Detroit Tigers: Celebrating African-American Players on MLK Day
While baseball is known as “America’s Pastime”, the sport was not always open for all Americans to play. It was not until Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers decided to take a risk with African-American baseball player Jackie Robinson that all of the players in the MLB were white. The Detroit Tigers team has a proud history of opening the dugout and clubhouse to players from all backgrounds and ethnicities.
The first African-American player signed by the Tigers was Larry Doby, who wore the Old English D in 1959 after a lengthy career with the Cleveland Indians. Doby was the first African-American player to join the MLB after Jackie Robinson. He spent ten years in Cleveland and was in seven All-Star Games. He was an outfielder who moved between center and left. He won a World Series championship with the Indians in 1948, his second year in the MLB. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1998 by the Veteran’s Committee.
After Doby, Jake Wood was the first African-American Detroit Tigers player to move up through the minors. He was signed in 1957 and debuted in the majors in 1961. He played primarily second base, but would move throughout the infield as needed. He played with the Tigers from until 1967, when he was traded to Cleveland.
Without Wood, Willie Horton would not have signed with the team. Horton is the favorite son of the City of Detroit and he helped ease race relations during the volatile 1960s. Sadly, the 1968 season was postponed for the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who actually spent a significant amount of time in Detroit helping the city smooth relations between the residents of the inner city and those in the suburbs. Horton kept King’s dream alive by helping to bring more African-American players into the game. He also managed to hit a few home runs and make some catches in the outfield while bringing the World Series title to a city that needed the boost.
Since Horton and Gates Brown brought out the best in Detroit, other African-American baseball players have brought their intensity and skills to the game. They include players like Ron LeFlore, Lou Whitaker, Craig Monroe, Cecil Fielder, Chet Lemon, Larry Herndon, Tony Clark, Damion Easley, Curtis Granderson, Gary Sheffield, Rajai Davis, Austin Jackson, David Price, Cameron Maybin, and Anthony Gose.
Many of these outstanding players have become Detroit Tigers legends. The middle infield combination of Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell is one of the most powerful in Tigers history, appreciated for their abilities as players and for what the combination represented. These two men came up through the ranks together and played as brothers. Tony Clark is now the executive director of the MLB Players Association after he spent 15 years playing in the big show. Craig Monroe is now a fan favorite at the analyst desk on Fox Sports Detroit. Cecil Fielder and his son, Prince Fielder both were loved by fans for their big bats and big personalities.
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If Martin Luther King, Jr. were still alive, it is safe to say that he would be proud of what the baseball clubhouse has become. It is commonplace to see African-American players sitting alongside their caucasian teammates, with players from Venezuela, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, too. Many of the players from African-American descent are some of the highest-paid players in the league, like Prince Fielder, David Price, and CC Sabathia. Add to that the Asian players like Yu Darvish, players like Alex Wilson who were born the Middle East, and players like Ian Kinsler – a Jewish player, the MLB truly has become what King wanted to see when he spoke about his dream.