Unheralded Jethroe broke barriers with Braves

Unheralded Jethroe broke barriers with Braves

ATLANTA -- Sam Jethroe was there with Jackie Robinson when the Red Sox staged what he and many others considered a "sham" of a workout for a few Negro League players two years before Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier with the Dodgers in 1947.

Forced to a wait a few additional years for his chance, Jethroe became the first African-American player in Braves history and was named the National League's Rookie of the Year in 1950, four years before Hank Aaron introduced himself to the big league scene.

Jethroe dealt with some of the same cruelty aimed toward Robinson and cleared some of the same paths that have afforded many African-Americans opportunities to thrive in the baseball world.

But 60 years after his short career with the Braves concluded, Jethroe's legacy is not nearly as well recognized as Robinson's.

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"I don't know anything about him at all," Braves first-base coach and former NL MVP Terry Pendleton said. "I'm honestly ashamed that I don't."

Jethroe hit .261 with a .337 on-base percentage and 98 stolen bases in 442 Major League games. He led the NL with 35 stolen bases in both of his first two seasons with the Braves, and combined to hit .276 with a .798 OPS during that span. After hitting .232 with a .318 OBP in 1952, he was sent back to the Minors.

Minus two games played with the Pirates in 1954, Jethroe spent most of his final seven seasons playing in the Minors. After retiring at the age of 41, he went to Erie, Pa., and opened a tavern that he maintained for 30 years before having to relocate to a less-desirable part of town. A fatal shooting inside the establishment hurt business and led him to spend the final years of his life struggling financially.

Jethroe passed away on June 16, 2001, at the age of 84.

Eleven years later, Braves outfielders Jason Heyward and Michael Bourn count themselves among those who know very little about the contributions and sacrifices Jethroe made for them and the many other African-Americans who have made it to the Majors.

"We're all quick to judge or have our opinions in the sports world," Heyward said. "But we haven't done enough research to know what all happened to get where we are."

Influenced by the urging of a local sports writer and politician, the Red Sox invited Philadelphia Stars shortstop Marvin Williams, Jethroe and Robinson to Fenway Park for a tryout on April 16, 1945. The three walked away without the opportunity to join the Red Sox, who would not have an African-American on their big league club until 1959.

One day shy of the two-year anniversary of that tryout, Robinson made his historic debut for the Dodgers. Jethroe was playing for the Cleveland Buckeyes in the Negro Leagues at that time, but the Dodgers signed him one year later.

By 1949, the Dodgers had already brought three African-American players -- Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe -- to the Major League level. But with another talented center fielder, Duke Snider, rising through their system, the Dodgers opted to trade Jethroe to the Boston Braves.

Jethroe made his debut for the Braves a few months later and began his march toward winning the Rookie of the Year honors in 1950. His 35 stolen bases that year were 18 more than any other Major Leaguer, and his 70 stolen bases in his first two seasons combined were 27 more than the second-highest total recorded during that span.

"He was the fastest human being I've ever seen," Newcombe told The New York Times in 2001.

While serving as the first African-American Major Leaguer in Boston, Jethroe roomed with Chuck Cooper, who joined the Celtics after becoming the first black player drafted by an NBA team.

Jethroe homered in his Major League debut on April 18, 1950, at the age of 33. Four years later, on the seventh anniversary of Robinson's debut, he played his final game for the Pirates, who had made Curt Roberts their first African-American Major Leaguer just two days earlier.

Because Jethroe did not play four full seasons at the Major League level, he did not qualify for a pension. After financial trouble forced him to begin living in his own bar, he filed a class-action suit against Major League owners, alleging racism had prevented him from breaking into the big leagues earlier. A federal judge ruled the statute of limitations had passed.

But Jethroe's determination led MLB in 1997 to begin paying more than 100 Negro League players annual pensions in the neighborhood of $10,000.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.