Most baseball fans know about Jackie Robinson breaking the big league color barrier to start the 1947 season, but many more followed in his footsteps.
There’s an important name that, sadly, most Atlanta Braves fans probably don’t recognize. On opening day in 1950, a center fielder became the first black player on baseball’s oldest continuously-operating franchise. Sam Jethroe broke the color barrier for the Braves and the city of Boston’s baseball history.
It would be over nine years before the Red Sox would field an African-American on their roster as the last major league team to integrate. That was seven seasons after the Braves had already left for Milwaukee.
Like Jackie Robinson before him, Sam Jethroe wasn’t just satisfied with being the first. Making the best of his first season in the big leagues, he went ahead and wrapped up National League Rookie of the Year honors while he was at it.
At the age of 32 for his rookie season, Jethroe remains to this day the oldest player to ever bring home the Rookie of the Year award, and his numbers hold water, even against today’s competition.
Playing the entirety of the 1950 campaign for the Boston Braves, Jethroe slashed .273/.338/.442, racking up 159 hits, 18 homers. He scored 100 runs and drove in 58. At 32, he still had enough speed to steal a league-leading 35 bases. At the time, Jethroe’s stolen base total was the most for a Braves player since the 1913 season.
Following an impressive career in the Negro Leagues and an impressive showing the minors, Jethroe would play three full seasons in the majors, all with the Braves in Boston. He also holds the honor of hitting the final grand slam by a Brave before the team’s move to the midwest.
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As early as 1945, Jethroe joined fellow Negro League stars Jackie Robinson and Marvin Williams in tryouts with the Boston Red Sox, ironically.
Jethroe spent the entire 1953 season with triple-A Toledo, hitting over .300 for the year. In 1954, the 36-year-old was traded to the Pirates. His final big league appearance would be two games in April of that season for Pittsburgh. It’s no surprise the Braves would be looking to open up a spot at center field, as a young Hank Aaron made his debut to begin the 1954 season.
Jethroe would spend the next five seasons at triple-A Toronto, before hanging up his cleats in 1958 at age 41. He finished with a minor league average of .295 in eight season. He hit 119 home runs and stole 232 bases. Though its statistics are an inexact science at best, Jethroe’s 18 year baseball career included eight seasons in the Negro Leagues as well.
”He was the fastest human being I’ve ever seen,” former teammate Don Newcombe once said of Jethroe’s speed on the bases. The two had played together at triple-A Montreal when Jethroe stole 89 bases in 1949. He also happened to hit .326 with 17 home runs and 207 hits that same season.
After a losing a legal battle to get his major league pension, along with a host of other black players, Jethroe was eventually recognized as a big league veteran in 1997 by the MLB. Unfortunately, he passed away shortly thereafter, dying of a heart attack in Erie, Pennsylvania in 2001. He was 84.
Because he played two cities ago, and before the bulk of most current Braves fans parents were even born, Sam Jethroe’s legacy has been mostly lost in the organization’s history.
When thinking of franchise greats, however, Braves fans should educate themselves on the legacy of the 32-year-old rookie who helped change the game forever.