Musings: Piper Davis

By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author

PIPER DAVIS

In the winter of 1950 the Boston Red Sox purchased the contract of a very good player
named Lorenzo “Piper” Davis. The acquisition would not be particularly noteworthy but
for one thing: Piper Davis was black.

At the time of the deal only four major league teams had integrated: The Brooklyn
Dodgers, the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Browns, and the New York Giants. The
Red Sox were thus in the vanguard of teams leading the way in breaking down the color
barrier in big league baseball.

Or were they?

Davis’ contract had been purchased for $7500 from the Birmingham Black Barons of the
Negro Leagues, with another $7500 due if he were still Red Sox property on May 15 th , a
month after the baseball season began. He’d been a perennial star for the Black Barons,
playing all four infield positions as well as the outfield, all while serving as the team’s
player-manager.

He was assigned to Scranton of the single A Eastern League. As the May 15 deadline
approached, he was leading the team in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. It
was obvious that he could, and should, play at above the single A level.

But the Red Sox brass faced a dilemma: where would they play him? Their double A
farm team was the (all white) Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association, and
Birmingham, Alabama, was the most segregated city in America. They couldn’t place
Davis there. The Sox’ triple A team, the Louisville Colonels, played in another southern,
segregated market. Cross that off the list.

That left the big club, Boston, as the last option. But where would he play for the Red
Sox? They had Bobby Doerr, a future hall-of- famer, at second base; Johnny Pesky, a
perennial .300 hitter and fan-favorite was at third; shortstop was manned by the slugger
Vern Stephens, who in the previous year had knocked in 159 runs and hit 39 homers, and
folowed that up with 144 RBIs and 30 home runs in ‘50; at first base they had Walt
Dropo, who in1950 won Rookie of the Year honors by batting .322 with 34 homers and
144 RBIs (he and Stephens tied for the league lead in RBIs). The outfield consisted of
Ted Williams in left field (‘nuff said); the league’s premier defensive outfielder, and a
terrific leadoff man, Dom DiMaggio (he hit .328 that year) was in center; and the right
fielder was Al Zarilla, who hit .325. Backing them up was a super-sub, 24 year-old Billy
Goodman, who, like Davis, played both infield and outfield. Goodman would prove his
worth that year by filling in at left field for Ted Williams when the Kid broke his elbow

in the All-Star game; Goodman went on to win the American League batting title with an
average of .354. The Red Sox, needless to say, were loaded. There was no way Piper
Davis was going to crack that line-up.

To make matters worse for him, at age 32 he was too old to be a prospect; in fact, he was
older than all the well-established Red Sox infielders and outfielders except DiMaggio,
who was only 5 months his senior. Waiting for him to mature while the regulars aged
didn’t make any sense at all.

So the Red Sox took what they thought was the easy way out. Rather than pay the Black
Barons the other $7500 that would have been due on May 15 th , they called Piper Davis
into the front office and gave him his unconditional release. He was too good to play for
Scranton, too dark-skinned to play for Louisville or Birmingham, and not a good fit for
Boston.

It raises the question: why had they purchased Piper Davis’s contract in the first place?
What the Red Sox needed that year was pitching, not another bat. Their only two starting
players who hit less than .300 in 1950 were Doerr (.294) and Stephens (.295), who
combined for a total of 264 runs batted in that year. Even catcher Birdie Tebbetts (.310)
joined the .300 club in ’50. And – brace yourself - they still couldn’t win the pennant!

The reason was pitching, or, more precisely, the lack thereof. Mel Parnell (18-10, 3.61)
was the only pitcher on the staff with an ERA lower than 4.18. The result was that the

Red Sox finished third in the American League in 1950. Always remember this, boys and
girls: pitching wins.

Meanwhile, what of Piper Davis? He returned to the Black Barons where he hit .383 in
1950. The next year he signed with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, then
in the process of desegregating, just as the major leagues were. He became a fixture for
the Oaks for the next five years, adding catcher to the positions he played with dexterity.

While playing for Oakland he became an inspiration to a young Oaks fan of color from
the nearby community of Richmond, California. The youngster had aspirations of his
own to be a professionl ballplayer some day. His name was Elijah Green, but everyone
called him by his childhood nickname – Pumpsie.

In 1959, of course, it would be Pumpsie Green who would become to first player of color
to wear a Red Sox uniform. It had been nine years since the team had signed, then
released, Piper Davis. By that time every other major league team had integrated, and the
Red Sox’ reputation for being unwelcoming to black players was firmly entrenched.
They’re still paying the price for it.

Too bad Piper Davis wasn’t a pitcher.