“I think these two fellows can help us make some money and win the pennant and the World Series. I am going to say one thing. I don’t care what color you are. If you can play baseball you can play on this club. That’s all I am going to say about color.” – Leo Durocher1
34,468. It didn’t seem to make any difference whether it was a Friday night in July, like this one, or some other time of the season. The largest crowds of the season gathered to watch National League baseball at Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds when the home team was playing that other team from New York.
Tonight, however, was a bit different. History was waiting. Former Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was now in his first full season as New York Giants manager after replacing Mel Ott. He was determined to improve a rather average team with more speed and better defense.2 He had to convince owner Horace Stoneham and general manager Chub Feeney of what needed to be done.3 In the meantime, Durocher was constantly changing his lineup, 20 times in June alone, with a parade of minor leaguers.4
Tapping talent in the Negro National League, the Giants had acquired 23-year-old Hank Thompson from the Kansas City Monarchs and 30-year-old Monte Irvin from the Newark Eagles prior to the 1949 season and assigned them to the Triple-A Jersey City Giants. Thompson had made history in 1947 after being acquired by the St. Louis Browns from the Monarchs. Three months after Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, Thompson was in the Browns’ lineup on July 17, making him the second American League player to break baseball’s color barrier.5 He played most frequently at second base and batted .256 in 27 games. But the financially strapped Browns, second fiddle in St. Louis in recent years, couldn’t afford the option payment after the season and Thompson was returned to the Monarchs.6
The Giants recalled Thompson and Irvin from Jersey City on July 5, 1949. Irvin was leading the International League in batting (.385) and Thompson (.303) had 12 home runs and 11 stolen bases.7 As Irvin told the story, the team got dressed and Durocher held a five-minute meeting before the series opener at Ebbets Field to make certain everyone knew how he felt about Thompson and Irvin playing for the Giants.8 Thompson was starting at second base when Bill Rigney turned up with a sore left thumb.9
The Giants’ Clint Hartung (7-7, 4.47 ERA) and the Dodgers’ Don Newcombe (6-2, 3.48 ERA) were the opposing starting pitchers. Hartung had already beaten the Dodgers twice this season – a 4-1 complete-game win in April and a 7-4 decision in late May. However, he was making his third start in the last seven days, including an abbreviated 2⅔-inning no-decision against the Dodgers on July 2 at the Polo Grounds.
Less than two months earlier, on May 20, the rookie Newcombe had made an inauspicious debut for the Dodgers in relief against the Cardinals – three runs on four hits in one-third of an inning. By July, however, he was establishing his credentials as a starting pitcher with an occasional relief appearance. He finished June with five consecutive complete-game starts, a streak broken when he failed to finish his first start against the Giants, losing 4-1 at the Polo Grounds.
The first inning may have been routine for Newcombe – a single by Whitey Lockman and three fly balls – but nonetheless it was historic. When Newcombe faced Thompson to lead off the game and retired him on a flyball caught by third baseman Billy Cox, it was the first time in major league history that a Black pitcher faced a Black hitter.10
Hartung gifted the first run to the Dodgers in the second. Jackie Robinson walked and distracted the pitcher with his lead. Hartung took the bait before throwing his first pitch to the next batter, and his pickoff throw hit Robinson and bounded into right field. Robinson scampered to third, scoring on Carl Furillo’s groundout.
The Dodgers added two more runs in the fourth inning. Gene Hermanski singled to right. When Duke Snider hit a low liner to center field, Bobby Thomson tried to make a shoestring catch, but the ball rolled to the wall for a triple, scoring Hermanski.11 With one out, Gil Hodges’ single to left scored Snider for a 3-0 Dodgers lead.
Meanwhile, Newcombe was keeping the Giants off the scoreboard, yielding two hits over the first three innings. In the fourth with one out, Johnny Mize doubled, Sid Gordon walked, and when Robinson threw wild on Willard Marshall’s grounder, the bases were loaded. Newcombe struck out both Ray Mueller and Buddy Kerr swinging to end that threat.
Not surprisingly, Newcombe began to tire in the fifth inning, his third start and 20th inning of work since July 1, which also included one inning of relief against the Boston Braves. With one out, Thompson and Lockman walked. Newcombe retired Thomson on a first-pitch fly ball for the second out, but three consecutive RBI singles by Mize, Gordon, and Marshall tied the score at 3-3. Dodgers manager Bert Shotton sent Rex Barney to the mound to relieve Newcombe. Barney walked Mueller to load the bases but retired Kerr on a fly ball to Hermanski in left to retire the side.
The Dodgers scored what proved to be the winning run in the sixth. Hartung yielded his second triple of the game when Pee Wee Reese opened with a line drive to right and scored on Snider’s long fly ball. Readers of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle were made aware that this triple wasn’t tainted by any defensive lapses in the outfield.12
When Barney returned to the mound in the eighth inning, he had a one-run lead to protect. He walked the first batter, pinch-hitter Joe Lafata. Monte Irvin’s debut in a Giants uniform was as a pinch-hitter for Hartung. When Barney walked Irvin on a full count, he was replaced by Erv Palica, making his 22nd appearance of the season, all in relief.
Palica did his job. He fielded Thompson’s bunt and threw out Irvin at second, as Lafata advanced to third. When Lockman grounded to first, Lafata broke for the plate, but Hodges threw to Roy Campanella, who applied the tag to preserve the lead. Palica struck out Thomson on three pitches to retire the side.
In fact, Palica retired the power of the Giants lineup – Mize, Gordon, and Marshall – on groundballs in the ninth inning to save the victory for Barney and the Dodgers. Palica faced six Giants in two innings, and no one hit the ball out of the infield. One had to believe that in story and headline, Palica Rates Chance as Dodger Starter, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was lobbying for a starting assignment.13
The game itself was historic for another reason. Now two years after Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut, the Dodgers and the Giants remained the only National League teams with Black ballplayers in 1949 – Thompson, Irvin, Robinson, Campanella, and Newcombe.14 They all played in this game.
As for the Dodgers, MVP Jackie Robinson (.342, 37 stolen bases) and Rookie of the Year Don Newcombe (17-8) led them to another World Series matchup with the New York Yankees. The road to baseball respectability was a bit longer for the Giants (73-81), who finished in fifth place in the National League. Thompson finished the 1949 season batting .280 in 75 games and became the regular second baseman. Five Giants had played second base before Thompson’s debut, but Durocher wanted him in the lineup.15 On the other hand, Irvin struggled at the plate, batting .224 in 36 games, nearly half of them as a pinch-hitter.16 He would even start the 1950 season playing back in Jersey City, but not for long.
Some changes came quickly for the Giants. Mize was sold to the Yankees before the end of the 1949 season and in the offseason they obtained a new middle infield, Alvin Dark and Eddie Stanky, in a dramatic trade with the Boston Braves.17 Durocher’s transformation of his team was well underway.
Stanky became the Giants’ regular second baseman in the 1950 season, so Thompson moved to third for most of the next six seasons, including the National League championship seasons of 1951 and 1954, batting .267 for his Giants career. Thompson hit safely in each game as the Giants swept the Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series.18
As for Irvin, his 18-game stretch at Jersey City to start the 1950 season was torrid – 10 homers, 33 RBIs, and a .510 batting average – and earned him a promotion. This time Irvin established himself as a Giants regular at first base and in the outfield with a solid .299 season at the plate. Undoubtedly, 1951 was his most productive season: He batted.312 and led the National League with 121 runs batted in.
One of Irvin’s most important roles with the Giants resulted from a request by his manager. Durocher asked Irvin to room with 20-year-old rookie Willie Mays in May 1951 to show him the ropes.19 He was happy to do so. Indeed, we can celebrate both as Hall of Famers.20
In 1951 Roy Campanella was named the Most Valuable Player in the National League for the first of three times he would receive that honor. He was deserving – 33 home runs, 108 runs batted in, and a .325 batting average in 143 games. Monte Irvin finished third, just behind the Cardinals’ Stan Musial. When asked about the award, Campy spoke of his friend, “Monte was the best all-around player I have ever seen. As great as he was in 1951, he was twice that good 10 years earlier in the Negro Leagues.”21
Did Irvin feel any regrets after his career was over? “As for me, I’ve always wished that I could have gotten to the big leagues earlier in my career, but I’ll be forever grateful that I made it in time to play for the New York Giants in that historic 1951 season.”22
This article was fact-checked by Evan Katz and copy-edited by Len Levin.
The author accessed Baseball-Reference.com for box scores/play-by-play information (baseball-reference.com/boxes/BRO/BRO194907080.shtml), and other data, as well as Retrosheet.org (retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1949/B07080BRO1949.htm). Hank Thompson baseball card #89 and Monte Irvin baseball card #198 are from the 1951 Bowman series, obtained from the Trading Card Database.
2 Since 1943, the Giants had finished in the NL’s second division in five of the last six seasons, were absent from the World Series since 1937, and remained barely alive in the pennant race at the 1949 season’s halfway point.
3 Rick Swaine, The Integration of Major League Baseball: A Team by Team History (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2009), 79.
4 Ken Smith, “’49 Lineup Shifts on Giants – and Lippy Isn’t Finished,” The Sporting News, July 27, 1949: 6.
5 Andrew Harner, “July 17, 1947: St. Louis Browns turn to Negro Leagues in effort to climb toward respectability,” SABR Baseball Games Project.
6 Swaine, 63.
7 “Giants Get Two Negro Players in Move to Strengthen Line-Up,” New York Times, July 6, 1949: 32. To make room on the roster, the Giants optioned infielder Jack Lohrke and outfielder Pete Milne to Jersey City.
8 Hogan. Leo Durocher was the Dodgers manager when Jackie Robinson was on the cusp of making baseball history in 1947. Robinson and his Montreal Royals teammates were playing the Dodgers in a Panama Canal Zone exhibition series. Durocher delivered a fiery, profanity-laced speech to his team in the middle of the night after he got wind of a petition stating the Dodgers did not want Robinson on the team. Author Roger Kahn suggested that for Durocher, this was “the finest hour of his life.” The message was similar to the one he delivered more mildly to the Giants 2½ years later. Roger Kahn, The Era 1947-1957 When the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers Ruled the World (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 35-36.
9 Joseph M. Sheehan, “Reese Triple in Sixth Sets Up 4-3 Victory,” New York Times, July 9, 1949: 16.
10 Swaine, 81.
12 Harold C. Burr, “Palica Rates Chance as Dodger Starter,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 9, 1949: 6.
13 Burr. Nine days later, Palica got his one and only start of the season, a no-decision at Ebbets Field against the Cubs, yielding three earned runs in 5⅓ innings. For the season he appeared in 49 games with a record of 8-9, a 3.62 ERA, and 6 saves.
14 Rick Swaine, “The Integration of the New York Giants,” in Bill Nowlin and C. Paul Rogers III, eds., The Team That Time Won’t Forget, The 1951 New York Giants (Phoenix: Society for American Baseball Research, 2015), 308.
15 The following Giants played second base in 1949, all before Hank Thompson’s debut on July 8: Bill Rigney (26 games), Jack Lohrke (23), Bobby Hofman (16), George Hausmann (13), Bobby Rhawn (8). Rookie Davey Williams played second base in 13 games as a September call-up from the Southern Association’s Atlanta Crackers.
16 Irvin played the following positions in the 1949 season: first base (5 games), third base (5), right field (10), pinch-hitter (17).
17 John Drebinger, “Giants Get Dark and Stanky of Braves for Gordon, Marshall, Kerr and Webb,” New York Times, December 15, 1949: 52.
18 Hank Thompson batted .364 (4-for-11), walked seven times and scored six runs.
20 Monte Irvin, the former Newark Eagle, was named by the Negro League Committee to the Hall of Fame in 1973. Willie Mays was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.
21 Joe Posnanski, The Baseball 100 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021), 201.
22 Irvin, 2.