The 1938 Pittsburgh Pirates that never were – until now

Jackie Robinson, as we all know, broke the so-called “color barrier” established within professional baseball by taking the field for first the Montreal Royals, then the Brooklyn Dodgers both therefore clubs with all-white rosters playing in all-white leagues – though it’s hardly as though Dodgers club president Branch Rickey invented the idea of pioneering baseball’s integration when no one had dreamt so audaciously before.

For more than a decade, sportswriter (and later sportswriter/editor)  Chester Washington was one of the most strident voices for the sport’s racial integration. Washington worked for the Pittsburgh Courier, at one time the highest-circulated newspaper among those for African-American readership. The paper’s location in Pittsburgh meant that not only did Washington cover the Pirates, he also had the beats of two of the Negro National League’s more successful franchises, the Crawfords and the Homestead Grays.

This gave Washington an idea in late 1937, prompting him to send a telegram to Pirates manager/president Pie Traynor with an offer he figured Traynor couldn’t refuse (or at very least seriously consider)…

Later in 1938, Washington, together with National Negro Association secretary-treasurer (and former president of the Pittsburgh Courier) Cumberland Posey, questioned no less than Pittsburgh Pirates William K. Benswanger on integration of professional baseball.

Pirates Owner sepia players OKPirates Owner sepia players OK 12 Feb 1938, Sat The Pittsburgh Courier (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) Newspapers.com

Among the highlights from the big-talking mogul included…

  • “If the question of admitting colored ball players into organized baseball becomes an issue, I would be heartily in favor of rt!”
  • “I think that colored people should have an opportunity in baseball just as they have an opportunity in music or anything else.”
  • “I saw [Josh] Gibson about two years ago and he certainly looked like big-league timber to me.”
  • “I’ve seen lots of colored clubs play. In fact, I watched almost every game Involving colored teams at Forbes Field for many years, and I’ve seen several players, but not all of them, who appear to be just as good as many of our men in organized baseball.”
  • “Take a man like Satchel Paige: He appears to be of big-league caliber…”

About 1½ years later, as the 1939 season was coming to a close, Traynor stated that “If given permission, I would certainly use a Negro player [who had] the ability. Personally, I don’t see why the ban against Negro players exists at all.”

Said permission had never come, though, and the 1938 Pittsburgh Pirates did not make history: The team fell 2 games short of the Chicago Cubs for the pennant – after losing the regular-season series 12 games to 10. The final blow (literally) had come on September 28, when Gabby Hartnett’s storied “Homer in the Gloaming” won the final meeting between the two teams in the bottom of the 9th in Pittsburgh.

Gabby Hartnett Gabby Hartnett “Homer in the Gloaming” 29 Sep 1938, Thu The Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) Newspapers.com\

Talk about your curses of the Cubs: The Pirates, who hadn’t won the National League pennant since 1927, would go another 21 seasons before getting to the ’60 World Series and miraculously upending the declining Yankee empire. (Maybe it was the cruse of the ’27 Yankees afflicting Pittsburgh, then…)

Benswanger was later credited with forward-thinking, though not exactly revolutionary. As a Boston writer summed up Benswanger’s contributions in 2008: “The largely forgotten owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates between the wars, he agitated to integrate baseball in 1930, 1940 and 1942. He failed, of course, and some have termed his efforts ‘tame’.”

Ironically, after acting on the owners’ behalf in stymying player union demands, Benswanger sold his interest in the Pirates in 1946, one year before Jackie Robinson’s Dodgers debut.

Suffice to say that history would undoubtedly have been different – well different: like, parallel universe-level different – had Benswanger bucked baseball’s unwritten rules and moneyed up to his mouth to take Washington, the Crawfords and the Grays up on the telegraphed offer.

Truly The GOATs is about to peer into that alternate reality…

•••••

Thanks to the increasingly amazing Out of the Park Baseball, which I’ve been playing for 14 years/editions and innumerable insane mutant GOAT simulations. But this baseball season, Truly the GOATs is on a mission to integrate simulated baseball, create a legendary team for the ages and perhaps even revolutionize baseball itself … in one man’s PC, anyway.

Opening Day for the Pirates in 1938 was on April 19 at the St. Louis Cardinals of Johnny Mize and Enos Slaughter; the revamped Pirates will begin their virtual season on the same date in 2021. Follow what Chester Washington called the “formidable pennant contenders, the alternate-world 1938 Pittsburgh Pirates, here at TrulyTheGOATs.com, our Twitter feed, Facebook page, etc.

Stay tuned for a new kind of classic baseball!

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