Sunday, April 15, 2012

By Brian Waller, Columnist

On this day in 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the "color barrier" in Major League Baseball as he made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Baseball may be referred to as simply a game but the fact of the matter is that there are few things as closely tied to American culture and society as baseball. The sport is synonymous with summer, with father/son relationships, and with everything American, including apple pie. It would only seem fitting that one of the biggest events in the civil rights movement was tied in with baseball. Jackie Robinson's hard work and perseverance not only paved the way for African American players, it paved the way for all minorities. It was Robinson who opened the door for legends such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente.

On a day dedicated to celebrating Robinson and what he accomplished, I decided to take a look back at what he meant to Angels' baseball. Robinson's debut took place 14 years prior to the inaugural 1961 season of the Angels and even though he never wore an Angels' uniform, make no mistake about it, an impact was still made. Despite a decade and a half passing since Robinson broke the color barrier, times were still difficult for minorities in America regardless if you were a pro athlete or not. Players of all races were slowly integrated into the game but each owner was still faced with the decision of if they should sign minority players or not.

Angels' Owner Gene Autry was faced with the decision early on in his team's existence. During the expansion draft prior to the 1961 season the Halos selected Cuban born player Julio Becquer. Prior to the start of the season the Angels also signed African American Lou Johnson. Though the two players would not start on opening day, they both made appearances. Becquer would be inserted as a defensive replacement and would be acknowledged as the first minority player to play for the Angels. Later in the game, Johnson would pinch-hit, earning the distinction as the first African American to play for the team. Johnson's time with the Halos would be short lived however as he would be traded at the conclusion of the game for one of the more popular Angels during the franchise's early days, Leon "Daddy Wags" Wagner. Wagner, who was also African American, would play three seasons for the Halos and went on to hit .279 with 91 home runs and 276 RBI's. Becquer would play only 11 games in an Angels' uniform but he would always have the distinction of being the first minority player to wear a halo.

Over the years numerous players of various races have worn an Angels' uniform, those players include Don Baylor, Rod Carew, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Torii Hunter, and just recently Albert Pujols. As baseball fans, and as humans in general we should be glad that our society has come far enough along to where race does not matter and where the color of individuals' skin is irrelevant; more than anything we should be proud at how far we have come since 1947. On a day when every baseball player wears number "42" on their back as a tribute to everything Jackie Robinson did and stood for, as fans lets also take a step back and appreciate what he meant to baseball.
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