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A local player made history — and paid a price — when he joined the minor-league Padres.
Professional baseball banned black players from America’s pastime until Jackie Robinson broke the “color line” in 1947. That same year, a local black player named Johnny Ritchey made another kind of history when he joined the minor-league San Diego Padres.
Ritchey was the first black player in the Pacific Coast League, which would soon become one of the first fully integrated professional leagues in all of American sports, and one of our first homegrown baseball stars. He’d live to see the major-league Padres play for most of their first half-century, and he’d become a hero to fans of local baseball history. But mid-century racism left its mark on his brief but shining career on the field.
The Padres will honor Ritchey Monday night as the team faces the Colorado Rockies on Major League Baseball’s official Jackie Robinson Day. Here are four facts about Ritchey’s life and legacy.
In the middle of the 20th century, the West Coast was hardly as racially divided as the South. But among black residents, at least, San Diego had a reputation as an especially unfriendly place to engage in living while black. While the phrase “the Mississippi of the West” generally refers to Las Vegas, some in the black community adopted it as a nickname for the racially repressive San Diego.
“In 1964, African-Americans in San Diego were routinely turned down for loans from banks, denied housing outside of three segregated neighborhoods, unable to work at companies like San Diego Gas & Electric or Woolworth’s, and refused entrance to many businesses solely because of the color of their skin,” historians wrote in an article for the San Diego History Center. “They were even prohibited from trying on clothes at department stores.”
There were many more restrictions. Hotels turned down black visitors, and property deeds in neighborhoods like Clairemont, La Jolla, Mission Hills and even City Heights banned sales to anyone who was black (or, in some cases, Mexican or Jewish too).
But Ritchey’s worst experiences in the sports world didn’t happen here, where he was born and attended San Diego High School and San Diego State College (now SDSU). In 1940, officials refused to let Ritchey and another black athlete play in the American Legion baseball tournament finals in North Carolina; two years earlier, the same thing happened had happened to him in South Carolina. According to a report in the Charlotte Observer, the crowd booed the boys when their coach — who’d earlier threatened to pull out of the finals — dared to allow them to warm up. “There,” an infuriated Oakland, Calif., sports editor wrote, “the good citizens had not yet learned that the Civil War recently ended.”
“Johnny was 17, and it really made an indelible mark on him,” said local baseball historian William Swank, who knew Ritchey.
Baseball in San Diego dates back at least to 1871, but it took another six-plus decades for the sport to catch on professionally. The San Diego Padres were born in 1936, when businessmen Bill Lane brought the Hollywood Stars down the coast. He gave them a new ballpark — downtown’s Lane Field — and gave a bat to a rookie from North Park named Ted Williams. “The Kid” helped the team win the Pacific Coast League title and went on to become one of the greatest players of all time.
“When the war came, the servicemen and workers supported the Padres very well, and they set all kinds of attendance records,” Swank said. Ritchey, meanwhile, served as an Army soldier.
World War II would play a crucial role in reversing professional baseball’s history of racism. “The United States had fought a war against the most perverse form of racism, and was difficult for the American variety to stand as it had,” said Cal State Chico historian Robert C. Cottrell, author of a book about baseball’s pioneering black and Jewish players.
In 1947, Padres owner Bill Starr hired Ritchey from the Negro League, a black baseball system. “He claimed he wasn’t on a crusade,” Swank said. “He was a businessman, and he realized the Latino and black ballplayers were a source of income. He made money by developing these players and selling them to the major leagues.”
The minor-league Padres didn’t just hire Ritchey. They also brought on other black and Latino players like Luscious “Luke” Easter, Artie Wilson and Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso, who all went on to notable careers in the major leagues.
This roster is “kind of phenomenal,” said Cottrell. “They were unbelievable, and the Padres alone had that whole welter of players.”
The public could be welcoming — “everybody likes me when I hit that ball,” said Luke Easter, who was black, when asked about race — and Ritchey himself described playing for the team as a “thrill.” But some teammates and rivals treated him poorly.
While Ritchey said he was never thrown out of a hotel on the road due to his race, he didn’t have roommates. “It was a lonely experience for him,” Swank said. “Pitchers threw at him, and when he’d slide into a base, players would fall on him. He thought his teammates should have retaliated and backed him up, but they didn’t do that, and he internalized it all. I think he would have [fared] better if he’d been one of the guys and not the pioneer. That put a lot of pressure on him.”
A friend later said that Ritchey “carried a tremendous burden. … When some of his teammates treated him differently, Johnny felt that intensely.” For his part, Ritchey told Swank in an interview that ” I always played my best when I was happy and all I ever wanted to do was just play baseball.”
If Ritchey wasn’t black, Swank said, “there’s no question that he would have made it to the majors.” Instead, his career stalled.
“He had a lifetime .300 batting average,” Swank said. “He was always a good line drive hitter. Ballplayers are pretty particular about which bat to use, but he said, ‘I could get a hit off all of them.’ That’s part of growing up poor — you use the equipment you have.”
Ritchey went onto a career at the Continental Baking Company and died in 2003 at the age of 80. His family members were on hand in 2017 when was inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame at the San Diego Hall of Champions.
While the Padres are keeping mum about their plans, the team is expected to debut a scholarship in his honor at tonight’s game. Fans can also drop by The Draft bar (formerly the PCL Bar & Grill) to see a bronze bust of Ritchey that was installed in his honor in 2005.
In 2006, baseball historian Swank told Voice of San Diego that a woman donated money for the bust because Ritchey had rescued her from being taunted on campus by bullies in 1940. As Swank recalled, “she said Johnny Ritchey’s bust should be made out of gold.”