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Unsurprisingly, Jackie Robinson heads the list and I do not imagine that anyone will be arguing with that ranking. However, the rest of the list stirkes me as lazy, just identifying great players or validating conventional wisdom.
The list is:
1) Jackie Robinson
2) Curt Flood
3) Henry Aaron
4) Frank Robinson
5) Larry Doby
6) Willie Mays
7) Satchel Paige
8) Rube Foster
9) Reggie Jackson
10) Barry Bonds
Let us begin with # 2 Curt Flood. I have long regarded the focus on Flood's attempt to become a free agent as a vastly overrated business. I have seen countless times, writers who conclude articles on the Flood episode with .."..though his case failed in the courts, Flood showed the way for the free agency which came about six years later...etc."
That just is not true. Flood attempted to overthrow the reserve clause on bad legal grounds. His argument was that it wasn't fair, which it wasn't, but this was utterly trumped by the fact that it was quite legal, made so by the US Congress exempting MLB from existing anti-trust laws. The way things were structured, of course Flood was going to lose in court, he had no legal case. He was tilting at windmills and accomplished nothing save shortening his own career.
When the reserve clause was overthrown, it was done so on very different grounds. Marvin Miller read through the legal language and found a loophole. The reserve clause was structured so that if a player refused to sign his annual contract, the team could renew the previous season's contract at the same value. What those who crafted this clause overlooked was..what happens if the player refuses to sign the contract, has it renewed for the next season by the club, and then the player meets the requirements of the contract without ever signing. The following year, Miller claimed, that player would no longer have an existing contract to be automatically renewed.
Miller knew that in an arbitration hearing, his interpretation, that the above player had now become a free agent, would most likely be upheld. He needed a test case and Andy Messerschmidt and Dave McNally provided it by playing out their 1975 contracts unsigned. As Miller predicted, Peter Seitz, the arbitrator, ruled in 1976 that Messerschmidt and McNally were indeed now free agents.
That is how the players won free agency, it had nothing to do with Flood's case or the grounds under which he sought his labor freedom. Flood did not "show the way" as is so often claimed. He showed how not to go about it.
#2 on my list would be Vic Power. He played from 1954 through 1965 and he was the first among all black players to break the false personality model which all black players had been forced to adopt in order to avoid trouble. Unlike the others, Power was not at all afraid of controversy or standing up for himself. He was extremely outspoken with his views, would raise a huge fury when encountering any sort of attempt at treating him differently from his teammates, and was never hestitant to speak out against ongoing racism in MLB.
Power was the first firstbaseman to routinely field the ball one handed. Since everyone does it that way now, it seems hard to believe that this was a controversy in the 1950's, but it was. Power was blasted in the press for being a showboat, trying to look flashy at the expense of sound fundamentals. And you would find articles by writers who explained that this was a product of Power's racial makeup...you know, these negro players are putting on airs, getting uppity. Power explained his thinking, that it was actually to the firstbaseman's advantage to do it his way, but the media had decided that he was a showoff, and didn't listen.
Power's willingness to take a lot of crap in order to do things his way, had more influence on the way MLB blacks started to behave than did the homeruns of Willie Mays or Henry Aaron. Power was an attitude pioneer.
# 3 on my list would be Reggie Jackson, more or less for the same reasons as Power. Reggie was the pioneer in raising African Americans to the same level as whites in MLB in that he calculated that his talent was so immense and the desire to have him playing for your team so great, that it overwhelmed the need for him to place any sort of curbs on his natural behavior. In effect, what Jackson accomplished was to make it okay for blacks to behave just as poorly as whites, and still get the pass that all pro athletes are so used to getting.
Those guys changed the nature of the game as it related to race relations a great deal more than did Aaron or Mays or Doby, all of whom subordinated their natural personalties in favor of behavior which was more in keeping with white expectations. I didn't realize this about Mays until after he retired and became a frequent guest in the Giants radio and tv booths during games. The personality Mays had for the world while he was a player was the slap happy, stickball in the street manchild who would have played for free just because he loved the game so much. The Mays I was hearing on the radio after he departed from the game was an extremely crabby egoist who seldom had a nice word for anyone or anything. That is when I realized that whole Smilin' Willie personality the public embraced had been something manufactured for public consumption.
And I would find somewhere on my list for....Muhammad Ali. Apart from Jackie Robinson, no one had more influence on all black athletes than did Ali. That he was not a baseball player does not mean he did not shape the consciousness of African American players.