By Glen Sparks
Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in April of 1947. No player crossed the Washington Senators’ color line until Carlos Paula did so in the fall of 1954.
Integrated baseball came late to the nation’s capital. What took so long? Senators owner Clark Griffith had told sportswriter Sam Lacy in 1937 that “the time was not far off” before black baseball players would start filling big-league rosters, according to Brad Snyder’s 2003 book Beyond the Shadow of the Senators.
What the local African-American community may have thought of Griffith’s quote is unclear. Griffith delivered mixed messages in regard to racial issues. On the one hand, he rented out his ballpark for numerous black sporting and community events, Snyder writes. A local historian, Henry Whitehead, called Griffith Stadium “sort of like an outdoor theater for the black community.”
On the other hand, black fans rarely sat in box seats or the grandstand at Senators games. Mostly, they sat in the right-field pavilion. Lacy, who grew up in D.C., confirmed that a segregated seating policy existed at Griffith Stadium during the 1920s and ’30s. “There were places I couldn’t go,” he said, according to Snyder’s book.
D.C. eventually welcomed a second baseball team. The Homestead Grays, a Negro league franchise founded in Pennsylvania, moved half their home games to Griffith Stadium in 1940. Clark Griffith collected the rent checks and other receipts. By 1943, the Grays were playing most of their games in the District.
The team, at various times, featured great players such as Walter “Buck” Leonard, Josh Gibson, James “Cool Papa” Bell and Ray Brown. The Grays went on to win league titles from 1940-45 and in 1948 after capturing championships in 1931 and 1937-39. They were a powerhouse.
Back in 1937, during that interview when Griffith told Lacy “the time was not far off” for an integrated major league, the owner proposed a plan. He wanted to see a Negro League of eight teams. He asked for a league “so professional” that in time—he wasn’t specific on exactly how much time—it could not be ignored. Integration would inevitably follow.
That didn’t happen, of course. Dodgers President Branch Rickey ended segregation by his own plan. He announced Robinson’s signing on Oct. 23, 1945. Baseball’s first African-American player in the 20th century debuted for Brooklyn on April 15, 1947. The Cleveland Indians’ Larry Doby followed Robinson just a few months later.
By mid-April of 1954, 11 teams had crossed the color line. The Senators, along with the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox still fielded white-only teams.
Clark Griffith, though, needed some talent. His club, once a solid first-division franchise, began slipping into the second division more often than not in 1934. The owner looked to Cuba for help. Griffith told scout Joe Cambria to find major league-caliber players on the island. Make sure they’re light-skinned players, he added.
Cambria discovered Paula while on a scouting trip in the early 1950s. Paula certainly looked like an athlete. He stood 6-feet-2-inches, weighed 200 pounds and packed plenty of muscle onto his frame. Paula ripped line drives, sprinted around the base paths and hurled darts from the outfield. Cambria thought Paula might be a superstar in the making. He wasn’t light-skinned. Cambria signed him, anyway.
Larry Brunt, a digital strategy intern at the Baseball Hall of Fame, wrote about Paula’s life and career in a recent article on the HOF web site. Paula’s story is unfamiliar to most fans. He never became a superstar. Paula, born Nov. 28, 1927, didn’t even go to bat 500 times in his big-leagues career.
During spring training in 1954, Paula impressed the right people. Washington skipper Bucky Harris said about Paula: “He can whack that ball.” The ballplayer did, however, have a hitch in his swing, Harris said. The Senators sent their prospect to the Charlotte Hornets of the Class A Sally League. Paula led Charlotte in several categories and finally made his debut with the Senators on Sept. 6. He doubled and singled in his first game.
Paula batted 24 times in 1954, but managed just two more hits. The following year, he got into 115 games and batted .299 (.332 on-base percentage). He slammed six homers and drove in 45 runs. Over one 22-game stretch, Paula batted .450 with 14 extra-base hits.
That was definitely the best season of Paula’s short career. He showed up late for spring training in 1956; Washington optioned him to the Denver Bears of the American Association. There, he hit .375 over a month’s work and earned a call back up to D.C. Paula, though, played in only 33 games. He hit .183 in 82 at-bats.
Paula never made it back to the big leagues. The Senators said he was late all the time and that he didn’t think of baseball as “a serious business.” Paula hit .271 over his 457 major league at-bats. He belted nine home runs and collected 60 RBI. Never a good fielder, Paula committed 11 errors in 157 games.
Over the rest of his career, Paula played in the minor leagues and, eventually, back in his native Cuba. He died April 25, 1983, at the age of 55. The Washington Post printed an article about the former player. Two days later, the Post included a second story that informed readers: “He was the Senators’ first black.”
As for Clark Griffith, he owned the Senators until his death on Oct. 27, 1955, at age 85. Clark’s nephew, Calvin Griffith, then took control. In 1961, the Senators moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul and became the Twins. Calvin said in a 1978 speech to the local Lions Club that he relocated to Minnesota because “you only had 15,000 black people here (in the Twin Cities). Black people don’t go to ball games.” Griffith sold the Twins to Carl Pohlad in 1984.