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Forgotten history: 75 years ago, two St. Louis Browns became the 3rd and 4th Black players in MLB

They were the third and fourth Black players in MLB history and the first in St. Louis. But Hank Thompson and Willard Brown's stories are often overlooked.

ST. LOUIS — Seventy-five years ago this July, one of the most important moments in St. Louis sports history took place at Sportsman's Park. However, It's a moment in time many fans may not know about.

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in Brooklyn as the first Black player in the Major Leagues.

On July 20, 1947, the St. Louis Browns had their own moment to make history by breaking another barrier. On that day at Sportsman's Park in a game against the Boston Red Sox, the Browns became the first team in MLB history to field a lineup with two Black players in it.

"It was something very special. Bill DeWitt Sr. thought, we have a large African American community in St. Louis, let's bring them in to Sportsman's Park. Plus, he was looking for good ballplayers. And he went to the Kansas City Monarchs, where Jackie Robinson came from, and he brought Hank Thompson and Willard Brown," Browns historian Ed Wheatley said.

Thompson and Brown were the third and fourth Black players in the majors after Robinson and Cleveland's Larry Doby. 

Thompson joined the Browns on July 17 at just 21 years old, integrating baseball's most southern team yet.

Credit: Ed Wheatley

"You think about the pressure Jackie Robinson had, but Jackie was an older, more mature man. What do you think was upon the shoulders of Hank Thompson?" Wheatley said.

Brown was actually the first Black player in American League history to hit a home run, with a homer off Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser on Aug. 13, 1947.

Credit: Ed Wheatley

But with many Black players of the era, the St. Louis pair wasn't immune to harsh conditions and racism.

"Willard Brown hits the first home run and he comes back, guess what, somebody had broke his bat," Wheatley said.

Thompson actually went on to integrate two teams, breaking the color barrier with the New York Giants in 1949 and winning the World Series there in 1954.

Neither lasted for more than that 1947 season with the Browns, but they made their mark. Their arrival as the first Black MLB players in town came a whole seven years before the Cardinals would field Tom Alston as their first Black player.

And Thompson and Brown's legacy is on St. Louisans should still acknowledge, 75 years later.

"In 1947 there wasn't an NFL team here, there wasn't NBA or any of that, so this was the major sport. And to have two (Black players) was something special. But in context, are they forgotten because in a way the Browns are forgotten? These incredible losers? Or is that just the way society is? I always ask the question, who was the third and fourth men who walked on the moon after Neil Armstrong? He did it in Nov. 1969, just three or four months later. Nobody remembers Pete Conrad and Alan Beane. And that's how these guys are. They're heroes in baseball and they should be recognized as heroes in St. Louis," Wheatley said.

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