In 1945, when the Chicago Cubs last suited up for the World Series, there were no black players on the team. There were no players in Major League Baseball period.
The league’s notorious color line would not be broken until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and so when the World Series kicked off last week, it was a pretty big deal for Dexter Fowler to debut as the first black Cub to ever take an at bat in a World Series.
Despite their low numbers in Major League Baseball as a whole, black players like Fowler, Jason Heyward, and Addison Russell were significant forces in the Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series in the post-Jackie Robinson Major League Baseball era — ending the team's 108-year series drought.
In the deciding Game 7, Dexter Fowler was a major reason why the long-suffering Cubs finally sealed the deal. On the very first inning, on the very first pitch, Fowler kicked off the deciding game with a historic lead-off solo homer to put his team on the board. It would be the first time in World Series history any player accomplished that feat.
Born and raised in and around Atlanta, over a decade after Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974 playing with the hometown Braves, Fowler turned down Harvard to follow his “Field of Dreams.”
When the 112th World Series kicked off, the center fielder was joined by fellow black American teammates — right fielder Jason Heyward (who also grew up in the Atlanta Area and actually played for Hank Aaron's Braves and then St. Louis before joining the Cubs this year), relief pitcher Carl Edwards Jr. and shortstop Addison Russell.
But Fowler was far from the only Cubs player who delivered big throughout the series. On the verge of elimination, 22-year-old Russell hit a Grand Slam in the third inning of critical Game 6 to put the Cubs up 7-0 on their way to forcing a Game 7 with a 9-3 victory.
As far as black American players are concerned, Cleveland entered the World Series with a much better track record of integrated play. Months after Jackie Robinson’s historic April 15, 1947 color line-busting debut, the South Carolina-born Larry Doby, who migrated to Paterson, New Jersey at age 11, became the second black American Major League Baseball player and the first for Cleveland.
It wasn’t until 1953 that Ernie Banks, and Gene Baker, both Negro Leagues players, would join the Cubs. Banks, known as Mr. Baseball, played with the Cubs until he retired in 1971.
Ironically, on July 5, 1947, Doby made his first appearance with Cleveland against Chicago’s other squad, the White Sox, entering the game as a pinch-hitter. The next day, Sunday, July 6, Doby played a double-header, serving as pinch-hitter in the first game and first basemen in the second. Chicago’s black churches reportedly let out early so their congregations could witness history. By some estimates, black Chicagoans accounted for roughly 30 percent of the fans in attendance that day.
The following year in Game 4, Doby became the first black American player to homer in a World Series game on October 9, 1948. Ultimately, Doby and his Series-leading .318 batting average among his squad was central to Cleveland winning its last World Series in 1948.
Nearly 70 years later, it is interesting that Cleveland would be the team to face off against the Chicago Cubs in the World Series, during a time when black players are far more common in the NFL and the NBA. In Major League Baseball black Americans reportedly comprised just eight percent of the league this year. Rajai Davis and Coco Crisp are Cleveland’s only two black American players and they too were vital.
Thirty-seven-year-old Coco Crisp hit a game-winning RBI in Game 3, sealing his team’s victory with a final 1-0 score to put them up 2-1 in the series. While Cleveland continued its dominance in Game 4, where Crisp, pinch-hitting, doubled and then scored as his team posted a 7-2 victory, putting his team ahead three games to one.
In that losing effort for the Cubs, it should be noted that Fowler was outstanding, doubling and scoring in the first inning for the Cubs and then homering in the eighth, the first home run in a World Series for the Cubs since 1945.
In Game 4, 27-year-old Jason Heyward also showed up with two big hits and then another one in Game 5. His most important contribution, however, was an electrifying catch where he scaled the wall in a Spiderman-esque move to prevent an Cleveland homer. The Cubs won that game 3-2, staving off Cleveland’s chance at the big win. That night Russell was responsible for a total of six RBIs in a 9-2 victory.
With the Cubs on the verge of a World Series victory in Game 7, the 35-year-old Davis made history by becoming the first player to ever hit a game-tying World Series home run in the eighth inning, keeping his Cleveland team alive. That homer, the Connecticut native’s first since August 30, brought in two runs to tie the final game up at six.
Heightening the drama even more, a seventeen-minute rain delay was instituted before the tenth inning got going, but for the Cubs, the drought was over.
Scoring two runs in the tenth, the Cubs fought off a Cleveland run, making the score 8-7, to pull out the historic victory.
And while 25-year-old Cubs reliever Carl Edwards Jr., who became the first black American to pitch for the Cubs in a World Series in Game 3 on October 28, was yanked and didn’t get the save after unraveling with two outs in the tenth inning, the 112th edition of the World Series was indeed one for the ages.
Sixty-nine years after Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby began the journey to make Major League Baseball truly great and sixty-eight years after Doby and Negro League superstar Satchel Paige became the first black Americans to win World Series rings, black American players, though few in number, stepped up at the plate and all over the field, proving that they aren’t quite done with baseball just yet.