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John Kennedy: The Phillies First Black Player

On April 22, 1957, John Kennedy made his MLB debut becoming the Philadelphia Phillies first Black player. In the eighth inning, Kennedy entered the Phillies game against the Los Angeles Dodgers as a pinch runner. This made the Phillies the last NL team to have a Black player play for them. This came ten years after Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier. Of the teams that existed at the time Kennedy debuted, the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers were the two teams that had not had a Black player play for them. The Tigers first Black player was Ozzie Virgil Sr. who debuted for them in 1958 while the Red Sox first Black player was Pumpsie Green who debuted for them in 1959.

The Story of John Kennedy

Pre-Phillies Playing Career

At Edward Waters College, Kennedy would play baseball for the first time in his career. Previously, Kennedy had played basketball and football. After college, Kennedy played for the Winnipeg Buffaloes in Canada for two seasons. In 1953, Kennedy signed with the San Francisco Giants before the season. However, Kennedy did not play in a game for them and was later released by the team. After that, Kennedy joined the Birmingham Black Barons and played for them in 1954 and 1955. Kennedy would later go on to play for the Kansas City Monarchs. 1956 as a member of the Monarchs, Kennedy hit 17 home runs and had a .385 batting average that season.

The Phillies Career Of John Kennedy

Before the 1957 season, the Phillies signed Kennedy. During spring training, Kennedy was one of the best performers on the Phillies roster with a .333 batting average. However, this was not enough for Kennedy to be the Phillies starting shortstop on opening day. The Phillies made a trade with the Dodgers to get Chico Fernández to be the opening day starter at shortstop. Given how well Kennedy played defensively and the stellar batting average, which was second best on the team, he should have been given a chance to be the Phillies starting shortstop instead of Fernández.

Back to the Phillies game against the Dodgers on April 22, 1957 at Roosevelt Stadium. It is the eighth inning of the game, and Solly Hemus hits a double. Then Phillies manager Mayo Smith decides to have Kennedy pinch run for Hemus. Kennedy became the first Black player to play in a game for the Phillies. This would be the first of three pinch-running appearances for Kennedy. In his second appearance against the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 24, 1957, at Connie Mack Stadium, Kennedy would score a run while pinch-running for Harry Anderson in the sixth inning.

Kennedy would play five games in total for the Phillies. Two of those appearances would be starts at shortstop. In four innings on defense with two fielding chances, Kennedy had a .500 fielding percentage with one error and one assist while also being part of a double play. Kennedy had two career plate appearances at the plate and did not get a hit while striking out once. The last appearance Kennedy made with the Phillies came on May 3, 1957. Sadly, Kennedy never played another game in the majors and was released by the Phillies in 1960. It is disappointing that Kennedy did not get a real chance with the Phillies.

The Phillies And The Color Barrier

While Kennedy’s time on the Phillies may have been brief, his impact cannot be understated. Kennedy opened the door for future Black players on the Phillies. Before Kennedy joined the Phillies, Bill Veeck attempted to buy the team in 1942 and break the color barrier. Then NL President Ford Frick stopped the effort by Veeck. As Cleveland Guardians owner, Veeck signed Larry Doby as the first Black player in the American League in 1947. It would be another five years before Robinson broke the major league color line and 15 years before Kennedy became the Phillies first Black player. On April 27, 1998, Kennedy died at the age of 71.

Main Photo Credits: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports


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