Senators' color line broken quietly

Senators' color line broken quietly
February 6, 2012, 8:22 pm
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In a city that has so often served as a backdrop for racial debate, progress and controversy, it's rather remarkable that the integration of the Washington Senators' roster in 1954 barely drew attention.

When Carlos Paula took his position in left field on Sept. 6 for the first game of a Labor Day doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics, few among the sparse crowd of 4,865 at Griffith Stadium realized the significance of the moment.

And even fewer people reading accounts of the game in local newspapers the next day were aware of what had transpired.

The Washington Post didn't mention Paula until the third paragraph of its game story, rattling off the names of several players who had been promoted from the Senators' minor-league affiliate in Charlotte that day to help supplement the roster for the season's final month.

Even the Washington Afro-American newspaper, while running a photo of Paula and pointing out he was "the first colored player in history to wear a Washington Senator uniform in a regular season game," focused more on his on-field performance (2-for-9 with a double and two RBIs during the twinbill) than his groundbreaking accomplishment.

Why so little attention for an obviously important moment in both Senators and District history? There were several factors.

Start with Senators owner Clark Griffith, who never appeared to make the integration of his roster a priority. Even seven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier and 10 other big-league franchises followed suit, Griffith remained steadfastly opposed to adding black players to his team in the name of social progress. "Nobody is going to stampede me into signing Negro players merely for the sake of satisfying certain pressure groups," Griffith was quoted as saying in 1953.

Which isn't to say Griffith was opposed to assembling a roster full of players from varied backgrounds. The Senators actually were among the most progressive franchises in signing players out of Latin America and in 1935 (12 full years before Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers) started Cuban native Bobby Estalella at third base.

Estalella and other Latin American players on the Senators roster during the 1930s and '40s were all light-skinned, though many fans considered them to be black. So when Paula, a dark-skinned Cuban, was called up from Charlotte on that Labor Day of 1954, fans and media alike may not have deemed the 26-year-old outfielder any different from his predecessors from the Caribbean.

There was the nondescript timing of Paula's promotion to the major leagues, lumped in with several other September call-ups for a meaningless doubleheader against a fellow American League cellar-dweller. The Senators and A's entered that afternoon a combined 90 12 games out of first place.

Paula also arrived with little fanfare. A solid player who was hitting .309 at the time of his promotion, he wasn't considered a top prospect by any stretch of the imagination. And after collecting only four hits in 24 at-bats during that September tryout, he didn't exactly make a major statement on the field.

Paula wound up playing in 115 games for Washington in 1955, compiling a .299 batting average but only six homers as a corner outfielder. He also committed 10 errors, prompting skeptics to wonder if he truly had the skills to succeed at this level. (Legendary Post columnist Shirley Povich referred to Paula as "something of a crudity in the field.")

By 1956, Paula's time in the big leagues had already come to an end. He hit .183 in 33 games, was sent back to the minors and began bouncing from organization to organization over the next several years before retiring in 1960 at 32.

He never garnered the kind of attention thrust upon baseball's first black players like Robinson and Larry Doby, nor did he ascend to the level of other Latin Americans who became stars in the big leagues like Roberto Clemente and Juan Marichal.

But Carlos Paula does hold a unique distinction in Washington baseball lore. A distinction that may not have resonated much at the time but deserves to be remembered today.