Two who tried out before Jackie Robinson

Joe Bostic, sports editor of Harlem newspaper the People's Voice, arrived at the Brooklyn Dodgers' spring training camp at West Point Academy in Bear Mountain, New York, shortly before noon on April 6, 1945. Bostic was accompanied by two Negro League veterans, pitcher Terris McDuffie and outfielder Dave "Showboat" Thomas.

Bostic told Harold Parrott, the Dodgers' traveling secretary, he wanted to speak to team president Branch Rickey about a tryout for the ballplayers.

Parrott said Rickey couldn't be disturbed because he was watching a game at another practice field at the West Point Academy. Like every other major league team, the Dodgers were training in the north because wartime travel prohibited them from going to Florida.

Bostic insisted on seeing Rickey. Parrott returned to Rickey with the message.

If things went according to plan, Bostic observed, McDuffie and Thomas would become the first black players since Charlie Grant in 1901 to try out for a major league team. John McGraw, the Hall of Fame manager who was managing the Baltimore Orioles at the time, was impressed enough with Grant that he tried to subvert baseball's color line, disguising Grant as a Native American named Charlie Tokohama. McGraw's plan was foiled when Grant's identity was revealed.

Parrott returned with Bob Finch, Rickey's top assistant, who said the team gave tryouts only to players who had invitations. Bostic asked why the team had never invited a black player. Finch had no answer. He told Bostic that Rickey would discuss the matter over lunch.

At about 2:30 p.m., Bostic and the ballplayers were escorted to a dining room. Fifteen minutes later, an incensed Rickey entered the room and directed a profanity-filled tirade at Bostic.

"I had read all those stories about his religion, so I was plenty surprised," the sports writer said.

Rickey, a devout Christian, didn't like being hounded by Bostic.

"I'm more for your cause than anybody else you know," he said, "but you are making a mistake using force."

Rickey, however, agreed to Bostic's demand: The players would get a tryout. Rickey asked that nobody in the room discuss the particulars of the meeting with the press.

Sports writers learned that Bostic had pestered Rickey, who told reporters he was interested in signing black players. Rickey said he had two conversations with New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia about integrating the Dodgers. Pressured by political progressives, La Guardia asked the owners of the city's three teams, the Giants, Yankees and Dodgers, to discuss the issue. Only Rickey met with La Guardia.

Rickey didn't reveal to La Guardia his closely guarded secret that he had been scouting black baseball players in an effort to identify ones to sign by the end of the year.

Bostic called Herald Tribune sports columnist Al Laney, one of the relatively few sports writers who had openly questioned the color line, and told him about the meeting with Rickey and the tryout for the ballplayers.

In his column the next morning, Laney took delight in writing how Bostic had surprised Rickey, leaving speechless the loquacious Rickey, whose news conferences were called "the cave of winds."

"It would have been a real pleasure to be at Bear Mountain yesterday," Laney said. "To catch Brother Rickey thus with his guard down was an extraordinary achievement. The situation had elements of immortal comedy."

Bostic's noon meeting with Rickey the next day was no more pleasant than the first meeting. "I was thoroughly raked over the coals for breaking the agreement not to tell anybody about the tryout so that it would be held in comparative privacy," Bostic said.

Rickey said Bostic had disregarded Rickey's request because it was necessary that sports writes be present at the tryout.

"I was aware that the white light of publicity would accomplish more for Negro players," Bostic said, "than all the silent pacts in the world."

For several years, black sports writers had listened to the promises of baseball executives to sign black players, and nothing had come of those promises. Bostic decided to put Rickey on the spot. Rickey called Bostic's bluff. Bostic now found himself on the spot.

For Bostic's strategy to have a chance of succeeding, it required that the talents of McDuffie and Thomas be so obvious no one could deny them. But neither McDuffie nor Thomas was such a ballplayer. Thomas was 40 and McDuffie was 35. Bostic chose them for their availability and not their ability. Far more talented players were either at spring training with their respective Negro League teams or playing in Mexico.

When Bostic insisted that sports writers be present for the tryout, Rickey did not object. Even though Rickey had been pressured into giving tryouts to McDuffie and Thomas, he treated the ballplayers like any other prospects. McDuffie and Thomas were assigned Brooklyn uniforms. McDuffie wore No. 9. Thomas wore No. 14. Thomas faced Brooklyn pitchers, and Rickey observed McDuffie's pitching.

The tryout lasted about an hour. Upon its conclusion, Rickey released his personal observations on the ballplayers, something he did with everyone in camp. Rickey was unimpressed with Thomas. He was more charitable toward McDuffie; according to Rickey, McDuffie had good control and a good fastball and curve but lacked an effective changeup. Neither player heard from the Dodgers again.

After the tryout concluded, Bostic released a statement that expressed his satisfaction. "Today's extensive tryout, given Terris McDuffie and Dave Thomas by the Dodgers, represents a constructive and significant step in the effort to have Negro players in the major leagues," Bostic said. "I feel it represents the first concrete step toward realization of that goal."

While Bostic was confronting Rickey at Bear Mountain, a Boston city councilman, Isadore Muchnick, told the Red Sox he would revoke their license to play games on Sundays if they did not consider at least one black player. Pittsburgh Courier sports editor Wendell Smith, who had been calling for the integration of baseball for nearly a decade, recruited three quality ballplayers, Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams. The Red Sox agreed to look at the ballplayers.

Whereas Rickey treated McDuffie and Thomas like any other prospect, the Red Sox assigned high school pitchers to throw batting practice to Robinson, Jethroe and Williams. Whereas Rickey scrutinized the abilities of McDuffie and Thomas, Red Sox officials said nothing to the players. One Boston sports writer, who witnessed the tryout, wrote that one Red Sox executive, either owner Tom Yawkey or general manager Eddie Collins, yelled, "Get those n------ off the field!"

On Aug. 28, Rickey confirmed his sincerity toward ending the color line by secretly signing Robinson during a meeting in the Brooklyn executive's office. The team announced the signing Robinson two months later. Robinson played his first game for Brooklyn on April 15, 1947. Meanwhile, the Red Sox confirmed their opposition and, in 1959, became the last major league team to integrate.