For most major league teams, naming the first "black" to play in a regular-season game for them is straight forward: Dodgers -- Jackie Robinson, Indians -- Larry Doby, Yankees -- Elston Howard, etc.
For the Cincinnati Redlegs of 1954, however, there is some disagreement. Many sources cite Nino Escalera; others say it was Chuck Harmon.
The controversy seems to center around whether Escalera, a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, was "black enough." Harmon was an Indiana-born African-American.
Many of those who want to collect a baseball card of each team's first black performer would prefer that Harmon be credited with that distinction; he appeared in the 1954 Topps set (and 1955-58). Escalera never appeared on a Topps card.
In fact, of the pair, Escalera was the first to appear in a game for Cincinnati -- by a couple of minutes.
In the 1954 season opener, Escalera came to bat in the top of the seventh inning at Milwaukee, pinch-hitting in the eighth spot for catcher Andy Seminick, with the Redlegs behind 1-5. He singled off Lou Burdette.
Harmon followed Escalera to the plate, pinch-hitting for starting pitcher Corky Valentine. Harmon popped out to first.
Neither Escalera nor Harmon stayed in defensively.
Escalera didn't have any Topps or Bowman cards. He has a card in the team-issued postcard series, a portrait photo that I adapted for use on my custom card. Prior to coming to the majors, Escalera was included in the Toleteros sets of Puerto Rican winter league players in 1948-49, 1949-50 and 1950-51.
Most collectors who want a card of Escalera acquire one from the set of One-Year Winners issued by Larry Fritsch Cards in 1977.
Escalera played sandlot ball in his hometown of Santurce, Puerto Rico. In 1946 he was named, at age 16, the MVP of the Amateur Baseball World Series in Colombia. He began playing professionally the next season with the San Juan Senators in the P.R. League.
He played winter ball in Puerto Rico for nearly two decades, 16 seasons with San Juan, and a final year with Caguas.
He entered Organized Baseball in 1949 with Bristol in the Class B Colonial League. He hit .347 and returned to Bristol to start the 1950 season. He was batting .389 in July, when he was purchased by the N.Y. Yankees.
The Yankees sent Escalera to Amsterdam in the Canadian-American League (Class C) where he finished the season batting .337.
For 1951 Escalera was moved up to Class A ball at Muskegon (Mich.). He batted .374, second-best in the league, a handful of percentage points behind teammate Jim Greengrass. Escalera also got into 20 games that season with the Yankees AAA farm club at Syracuse, batting .274.
With the major league Yankees still a couple of years away from integration, Escalera was sold in January, 1952, to the Toledo Mud Hens, a Class AAA (American Association) farm of the Chicago White Sox. Following the June 11 game, the team went on a road trip . . . from which they never returned; the franchise was moved to Charleston, West Virginia, to complete the season. In July, Escalera was sold to the Cincinnati Redlegs for delivery the following season. He end 1952 batting .249.
Escalera went to spring training with Cincinnati in 1953, but manager Rogers Hornsby sent him down to Tulsa in the AA Texas League. He hit .305 there. punching his ticket for another spring training with the big club. Also in 1953, Escalera appeared in six games with Class AAA Indianapolis, but I haven't been able to find stats for that stint.
Escalera's versatility earned him his spot on the Redlegs' roster. Besides pinch-hitting more than 30 times and being used as a pinch-runner nearly as often, Escalera played all three outfield positions, first base and even at shortstop.
Escalera's turn as perhaps the last of the left-handed big-league shortstops came in the bottom of the 8th inning when Cincinnati manager Birdie Tebbetts sent him in for shortstop Roy McMillan at St. Louis. The Redlegs had a 4-2 lead when Stan Musial came to the plate with two out and Red Schoendienst on first. Instead of taking the usual infield position of a shortstop, Escalera was placed in the shallow outfield between right and center in a shift Tebbetts hoped would keep Musial from becoming the tying run. He needn't have bothered, Art Fowler struck out Musial to end the inning. When the Redlegs took the field in the bottom of the 9th, Rocky Bridges had replaced Escalera at short. The Redlegs went on to win 4-2.
For all his versatility, Escalera wasn't able to hit his weight and after 73 games with Cincinnati in 1954, his major league days were over.
He spent the next four seasons with Cincinnati's AAA team, the Havana Sugar Kings, of the International League. After the 1958 season he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates and spent three years at AAA with them in Columbus. His last year in organized ball was with Rochester in 1962.
Escalera remained active in the Puerto Rican League for a number of years and served as a scout for the N,Y, Mets and S,F. Giants. As this is written, he lives in retirement in Puerto Rico at age 86.
Veteran collectors of vintage Topps cards might think it incongruous that I chose the red background for my 1955-style custom card. All but one of the original '55T Redlegs cards used the yellow background. The lone exception was Bud Podbielan, whose color scheme I adopted for my Escalera card.
On back you'll see that I opted to use Escalera's 1954 figures for both the Year and Life stats. My preference would have been to use his 1954 Redlegs stats for "YEAR," and cumulative minor league numbers for "LIFE." Runs and RBI stats for his early minor league years are hard to come by, however, and I draw a complete blank for his six games at Indianapolis in 1953.
Though my card is unofficial, at least collectors who champion Nino Escalera as Cincinnati's first black player now have another alternative.
Now . . . we need to sort out whether Carlos Bernier (1953) or Curt Roberts (1954) broke the color barrier for the Pirates.