Jackie Robinson owns a special place in the history of Major League baseball, and few players appreciate it more than Mets outfielder Scott Hairston. Hairston's grandfather was part of the community of brave black players who integrated the game.
04/24/2012 5:06 PM ET
Hairston proud of his baseball roots
Mets outfielder is a third-generation Major Leaguer
By Hal Bock / MLBPLAYERS.com
Four years after Robinson broke in with the Dodgers, Sam Hairston became the first of his race to play for the Chicago White Sox. He appeared in four games in 1951, had two hits in five at-bats and then returned to the Minor Leagues. His cameo was over, but he never forgot it.
When they were growing up, Scott and his brother Jerry, who plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers, would often visit with their grandfather.
"He talked to us a lot when we'd go over there during the holidays," Scott said. "He talked to everybody. I was the youngest kid, the youngest male Hairston, so I did a lot of listening."
And there was plenty to hear.
"He told us about the times they weren't allowed to stay in hotels," Scott Hairston said. "So they had to sleep out in the bus. There were restaurants they couldn't eat in. It was very hot in the summer in the South, and there were times when they went to bed hungry."
It was a scandalous time in the history of baseball in America, a time when a whole segment of players were barred from the game, forced to earn a living in segregated Negro Leagues. And so, players like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and yes, Sam Hairston, barnstormed from town to town, treated as second-class citizens and yet playing high-quality baseball.
"The love of the game was what inspired them to play," Scott Hairston said. "They wanted to show people they could play as good as anybody else. It didn't matter what color you were. You either could play the game or you couldn't. They wanted to make that statement, and they did."
Sam Hairston began his baseball career with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1944. He moved on to the Indianapolis Clowns, and in 1950, he won the Negro Leagues triple crown, batting .424 in 70 games with 17 home runs and 71 RBIs. By then, Robinson had integrated the Major Leagues, and the White Sox reached out for Sam Hairston, becoming just the sixth franchise to have a player of color on the Major League roster.
Using a borrowed bat, Hairston doubled in his first swing, driving in a run. It sounds like a promising start, but at age 31, Hairston was no longer a prospect. There were three more games, a total of seven plate appearances, with two hits and two walks, and then he was gone. His lifetime batting average was .400 or, as he liked to say, "higher than Ty Cobb's."
Back in the Minors, Sam Hairston led Colorado Springs to the Western League championship. Two years later, he was the league's Most Valuable Player, and then he won the batting title with a .350 average in 1955. That was the year Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson, all graduates of the old Negro Leagues, led the Brooklyn Dodgers to their only World Series championship.
Sam Hairston played Minor League ball for 11 seasons and batted .304. He spent the rest of his baseball career in the White Sox organization as a coach and story teller.
"He was never bitter about anything or anybody," Scott Hairston said. "I don't ever recall him complaining about anything, even though he went through quite a bit. He always appreciated the game and the opportunity he had. He provided for 12 brothers and sisters playing the game."
Sam Hairston also began a baseball legacy. Two of his sons, Jerry and John, played Major League ball. Now, there are two grandsons, Scott and Jerry, in the Majors. And this could go on for a while.
"I've got two sons," Scott said. "And they love the game."
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.