To say that the Philadelphia Phillies were not a progressive organization during the early years of racial integration in Major League Baseball might be an understatement.
The last team in the National League to field a Black player, the Phillies ushered that player, shortstop John Kennedy, onto and then off the roster after just five games and two plate appearances in late April and early May of 1957.
“I would not say they made a huge commitment to the development of John Kennedy,” Chris Threston, author of The Integration of Baseball in Philadelphia, was quoted by Mark Dent at Billy Penn in a February 2017 piece. “They just wanted to get it over with.”
Kennedy first got into a game on April 22 as a pinch-runner while the Phillies were playing in, of all places, Jersey City, New Jersey. It was one of a handful of games hosted at Roosevelt Stadium by the Dodgers during their final two seasons in Brooklyn.
As fate would have it, Kennedy did not share the field that day with the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, Jackie Robinson. After playing the previous 10 seasons with the Dodgers, Robinson had been traded to the New York Giants in December 1956. Rather than report to the Dodgers arch-rivals, Robinson had chosen instead to retire at age 38.
During his second game on April 24, his first home contest at Connie Mack Stadium, Kennedy further entered Phillies history by becoming the first Black player to cross the plate with a run scored and to take an official time at bat.
On April 30 came another first when Kennedy became the first Black player to field a position with the club. Kennedy was released days later and finished his Phillies career having officially gone 0-2 with a strikeout and a run scored. In his only two appearances in the field at shortstop he registered one assist, made one error, and participated in one double play.
Determining the first black player to register a base hit with the Phillies is all about how you define it. Tony Curry certainly fits the description by race, so he gets the designation here. Just the second player in big-league history to hail from the Bahamas, Curry also produced the first RBI by a black player with the team.
Curry appeared in 110 games with the Phillies over the 1960-61 seasons. During his rookie season in 1960, Curry slung that historic base hit and registered that RBI during the same plate appearance in an April 12 game at Crosley Field in Cincinnati.
The 1961 Phillies were the first in franchise history to field multiple black players at the same time. Curry began the season with the club but was dealt to Cleveland on March 20. Two other black players, Wes Covington and Choo-Choo Coleman, played for that team.
In his fifth game on April 28 at Busch Stadium in Saint Louis, Coleman came on as a pinch-hitter for starting pitcher Chris Short with the Phillies trailing the host Cardinals by a 6-1 score. Coleman reached on an error by Cards’ second baseman Julian Javier, allowing Ruben Amaro Sr to score.
Manager Gene Mauch kept Coleman in the game, giving starter Clay Dalrymple a rest at catcher. In his third plate appearance of the game in the top of the 8th inning, Coleman grounded a single to right off Lindy McDaniel. It was the first hit by an American-born Black player in Phillies history.
Developing in the organization’s minor league system at that time was the Phillies first-ever Black superstar, Dick Allen. He would reach Philadelphia for a 1963 cup of coffee, then become the 1964 NL Rookie of the Year on his way to a career that deserves to find him enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame one day.
Two years ago, during Black History Month, I undertook the project of naming a Philadelphia Phillies All-Black Team made up of the best Black players in the history of the franchise at each position. Of the ten players who made that team, only two failed to make the below list: Coleman, the catcher, and relief pitcher Tom Gordon.
In looking back on that piece, I decided to take the idea a step further this year. Listed below are my choices for the top 20 Black players in Phillies history regardless of position.
Not wanting to be simply subjective in my selections, I chose to use Baseball-Reference WAR as my ranking statistic. So, the players shown are the top 20 Black players by their bWAR during years played with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Joe Morgan and Ferguson Jenkins, who put up the numbers that elevated them to the Hall of Fame while with the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs respectively, were clearly among the greatest Black players to ever pull on a Phillies jersey. You won’t find them listed below. Their brief time with the club did not result in bWAR numbers great enough to make the list.
- Jimmy Rollins – 47.6
- Dick Allen – 35.4
- Garry Maddox – 28.9
- Ryan Howard – 14.7
- Bake McBride 12
- Dave Cash 11.7
- Doug Glanville 8.7
- Milt Thompson 7.6
- Bill White 7.1
- Robert Person 6.2
- Ben Revere 4.9
- Gary Matthews 4.8
- Ricky Jordan 4.8
- Al Holland 4.7
- Marlon Byrd 4.5
- Lonnie Smith 4.3
- Wes Covington 4.1
- Grant Jackson 3.7
- Ken Howell 3.7
- Kenny Lofton 3.6
I would love to hear from my fellow Philadelphia Phillies fans. Who do you feel should be included on a list of the top 20 Black players in franchise history, who would you bump to make room, and why?
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