with more countries represented on the baseball diamond than the players, manages and owners in the 1920s and 1930s would ever imagine. Yet, some obvious questions flow from an observation that been supported by annual studies about diversity in baseball: Is the relatively small number of African American players a problem for the game? Is it a problem for the game as America’s Pastime? As a popular sport with a huge economic component? I’m not in a position to answer these with any certainty, but it — along with the grand Willie Mays “What If a Yankee?” — is certainly something to ponder on a day without Yankee baseball.