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    Knights Who Helped Break Baseball’s ‘Color Barrier’

    Members of the Order in professional baseball took steps toward racial equality in the sport prior to, and during, the historic 1947 season

    By Andrew Fowler 2/22/2022
    Eddie Stanky was one of Jackie Robinson’s earliest supporters, according to the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR). Here he is pictured (second from right) with Dodger teammates John Jorgenson, Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson on April 15, 1947. Harry Harris/Associated Press

    Despite inclement weather, more than 9,000 fans went to Griffith Park Stadium in Washington, D.C., on May 14, 1957, to see the man who broke baseball’s “color barrier” — Jackie Robinson. The future Hall of Famer retired the previous October after finishing his illustrious, and arduous, Major League Baseball career as a Brooklyn Dodger.

    The May 14 event, dubbed the “Interfaith Baseball Game,” was sponsored by several fraternal organizations, including the Knights of Columbus.

    Even though the game lasted only two innings due to the rain, it nevertheless is an example of the Order’s consistent promotion of racial equality and its tradition of honoring many of baseball’s mightiest heroes.

    Prior to Robinson’s historic rookie 1947 season, baseball owners prevented Black athletes from playing in the majors by upholding their notorious “gentlemen’s agreement.” However, members of the Knights of Columbus tried to advance and support racial minorities in baseball — some more than a half a century before the agreement was shattered.

    The ‘Orator’

    On June 21, 1879, the Providence Grays of the National League (NL) squared off against the Cleveland Blues at the Messer Street Grounds in Providence, R.I. First baseman Joe Start would not be able to play due to an injury, and according to Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), the team therefore scrambled for a replacement and picked up a player from Brown University’s college team — William Edward White.

    Little is known about White. It isn’t known if he batted or threw left or right. It isn’t known why he only played for the Grays once. But what is known is that White was not white; he was an African American, perhaps the first ever to play in Major League Baseball. Not only that, but according to SABR’s research, he may have even been a former slave.

    White batted 1-4 and scored a run in the Grays win over the Blues that day. However, he never played in the majors again, as he was replaced on the Grays by future Hall of Famer — and Knight of Columbus — Jim “Orator” O’Rourke, who had knocked the league’s first successful hit several years earlier.

    O’Rourke, a member of Park City Council 16 in Bridgeport, went on to advance the status of minorities in baseball before the turn of the 20th century. While serving as an executive in the Connecticut State League, which he helped found, O’Rourke hired Harry Herbert in 1895 for the Bridgeport Victors. With the hire, Herbert became the first African American from Bridgeport to play professional baseball, and, quite possibly, the first African American in the minor leagues.

    Herbert played four seasons for the Victors, Bridgeport Soubrettes and Bridgeport Orators between 1895-1898. Although his career statistics are incomplete, in his first season he managed to knock six hits and one home run in 30 at-bats. He never played in the majors.


    The “gentlemen’s agreement” didn’t stop attempts from breaking the color barrier, nor did it stop other minorities from playing in the majors, such as Native Americans. One of the most well-known attempts to advance a Black player in baseball was orchestrated by John McGraw, a member of the Knights of Columbus.

    Before spring training 1901, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles met Charlie Grant — an African American ballplayer — in the resort town of Hot Springs, Ark. McGraw saw talent in Grant and conspired with the player to circumvent the so-called agreement, posing Grant as a Native American named “Charlie Tokahoma.”

    Grant went along with the ruse, even so far as telling an interviewer his mother was of Cherokee descent and his father white. For a time, the charade worked, and Grant was poised to be a member of the Orioles until the team arrived in Chicago. Grant was already known by people in the city. The writers of Baseball: An Illustrated History suggest that Grant was “exposed when black friends offered him congratulations that proved too public.” Other scholars, including Brian McKenna from SABR, suggest the Chicago Tribune alerted American League (AL) president Ban Johnson and owners of the ruse. However the reveal unfolded, McGraw eventually relented to mounting pressure, leaving Grant off the Opening Day roster.

    McGraw died Feb. 25, 1934, and would not live to see Robinson break the color barrier. But according to Baseball: An Illustrated History, after McGraw’s death, his widow reportedly found a list of all the Black players the Hall of Fame manager wanted to sign.

    Robinson’s Allies

    When Jackie Robinson started first base for the Dodgers April 15, 1947, he faced racism, discrimination and death threats with a heroically restrained temper. He instead focused his energy on the game itself, stating, “Above anything else, I hate to lose.”

    One of the earliest tests to restrain himself came less than a week into his 1947 rookie season when the Dodgers played against the Philadelphia Phillies. In the City of Brotherly Love, the Phillies and their manager Ben Chapman verbally abused and racially taunted Robinson. The abuse reportedly almost drove him “to the brink of abandoning the ‘noble experiment’ in pacificism.” But Robinson’s teammate, Eddie Stanky — a member of the Knights of Columbus — stepped in.

    Stanky shouted down the Phillies, calling them cowards. “Why don’t you guys go to work on somebody who can fight back?” he said. “There isn’t one of you has the guts of a louse.”

    Initially, Stanky didn’t like Robinson. He even petitioned Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to trade him rather than play with a Black teammate. However, as a testament to his character growth, Stanky eventually became one of Robinson’s earliest backers, and according to SABR, Stanky’s stand against the Phillies’ bombardment of racial insults truly united the Dodgers as a team behind Robinson.

    Another important ally in Robinson’s integration into baseball was Hall of Famer and Dodgers first baseman Gil Hodges. Hodges, who is also reported to have been a Knight of Columbus, was a fan favorite and a man of integrity that was revered by teammates, especially during the 1947 season. According to a 1977 article in The New York Times, when fights erupted at Ebbets Field due to Robinson’s presence, Hodges “would walk over and just stand there with his big hands at his side. He would say a few quiet words and the fight would be over.” Robinson had great respect for Hodges, remarking after his teammate’s death that, “He was the core of the Brooklyn Dodgers.”

    Robinson finished the 1947 season as Rookie of the Year and forever changed the landscape of the national pastime, opening the door for remarkable players such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Ken Griffey Jr., and countless others. Robinson was named the 1949 MVP and went on to help the Dodgers win the 1955 World Series before retiring as a seven-time All Star.



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