When Jackie Robinson took the field in April of 1947, baseball had technically become integrated; but there were several owners who were slow to follow suit. Among them was Clark Griffith. When the Pirates, Cardinals, and Reds all played black players in April of 1954, that left five teams that had yet to field a black player. Along with the Senators, the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, and Phillies all had yet to integrate.
In Washington, Griffith had been getting some heat from local sportswriters, the most vocal of which was Sam Lacy. Lacy wrote for the Baltimore Afro-American and had been not-so-subtly calling for integration of the Washington franchise for years. Lacy was a Nats fan from early in his life, and recalled shagging balls in exchange for tickets to the games as a kid. As a writer for the Baltimore Afro-American, Lacy became an outspoken proponent of integration, particularly in regards to his favorite major league team.
In 1945, Lacy approached Griffith about signing Jackie Robinson. Lacy and another writer, Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, had determined that the college educated Robinson was the ideal candidate to integrate major league baseball. Griffith quickly shot down the idea, claiming that baseball wasn’t ready for that.
In addition to Lacy, another local writer was openly calling for integration in his columns. Shirley Povich first wrote about integration and the Senators in 1937. Though perhaps less openly critical of the Griffiths than Lacy was, Povich was clearly an advocate for integration. Between the two of them, Lacy and Povich kept the pressure on in Washington well into the 1950’s.
Griffith’s resistance to integration may have been more financially driven than racist. The Homestead Grays were a huge draw in Washington (most of the time outdrawing Nats), and Griffith made a significant amount of money renting Griffith Stadium to the Negro League team. In fact, for many years rental revenue meant the difference between profit and loss for the franchise.
Whatever the reason, Griffith’s stubbornness continued, and in 1952 (five years after Robinson’s first game) he said “I will not sign a Negro for the Washington club merely to satisfy subversive persons. I would welcome a Negro on the Senators if he rated the distinction, if he belonged among major league players.”
Apparently, Griffith did not find a black player that rated high enough to belong until the spring of 1954, when four black players were among the invitees to spring training. The most promising of the group appeared to be outfielder Angel Scull. Scull, a native of Cuba, had been in the Washington organization for two years. His progress was such that most observers were sure that he would be the first black player to take the field in a Washington uniform, and the feeling was that it would happen in 1954. Not only had Scull endeared himself to management with his play, but he also filled a hole in right field.
Another Cuban, Carlos Paula, was also making waves in spring training. Paula was also a candidate for the wide open right field job, though he was a distant second to Scull, who was named the starter by manager Bucky Harris early in the spring.
Spring training 1954 did not pass without incident. While Paula and Scull were making headlines in Orlando, there were some problems at the club’s minor league camp in Winter Garden. Ossie Bluege, then director of the Nats’ minor leagues, received an ultimatum from a Winter Garden official saying that they wanted the “Cuban Negroes” out of town. At least seven players left camp, and would not return to Winter Garden even after the mayor made it clear that they were indeed welcome in the town.
As the spring progressed, Scull’s position as the right fielder to be became less of a certainty. His production fell off and he lost the starting job, though the plan was to bring him north as a reserve outfielder. Those plans changed as well as Scull’s slump continued. He was sold to Havana for $20,000, a sum that was surprising to many due to Scull’s horrible spring with the Nats. It was later suggested that Scull struggled due to an injury, but that was not reported at the time.
With Scull gone and Paula sent to the minor leagues due to the fact that he couldn’t hit a major league breaking ball, the integration of the Senators would have to wait. Paula spent the bulk of the 1954 season with Class A Charlotte of the Sally League. He performed very well (.309, 12 HR), but the team settled into dead last early in the season, so it was a surprise when the parent club called on Paula and four of his Charlotte teammates to join in early September. On September 6, 1954, five years and five months after Jackie Robinson first integrated baseball, Carlos Paula became the first black player to take the field in a Washington uniform.
Paula had very little success in nine games with the Nats, but returned as a regular in 1955, hitting .299/.332/.447 in 115 games.
Though the Washington Senators had finally integrated, there was still a long ways to go for the organization. Racism, whether overt or subtle, continued to be a key theme in the story of the franchise until Calvin Griffith sold the team in 1984.