Major League Baseball was in the throes of integration during the 1948 season. Throughout the 1947 season, all eyes were on Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
After Robinson’s standout performance took the Dodgers to the World Series that year, many sportswriters and pundits predicted that there would be a flood of black players into the league.
This did not come to pass, as most white team owners and many white players continued to harbor racist beliefs and attitudes.
While not a flood, there was a trickle of black players entering the league.
Although the vast majority of the attention in 1947 went to Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers, the Cleveland Indians also integrated their team that same year.
But while Robinson excelled in his first season with the Dodgers, Larry Doby struggled at the plate and didn’t get the playing time to prove himself adequately.
Despite being partially attributable to poor management, Doby’s disappointing performance provided fuel for racist detractors of baseball’s integration.
Baseball’s integration remained on shaky ground as the 1948 season began, and it was the Cleveland Indians that took the next essential step by winning the World Series in dramatic fashion with an integrated team.
Here in this post I’ll explore some of the highlights from this historic season, and share some of my thoughts on baseball cards that collectors might seek out to commemorate this dramatic turning point in baseball’s history.
Note, if you’d like to learn more about the 1948 Cleveland team, I’d highly recommend the book “Our Team” by Luke Epplin - much of the content for this article was gleaned from this book.
Negro Leagues = Major Leagues
Let’s make sure that one thing is clear - the Negro Leagues were Major Leagues. Major League Baseball officially recognized the Negro Leagues as such in 2020, a long overdue designation.
When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson in 1946, he didn’t acknowledge Robinson’s existing contract with the Kansas City Monarchs. Rickey was outspoken in his opinion that the Negro Leagues were “a racket run by gamblers and booking agents,” (Epplin, 2021), and he treated them as such.
This put the owners and managers of Negro League teams in a bind - they wanted to support the integration of baseball, but they couldn’t survive financially if MLB teams continued poaching their players, especially if existing player contracts were ignored.
The Integration of the American League
When Bill Veeck, the eccentric owner of the Cleveland team, signed Larry Doby in 1947, he reached out to Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley and bought Doby’s contract from the team.
Despite this courtesy, Manley was still put in a bind - Veeck’s offer was low considering Doby was the Eagles star player. Still, Manley didn’t want to be perceived as blocking integration by playing hardball in the negotiations.
Doby’s jump directly from the Negro National League to the American League was perceived by many as a managerial mistake (Robinson started out playing integrated baseball with a minor league club), including many of his new Cleveland teammates.
Doby slumped, and his slump was perpetuated by sporadic and infrequent playing opportunities and the innumerable challenges associated with being only the second black player to break through baseball’s racial barrier.
When we look back at Doby’s 1947 season now, we see that he actually had a .310 batting average - but most of his plate appearances came from his time with the Newark Eagles, where he was batting .354 before leaving for Cleveland.
But due to his lack of production with Cleveland, most Cleveland players, Doby included, didn’t expect Doby to be on the 1948 roster by the end of the season. Many white players, fans, and managers just didn’t take the Negro Leagues seriously.
This unfortunately also perpetuated by the major baseball card manufacturers of the time. None of the baseball card sets distributed in the US depicted black players pre-integration, despite the fact that there were numerous black baseball superstars playing the game at the same level.
Given that baseball cards have served as a primary medium through which kids learn about the game, its players and its history for many decades, this lack of acknowledgement was quite significant.
The Importance Of The 1948 Leaf Baseball Set
Doby busted his ass in spring training 1948 and learned an entirely new position well enough to earn his way onto the opening day starting roster. He proceeded to have a breakthrough season, and was one of the stars of the 1948 World Series.
While baseball cards had experienced a wartime drought that extended through the 1947 season, in 1948 two landmark sets were released - one from Leaf and one from Bowman.
The 1948 Bowman set was small - only 48 cards - and didn’t include any black players (an omission that is difficult to believe had no racial undertones given the enormity of Jackie Robinson’s stardom - not to mention Satchel Paige - at that moment in history.)
However, Leaf’s set featured the first cards for Robinson, Paige and Doby, and all three are now highly sought-after and extremely valuable. The 1948 Leaf set was the first color post-war baseball card set, and it consisted of 98 cards.
While Doby started the ‘48 season with Cleveland, Paige began the season with the Kansas City Monarchs and didn’t make his debut with Cleveland until halfway through the season.
Just like Doby, Paige was frustrated by a lack of playing time, but he made the most of the time he was given, pitching complete game shutouts in his first two starts with Cleveland.
It’s significant not just that Doby and Paige were included in Leaf’s ‘48 set, but that the descriptions on the card backs aren’t demeaning towards black players and don’t disregard the Negro Leagues.
Paige’s card describes him as the “Most picturesque player in baseball,” but more significant in my mind is where it says that he “Was signed from the Kansas City Monarchs in midsummer 1948.”
This implicit acknowledgment of a Negro League team as equal to a “Major” League team was not common in early baseball card bios and makes these cards all the more appealing in my mind.
This interesting paper analyzed early Bowman and Topps baseball cards depicting players who had previously been veterans of the Negro Leagues, and found numerous examples of blatant misrepresentation and erroneous depictions of the Negro Leagues.
In addition to Doby and Paige, fellow Cleveland teammates Jim Hegan, Ken Keltner, Hank Edwards, Bob Feller, Joe Gordon, Dale Mitchell, and player/manager Lou Boudreau all had cards in the '48 Leaf Baseball card set.
These are all attractive cards - this set was the last to capture that classic art-deco design feel like the Diamond Stars set or the ‘41 Play Ball set.
The Satchel Paige card is by far the most valuable in the '48 Leaf set- PSA 1 copies are now selling for well over $20,000.
The Astronomical Value of Satchel Paige Baseball Cards
Although Doby broke through baseball’s racial barrier first, he did so at the beginning of his career, and would be featured on numerous additional cards throughout the ‘50s.
Paige was the only superstar from the peak of the Negro League era who broke through to white Major League baseball. He was already in his 40s by the time of his debut with Cleveland, and throughout five seasons with Cleveland and the St. Louis Browns, he would only be featured on four baseball cards (if you count his Exhibits card).
All four are highly desirable and, aside from the Exhibits card, well out of reach for many collectors.
It’s a combination of Paige’s lasting stardom and scarcity that make these cards so highly valuable, but the scarcity exists due to pre-integration baseball card producers consistently overlooking Negro League players and failing to include them in their sets.
Paige himself was deeply frustrated by the lack of recognition granted to the Negro Leagues as integration began. After the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson in ‘46, Paige was playing with the Kansas City Monarchs.
He told a reporter that he thought entire teams from the Negro Leagues should be welcomed into Major League Baseball. This was Paige’s idealistic hope for baseball’s integration, but he surely knew that it was a pipe dream.
It’s known that after the Dodgers signed Robinson, Paige sent a telegram to Cleveland owner Bill Veeck asking if he was ready to sign the pitcher, and when the offer finally came in 1948 Paige didn’t hesitate.
As more of the star players from Negro League teams jumped to National and American League teams, attendance at Negro League games slumped.
The Negro National League folded at the and the 1948 season, while the Negro American League held on until 1958. With the end of the Negro Leagues came the end of one of the largest and most prosperous black-owned business ventures.
Retrospective Negro League Baseball Card Sets
Although no cards were produced representing Negro League players during their playing years (with the exception of a few obscure sets depicting players from Cuban and Venezuelan leagues), numerous retrospective sets have been produced more recently.
One of the most notable and the most comprehensive set to date was released in 2020 - the Dreams Fulfilled Negro League Legends set, which celebrates the 100 year anniversary of the creation of the Negro Leagues, and includes 184 cards, seven of which feature Satchel Paige.
This attractive and affordable set is limited to a print run of 5,000, making it a great collector’s item with a strong potential for increasing in value.
Back to the 1948 Leaf Set
Returning to the 1948 Leaf set, Larry Doby’s rookie card isn’t nearly as far out of reach as Paige’s card from the set. PSA 1 copies can be found for under $1,000, and a PSA 7 could be found for under $10,000.
The Bob Feller card is valued just a bit lower than Doby’s card, and all the others can be found for much more reasonable prices. I particularly like the design of the Jim Hegan card - and Hegan was known to be one of the few Cleveland team members who didn’t actively ostracize Larry Doby when he joined the team. (The others were Bob Lemon and Joe Morgan.)
There are some key players from that ‘48 Cleveland team missing from the Leaf set, however. Although Bob Feller had been the team’s star pitcher since before the war (and was one of the most famous ballplayers of his time), 1948 was not his best season.
He failed to crack 20 wins, and his slump during the summer sent owner Bill Veeck searching for a new pitcher. Feller and Paige were longtime rivals, having faced off in numerous barnstorming games over the past decade, and when Paige joined the team, some of that rivalry was introduced to the clubhouse.
But while Paige certainly helped pull the team out of a slump, it was pitchers Bob Lemon and Gene Bearden who were the stars of the rotation that year. Lemon and Bearden recorded 20 wins each, and both recorded a better ERA than Feller (and on par with Paige).
Neither pitcher was included in the ‘48 Leaf set, and the only Cleveland player included in Bowman’s 1948 set was Feller. Luckily, both pitchers have attractive cards from the Exhibits set.
Exhibits Cards Featuring the ‘48 Cleveland Team
For the better part of the ‘40s, Exhibit cards were just about all that was available. These cards were sold individually from vending machines, not in packs with bubble gum like most of the more popular sets of the time.
Each postcard sized card featured a black and white player photo, and the backs were blank. The Bob Lemon and Gene Bearden cards feature pretty typical posed photos of the pitchers in their windup, and either can be found at a very reasonable price - under $10 for a nice raw card.
Exhibit cards could also be seen as a more affordable option for collecting cards of some of the star players featured in the ‘48 Leaf set. Although Satchel Paige’s Exhibit card commands a very high price, a low grade copy could be found for under $1,000.
Larry Doby’s Exhibits card could be picked up for under $20 in nice condition, as could any other Cleveland player from the ‘48 team.
Jim Hegan, Joe Morgan, Ken Keltner, Dale Mitchell, Bob Feller, and Lou Boudreau all have attractive Exhibits cards that can be found at very reasonable prices.
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Baseball cards that depict the events of the World Series wouldn’t be introduced until the late 1950s and early 1960s Topps sets, but 1948 marked the first year that Exhibits cards featuring team photos of the pennant winning teams from the American, and National Leagues were incorporated into the set.
The Exhibit team photo cards were printed in much smaller numbers than individual player cards. Thus, the card depicting the 1948 Cleveland team is uncommon and highly sought-after.
There appears to be one copy for sale on eBay at the moment - a fair condition raw card listed at $350. The PSA values listed for this card are irrelevant at this point - there are so few copies of this card for sale online that it’s difficult to judge what a high-end graded card would be worth.
Cleveland’s Opponent - The Boston Braves
Cleveland played the Boston Braves in the 1948 World Series - only the second appearance of the Braves in the fall classic.
While the Braves coasted to the pennant in ‘48, Cleveland battled it out with the Red Sox, Yankees, and Athletics in the American League, and at the end of the season, Cleveland was tied with the Red Sox, forcing a one game playoff.
Had the Red Sox won, the ‘48 series would have been the first and only World Series to pit two Boston teams against each other. The Braves franchise would leave for Milwaukee before the start of the 1953 season, ending any subsequent chance for such a series.
Copies of the Boston Braves Exhibits team card from ‘48 have a much lower value than the Indians’ team card, for the simple fact that Satchel Paige isn’t in the photo.
I would say that these two team cards from the Exhibits set, in addition to a collection of one’s favorite Cleveland player cards from both the Leaf and Exhibits set, would constitute a fun and representative collection to commemorate this historic World Series.
Two Teams with Offensive Names
With Cleveland facing Boston’s National League team, this series was also the only in history to see the two MLB teams face off whose names and mascots are derived from Native American stereotypes.
Let’s be clear - both franchises have used numerous names over the course of their long histories. The Cleveland baseball franchise has previously been known as the Rustlers, the Lake Shores, the Bluebirds, the Bronchos, and the Naps, in addition to the Indians, and now the Guardians.
The franchise currently known as the Atlanta Braves has previously been known as the Red Stockings, the Red Caps, the Beaneaters, the Doves, the Rustlers, the Braves, and the Bees.
The name “Indians” associated with the Cleveland team was clearly demeaning, in that it portrayed an entire group of people as a sort of mascot sideshow. This mascot iconography presented the not-so-subtle message that “Indians” were something less than human and was introduced when this was a common belief within mainstream American society.
Deeply ironic that a franchise with a name that was demeaning to Native Americans was also a pioneer for racial integration. It highlights the complex history of racial tensions in American society.
Despite demeaning iconography throughout professional baseball, Native Americans have played baseball since the 1800s and were never banned from the MLB as African Americans were in the late 1800s (although Native American players certainly suffered from discrimination while playing professional baseball).
Only one Native American player has ever been inducted to the Hall of Fame - pitcher Charles "Chief" Bender - but the next could be pitcher Allie Reynolds, who got his start with the Cleveland Indians.
Reynolds was traded from the Indians to the Yankees ahead of the 1947 season, where he became a star and a leader of their pitching staff, but it’s interesting to imagine how integration in Cleveland would have been different had Reynolds remained on the team. It’s easy to imagine that he would have sympathized with the outcast Larry Doby and offered him the camaraderie that his white teammates weren’t able to provide.
Reynolds is currently on a short list of candidates being considered for entrance to the Hall of Fame as a part of the early years era committee - he has no cards to represent his time with Cleveland, but his 1948 Bowman rookie card represents the only non-white player in the set and can be found in nice condition for $30-40.