On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut, becoming the first player to break the color barrier. We look back at the first players who broke the color barrier for the Detroit Tigers, Ozzie Virgil, and Jake Wood.
When it came time to write this article, I wanted to give a “tip of the cap” to both Ozzie Virgil and Jake Wood. Thanks to Jackie Robinson, the two players would provide significant impacts on baseball culture in Detroit.
Ozzie Virgil Sr
Ozzie Virgil was the first black player to break the color line in Detroit. But in fact, he was Dominican so he also was the first Latino Tiger player. But he also had another important historical title.
In 1956, he was the first player from the Dominican Republic to play in the majors when he debuted for the New York Giants. This would open up the trickle of great Dominican players that would debut in the following decade like Juan Marichal and Felipe Alou.
The utility player who could play third, catcher, and the outfield, was acquired from the San Francisco Giants in 1958. He would spend time in the minors before getting the call up to play third base on June 6th on the road against the Washington Senators, going 1 for 5.
When talking to the press, Ozzie spoke about how the Tigers looked at him as a player. The quote below comes from the book: 20th Century Baseball Chronicle Year-By-Year History of Major League Baseball.
"“I don’t believe the Tigers called me up because I was black,” Virgil said, “They called me up because I was a player. I was treated very well in Detroit. It was pleasant. I went through the minor leagues with guys like Jim Bunning and Hank Aguirre. They accepted me.”"
When referring to how was treated by the African-American community in Detroit, Virgil did not hold back on his experience. Per the quote to reporter Jodie Valade of the Detroit Free Press:
"“The only thing I didn’t like was that the black people in Detroit didn’t accept me,” he explained. “They thought of me more as a Dominican Republic player instead of a Negro. “If they called me black, fine. If they called me white, fine. If they called me Latino, fine. I didn’t care what they called me—I just wanted to play.”"
His debut in Briggs Stadium was a memorable one. On June 17th against the Senators, Virgil would go 5 for 5. The 29,794 fans showed their appreciation by greeting him with a standing ovation. He would play for the Tigers until he was traded in 1961. After his playing days were over, Virgil would go on and coach with various organizations.
Jake Wood was the first African-American player who the Tigers had come through the minor league system and start for Detroit. Wood signed with the club as a second baseman in 1957 out of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Coming up through the minors, his best season came up in Triple-A Denver in 1960 in which he batted .305/ .349/.462 with 12 home runs and 76 RBIs. The Tigers made room for Wood to make his debut by trading Frank Bolling to the Milwaukee Braves in the winter of 1960.
Wood faced segeration while playing in the minors but after coming to Detroit, the fans in the African-American community treated him like anybody else. Per his SABR.org bio:
“The climate in Detroit in the African-American community was different, “In the apartment where we used to live, I came into contact with ordinary people, and we formed lifelong bonds. I was just ‘Jake’ to them.”
Known for his speed, he was third in the AL with 30 steals and had 171 hits. The speed, steady presence provided an impact for the 1961 squad that won 101 games. But he also impacted the mind of a future local Tiger, Willie Horton.