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Local News

On This Day in 1958: Ozzie Virgil Breaks Detroit Tigers ‘Color’ Barrier

Credit: iStock

by Ken Coleman, Michigan Advance

On June 6, 1958 Ozzie Virgil, a Dominican Republic native, became the first person of color to play for the Detroit Tigers, Michigan’s only Major League Baseball (MLB) team.  

It came at a time when Detroit’s Black and Brown community was growing, yet the Tigers were among the last MLB teams to sign and field Black and Brown players. 

Consider this: The Motor City’s Black population doubled from 149,119 in 1940 to 300,506 in 1950, representing about 10% of Detroit’s population, according to 1950 U.S. Census statistics. 

By 1960, Detroit was 28% Black. 

Born Osvaldo José Virgil Pichardo, his family emigrated to the United States when he was 13 and settled in New York’s Bronx borough. He is considered the first Dominican to play in the MLB. 

Virgil and Elijah “Pumpsie” Green of the Boston Red Sox represented the last two MLB teams to play a Black or Brown player. Green debuted for the Red Sox in 1959. 

Jackie Robinson, who previously played in the Negro National League, became the first person of color to play in the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson was an African American born in Cairo, Ga. 

In 1947, three months after Robinson broke the the color barrier, and days after the Cleveland Indians signed Larry Doby, also an African American, the Michigan Chronicle’s Bill Matney blasted the Detroit Tigers in his front-page story “Other Clubs Seek Negro Player, But Not Tigers!” 

In the African-American-owned Michigan Chronicle, Matney wrote:

“The Detroit Tigers have NOT considered the possibility of a Negro playing baseball in a Bengal uniform! At least this was the general impression given by Tigers general manager, William ‘Billy’ Evans, in a telephone conversation with the Chronicle last week. When asked if there was a possibility that the Tigers might sign a Negro star in the future, or if they might consider having a Negro on the squad, Evans said: ‘That is a situation, we have given no consideration. It is something that will have to be worked out in due course of time. Other than that, I have no comment. I am not in a position to say one way or the other.’” 

During the 1950s, the team was owned by Walter O. Briggs, a noted white business leader. A significant number of African Americans during that period felt Briggs didn’t want Black players on his team. 

Since that time, the Tigers have had several noted African American and Latin players. They include Jake Wood, Willie Horton, Gates Brown, Ron LeFlore, Lou Whitaker, Aurelio Rodríguez, Aurelio Lopez, Willie Hernandez, Cecil Fielder, Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and many others. 

Virgil served in the U.S. Marine Corp. from 1950 to 1952, and began his 17-season professional playing career in 1953. He is 91 years old.

Today, Michigan’s 10 million resident population is 14.1% Black and 5.6% Latino.

This story was written by Ken Coleman, Senior Projects Contributor at the Michigan Advance, where this story first appeared.

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