O's quiet pioneer: Heard

Soft-spoken and small in stature, Jehosie Heard stood tall 50 years ago as the first African-American to play for the Orioles.

April 23, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG | JOHN EISENBERG,SUN STAFF

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - He was a tiny left-handed pitcher whose major league career was composed of two appearances, one in Chicago and the other in Baltimore.

Most of his baseball life unfolded on the game's fringes, on minor league diamonds from Canada to Cuba. Yet Jehosi Heard managed to make history.

On April 24, 1954 -- 50 years ago tomorrow -- he integrated the Orioles, becoming the first African-American to play for the team in a regular-season game. "He was proud of it, but he never talked about it; that wasn't his nature," said Donnie Harris, a family member from Birmingham who also played pro baseball. Heard's soft-spoken nature was a factor in the Orioles' selecting him to break their color line, said William Greason, a Baptist minister in Birmingham, who was Heard's teammate in the Negro Leagues during the 1940s. "Teams were very careful about who they chose; they were looking for guys like Jackie Robinson who could handle the abuse without cracking," said Greason, who also pitched in the nearly all-white minors and majors of the 1950s.

Heard, who died in 1999 at 79, was the Orioles' only black player on Opening Day in April 1954 and one of only two black pitchers and eight black players overall in the American League.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court was about to rule (in May) that segregated schools "had no place" in America, racial tension abounded in baseball.

Black players had to deal with fans calling them names, intolerant teammates and managers who ignored or cursed them and opponents who slid with their spikes up, intending to do harm.

"Things were improving, but you still had to endure a lot," said Greason, who made four appearances for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954.

The Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Senators still had all-white rosters, even though it had been seven years since Robinson integrated the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"A few teams were out and out bigoted, a few were open-minded and a lot were in the middle," said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport and Society. "The attitude [in the middle] was, `I'm being pressured to do this and I don't like it, but maybe the best thing to do is get someone in here and get it over with.' "

Heard was just 5 feet 7 and 145 pounds when he put on the Orioles' uniform, but he had used breaking balls and good control to win more than 70 games in the minors and Negro leagues.

He was 34 but listed as 29 because he had lied to better his chances in "organized" ball, the minors and majors.

His history-making debut came in an afternoon game against the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park. With the Orioles trailing 10-0, he came on in relief with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning. He faced four batters and retired them all.

It was the ninth game of the Orioles' first season in Baltimore. They lost, 14-4.

Heard's appearance was noted in the 11th paragraph of a game story in The Sun the next day, crediting him as "the first member of his race ever to appear in an Oriole uniform in a regular-season game."

He didn't pitch again until May 28, at Memorial Stadium, when he fared poorly in a relief appearance, allowing six hits and five runs to the White Sox in an 11-6 loss.

Two games and out

The Orioles demoted him to the Portland (Ore.) Beavers, a Triple-A team in the Pacific Coast League, in early June, shortly after he reportedly was involved in a domestic disturbance.

He never pitched again in the majors.

Later that season, the Orioles called up another African-American, outfielder Joe Durham, who was the first black Oriole to hit a home run, in September 1954. Three years after that, a former Negro leagues star named Connie Johnson won 14 games as a member of the Orioles' starting rotation.

In 1966, future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson led the team to its first World Series title.

By then, Heard was operating a dye machine in a cotton mill in Birmingham, long forgotten by most Baltimore fans.

But though Durham, Johnson, Robinson, first baseman Bob Boyd and outfielder Paul Blair were the best-known African-Americans of the Orioles' early years, Heard was the first.

"Any goal that is reached takes many steps," Roby said. "Some black players of that generation didn't last that long in the majors, but the totality of their careers helped people realize integration would happen. You can't emphasize the importance of that enough."

A player's temperament had a lot to do with whether he was given a chance, said Dick Clark, co-chairman of the Negro leagues committee of the Society of American Baseball Researchers.

"There were really talented black players who didn't get a chance because they were perceived to have an attitude," Clark said. "The Yankees had a fantastic player named Vic Power whom they traded because he dated white women.

"Teams didn't want independent thinkers. They wanted guys with talent, but also the right aptitude for a difficult situation."

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