Joe Durham was a bona fide All-Star well before he made history as the first African-American player to hit a home run for the Baltimore Orioles. Playing in 1952 for the Chicago American Giants in the Negro Leagues, Durham was selected to the East-West All-Star Game at Comiskey Park. For a rookie in the league, it was a thrill to be on such a prominent stage amongst the veterans of the league.
“It was kind of exciting,” Durham said to me during a 2010 phone interview from his home in Maryland. “The All-Star game was good; we had a fairly decent crowd. We had a chance to play against one another and participate against guys from the East and the West. Most of the guys on those teams were older… There were several veterans that got my attention. I saw them play when I was a kid. Henry Kimbro and Doc Dennis… these guys had been playing for ages.”
Durham passed away Thursday April 28, 2016 at the Northwest Hospital Hospice Center in Randallstown, Maryland. He was 84.
The outfielder found himself in the Negro Leagues after signing with the St. Louis Browns in 1952. The Browns wanted to place him on their farm teams in the South, but racial tensions at the time prevented that from being an option for Durham. Luckily Browns owner Bill Veeck was able to use a long standing connection to place Durham on one of the flagship franchises of the Negro Leagues.
“Everything they had in the farm system where they wanted to start me was in the South and I couldn’t play there,” he said. “Abe Saperstein who owned the Chicago American Giants and Bill Veeck who owned the St. Louis Browns were very good friends. So that’s how I got over there [to Chicago] for just one year.”
As major league teams signed more players from the Negro Leagues, these prospects served as agents of change across the minor leagues. In 1953, Durham along with future Baltimore Orioles outfielder Willie Tasby helped to break the color barrier of the Piedmont League as members of the York White Roses. Even though Durham grew up in segregated Newport News, Virginia, that still didn’t prepare him for the taunting he received in some of the towns of the league.
“Hagerstown was the worst team in the whole damn league,” he said in Bruce Adelson’s “Brushing Back Jim Crow.” “They were really bad. I used to hate to go there. We opened the season in Hagerstown. I’m telling you, I never heard so much stuff in my life.”
Tasby further explained the degree of insults they faced while playing in Hagerstown. They retaliated against the hateful slurs by taking it out on the opposition.
“That was as bad as Mississippi,” Tasby told Adelson. “That was one of the worst places I played in my life. It wasn’t even in what you’d call the South. It’s in Maryland. But you see, Baltimore and Washington used to be bad too… We got called everything except our names there, all of the derogatory names. Of course, we beat the hell out of them every time we played there. But we still had to hear them.”
Durham responded by batting .308 with 14 home runs, earning a promotion to San Antonio in the Texas League in 1954. Still deep in the South, Durham had to figure out a way to keep his performance on the field unaffected by the social conditions at the time.
“Black ballplayers of that era had to have a little something extra to go along with their playing talent because of things you had to endure,” Durham said to Adelson. “You had to tell yourself not to let anything get in your way or distract you. There was nothing you could do.”
After another standout minor league season, where he hit .318 with 14 home runs and 108 RBI, Durham earned a September call-up to the Baltimore Orioles. Upon his arrival, he was immediately inserted into the lineup, and in his fourth major league game, he became the first African-American to homer for the Orioles, hitting a circuit blast off of Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Al Sima.
“The first night I got here, I played,” he said in during our 2010 interview. “I played out the season and then I had to go into the Army. I was scheduled to go in July, but I got a deferment until October.”
Durham spent two years in the Army, serving first at Camp Gordon in Georgia and then later with the Seventh Army in Germany. Upon his discharge in October 1956, he went on to play winter ball with San Juan in Puerto Rico, preparing him for major league spring training in 1957.
He responded to his two-year absence by leading the team in batting during spring training. Finally, Durham felt that he proved his worth as a full-time major leaguer. However, Orioles manager Paul Richards thought otherwise.
“The strange thing about it, I led the Orioles in hitting in spring training,” he said. “I had tremendous spring training. The prejudiced manager Paul Richards, the last day he told me, ‘If we go to Baltimore, you are only going to play 20-30 games and you are going to get rusty. We want you to go down to San Antonio.’ I asked him about going to Triple-A Vancouver and he said the roster there was full. He said, ‘Go on down there for a couple of weeks keep hitting, and we’ll bring you back up here.’”
A dejected Durham returned to San Antonio, determined to prove Richards wrong in his decision to keep him in the minor leagues. Upon his return to Texas after a three-year absence, Durham encountered greater indignities than when he left in 1954. The city of Shreveport, Louisiana enacted a law barring white and blacks from playing on the same field together. Rather than forcing the Texas League to remove Shreveport from competition, the league allowed the rest of the clubs to carry an extra player to compensate for keeping their players of color at home while they traveled to Shreveport.
“The first year I played at Shreveport, you could go in [and play],” he said. “I went in the Army and came back out. I started in 1957 and no blacks or whites could participate on the field, arena, or against one another in Shreveport. We would go to Houston and the team would go to Shreveport; we would go back to San Antonio.”
Showing tremendous character in the face of adversity, Durham’s on-field performance was at its peak. Durham maintained a .400 average during the first two months of the season, finally forcing the Orioles to call him up in the middle of June after he hit .391 in 50 games.
“I didn’t get recalled until June 10th and I was hitting over .400 until the 1st of June,” he recalled.
“I came up and played the rest of the season in Baltimore.”
Unfortunately, Durham couldn’t duplicate his minor league success, hitting only .185 with four home runs in 77 games for the Orioles in 1957. Save for five at-bats with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959, it would be his last foray in the major leagues.
“I really hate to say it, but I never got a good chance to play,” Durham lamented. “They would tell you that they wanted to have you on the team and you were doing well, but he [Richards] was playing all of his boys. In 1959, I went to the St. Louis Cardinals. I had another tremendous spring, made the team and I got five at-bats before they decided to send me back to Baltimore.”
Durham continued to play in the minor leagues at the Triple-A level until 1964 and continued his involvement with the Orioles organization until his passing. A link to the inception of the franchise, Durham’s six-decade association with the Orioles made him the longest tenured employee in the team’s history. He spent 20 years as a batting practice pitcher after he hung up his spikes, and then served as their community coordinator for baseball operations, as well as a minor league coach, instructor, and scout.
“I do clinics and go around to some of the schools, community relations they call it,” he said in 2010. “I’m not on the regular payroll. I’ve been on their payroll in some capacity since 1954. I used to do a lot of traveling, hitting schools and private organizations; that was part of my job. I worked in the front office as the community relations director. I scouted one year. That was the last year I worked.”
As with many of his African-American counterparts in the early 1950s, Durham’s major league stats fall short of explaining the totality of his story and skills. His ability to stand tall in the face of Jim Crow segregation to ultimately become the Orioles’ longest standing employee demonstrates that Durham proved his All-Star status long after he left the diamond.