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Right on Q: Hairston, Boyd, and Minoso

Some comments from today recall the time the White Sox erased their color line.

Minnie Minoso broke the White Sox color line in 1951.
Minnie Minoso broke the White Sox color line in 1951.

There were no columns. There were no think pieces. The debates were confined to kitchen tables and barstools, lost to history. For 50 years, white faces played for the White Sox. That all changed in 1951. The Sox, under the new management of Chuck Comiskey, Frank Lane, and Paul Richards, signed three black players.

This milestone received three paragraphs in the Chicago Tribune.

It's a timely history lesson in light of Michael Sam's recent coming out. When he's drafted in May, the All-American from the University of Missouri will become the first openly gay player in the NFL.

There have been comparisons to Jackie Robinson. He's breaking through another barrier in society.

The next day, White Sox President Kenny Williams told Ken Rosenthal that he would be more than happy to sign an openly gay baseball player.

Williams' statement led me down the wormhole of the Chicago Tribune archives. How did Chicago react when Minnie Minoso broke the south side color barrier in May of 1951?

When the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson in 1947, Tribune columnist Arch Ward was supportive.

"If Robinson clicks, it will be a boost for (Branch) Rickey as well as the player...Here's one author who wishes them both success," Ward wrote on April 18, 1947.

In 1947, the Civil War was a recent memory. Only 82 years separated Jackie Robinson's first game from Lee's surrender at Appomattox. A handful of Confederate veterans were still living. Hundreds of baseball players were born into a world that was still nursing their wounded regional pride. Their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, neighbors, and classmates all told them about the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.

According to this theory, the Civil War wasn't about slavery. It was about protecting the old Southern way of life from an overbearing Federal Government. And one of the pillars of the old Southern way of life just happened to be white supremacy. Families revered the relatives who fought for the Confederacy. Democrats held every elected office in the south for a century after the war just because Lincoln was a Republican.

So, if you're an infielder from Mississippi ... the idea of a black teammate -- an equal -- was simply outside the realm of possibility. After all, Grandaddy fought at Kenesaw Mountain, and what would he think?

At least that would explain why some ballplayers reacted so viscerally to the idea of integration. A number of white players had already played in exhibition games against Negro League teams.

If you want to read more about the "Lost Cause," check out Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horowitz.

None of those feelings played out in the pages of the Tribune. When Larry Doby arrived with the Cleveland Indians on July 5, 1947, the Trib noted that Manager Lou Boudreau called on Doby to pinch hit in the ninth inning of a game at Comiskey Park. He struck out, and the Sox won 6-5.

The White Sox did make history in 1949 when they hired John Donaldson as the first African-American scout in Major League Baseball. Donaldson was a former star pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs. After retiring from baseball, he settled in the Bronzeville neighborhood, just a short distance from Comiskey Park.

The Tribune noted that Donaldson was going to scout "Negro and white players."

John Donaldson was very good at his job. He scouted a teenage kid in Birmingham named Willie Mays. The front office didn't pull the trigger. Donaldson also presented them with two kids named Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron.

They passed.

Frustrated with his lack of progress, Donaldson quit the White Sox and spent the rest of his life working for the Post Office. When he died in 1970, the White Sox paid for his headstone.

But, the franchise did sign two other Donaldson discoveries. On July 31, 1950, the Sox signed their first African American player: Sam Hairston. Father of Jerry. Grandfather of Scott and Jerry Jr.

Hairston was signed out of the Indianapolis Clowns, a traveling Negro League team. He was assigned to Colorado Springs of the Pacific Coast League. In February of 1951, the Sox signed Bob Boyd, a slugging first baseman from the Memphis Red Sox.

Both players were invited to spring training, but were re-assigned to the Sacramento Solons of the PCL.

The color barrier wouldn't fall until April 30, 1951, when the White Sox acquired a speedy Cuban named Orestes Minoso in a three way deal with Cleveland and Philadelphia.

The banner headline in the Tribune sports section discussed the trade. Minoso's contribution to history was buried deep in the story.

"Minoso will be the first Negro to play as a White Sox in a league game."

According to historian Rich Lindberg, manager Paul Richards warned his players to treat Minoso with respect. Fortunately, that warning wasn't necessary. He was accepted by his new teammates.

As for the White Sox fans, any reservations they might have had melted away in the first inning on May 1, 1951, when Minoso cranked a two-run homer into the left center field seats. The White Sox lost the game 8-3.

But that was merely a bump in the road. The 1951 White Sox were hot, and they would occupy first place from the end of May through the beginning of August. Minoso was part of the White Sox renaissance of the 1950's.

Minnie Minoso is now a franchise legend. His number is retired. He should be in the Hall of Fame.

Here's hoping the first openly gay Sox player is just as talented.