By Kenneth Lasson
There was no Black History Month when the Baltimore Orioles returned to the modern-era Major Leagues in 1954– and only one player of color on the Opening Day roster. His name was Jehosie “Jay” Heard.
A native of Athens, Ga., Heard (1920-1999) was a diminutive left-handed pitcher, standing all of five feet, seven inches tall and barely tipping the scales at 155 pounds. He had never played baseball before being drafted to the Army in World War II. He had joined his unit’s team and, after leaving military service, entered the Negro Leagues. He appeared in just two major league games, ending his career with a fittingly unmemorable record of 0-0.
It’s been over three-quarters of a century since Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line when he started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April of 1947.
The first Black Oriole position-player was outfielder Joe Durham, who played in 77 games in 1957. All told, there have been close to 150 Black Birds over the team’s seven decades in MLB’s modern era, most notably Baseball Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Frank Robinson.
Murray is one of but six players in baseball history to accumulate more than 3,000 hits and 500 homers. An Oriole for 13 years, he holds the MLB record for most games by a first baseman, and ranks tenth all-time in runs batted in – the most ever by a switch-hitter.
Robinson played for the Orioles from 1966, when he was both a Triple Crown winner and the American League’s Most Valuable Player, to 1971. He had 586 career homers, and in 1975 became MLB’s first Black manager with the Cleveland Indians.
Besides Durham and Heard, dyed-in-the-wool Oriole fans will also remember names like Cedric Mullins, Tito Landrum, whose dramatic home run in Game Four of the 1983 American League Championship Series launched the Orioles into the World Series. Once there, they beat the Philadelphia Phillies. Longtime fans might also remember the likes of Robert Andino, Harold Baines, Paul Blair, Don Buford, Al Bumbry, who was Rookie of the Year in 1973, Eric Davis, Adam Jones, Lee May, and Ken Singleton. Bred-in-the-bone fans might recall more obscure players like Drungo Hazewood, Alan Mills, and Dillon Tate.
As it happens it was only an accident of history that made Heard the first Black “Baby Bird” – instead of the iconic Hall of Fame pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige.
In 1953, before the old St. Louis Browns relocated to Baltimore, Paige was their star player. Five years earlier he had become the oldest rookie in major league history when, at age 42, he took the mound for the Cleveland Indians – the first Black pitcher in the American League.
Nerds of a certain nature might want to know that Paige was the seventh overall, the first being Dan Bankhead of the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1947. They might also like to know that February was designated as Black History Month in 1976 because it contained the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and famed abolitionist and author, Frederick Douglass, born in 1818.
Paige was two weeks shy of 60 when he played his last professional game in June of 1966 for the Peninsula Grays of the Carolina League – a record that stands to this day. In 1971 he was elected to the Hall of Fame.
In 1954, when the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles, Paige could have been the franchise’s first Black player. But the front office let him go before spring training – some baseball pundits speculate because he was “too high profile” or wouldn’t “know his place” – thus paving the way for Heard.
Paige was also perhaps the most quoted player of all time:
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”
“You win a few, you lose a few. Some get rained out. But you got to dress for all of them,” were some of his famous words.
Although some writers mistakenly attribute to him the saying, “whenever I feel the urge to exercise I lie down until it goes away,” he did come up with “I believe in training by rising gently up and down from the bench. Avoid running at all times. Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
Kenneth Lasson is an emeritus professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, and writes widely on civil liberties and international human rights.
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