When Vic Power went into a restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas in the early 1950s, a waitress promptly told him, “We don’t serve Negroes.”
“That’s okay,” Power answered, “I don’t eat Negroes. I want rice and beans.”
On this date in 1952, Jackie Robinson appeared on the TV program “Youth Wants to Know” and was asked if the New York Yankees were bigoted toward black ballplayers. According to Jules Tygiel’s seminal book “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and his Legacy,” Robinson replied, “I think the Yankee management is prejudiced. There isn’t a single Negro on the team now and very few in the entire Yankee farm system.” The two most notable black prospects in the organization were Vic Pellot Power and Elston Howard. Power, who passed away yesterday after a lengthy battle with cancer, remembered years later, “I think they were waiting for my skin to turn white.”
Tygiel continues, “The Yankees had…followed the same begrudging path toward integration as the majority of other clubs. In the early stages of the great experiment, they had exceeded the efforts of most clubs. In the post-1951 era, however, the Yankee efforts lagged, as they recruited few additional prospects.”
The Red Sox will forever be remembered as the last team to integrate. Their racism clearly got in the way of putting a winning team on the field. But the Yankees were not much better. The biggest difference at the time was that the Yankees were in the middle of one of the great runs in baseball history. But their narrowmindedness is still shameful. Again from Tygiel:
According to Roger Kahn, there was a high-ranking club executive, who assisted by several martinis, confessed that a black man would never be allowed to wear a Yankee uniform. “We don’t want that sort of crowd,” he slurred. “It would offend boxholders from Weschester to have to sit with niggers.” In 1953 traveling secretary Bill McCorry growled, “No nigger will ever have a berth on any rain I’m running.”
In 1949, the eighteen-year old Power was singed by former Negro League manager Quincy Trouppe to play in the independent Porvincial League in Canada for $800 a month. The following season he lead the league with a .334 average and drove in 105 runs in 105 games. Tom Greenwade, the Yankee scout who had signed Mickey Mantle, purchased Power for $7,500. Power was given $500 by the team’s general manager, only to later discover that he was entitled to recieve the full $7,500.
In 1951, Power played for the Yankee farm team in Syracuse in the International League. In Richard Lally’s entertaining, “Bombers: An Oral History of the New York Yankees,” Power explained:
Syracuse itself was okay for me, no trouble. But in spring training we went to Tampa. Colored people had no hotels there, it was white only. The Yankees get me a room in the best house in the colored neighborhood, but the best house was a funeral parlor. So I slept next to a room filled with dead bodies! No one asked me how I felt about the arrangement. They just stuck me with all these corpses.
The young Puerto Rican batted .294 in ’51. Power felt that his play merited a September call up to the majors, but the Yankees were not yet prepared to make him the first black man on their big league team. He wasn’t invited to spring training with the major league club the following spring either. Instead he was assigned to the Kansas City Blues in the American Association where he’d hit .331, slugging 16 homers, 40 doubles and 17 triples in 1952. Somehow, it was still not good enough for a September call-up.
Years later, in Danny Peary’s fine oral history, “We Played the Game,” Power recalled:
“Maybe the Yankees didn’t want a black player who would openly date light-skinned women, or who would respond with his fists when white pitchers threw beanballs at him. I was the only black on Kansas City, and every time one of my teammates would homer, the pitcher would throw at my head. There weren’t helmets in those days, so I had to rely on my reflexes and my fists. I had to protect myself. I had a temper and got into some brutal fights. Being Puerto Rican, I would fight anybody, but I wasn’t a troublemaker.
…In 1953 I had another great year. I led the league with a .349 average, had 217 hits, 115 runs, 93 RBIs. Now everyone knew about me. I figured the Yankees couldn’t ignore me any longer. Elston Howard was my roommate on the Blues. He wasn’t competition to be the Yankees’ first black. He wasn’t a star. He was a conservative player, and his numbers weren’t too good. The Yankees couldn’t justify picking him as their first black as long as I was in their organization.”
Power also told Lally:
“Ellie Howard was my roommate, I loved him, a nice guy. More the kind of colored player the Yankees wanted. A little bit of a yes-man. But I don’t criticize him for that. He had a family to support and did what he had to do so the Yankees would promote him. Back then, on one wanted the colored players to make even the tiniest waves. Like, in our clubhouse there was a bathroom that said, ‘Whites Only.’ When I asked where the black people went, one of the ballplayers said I talk too much. He thought I was making trouble. But, no, I just wanted to go to the bathroom!”
That winter, Power was in New Orleans in the process of shipping his car back to Puerto Rico when he read in a newspaper that he had been shipped to the Philadelphia A’s. The bottom line was that Power was a flamboyant character both on the field and off, and not considered Yankee material. Some in the organization tried to run down his fielding abilities but by all accounts he was a slick, and elegant glove man. In fact, Casey Stengal once remarked that Power was “the best I’ve seen in 20 years at guarding the line against pull hitters. And that includes Lou Gehrig.”
But Power was considered a showboat by the Yankee brass, who were perhaps more concerned about Power’s penchant for light-skinned women than any of his supposed flaws on the diamond. “Since when is it necessary for a member of the Yankees to conduct himself according to the dictates of Emily Post,” questioned the esteemed columnist Wendell Smith. A good question when discussing a team with the likes of Billy Martin, Mantle and Ford on it.
“I didn’t care too much because I just wanted to play in the majors. I would have been a big attraction in New York because of all the blacks and Puerto Ricans, but the Yankees didn’t want me. Or maybe they didn’t want blacks and Puerto Ricans coming to Yankee Stadium. (In the mid-50s, the Puerto Rican fans would hold a day for me in Yankee Stadium. They had a trophy to give me before the games, but the Yankee organization wouldn’t let them give it to me at home plate, so they held the ceremony in the stands. That game I hit 2 homers, on against each pole.) I would always hit my best against the Yankees.”
Jackie Robinson himself detailed the particular obstacles that Latin players faced in his book “Baseball Has Done It”:
Segregation comes as a shock to them for at home they know no color barriers. Some stay within their own Spanish-speaking communities. Others react with indignation and refuse to take second-class-citizenship in the United States.
Among the latter is Vic Power.”
Steven Goldman discusses Power today in his latest column, and concludes:
Power’s place in Yankees history was sacrificed to his “intractability.” It’s much easier now to root for the Yankees, when this sorry aspect of the team’s history is far in the past. Two African-American Yankees, Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield, are now in the Hall of Fame. Rickey Henderson will be the third, Bernie Williams may someday be the fourth among many great Yankees ballplayers of all races and nationalities.
Power would have liked to count himself among them. “I liked playing in Yankee Stadium because of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and all of those guys. You feel like you’re one of those guys. And Yankee fans — they’re different.” Sportswriters would ask him if he hit well against the Yankees because he was mad at them. “No,” he would say. “It’s because I feel so proud just to think that Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig were standing where I’m standing now.”
At this year’s Old Timer’s Day, when Bob Sheppard reads off the list of players who passed away over the previous year, one hopes the fans will give Power an extra-long hand for what he should have meant to the franchise.
Amen to that.