Amy Essington’s new book
Founded in 1903, the Pacific Coast League is one of the country’s oldest, most venerated and most tradition-laden professional baseball circuits. Because of its historical existence “out West,” far from many other pro leagues, the now-Triple-A PCL has arguably the richest, most distinctive and most idiosyncratic histories of all the high-level leagues.
Regionally revered and geographically molded, the tale of the PCL involves its own unique, and until now unheralded stories of racial integration. In a region that, throughout the early and mid-20th century, featured a racially and culturally diverse population — and, therefore, a similarly diverse baseball scene — that made the desegregation of the PCL, from the time John Ritchey debuted with the San Diego Padres in 1948 to Artie Wilson and Bob Boyd joined the Seattle Rainers in 1952, a fascinating tale.
That story has just been illuminated and fleshed out by Amy Essington, a lecturer at California State University at Fullerton and Cal Poly Pomona and the executive director of Historical Society of Southern California (among other roles), whose book, “The Integration of the Pacific Coast League: Race and Baseball in the West,” was published last June by the University of Nebraska Press.
In the volume, Essington does a fantastic job of portraying what made the PCL and its desegregation story so compelling, so complex and so unheralded. With a focused but also breezy and approachable tone and style, the book looks at the integration experiences of each of the existing PCL teams at the time (eight in total) with a light touch that emphasis personalities and the human experience over number-crunching.
In other words, the book is an excellent buy and highly recommended by this blogger. Below is a lightly-edited email interview conducted with Essington earlier this month …
Ryan Whirty: How did you get interested in the subject of the integration of the PCL? What about it drew you to it?
Amy Essington: I have always been interested in generations which create change. Why that generation decides to act differently from generations before and how their actions change society. I came to study integration through [National Baseball Hall of Famer] Effa Manley. She was someone who broke barriers and challenged norms for people of her race and gender. She also played a key role in the transition of Negro League players to major league teams. Major league teams wanted to sign several players under contract with the Newark Eagles, the team she co-owned with her husband, Abe Manley. The Brooklyn Dodgers did not compensate the Kansas City Monarchs for the contract of Jackie Robinson. Effa Manley knew that was a terrible precedent and demanded money for the contract of [NBHOFer and American League integrator] Larry Doby.
As I began to research integration, I realized it is much more than Jackie Robinson. While he and [Brooklyn Dodgers owner] Branch Rickey played leading roles, I believe the success of integration came when other players joined other teams across the major and minor leagues.
RW: Why do you think that there had been so little interest in the topic before you approached it?
AE: Within baseball history, fewer historians focus on the West and fewer focus on the minor leagues. There is a very active interest in the history of the Pacific Coast League on the West Coast. I think there is bias in baseball history toward teams from East Coast and on the major leagues. A story I tell frequently is about the summer I worked as an intern in the library of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a wonderful experience, but I found that a lot of the folks were more interested in the teams in the east of the Mississippi and teams and players from the major leagues. Even the files at the Hall of Fame did not have much about the West or from West Coast newspapers. Out of that summer, my interest in the baseball in the West and integration beyond the National and American leagues joined together and became a project on the integration of the Pacific Coast League.
Amy Essington at the National Baseball Hall of Fame during an earlier summer internship
RW: How good were the PCL teams of the area in question, and how good were John Ritchey and the other men who integrated the league?
AE: I am a social historian, so I don’t focus on stats as much as others do, but individuals who integrated the PCL included major-league quality players. Fifteen of the players had time in the major leagues, averaging just over three seasons. Players like Frank Barnes, Bob Boyd, Luke Easter, Minnie Miñoso, Harry Simpson and Bob Thurman. They spent between a cup of coffee and 12 seasons in the major leagues. Many of these players had already passed the peak of their playing days, otherwise more might gone to the majors.
RW: What kind of treatment did these trailblazers face? What challenges did they face along the way?
AE: The treatment players experienced was mixed. It varied by player, by team and by city. The integration of the PCL was not covered by the press in the same way that the players in the majors were covered, and certainly not to the extent that Jackie Robinson was scrutinized. They did face challenges on the field with spikes and bean balls from opposing teams, but they also faced segregation off the field. The West did not have the formal Jim Crow segregation of the South, but it did have discrimination. Non-white players might have to sit in a segregated balcony at the movie theater or discover which restaurants would refuse to serve them. During his first spring training, John Ritchey did not stay in the hotel with his teammates. He was newly married, but even in Ontario, Calif., he was set apart.
RW: What interesting or surprising little nuggets of information did you come across while working on this book?
AE: When I began researching, I knew about Jimmy Claxton playing for Oakland in 1916, but I thought I would be focusing on the period of 1948-1952. What surprised me was the diversity of players who played on PCL teams before 1948. Teams included Native Hawaiian, Asian, Asian-American and Latinos players. The players who faced discrimination were the players defined by others as black. As I argue in my book, the color line was about excluding blackness.
RW: What has been the reaction to the book since it was published? Are you encouraged about the possibility that it might help lead the way for further scholarship about African-American and other people of color throughout the history of the PCL?
AE: The reaction has been generally positive. One of my goals was to document the events of integration across the PCL. The list of players who integrated was not new, but the process of how the league integrated had not been explored. I hope that the book will help remind folks that baseball was played across the country and that the West played an important role in integration. The stories of the people of color who played in the PCL need to be told in greater detail. The West has such an interesting and diverse racial history that our story is different than in other parts of the country.
RW: Where do you go from here? What are you working on now?
AE: I would like to look more closely at the seasons of integration and the experiences of the players day-to-day. In my book, I brought the story up to the first player who integrated, or really desegregated, each team. I would like to investigate more about what the players experienced during the seasons. I am writing an article about Jackie Robinson growing up in Pasadena. I am also working on a project of Effa Manley living in Southern California. She came to Los Angeles in 1956. She died there and is buried in Culver City.