How Black Players Propelled Cleveland's Baseball Team To Win The 1948 World Series

Mar 27, 2021

A few months after Jackie Robinson broke modern baseball's color barrier in 1947, Larry Doby became the first Black player in baseball's American League. A year later, Satchel Paige joined the Cleveland Indians as the team's second Black player.

The two Black players, and the team owner's willingness to sign them, propelled Cleveland to win the World Series in 1948 in one of baseball's most notable seasons.

It's the story told in Luke Epplin's new book, Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series That Changed Baseball.

If team owner Bill Veeck "hadn't integrated the team, the Indians would not have won the pennant and thus would not have won the World Series," Epplin says. "So it really showed what you could do if you opened up your inclusive policies on the ball club."

Epplin talked with Scott Simon on Weekend Edition about the legacy of the team's early efforts toward integration.


Interview Highlights

On pitcher Satchel Paige

He was 42 by the time that he signed with the Cleveland Indians. He'd come up in the Negro Leagues in the late 1920s. He distinguished himself as perhaps the premier pitcher of his time, but he was thought to be left behind. Once Jackie Robinson signed and broke the color line in 1947, Paige was thought to be too old. And so the fact that Bill Veeck ended up signing him ... at the age of 42 was quite a surprise.

On the combination of pitchers Satchel Paige and Bob Feller, outfielder Larry Doby and team owner Bill Veeck

This team had such interesting parts to it. The reason that I chose these four individuals in particular is that I think that they each represented a different facet of the integration experience.

You had Bill Veeck, who was a forward-looking promotional genius who had bought the Cleveland Indians in 1946, and he very much looked to the Negro Leagues as a way of infusing talent into that team.

You had Bob Feller, who was ... probably the fastest pitcher of his time. He barnstormed with Black players in the off season, most notably Satchel Paige, but he had sort of traditionalist views about the readiness of Black players to come into the major leagues.

And then you had Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. Doby was nearly 20 years younger than Paige. They came from different generations, different times in the Negro Leagues, and they had sort of differing thoughts about the integration process. Nonetheless, these four individuals came together and managed to boost the Indians into the World Series at that time.

On Larry Doby's experiences with racism

He grew up in South Carolina and moved to Paterson, N.J., for his high school years. And in high school, he was ... a sensation. He was so popular in Paterson that his senior year the school organized a ceremony to him where poems were read, songs were sung about his greatness.

He moved into the Negro Leagues and then got drafted into the Navy. And whenever he comes to the Navy, he goes to Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago and gets off the train that was hauling white and Black troops at the time. And the white and Black troops are immediately separated. And Doby claims that he'd never known segregation like that before. It really hit him hard. And I think that because of the accolades that he got in high school, it wasn't something that he faced so head-on until that moment.

On the importance of the 1948 team in the history of Cleveland baseball

The Cleveland Indians at that time had been kind of a hard bitten franchise. They had only won one World Series in 1920, and then they were always kind of in the middle somewhere, never able to sort of overcome the more powerhouses like the Yankees, the Tigers, the Red Sox, teams like this. Bill Veeck, when he bought the team, he signed players from the Negro Leagues. And it was those players that really helped Cleveland get over the hump.

Peter Breslow and Hadeel Al-Shalchi produced and edited the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There was never a better night for baseball than August 20, 1948, in Cleveland, the hometown team in first place against the last-place Chicago White Sox. What put a record 78,000 fans into the big park along the lake? Probably the legend headed to the mound, Leroy Satchel Paige. Luke Epplin, author of the book "Our Team," what did that game mean?

LUKE EPPLIN: The Indians were fighting for the pennant against three other teams. It had been 28 years since they had won the World Series. And they had just signed Satchel Paige a month earlier. He had done several starts where he had set the baseball world on its head, winning several of them. And he was coming to the mound for that - for the Indians, trying to keep them in first place.

SIMON: That Cleveland team went on to win the 1948 World Series against the Boston Braves. And Luke Epplin joins us from New York. Thanks for being with us.

This legend, Satchel Paige, was almost left behind, wasn't he?

EPPLIN: He was. He was 42 by the time that he signed with the Cleveland Indians. He'd come up in the Negro Leagues in the late 1920s. He distinguished himself as perhaps the premier pitcher of his time. But he was thought to be left behind. Once Jackie Robinson signed and broke the color line in 1947, Paige was thought to be too old. And so the fact that Bill Veeck ended up signing him - Bill Veeck was the owner of the Cleveland Indians at that time - signing him at the age of 42 was quite a surprise.

SIMON: Your book centers on the experiences that your four people - Satchel Paige, the legend, Bill Veeck, showman who owned the team, also a legend, Larry Doby, first Black player in the American League, just a few months after Jackie Robinson. It was often said that he got all the - you know, as much abuse and not nearly as much fame. And then Bob Feller, the fastest pitcher on the planet. What kind of special alchemy did this team have?

EPPLIN: Yeah, this team had such interesting parts to it. The reason that I chose these four individuals in particular is that I think that they each represented a different facet of the integration experience. You had Bill Veeck, who was a forward-looking promotional genius who had bought the Cleveland Indians in 1946. And he very much looked to the Negro Leagues as a way of infusing talent into that team. You had Bob Feller, who was, as you had mentioned, probably the fastest pitcher of his time. He barnstormed with Black players in the offseason, most notably Satchel Paige. But he had sort of traditionalist views about the readiness of Black players to come into the major leagues.

And then you had Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. Doby was nearly 20 years younger than Paige. They came from different generations, different times in the Negro Leagues. And they had sort of differing thoughts about the integration process. Nonetheless, these four individuals came together and managed to boost the Indians into the World Series at that time.

SIMON: Let me ask about Larry Doby, first African American player in the American League, a celebrated, nationally celebrated high school and college athlete who was playing in the Negro Leagues, was drafted, and then he ran smack into segregation, didn't he?

EPPLIN: He did. He grew up in South Carolina and moved to Paterson, N.J., for his high school years. And in high school, he was, as you said, a sensation. He was so popular in Paterson that his senior year, the school organized a ceremony to him where they - poems were read, songs were sung about his greatness. He moved into the Negro Leagues and then got drafted into the Navy.

And whenever he comes to the Navy, he goes to Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago and gets off the train that was hauling white and Black troops at the time. And the white and Black troops are immediately separated. And Doby claims that he'd never known segregation like that before. It really hit him hard. And I think that because of the accolades that he got in high school, it wasn't something that he'd faced so head-on until that moment.

SIMON: What did the 1948 Cleveland baseball team and championship show the nation, do you think?

EPPLIN: The Cleveland Indians at that time had been kind of a hard-bitten franchise. They had only won one World Series in 1920. And then they were always kind of in the middle somewhere, never able to sort of overcome the more powerhouses, like the Yankees, the Tigers, the Red Sox, teams like this. Bill Veeck - when he bought the team, he signed players from the Negro Leagues. And it was those players that really helped Cleveland get over the hump. If he hadn't integrated the team, the Indians would not have won the pennant and thus would not have won the World Series. So it really showed what you could do if you opened up your inclusive policies on the ball club.

SIMON: Cleveland's baseball team has announced it's changing its name beginning next year. You have any favorites?

EPPLIN: I was told that one of the favorites was the Cleveland Municipals. This would be a sort of homage to Municipal Stadium...

SIMON: Yeah.

EPPLIN: ...Which at that time was the biggest baseball stadium. It held 78,000 people. So it's kind of reminiscent of those great 1948 days whenever you had a packed house watching Bob Feller, Larry Doby, Satchel Paige win. So my heart is with that.

SIMON: I have a favorite.

EPPLIN: What's yours?

SIMON: The Rocks.

EPPLIN: Oh, yeah, for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

SIMON: Cleveland Rocks.

EPPLIN: That's really great, too (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah, I can hear them singing it the seventh-inning stretch.

EPPLIN: Yeah.

SIMON: Lou Epplin - his book, "Our Team." Thank you so much for being with us.

EPPLIN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.