John Ritchey never wanted to make history.
"He just wanted to play baseball and be judged on his ability and not the color of his skin," baseball historian Bill Swank said.
In a better time or in a better world, he may have gotten his wish. But Ritchey was an African-American man born in 1923. Being the best ballplayer he could be -- even in his comparatively black-friendly hometown of San Diego -- meant that he also had to be a pioneer. On Nov. 22, 1947, a little more than two months after Jackie Robinson was named Major League Baseball's first Rookie of the Year, Ritchey sat in the office of Padres president William Starr and signed a contract.
When the following April rolled around, he was the first black player to see action in the Pacific Coast League since 1916 (when Jimmy Claxton passed as part Native American). A friendly and upbeat person by nature, Ritchey was a trailblazer by necessity. Even though he never sought any laurels for integrating the PCL, he's commemorated with a bust in Petco Park.
That monument is there thanks in large part to the efforts of Swank, who was friends with Ritchey. Speaking at his funeral in January 2003, Swank relayed to mourners a conversation the two of them had not long before Ritchey's death.
"I told [the congregation] that I told Johnny," Swank recalled, "'I know you never made it to the Major Leagues, but you're going into the Major Leagues now. One way or another, your bust is going into that new ballpark they're building in downtown San Diego.' The congregation erupted, clapping, cheering, shouting, 'Amen.' It was so emotional."
On March 30, 2005, the Padres unveiled the bust in the PCL Bar & Grill (now The Draft) along the first base line.
The bronze bust was donated by friends and family of John Ritchey. (Courtesy Bill Swank)
"It took over a year," Swank said, "but it meant so much to the family."
Although joining San Diego's club for the 1948 season meant Ritchey would be playing in his backyard, the slugging young catcher had already gone a long way to get there.
The long road home
A standout from a young age, Ritchey helped his American Legion squad reach the national semifinals in 1938, but he and a black teammate (Nelson Manuel) were barred from participating in games in Spartanburg, South Carolina. When the team played its way back to the national stage two years later, coach Mike Morrow insisted to the tournament's organizers that every player on his Post 6 roster be allowed to compete. He got their word, and Ritchey did better than compete. In the eighth inning of the semifinals against a team from St. Louis, he doubled in the go-ahead run to send Post 6 to the finals.
But when the team arrived across the state in Albemarle for the championship series, the promise wasn't kept -- Ritchey and Manuel were forced to sit. They were subject to racist taunts from the crowd just for warming up, and their team lost.
Ritchey (head down) and his teammates were dejected in the Jim Crow South. (Courtesy of Bill Swank)
Heartbreaking though the experience may have been, it didn't change Ritchey's cheerful disposition or positive outlook. Decades later, when Swank was spearheading the grassroots effort to get the bust into Petco, he received a $200 check from a white man who'd gone to San Diego High School at the same time as Ritchey.
"Everybody knew who he was and knew what went he through down South," Swank said. "This guy said, 'When I passed [Ritchey] in the hall, I always said hi and he always smiled and said hi back. I remembered the way white people treated him so bad in the South, and he comes back and didn't have any bitterness toward us because he knew we weren't them and he knew San Diego wasn't like that.' That gives you the idea of the character he had, even back then when he was a kid."
Ritchey graduated high school and went on to San Diego State, but after a year of college, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943. He served in the Engineer Corps at Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and in the Philippines, working his way from private to staff sergeant by the end of World War II. Re-enrolling at San Diego State, Ritchey hit his stride on the diamond. But no big league club came knocking, even though he won the Linn Platner Trophy as the Aztecs player with the highest batting average -- .356.
"Eight or nine guys [on that San Diego State team] signed contracts, and he didn't because of his race," Swank said. "Walter McCoy, who was a pitcher on the Chicago American Giants and a friend of Johnny, said, 'Come with me [to Spring Training]. If you don't make the team, I'll pay for your ticket back.'"
Ritchey not only made the team but became one of its best players. It's uncertain what his average was that year -- contemporary accounts from different newspapers list it as .369, .378, .381 and .386 -- but it is certain he won the Negro American League batting title in his first crack at professional baseball.
On top of his remarkable hitting, "he got a good jump on pitchers and managed to steal 27 bases," according to The Biographical Enyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues by James A. Riley. "Although he was not big and husky, he ... was rugged enough to withstand the demands of playing behind the plate."
With the Major League color barrier already broken by Robinson -- and four players (Brooklyn teammate Dan Bankhead, Cleveland's Larry Doby and the St. Louis Browns' Hank Thompson and Willard Brown) following him in '47 -- everything Ritchey demonstrated in the Negro Leagues was bound to garner some big league attention. The Cubs, who had ample opportunity to scout him playing with the American Giants at Comiskey Park, brought Ritchey to Wrigley Field for a tryout in September.
The Associated Negro Press (ANP) reported that Ritchey worked out for the Cubs for six hours, noting that the Chicago front office intended to talk things over and ink him within a couple weeks.
"The Cubs are definitely interested in Ritchey but want to deal with Dr. [John B.] Martin, president of the Chicago American Giants, as they would in any club owner in an organized league and they recognize the Negro leagues as such," sportswriter Fay Young, who attended the tryout as an informal advocate for Ritchey, told the ANP. "They admit that Ritchey, who is 23 ... has proved himself in Negro baseball but will have to come up as did Jackie Robinson."
But no contract came.
Instead, the Cubs suggested he play winter ball, after which they might have sent him to a Class A team in Des Moines or Davenport, Iowa. Ritchey returned to California, where the offer to play in his hometown in the Pacific Coast League -- at the time, considered just a half-notch below the big leagues and sometimes like a third Major League -- was more attractive.
"We believe we have signed one of the finest prospects in the country," Starr told the San Diego Union
. "His record at San Diego High School, State College and with the Chicago Negro team has been particularly outstanding. ... We are not sponsoring any cause. Our interest in Ritchey is primarily that he can swing the bat. He is a potential [Major League] prospect and has a better than reasonable chance of helping the Padres."
The Cubs raised a small stink, telling print media that Ritchey had squelched on an agreement (which was never actually in place, as Ritchey reminded them in a letter). The American Giants mistakenly believed they had him under contract for another year (Martin thought manager Jim Taylor had re-signed Ritchey; Taylor thought Martin had). But the San Diego man was officially a Padre, and there was nothing any other team could do about it.
Ritchey, with Starr (l), wore his college letterman's sweater the day he signed. (Courtesy of Bill Swank)
Despite Starr's words to the local media, the Padres weren't sure the 5-foot-9, 171-pound backstop was ready for PCL competition. San Diego had something of a logjam behind the plate, with Earl Kuper, former Cub Len Rice and Hank Camelli (formerly of the Pirates and Braves) competing for the everyday role out of spring camp.
In March, The Sporting News reported, "Long-ball hitting by John Ritchey, the first Negro ever signed by a Pacific Coast League team, is making it look as though he will give three other catcher candidates of the San Diego Padres a fight for the first string job."
Not typically a power hitter, Ritchey was in a groove. His hot bat prevented the Padres from sending him to their Riverside, California, affiliate in the Sunset League and they broke camp with four catchers. The other three were all injured almost immediately and Ritchey caught nearly the entirety of the season-opening series against the Los Angeles Angels. He went 8-for-16, belting a game-winning, three-run homer in one contest.
That stretch cemented his spot on the roster.
"When I asked [Padres manager Ripper Collins] if Ritchey would become a regular on the team," Los Angeles Sentinel sports editor Eddie Burbridge wrote in an April 8 column, "he said he didn't see how he could do without him. After the game, a crowd of kids of mixed races gathered around Ritchey for his autograph, which shows what the fans think of him. He was cheered every time he went to bat and I asked one player what he thought about him. He said Ritchey was popular with his white teammates and it looked like he had everything to make a good baseball player."
Still, when the other catchers were healthy again, he lost playing time. Ritchey finished the year with only 253 plate appearances in 103 games, despite batting .323/.405/.442 with four homers, two triples and 10 doubles.
Even ignoring the inconsistent playing time, that first season in the PCL wasn't always as easy for Ritchey as his numbers made it look -- or as rosy as his anonymous teammate suggested to the Sentinel that it would be. By no account did Ritchey go through what Robinson had to endure in erasing the Major League color line in 1947, but his race was a factor in the way he was treated in the PCL. A 1948 Associated Press article noted, "Manager Rip Collins said the pitchers liked to throw at Ritchey," and Swank said, "On the bases, he'd hear racial epithets and there were tags that were applied too hard."
His teammates, by and large, did little to support him or prevent that behavior. Ritchey also didn't have a roommate -- a unique arrangement in the contemporary baseball culture. Especially for a young man who'd grown up playing ball with and naturally befriending white, Mexican and Asian-American boys in his San Diego neighborhood, it was a tough dynamic.
"All his life, his teammates of various racial backgrounds were also his friends," Swank wrote in an email. "When he played professional baseball, he realized that not all his teammates were his friends, and that hurt him."
The press considered him a serious Major League prospect entering that season and nothing in his performance could have reasonably changed that impression. And his time playing winter ball in Venezuela the following offseason could only have raised his profile. Yet the left-handed-hitting, right-handed-throwing catcher never got a shot in the bigs -- not with the Cubs, who'd asked to see how he handled winter ball the year before, nor with any other team.
"There was a quota system in Major League Baseball. If he was playing today, there's no question he would be a Major Leaguer. There's no question," Swank said. "He would at least be in the American League [as] a designated hitter, no question. It was only because Major League Baseball was slow to integrate that he never made it."
Family man and hometown hero
Ritchey enjoyed a strong Minor League career, batting .300 over nine seasons, including one more with the Padres and five more in the PCL. Playing for Vancouver in the Western International League in 1951, he hit .346 to win another batting crown. He was second the following year with a .343 mark. He never became embittered, living up to the nickname given to him by Jim Gleason, a teammate at San Diego State and with the Padres: Johnny Baseball.
"He had ... a good attitude and his competitive spirit made him a better ballplayer," The Biographical Encyclopedia of The Negro Baseball Leagues
Ritchey also remained a dedicated family man throughout his playing days. When a reporter asked him whether he took his wife, Martina, (Lydia to her friends and family) and infant daughter, Johnaa, to Venezuela with him in the winter of 1948-49, he replied, "I take them everywhere I go."
After he was through with pro ball, he and his family returned to San Diego, where he and Martina raised their three children. He got a job delivering milk for the Continental Baking Company -- maker of Wonder Bread and Twinkies. His friendliness and good nature shined in that role, too.
"Walter McCoy told me that when [Ritchey] had the milk route, his wife didn't know it, but he gave milk away," Swank said. "His reason was, 'Well, poor kids have to have milk, too.'"
Bill Swank led the grassroots effort to get a bust of Ritchey into Petco Park. (Courtesy of Bill Swank)
To Swank, who's written several books on San Diego baseball history, the need to publicly honor such a person was crystal clear.
"He was a wonderful man. I can't say enough good things about John Ritchey. This man is a San Diego native," he said. "He played Pacific Coast League ball, he broke the color barrier. He did everything a man could do: he was a World War II veteran, he took a job afterward, he raised a family to believe you judge somebody by what's inside and not by the color of their skin.
"He was everything a baseball player and an American hero should be."
Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB.