By Bijan C. Bayne
While the Washington Senators officially broke their color barrier in 1954, team owner Clark Griffith had employed Cuban players long before Jackie Robinson’s 1947 Dodger debut. Fellow owners and baseball writers long believed that the Senators’ lineup was not technically all white.
Nowhere in the majors was the dance with blackness so controversial than in Washington. The Senators’ long struggle with race was clearly evident in Carlos Paula becoming the team’s first official Black ballplayer and in the treatment he received from the team’s management and the sporting press.
Papa Joe Scours Cuba
The Senators had their man in Cuba, Joe Cambria, an Italian American with a distinct baseball pedigree. In the early 1930s Cambria had operated the Baltimore Black Sox, a Negro League team, Cambria ventured into organized baseball by purchasing the Harrisburg Senators of the NY-Penn League in 1935. A year later, he made his first trip to Cuba in search of talent, signing nine players.
Through Cambria’s scouting of Cuba, the Senators commenced toying with baseball’s color line. Cambria assured the parent organization the Cubans were Castilian in heritage, but suspicions followed the Cubans wherever they played.
Suspicions expressed by American League owners prompted Shirley Povich of the Washington Post to note they accused Griffith of having “Senegambians in the Washington woodpile.”
One of Cambria’s initial signees was Roberto Estalella. The Cuban’s appearance with the Senators during the 1935 season and thereafter created a stir. Some sportswriters and ballplayers considered him Black by U.S. standards. This prompted Povich to write “Estalella was the first of the Cubans in the American League in a couple of decades and it was a tribute to him that he did hit .400 one season while ducking dust-off pitches from guys who didn’t cotton to his particular pigmentation.”
The Black Press hounded Clark Griffith to integrate the Senators. In 1935 Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American asked Griffith about signing Black ballplayers. Griffith told him this would kill Black baseball and put 400 men out of work. Lacy reminded Griffith the Emancipation Proclamation had put “400,000 black people out of jobs.”
The call to integrate the Senators continued into the mid-1950s. The team rarely rose above a .500 winning percentage. Why not sign Black players?
The 1954 campaign was much like those before, the Senators as an American League also-ran. In late August, Povich wrote of several players from Charlotte expected to join the big club, among them Carlos Paula. The Cuban batted .309, and had led the club in hits, doubles and total bases.
“Paula probably will be the first Negro to play for Washington in a league game,” Povich proclaimed.
On Sept. 6, Washington split a doubleheader with the Philadelphia A’s. The Associated Press reported “Carlos Paula, Cuban negro (sic) outfielder, became the first colored player to break into action in a regular season game with the Senators. He hit a double and a single in the first game.”
Washington’s Black Senator
Carlos Paula wasn’t expected to be Washington’s first Black Senator. A few pegged his countryman Angel Scull for that role.
The Sporting News projected Scull, a 5-foot-8, 165-pound outfielder to become Washington’s integration pioneer. A native of Matanzas, Scull had first worked out with the Senators in the spring of 1951. Scull’s anticipated debut was celebrated in the Black press. Topps even printed a 1954 baseball card.
Yet, it was Paula who made the biggest impression at Washington’s spring training in 1954.
Cambria proclaimed Paula “a player who can do everything well enough to be in the majors,” adding the 26-year old had “the best throwing arm in the outfield, is a terror on the bases, and can hit big league pitching.”
Having previously played in Paris, Texas, (Big State League), on March 17, 1954 The Paris News ran a feature in which Washington manager Bucky Harris assessed Paula as a prospect. Harris beamed, “He can whack that ball. He has the size and gets some beautiful leverage into his swing.”
The Texas paper added “He speaks better English than most of the Cubans. Paula, not Angel Scull may be the first Negro to wear a Washington uniform. Scull’s press clippings from Cuba established him as the favorite, but he is no solid one to beat out his countryman.”
Harris had reservations, however, asking sportswriters “If this fellow is such a great hitter, then how come he hit only .309 in the Big State League?” Harris informed them he had detected a hitch in Paula’s swing, and felt he chased too many bad balls. He therefore had Paula sent down to Charlotte for further seasoning at the start of the 1954 season.
Whatever success Paula would have during his 1954 call-up and 1955 rookie campaign, which included his breaking up a no-hit bid by the Yankees’ Whitey Ford in September 1955, he remained the subject of much stereotypical treatment in the sporting press.
Washington Post sports columnist Bob Addie, quoted Paula phonetically, questioned his baserunning (“muscle appears to dominate because he has pulled many a boner this year,”), and printed the following attribution “Me happy. Me no show. Me smile inside but face no pretty. Me just ugly.”
Paula finished 1955 with a .299 average in 115 games, and made the A.L. All-Rookie Team. Over the winter, while Paula was starring for Almendares in his homeland, Addie published a column in The Sporting News in which he quoted the Cuban saying “when leetle keed, me great player,” being inspired by “Baby Root” and “Lou Garage,” and again listed Paula’s mental baserunning lapses.
Paula’s time with the Senators would continue to be marked by racialized perceptions of his English-speaking abilities along with his intelligence and baseball IQ. The Black press accused Washington of racism, given Paula’s strong record in the high minors over the next several years. Though he continued to star in the high minors, Paula never again returned to the majors. Not even leading the Pacific Coast League in hitting with a .315 batting average in 1958 prompted his promotion.
New Name, Same Game
Calvin Griffith moved the Senators to Minnesota in 1961. The man who inherited ownership from his uncle Clark continued to embody some of the vexing inconsistencies about race. The franchise’s move was motivated in part because he claimed D.C.’s Black sports fans preferred wrestling to baseball. In Minnesota, ironically, the franchise that had insisted Cambria prove Latino players were white, featured Afro-Latino star Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, and Zoilo Versalles. But Paula, the player who started it all as the franchise’s official integration pioneer, would leave the game as an underappreciated talent. The Cuban who became the first Black Senator would die in Miami in 1983 at the age of 55.
Featured Image: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum / Osvaldo Salas
Inset Images: TOPPS