Before Brown v. Board of Education ordered desegregation of public schools, before Emmett Till’s murder woke up the nation, before the Freedom Riders drew attention to conditions for black people in the South, before the Voting Rights Act guaranteed everyone equal access to the polls, there was Jackie Robinson. By courageously breaking baseball’s color barrier, he helped inspire all of those acts that helped America begin to right its greatest wrong in its quest to be a free nation for all.
And playing a key yet mostly forgotten role in Robinson’s journey was a white Mississippian. Clay Hopper of Greenwood was Robinson’s first manager in integrated baseball, leading the Montreal Royals in 1946 in what we would call AAA ball today. The next year Robinson was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the rest is history.
Donny Whitehead, an amateur baseball historian from Greenwood, has lobbied for years to have Hopper, who had a long and successful career as a minor league player and manager, inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Whitehead said he went to the groundbreaking for the hall of fame more than two decades ago to talk about Hopper’s induction.
He has submitted a nomination (see the full bio in the box to the right) but says he’s never been able to get a firm answer about why the Hall of Fame has not chosen Hopper despite many follow up attempts.
Hopper’s case is strong. In those days the minor leagues were much more independent from the major leagues and a bigger deal. Hopper played and managed at the top levels of them for many decades and was a trusted coach for Branch Rickey, one of baseball’s legendary general managers, and helped groom seven future Hall of Famers. Further, he had a direct role in one of the most important events of the 20th century, sports or otherwise.
Perhaps the committee that makes the selections doesn’t want to draw attention to the fact that Hopper was initially opposed to the idea of having Robinson on his team, according to a story attributed to Rickey, then-president of the Dodgers, Rickey wanted to send Robinson to the Royals but said Hopper initially asked not to manage Robinson, saying he would have to move his family from Mississippi. There’s also an account of Rickey reporting that Hopper once used a racial slur regarding Robinson before the 1946 season in a conversation between the two baseball executives.
1. Although the story is often told in various accounts, Whitehead said he’d never found a reference to the original source where Rickey said that. I looked extensively online trying to find out and also didn’t have any success. Not saying that it’s not true, just that the original source isn’t clear.
2. Assuming it is true, though, what else would you expect from a man who was 43 years old and had spent his life in the segregated South? Nearly every white Mississippian in 1946 held the same views on race.
Yet the appeal of the story is in how Hopper changed. Robinson himself said that Hopper always treated him fairly, which shows why Rickey chose him for what everyone knew would be a difficult yet vitally important assignment. And Rickey, as the stories go, said Hopper came back to him after the 1946 season and apologized.
“I want to take back what I said to you last spring. I’m ashamed of it,” Rickey said that Hopper told him, as quoted in a 1984 Clarion Ledger story about Hopper. “Now you may have plans for him to be on your club, but if you don’t have plans for him on the Brooklyn Club, I would like to have him back at Montreal. He was not only good enough for Brooklyn. He was also a fine gentleman.”
“By overcoming his own sense of bigotry, Hopper became redeemed,” Chris Lamb, a journalism professor at Indiana University – Indianapolis and author of a book about Robinson, said in a 2013 column published in Canadian newspapers. “But more than that, he represented how countless others — ballplayers, managers, spectators and even those who had previously given little thought to baseball — were transformed by Jackie Robinson.”
Mississippi needs to share its story better on a national scale that despite its past sins many of us are working hard to do better in race relations. No state, I would say, has come further than Mississippi.
Inducting Hopper into the state Sports Hall of Fame would be one step toward promoting that positive vision that this state is willing to transform itself out of its racist past. The Hall of Fame says on its website that it is “especially concerned about keeping memories alive among the young people of today and tomorrow.” Clay Hopper’s story is one that Mississippi youth need to know.
Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. Reach him at (601) 736-2611.
Clay Hopper bio
Clay Hopper was born in Porterville, Miss., on Oct. 3, 1902. He was a football and baseball star at Mississippi A&M College and a member of the ‘M’ Club. He was one of the original members elected to the Mississippi State Sports Hall of Fame in 1970. He was elected to the International League Hall of Fame in 2009.
He began his baseball career in 1926 with Fort Smith of the Western Arkansas League. In 1927, as a member of the Danville Veterans of the Three-I League; he hit four home runs in one game.
In 1929, he began his managerial career with the Laurel Baby Cards of the Cotton States League. In 1946, as the manager of the Montreal Royals of the International League, he was given the assignment of managing the first African-American in organized baseball in this century, Jackie Robinson. His skills led Montreal to the pennant, the Governor’s Cup and the Junior World Series and won for him the Minor League Manager of the Year award.
He managed seven players who went on to the Baseball Hall of Fame: Joe Medwick, Johnny Mize, Walter Alston, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and Bill Mazeroski. He was also the manager of such stars as Don Newcombe and TV star Chuck Connors. In 1952, he was named Manager of the Year by the Pacific Coast League baseball writers and broadcasters.
He ended his 27-year managerial career in 1956 with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast league. His minor league managerial record totaled 1,916 wins and 1,675 losses. He won 5 ½ pennants, 7 playoffs and two Junior World series. His playing record of 16 years was 1,680 games, 125 homeruns and a .331 batting average.
He died on April 17, 1976, at Greenwood.