The quiet pioneer
Soft-spoken and small in stature, Jehosie Heard stood tall 50 years ago as the first African-American to play for the Orioles.
By John Eisenberg
Sun Staff
Originally published April 23, 2004
BIRMINGHAM, Ala -- He was a tiny left-handed pitcher whose major league career was composed of two appearances, one in Chicago and the other in Baltimore.

Most of his baseball life unfolded in the game's fringes, on minor league diamonds from Canada to Cuba.

Yet Jehosie Heard managed to make history.

On April 24, 1954 -- 50 years ago tomorrow -- he integrated the Orioles, becoming the first African-American to play for the team in a regular season game.

"He was proud of it, but he never talked about it; that wasn't his nature," said Donnie Harris, a family member from Birmingham who also played pro baseball.

Heard's soft-spoken nature was a factor in the Orioles' selecting him to break their color line, said William Greason, a Baptist minister in Birmingham, Ala., who was Heard's teammate in the Negro leagues during the 1940s.

"Teams were very careful about who they chose; they were looking for guys like Jackie Robinson who could handle the abuse without cracking," said Greason, who also pitched in the nearly all-white minors and majors of the 1950s.

Heard, who died in 1999 at 79, was the Orioles' only black player on Opening Day in April 1954 and one of only two black pitchers and eight black players overall in the American League.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court was about to rule (in May) that segregated schools "had no place" in America, racial tension abounded in baseball.

Black players had to deal with fans calling them names, intolerant teammates and managers who ignored or cursed them and opponents who slid with their spikes up, intending to do harm.

"Things were improving, but you still had to endure a lot," said Greason, who made four appearances for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954.

The Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Senators still had all-white rosters, even though it had been seven years since Robinson integrated the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"A few teams were out and out bigoted, a few were open-minded and a lot were in the middle," said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport and Society. "The attitude [in the middle] was, 'I'm being pressured to do this and I don't like it, but maybe the best thing to do is get someone in here and get it over with.' "

Heard was just 5 feet 7 and 145 pounds when he put on the Orioles' uniform, but he had used breaking balls and good control to win more than 70 games in the minors and Negro leagues.

He was 34 but listed as 29 because he had lied to better his chances in "organized" ball, the minors and majors.

His history-making debut came in an afternoon game against the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park. With the Orioles trailing 10-0, he came on in relief with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning. He faced four batters and retired them all.

It was the ninth game of the Orioles' first season in Baltimore. They lost, 14-4.

Heard's appearance was noted in the 11th paragraph of a game story in The Sun the next day, crediting him as "the first member of his race ever to appear in an Oriole uniform in a regular-season game."

He didn't pitch again until May 28, at Memorial Stadium, when he fared poorly in a relief appearance, allowing six hits and five runs to the White Sox in an 11-6 loss.

Two games and out

The Orioles demoted him to the Portland (Ore.) Beavers, a Triple-A team in the Pacific Coast League, in early June, shortly after he reportedly was involved in a domestic disturbance.

He never pitched again in the majors.

Later that season, the Orioles called up another African-American, outfielder Joe Durham, who was the first black Oriole to hit a home run, in September 1954. Three years after that, a former Negro leagues star named Connie Johnson won 14 games as a member of the Orioles' starting rotation.

In 1966, future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson led the team to its first World Series title.

By then, Heard was operating a dye machine in a cotton mill in Birmingham, long forgotten by most Baltimore fans.

But though Durham, Johnson, Robinson, first baseman Bob Boyd and outfielder Paul Blair were the best-known African-Americans of the Orioles' early years, Heard was the first.

"Any goal that is reached takes many steps," Roby said. "Some black players of that generation didn't last that long in the majors, but the totality of their careers helped people realize integration would happen. You can't emphasize the importance of that enough."

A player's temperament had a lot to do with whether he was given a chance, said Dick Clark, co-chairman of the Negro leagues committee of the Society of American Baseball Researchers.

"There were really talented black players who didn't get a chance because they were perceived to have an attitude," Clark said. "The Yankees had a fantastic player named Vic Power whom they traded because he dated white women.

"Teams didn't want independent thinkers. They wanted guys with talent, but also the right aptitude for a difficult situation."

Although Heard's Negro leagues teammates had called him "Jaybird," supposedly because of a chirpy personality, many close friends and family members recalled him with the same adjective - quiet.

"He would watch and listen rather than jump into a conversation," Donnie Harris said. "And he was one of those guys who let things roll off his back. I think that worked in his favor when he was getting into [white] baseball."

Heard was from the heart of the Deep South. According to family members, his father, John, was picking cotton when Jehosie, the youngest of five children, was born in High Shoals, Ga., in January 1920.

The family then moved to Birmingham so John Heard could work at a stove-and-range factory making skillets and pots.

"There was an extended family [in Birmingham] with many uncles and cousins, and everyone lived within a block," said Heard's niece, Gwen Harris.

Family members say Heard learned baseball from an older brother who assumed a paternal role when their father died young. But in a 1994 book, Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947-59, author Larry Moffi wrote that Heard never played before being drafted into the Army for World War II.

"He saw soldiers shagging flies and decided to give it a shot. The first ball he tried to catch knocked him out, but he kept trying and an officer eventually noticed his strong arm," Moffi wrote.

Played with Mays

He was soon the team's star pitcher, according to the book.

After the war, he pitched for the 24th Street Red Sox in Birmingham's industrial league, then broke into pro ball with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League.

In 1948, he went 6-1 as a reliever for a Black Barons team that won the NNL pennant with a 16-year-old phenom named Willie Mays playing center field.

Four players on the 1948 Black Barons eventually reached the majors: Artie Wilson, Greason, Mays and Heard.

"He didn't have a fastball to go with those breaking balls, but he threw strikes and was just one of those guys who got you out," Greason said.

After 1948, Heard played for Negro leagues teams in Houston, Memphis and New Orleans, but with "organized" ball integrating, he longed to compete in that higher realm.

"Everyone did; you had a chance to make more money," said Harris, 67, a retired plant supervisor and part-time accountant who also played for the Blacks Barons and married Heard's niece.

"It was the money, but also who you were representing," Greason said.

In August 1951, after claiming he was 27 (instead of 32), Heard signed with the St. Louis Browns, who were owned by Bill Veeck, a progressive who had signed the American League's first black player, Larry Doby, when he owned the Cleveland Indians in 1947.

Veeck personally scouted Heard and recommended him, according to a 1952 Sporting News story.

It was common for black players to lie about their age to get a chance, researcher Clark said. "If [Heard] had told them he was 32, he never would have signed."

In 1952, the Browns loaned Heard to Portland, which farmed him out to a Western International League team in Victoria, British Columbia. Heard went 20-12 for the Single-A team in 1952. He threw a no-hitter and once pitched both ends of a Sunday doubleheader, losing both by 1-0 scores.

The eight-team league's exact racial composition is lost to history, but there weren't many African-Americans.

His 20-win season resulted in a promotion to Portland in 1953. He went 16-12 in the tough Pacific Coast League.

The pressure on any African-American in organized baseball was unrelenting.

"When I signed, [the owner] told me, 'I didn't bring you here to be as good [as white players]. I'm bringing you here to be better,' " Greason recalled. "Wherever we went, we were a drawing card. Every time I pitched, the stands were packed.

"We performed well. We had a little character. We didn't fight or cuss. People called us everything but a child of God and we didn't pay any attention. ... If someone calls you a dog, you know you're not a dog."

In September 1953, the Browns, who still owned Heard's major league rights, relocated to Baltimore. The team's highest-paid player that season had been Satchel Paige, the black pitching legend whom Veeck had signed as a drawing card. Paige, rumored to be almost 50, went 3-9, earned $25,000 and set his own terms, often arriving for games in the sixth inning.

Taking Paige's place

Paige was in line to integrate the Orioles but was released in December 1953. He was too old and expensive, general manager Arthur Ehlers said.

In a move that attracted less attention that month, the Orioles purchased Heard's contract from Portland, giving the pitcher a $2,000 bonus.

Heard pitched well enough in spring training to earn a spot in the bullpen on Opening Day and rode in a car with teammate Mike Blyzka during the parade that heralded Baltimore's return to the majors.

At the time, Baltimore was the only American League city that had segregated downtown hotels, forcing black players on visiting clubs to stay apart from their teammates.

The Orioles' use of black players was closely monitored in the black community. Baltimore Afro-American sports editor Sam Lacy wrote editorials challenging them to integrate.

Heard and his wife, Mildred, lived in a rented house on Bentalou Street. In an interview with the late Sun columnist John Steadman in 1990, he fondly recalled his time in the city. Orioles catcher Clint Courtney taught him a change-up, he said. Asked if his teammates had given him trouble, Heard replied, "Not a one of them. They were all great."

He was demoted to Portland on June 6, his ERA 13.50 after the two appearances. Ehlers' explanation was that Heard's fastball just wasn't fast enough for the majors.

Days later, Lacy reported in the Afro-American that Heard and his wife had argued one evening when he was still on the team, and, according to neighbors, both had ended up in a hospital emergency room.

Heard missed that night's game, Lacy reported, telling the team he had a stomach ailment. Heard denied to Lacy that such a disturbance had occurred.

Heard's marriage later ended in divorce, without children.

Durham, who joined the Orioles later that season, recently told The Sun that Heard missed some team meetings because of drinking.

Greason, who played with and against Heard in the minors and Negro leagues, said Heard's off-field habits were typical.

"I mean, he was a ballplayer. After the game, they would go out and maybe have a drink and see if they could find something. That's the way we all were," Greason said. "Heard was like any other player, but he was a strong competitor on the field."

At the end of the 1954 season, the Orioles traded Heard's rights and $20,000 to Portland for pitcher Bob Alexander.

Texas pioneer, too

Heard continued to pitch in the minors, and also continued to break racial barriers. In 1956, he was one of only a few black players in the Texas League. Greason was in the same league that season, playing for Oklahoma City.

One night, Greason hit a home run off Heard. They shared a laugh as Greason circled the bases.

"I went, 'I gotcha!' " Greason said. "We went out together after the game."

The major leagues continued to integrate, however slowly, feeling the impact of the cumulative effect of the barriers being broken by Heard and others.

The Yankees integrated in 1955, the Tigers in 1958, the Red Sox in 1959.

"It wasn't like all of a sudden there was a rush," Northeastern's Roby said. "I'm sure there were quotas. Teams didn't want to get too much attention for having black players.

"It wasn't until they realized the economic gain in having them, in terms of winning more and selling tickets, that they said, 'The heck with quotas. We need to get these guys in here because they can play.' "

The major leagues were 26 percent African-American by the mid-1970s, Roby said. The number has since fallen to 13 percent, he added, with the drop offset by a corresponding rise in Latin American players.

As for Heard, he injured his arm while playing winter ball in early 1957. After a failed comeback in 1958, he was finished with baseball.

Settling in Birmingham, he worked at a cotton mill for more than two decades, rising to a supervisory position. An avid fisherman, he retired in 1985.

His social life was built around his family and former Negro leaguers such as Harris and Greason.

"Everyone swapped a lot of lies when they got together, but Jehosie just smiled and didn't say a lot," Donnie Harris said.

He moved to a nursing home in his final years after suffering a stroke. He died from cancer.

A program distributed at his funeral noted he had broken the Orioles' color barrier.

"That generation had a lot of guys who went into a lot of places ... where there hadn't been many blacks, if any," Harris said. "You had to be able to play. But you also had to have the right personality to take that on. Jehosie had it."

Sun researcher Paul McCardell and Sun staff writer Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.