photo: Bill Greason (St. Louis Cardinals)
In last week’s Blast from the Past, we remembered the first African-American player signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, Tom Alston, a position player.
This week, we recall the first African-American pitcher signed by the Cardinals. His career with the team was very brief, and it encompassed the entirety of his major league career. His life after baseball was one of service to his community and service to the cause of Civil Rights for African-Americans in the United States.
William Henry Greason was born on September 3, 1924 in Atlanta, Georgia. Bill was the middle child of five born to James and Lizi Greason. Greason’s family was poor, and his parents and four siblings lived across the street from the family of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bill graduated from Booker T. Washington High School five years before Dr. King.
Like many of his peers, Greason’s baseball career began on the neighborhood sandlots where his natural talent showed through. His parents instilled in him the value of love and respect for others, no matter the color of their skin, a value that would lead him to his ultimate post baseball vocation as a Minister of God.
Greason joined the Marine Corps in 1943 and fought in World War II in the Pacific Theater. After the war, Bill player semipro football for a couple of years. A manager of a Negro Leagues team, the Atlanta Black Crackers, got Greason into baseball and he began the 1947 season with the Nashville Cubs, where he posted a pitching record of 14-2 that season.
Bill began the 1948 season with the Asheville Blues, where he was spotted during spring training by the Birmingham Barons, who acquired him from the Blues. The Barons won the Negro Leagues American League playoff against the Kansas City Monarchs in a 4-3 series. Greason was the winning pitcher in the clinching game. The Barons faced the Homestead Grays in the World Series, which was the last Negro League World Series ever played. The Barons were soundly defeated by the Grays, but Bill was the winning pitcher in the only game the Barons won.
Greason spent the 1949 and 1950 seasons with the Barons, but the Negro Leagues were seeing much defection of talent to the major leagues in the years following the signing of Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. After playing winter ball in Mexico and Cuba, Bill was granted a tryout with the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks in spring 1951. Greason failed to make the team and returned to play in Mexico. He left Mexico early in the season and returned to the Barons.
Bill was recalled to active duty with the Marines in late summer 1951. He continued to play baseball for the Camp LeJeune baseball team. A marine sergeant who was stationed in Oklahoma told the owner of the Oklahoma City Indians of the Double-A Texas League about Greason and the Indians signed him to a contract on July 28, 1952. The Texas League had become integrated with the signing of former Negro League pitcher Dave Hoskins with the Dallas Eagles in early 1952. Greason became the first black baseball player in Oklahoma upon his signing. Greason faced Hoskins in a game on August 3, and Bill won the day, earning his second win.
Greason recounted that his reception in Oklahoma was fine, with most treating him with kindness and respect while playing at home. He received a different reception on the road, however. Bill remarked that road fans would call him names he never heard before.
Bill’s pitching in Oklahoma City drew attention from several major league teams, most notably the Yankees and the Red Sox. The owner of the Indians turned down $50,000 offers from both teams, because it was suspected he wanted to run up the price.
Though Bill’s 1953 season with the Indians began slowly, he ended up finishing with a 16-13 record, but with a somewhat bloated ERA of 3.61. The Indians’ owner’s plans were thwarted, and he ended up selling Greason’s contract to the St. Louis Cardinals for $25,000 plus four players, a price less than expected.
Greason made his major league debut with St. Louis on May 31, 1954, several months after Alston, the Cardinals first black player acquisition, who began the 1954 season on the Cardinals’ roster. Bill’s ascension to the major league roster turned out to less than he expected, as he was forced to take a $300 month pay cut from what he was making in the minor leagues. Despite his protests, the Cardinals front office told him to take it or leave it.
Greason’s pay dispute, in addition to his treatment by manager Eddie Stanky, who never really gave Bill much of a chance, likely led to his poor performance in his first two games. He pitched a scoreless inning of relief in what turned out to be his final major league game on June 20. Greason was returned to the minors to finish the 1954 season. For his three major league appearances, Bill pitched a total of four innings and posted an ERA of 13.50.
Greason played winter ball in Puerto Rico, where he had better success. He played in Puerto Rico for seven years while still under contract with St. Louis and playing in both AA and AAA teams from 1955-1959. He played with future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson on the Rochester Red Wings in 1958.
Greason retired from baseball after the 1959 season. He returned to Birmingham and began working for Pizitz Department Store. While there, Bill enrolled in Birmingham Easonian Bible College and earned a degree in religion. He also did post-graduate work at Samford University in Birmingham before joining the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where he began preaching in 1963. The Sixteenth Street Church became famous as the meeting place for civil rights activists, including his former neighbor Dr. King. The church was the site of a racially motivated bombing by the Ku Klux Klan, a crime that resulted in the death of four black girls.
Bill was heavily involved in civil rights activism during this time but was not at the church on the day of the bombing. He continued his ministry by starting the New Hope Baptist Church in Bessemer, Alabama, and eventually became the pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church of Bethel Points in Birmingham, where he continues to live today at the age of 95. Greason is in fact the oldest living former Cardinals player.
He has received various awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award, on June 12, 2012. On September 21, 2014, the Cardinals held a ceremony to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his debut as the Cardinals’ first African-American pitcher.
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