The O's barrier breaker

Baltimore Glimpses

September 27, 1994|By Gilbert Sandler

BASEBALL" -- the currently running public television series -- spends a significant amount of time examining the role African Americans have had in the sport. Creator Ken Burns tells with sensitivity the story of the first black to play in the major leagues, the Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson.

However, there's no mention of what amounts to a footnote in baseball history but was big news in Baltimore. The Orioles were late in acquiring a black player -- it was not until 1954, seven years after the major leagues race barrier had been broken.

Baltimore's first black player was 30-year-old Jehosie Heard, a left-handed, 5-foot-8-inch, 150-pound pitcher out of Nashville, Tenn., who came to the Orioles as part of the old St. Louis Browns. (Heard had played in the Negro Leagues and had pitched for Victoria and Portland on the Pacific Coast.)

Josie Heard, as he was known, will best be remembered for one, brief (an inning and a third) shining moment on a fine Saturday afternoon in Comiskey Park in Chicago, April 24, 1954. The sixth-place Orioles were playing the third-place White Sox. It was the ninth game of the season, and five Orioles would get into the lineup for the first time; one of them was Josie Heard.

In the sixth inning, the Sox, leading 6-0, got four consecutive hits off Oriole pitcher Mike Blyzba. "Then," according to the next day's newspaper story: "Jehosie Heard came on. The tiny Negro southpaw thus became the first member of his race ever to appear in an Oriole uniform in a regular season game. Heard's debut was a good one. He stayed for just four outs, but he didn't allow a hit, before [manager Jimmie] Dykes lifted him for a pinch hitter."

A sportswriter, summing up Heard's performance that day, wrote: "Four Bird chuckers were victimized by the Sox onslaught and only rookie Jehosie Heard showed credibility during a brief fling on the mound."

You won't find Heard in the pantheon of major-league baseball. He pitched only one other time, on May 28, and then was optioned to Portland never to return. (All told, he allowed six hits, walked three and struck out two in the majors.)

Joe Durham would become the first African American to hit a home run for the Orioles, in September 1954.

The game that marked Heard's debut was not a memorable one for Orioles fans. The White Sox crushed the Orioles, 14-4.

But we in Baltimore have reason to remember that long-ago afternoon.

It was the day on which the first black ever to play for the Orioles in a regular season game came in to pitch -- and recorded his name in the history of Baltimore baseball.

Ken Burns missed it.

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