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The Case for Carlos Bernier: Baseball's Historic Omission

By Xavier F. Totti

Carlos Bernier ended the Pittsburgh Pirates era of racial segregation when he joined the team for the 1953 season. Bernier didn’t have a consistent year with the Pirates, and though he became a minor league star, he would never get another opportunity to play in the ‘big leagues.’ Unfortunately, neither the Pirates nor Major League Baseball (MLB) officially recognize him as the player who broke the team’s ‘color line.’

In the early 1950s most followers of ‘colored’ players recognized the fact that Bernier was both black and Puerto Rican. For example, a large cartoon published in the Indiana Gazette (Indiana, PA) on 6 April 1953 (p. 27), announcing the arrival of the ‘speedster’ Carlos Bernier to the Pirates, clearly depicts him as a ‘colored’ person. A look at any photograph of Bernier clearly shows that he was an Afro-Puerto Rican—a fact confirmed by his son, Néstor Collazo-Bernier, in an interview we had this past January.

Click on the image to enlarge.

There are also two more articles in the Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s largest African American newspaper, which mentioned Bernier. They both ran on April 11, 1953, a few days prior to the opening of the season. A page 15 article titled “Bumper Crop of Rookies Await Major League Openers: Seven New Stars Up for a Try,” mentions Bernier among “a stellar group of Negro rookies who’ll be trying to win their spurs in the big time.” Then, on page 27, under the title “Fans Anxious to See Carlos Bernier Play,” the article states that “[n]egro baseball fans have been waiting for a tan baseball star to make an appearance in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform since the advent of Jackie Robinson” and that this will be fulfilled once “Carlos Bernier, browned-skinned Puerto Rican, puts an appearance at Forbes Field.”

Only a couple of years later, an article in the Courier reporting on the 1955 spring training camp mentions that “the Bucs have six Negro athletes in training at Fort Myers, the most in a Pittsburgh camp in the history of the club” (“Roberts Plays Ball in Spite of Rumors,” p. 22). The “six Negro athletes” were: Curt Roberts, Roberto Clemente, Lino Donoso, Domingo Roselló, Carlos Bernier (described as “the Hollywood ‘Bad Boy’”) and Román Mejías.

Influential African American sports columnists of the time eagerly included Bernier in their lists of ‘black’ ballplayers. For example, the Pittsburgh Courier’s Wendell Smith, one of the country’s most influential sports columnists, in his “Sports Beat” of April 18, 1953 counted Bernier in a list of African American players slatted for a banner season. In the Atlanta Daily World (the city’s largest African American newspaper) columnist Claude A. Walker (“Hearover the Sportstrola,” May 20, 1953, p. 6) had Bernier in a list of an all black ”All Star Team that could perform equal against the best in the majors.” Marion Jackson, also of the Atlanta Daily World, in his column “Sports of the World” (May 13, 1953, p. 7) wrote “your attention is called to Carlos Bernier, a darkskinned Cuban[sic] who is winning raves with the Pittsburgh Pirates.”

Click on the picture for additional images.

By the way, MLB does recognize four Afro Latinos for desegregating teams. The players are: Cubans Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso (Chicago White Sox, 1951) and Carlos Paula (Washington Senators, 1954), Puerto Rican Saturnino “Nino” Escalera (Cincinnati Reds, 1954), and Dominican Osvaldo "Ozzie" Virgil, Sr. (Detroit Tigers, 1958). It is obvious that prior to 1947—the beginning of the end of racial seggregation in Organzied Baseball—because of his skin color Carlos Bernier would have been barred from playing in the Major Leagues. So why doesn’t MLB and the Pittsburgh Pirates add Bernier to the list?

The architect of baseball’s desegregation, Branch Rickey, designed a plan for bringing an African American player into the league. The strategy was to have the selected player withstand all the racism and aggression from players, the media and fans without retaliating. He selected Jackie Robinson as much as for his athleticism and baseball prowess as for his temperament, intelligence, leadership qualities and maturity. In an article in the The New London Day (February 14, 1948, p. 10) Rickey delineated what he found in Robinson “a superlative man,[…] outstanding player on the field, and a thorough gentleman off.” According to Rickey, Robinson kept to the plan and “for two years he has had an almost Christ-like taste of turning the other cheek.”

The first players to desegregate organized baseball were frequently threatened and humiliated on and off the field. On the field they were thrown at by pitchers, tagged hard by infielders and stepped on by opposing team runners. (Moffi and Kronstadt 1994: 3–4). In 1948 during his first season in Organized Baseball Bernier had his skulled fractured by a pitched ball (Preston 2013), and during his first at bat in the major leagues he was also hit by a pitch. 'Colored' players privately complained that umpires seldom called close calls in their favor. It was common practice, as it happened to Bernier during his year with the Pirates, to be ostracized both in the dugout as well as in the clubhouse by their teammates. Because of the prevalent segregation when the team was traveling ‘colored’ players could not stay in the same hotels as their white teammates; the had to stay alone in second-class hotels or rooming houses in the Black sections of cities.

According to Preston (2013), “at the end of the season Pirates general manager Branch Rickey didn’t seem to be giving up. ‘Bernier can’t be judged on his record this year,’ Rickey said in an interview in the July 29 Sporting News. ‘He’s a first year player, strange to the language [even though Bernier had spent most of the previous five summers playing in the U.S.], nervous in the big leagues. He simply needs orientation.’” Yet Carlos Bernier, after such outstanding performances year-after-year in the minor leagues, got only one chance to prove his worth in the majors, there was to be no ‘orientation’.

The four Afro Latinos recognized by MLB as the first to desegregate teams (clockwise from top left):
Minnie Miñoso (1951), Nino Escalera (1954), Ozzie Virgil (1958), Carlos Paula (1954).

Most likely in Rickey’s mind, Bernier was the opposite of Jackie Robinson. He openly fought the racism in the league, played an aggressive style of baseball, and even had the temerity to complain about the contract the Pirates, with Rickey as their general manager, tendered. To cap off the situation, upon his return in 1954 to the Hollywood Stars Bernier got into a series of on the field fights for which he was suspended. The first one took place on June 13, 1954 when, while trying to steal second base, Bernier reacted to a hard tag by Los Angeles Angels’ second baseman Bud Harding by kicking him. Harding punched Bernier, and they began to exchange punches. Both benches cleared as players began to fight each other on the field. Harding was suspended for 2 games, Bernier, indefinitely. Both were fined $50. Bernier was also accused of having “insulted some fans by gesturing insultingly in reply to their taunts” (San Bernardino County Sun June 15, 1954, p. 24).

The incident that sealed Bernier’s fate took place two months later, on August 11. In the eighth inning of a game against the San Diego Padres Bernier was called out on three consecutive strikes. Believing that they were not strikes, Bernier went face-to-face with the umpire, exchanging insults, and bumping him. When ejected from the game, Bernier slapped the umpire. What would have normally been a 90-day suspension (striking an umpire), for Bernier turned into a season long one. It also sealed his reputation as a feisty, hotheaded, and temperamental Afro Latino player.

Whether he deserved that reputation or not, he became known as a trouble maker and that made major league teams leery of him. Moreover, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when desegregation was still taking place (the last team to desegregate, the Boston Red Sox, did so in 1959!), it was probably doubtful that any major league team was going to take a chance with an Afro Latino player who was not that young, had done poorly in his first try at the majors, and had a reputation for having a ‘bad attitude.’ After the 1953 season the Pirates never brought Bernier back.

A number of sports researchers (Treder 2004; Preston 2013) who have looked into the Bernier case have not been able to find any official pronouncement that sheds light on why the Pirates didn’t keep Bernier. Treder, in his Hardball Times article, points other Pirate youngsters who after having bad rookie seasons (and in some cases second and third years too) received one, two and even three opportunities with the team. And Bernier’s minor league record certainly screamed at the Pirates to take another look (2,374 hits, 594 stolen bases, and a .297 batting average). But organizations seldom gave black player second chances or “the benefit of the doubt.”

Bernier was certainly aware that fighting back against racism and racial stereotyping had cost him dearly. At spring training in 1955, when he saw a young Roberto Clemente get upset about the racial situation in Florida and in the team, Bernier advised him not to follow his example and to stay under control (Maraniss 2006).

Nevertheless, Bernier was competitive and played the game hard and rough. By all accounts, he was not one to take racism, injustices or bad calls lying down. Néstor Collazo-Bernier has stated that his father “lived in an era when it was fashionable to discriminate…. My father’s only shortfall was that he did not handle the injustices of society with the same grace as a Jackie Robinson or a Roberto Clemente. He was quite angry at the injustices and faced them head on, even if it meant challenging a white major league umpire who made a racial slur” (Trader 2003).

In his book Baseball Has Done It Jackie Robinson said it well when talking about the problems Afro Latino players of the 1950s faced: “segregation comes as a shock to them… Some stay within their own Spanish-speaking communities. Others react with indignation and refuse to take second-class citizenship” (1964:17).

For Puerto Ricans, the Pittsburgh Pirates are one of the most beloved baseball teams. They were Clemente’s team. The entire franchise traveled to Puerto Rico on that fateful New Year’s when “The Great One” died. It is about time that MLB rectify the wrong and recognize Carlos Bernier, the 34th player of African descent to play in the majors, as the man who in 1953 broke the ‘color barrier’ in Pittsburgh. Having fought hard for it, this pioneer certainly deserves the honor!

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Ryan Morgan for his help with the newspaper searches and for the baseball talk. Néstor Collazo-Bernier and Edwin Fernández Crespo graciously took time from their busy schedules and agreed to be interviewed. Their invaluable help is greatly appreciated. Finally, James L. Gates, Library Director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, promptly responded to my query and clarified that the HoF did not produce the list identifying the first players to break the color line for each team.

References cited:
Maraniss, David. 2006. Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Moffi, Larry and Jonathan Kronstadt. 1994. Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947–1959. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Preston, J.G. 2013. One and done: The Sparky Anderson All-Stars. The J.G. Preston Experience. Accessed 14 January 2016. https://prestonjg.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/one-and-done-the-sparky-anderson-all-stars/.
Robinson, Jackie. 1964. Baseball Has Done It. Edited by Charles Dexter. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
Treder, Steve. 2004. Carlos Bernier. The Hardball Times 25 August. Accessed 18 December 2015. http://www.hardballtimes.com/carlos-bernier/.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 5 February 2016.