Vintage cards take us back in time, revisiting the past and learning about players that gradually fade as the years pass. The beauty of these cards is that they document history. For baseball, that means providing collectors with a timeline of the game’s integration.
The road through the destruction of baseball’s color line wasn’t a straight shot. In some instances, players integrated their team only a couple of days before another player made their debut, missing out on being recognized as the first by mere happenstance.
Still, it’s important to note how the game changed when Jackie Robinson made his debut in 1947 and to recognize the other men who played a similar role for other clubs in the post-World War II era. Robinson gets much of the attention, but there were pioneers on 16 teams between the National and American Leagues and it took 12 years for baseball to become fully integrated.
Collecting rookie cards of all of those players can make for a fun and challenging project. Let’s look at the rookie cards for each team’s first Black player in the modern era.
- Jackie Robinson – Brooklyn Dodgers
MLB Debut: April 15, 1947
Robinson needs no introduction, but just in case, he broke the modern MLB color barrier when he debuted for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947. Robinson’s career highlights:
- Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962
- World Series Champion (1955)
- 1949 NL MVP
- 6x All-Star
- MLB Rookie of the Year
Robinson’s rookie card is not quite straightforward. Both the 1948 Leaf and 1949 Bowman are considered rookie cards. It’s strongly believed that the “1948” Leaf set wasn’t released until early 1949. The Beckett Rookie Card Encyclopedia includes both.
Robinson also had a card released in the 1948 Leaf Sport Thrills set.
But Robinson was also featured during his rookie season in the 1947 Bond Bread set, with its distinctive rounded corners. That same year, Bond Bread also released the first of a 13-card issue of Robinson, with the final card being released in 1950.
As one might imagine, Robinson’s rookie cards aren’t cheap. You’ll pay at least a few thousand dollars for the lowest graded examples, with Leaf the priciest of the two.
- Larry Doby – Cleveland Indians
MLB Debut: July 5, 1947
Often overlooked, Doby was every bit the pioneer Robinson was. He was the first black player to integrate the American League just a few months after Robinson integrated the National League. Doby’s career highlights:
- Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998
- World Series Champion (1948)
- 7x All-Star
- 2x AL Home Run Leader
Like Robinson, Doby’s rookie cards are considered his cards from the 1948-49 Leaf and 1949 Bowman sets.
Despite integrating the American League, Doby didn’t get anywhere near the same fanfare that Robinson did.
His Bowman card is a bit more accessible but expect to pay at least a four figure price for each.
- Hank Thompson – St. Louis Browns
MLB Debut: July 17, 1947
Thompson, a veteran who fought in Europe during WWII, debuted two days before another black player and future Hall of Famer, Willard Brown, played for St. Louis. July 20, 1947, was the first time two black players from the same team played together on the field. Thompson would play only one season with the Browns before playing for the New York Giants in 1949. Career highlights:
- The only player to be the first to integrate two different teams
- World Series Champion (1954)
- 129 Home Runs
- 482 RBI
Thompson’s rookie card isn’t with the Browns. After playing in the major leagues in 1947, Thompson didn’t play in the majors in 1948. He landed with the Giants in 1949, so Thompson’s rookie card is in a Giants uniform in the 1950 Bowman set. It’s an easy one to pick up for just a few bucks.
- Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson – New York Giants
Irvin MLB Debut: July 8, 1949
Thompson had already broken the color barrier with the St. Louis Browns two years prior. In 1949, he integrated the New York Giants along with Monte Irvin, a talented outfielder who would become a mentor to Willie Mays in 1951. Career highlights:
- Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973
- World Series Champion (1954)
- Played seven MLB seasons
- .304 career hitter
- 1,059 career hits
Irvin’s rookie card is in the 1951 Bowman set. He also has a 1951 release from the Topps Red Back 52-card set. The Bowman will run at least a couple hundred dollars for a mid-grade example with the Red Back quite a bit less.
- Sam Jethroe – Boston Braves
MLB Debut: April 18 1950
Jethroe played in the Negro Leagues for nine seasons before making his major league debut at 33. Jethroe won NL Rookie of the Year in 1950, remaining the oldest player to win the award. He played three seasons for the Braves and played in two games for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1954. Career highlights:
- 1950 NL Rookie of the Year
- 2x NL Stolen Bases Leader
- .275 Career Batting Average
- 134 Stolen Bases
Jethroe’s rookie card is special because it was released during his rookie season. Many players from vintage sets don’t have their rookie cards released until after their first season is played.
You can own a decent copy of this one for a very modest investment.
- Minnie Miñoso – Chicago White Sox
MLB Debut: April 19, 1949 (Cleveland Indians)
White Sox Debut: May 1, 1951
“The Cuban Comet” played professionally in Cuba and the Negro Leagues for the New York Cubans from 1947-49. Miñoso made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians in 1949. But Cleveland had so much talent on its roster that it became difficult to give Miñoso regular playing time. He arrived in Chicago via trade, becoming the team’s first black player. He hit a home run on the first pitch of his first at-bat. Career highlights:
- Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2022
- 9x All-Star
- AL Stolen Base Leader (1951-53)
- 3x Gold Glove Award
- 1,093 Career RBI
Miñoso has two rookie cards found in two iconic sets: 1952 Bowman and 1952 Topps. He also has a third release from the 1952 Red Man Tobacco set. Since his Hall of Fame induction, Minoso cards have risen in price.
It’s a tough one to find in high grade. There are five PSA 9s of the 1952 Bowman rookie, with none graded higher. There are nine PSA 9s of the 1952 Topps rookie, with none graded higher.
- Bob Trice – Philadelphia Athletics
MLB Debut: September 13, 1953
Trice was the first black player to integrate his team as a pitcher. He played for parts of three seasons with the A’s. An injury to his throwing shoulder derailed his career. By the time he arrived in Philadelphia, Trice was a veteran baseball player, having played for various semi-pro and Negro League teams. He finished his baseball career playing three seasons in the Mexican League. Career MLB stats:
- 5.80 ERA
- 152 IP
- 9-9 record, 28 Strikeouts
- 9 Complete Games
Trice’s rookie card is in the 1954 Topps set, showing him in action as he throws a pitch. His rookie card is considered a common and is easy to find for just a few dollars.
- Ernie Banks – Chicago Cubs
MLB Debut: September 17, 1953
“Mr. Cub” would become one of the greatest players of his generation. Banks was a ferocious hitter and one of the game’s great ambassadors. Banks played in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1950 and part of 1953 before signing with the Cubs. He did not play in the minors. Career highlights:
- Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977
- 14x All-Star
- 2x NL MVP
- 512 Career Home Runs
- 1,636 RBI
- 2,583 Career Hits
Banks’ rookie card is in the 1954 Topps set. Prices vary greatly, of course, based on condition but lower grade examples start at around $500 and mid-grade copies starting at about three times that.
This concludes the first part of our look at rookie cards of the first black players for the Original 16 major league baseball teams.
As Ernie would say, “Let’s play two!” Check out the players that integrated the other eight teams in part 2 of this series.