John Kennedy – Phillies Pioneer

As a lifelong Phillies fan, my favorite baseball card would–if it existed–be a John Kennedy in the 1957 Topps set. Unfortunately, for all baseball historians including me, there never was such a card. Which makes Kennedy, along with the Reds’ Nino Escalara, the only ground-breaking black players never to appear in a major card set. On April 22, 1957, in a game against the Dodgers played in Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium, John Irvin Kennedy, a 30-year-old rookie shortstop, became the first

John Kennedy

John Kennedy - Phillies First African-American Player

African-American to appear in a game wearing a Phillies uniform. He pinch-ran for Solly Hemus in the 8th inning, relegated to a reserve role after winning the shortstop job in spring training, only to lose it when the Phils picked up Chico Fernandez from the Dodgers the day before the season began. Adding to the indignity, he would get in only four more games (going 0-for-2 at bat) before being shipped out to the Class B Carolina League on May 4, never to return to the big time.

Born in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1927, Kennedy had been in pro ball since 1951, first in the low minors of the New York Giants system, followed by three years (1954-56) in the Negro Leagues with the Birmingham Black Barons (country singer Charley Pride was a teammate) and Kansas City Monarchs. One of only three teams yet to break the color barrier, the Phillies were under some civic pressure to do so when they signed Kennedy in the winter of 1956-57. The 1957 Topps set did include the Tigers’ first black player, Ozzie Virgil, Sr., although he did not make his debut until June 6, 1958. The Red Sox became the last team to field a black player, with Pumpsie Green on July 21, 1959. He appeared on Topps for the first time in 1960.

The first cards for the other African-Americans who broke their team’s color barrier:

  • 1948 Leaf set – Jackie Robinson (Dodgers 4/15/47) and Larry Doby (Indians 7/5/47)
  • 1950 Bowman set – Hank Thompson (Browns 7/17/47 and Giants 7/8/49; his card is with the Giants) and Sam Jethroe (Braves 4/18/50)
  • 1951 Bowman set – Monte Irvin (Giants 7/8/49; appeared in same game with Thompson)
  • 1952 Bowman & Topps sets – Minnie Minoso (White Sox 5/1/51)
  • 1954 Topps set – Bob Trice (Athletics 9/13/53), Ernie Banks (Cubs 9/17/53), Curt Roberts (Pirates 4/13/54) and Chuck Harmon (Reds 4/17/54; Nino Escalara, who appeared insame game with Harmon, never had a card)
  • 1955 Bowman set – Tom Alston (Cardinals 4/13/54) and Elston Howard (Yankees 4/14/55)
  • 1955 Topps set – Carlos Paula (Senators 9/6/54)

About the author: John Montague is a retired sports journalist and former owner of the Baseball Blue Book. His passion for the game is equaled only by his love for music. Sell Baseball Cards 101 is proud to have him as a guest poster.