Addendum, Feb. 4, 2018: A note from John Kennedy’s daughter, Tazena Kennedy, is reproduced below this article.
The Phillies’ first African-American player came out of spring training hyped as “a prize package” and was compared to superstar Ernie Banks. Weeks later, after only five regular season at-bats in 1957, he was gone. John Kennedy would never play for the Phillies again.
Throughout the years, as the Phillies have honored several Negro Leaguers who played in Philadelphia, there’s no official record of any celebration for Kennedy, who died in 1998. It’s widely known the Phillies were the last National League team to integrate. Less known is the story of their first black player, Kennedy, so for Black History Month we’re highlighting his quick rise and fall with the team 60 years ago this spring.
“I would not say they made a huge commitment to the development of John Kennedy,” Chris Threston, author of The Integration of Baseball in Philadelphia, told Billy Penn. “They just wanted to get it over with.”
That Kennedy would make any Major League roster was a surprise. According to newspaper accounts from the 1950s, he didn’t even play organized baseball in high school in Jacksonville, instead favoring football and basketball. He finally started playing after he graduated. One of his teammates and friends in the semipro leagues of Jacksonville was Harold Hair.
Hair best remembers the man’s intensity, how teammates could barely restrain him that one time a pitcher threw at Kennedy. Or how he would routinely turn would-be sacrifice bunts into singles.
“He was quiet until he put that uniform on,” Hair, who is now 84 and played in the Negro Leagues, said over the phone from his home in Jacksonville. “Then he turned into a demon.”
In the first part of the 1950s, Kennedy played for a Canadian team, the New York Giants’ farm system and for the Birmingham Barons and Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. His last year with the Monarchs he hit .385 with 17 home runs. He got invited to work out for the Phillies after that season.
Kennedy performed poorly over a three-day period. Fortunately for him, scout Bill Yancey told management Kennedy was a better player than he showed, and he was selected to join the Phillies in spring training.
By March, he was in position to be the Phillies’ first black player. He had no idea, saying in a spring training profile in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin that the milestone was news to him.
His original goal had been to make a top Phillies minor league team. But he quickly became one of the best players on the entire roster. Kennedy hit above .400 for much of spring training and by the end of it was hitting .333, second-highest on the team. In the field, he committed only one error at shortstop and made memorable double plays and at least one diving catch.
Yancey likened him to Banks and said his “easy swing” would make him one of the best hitters in the league. Teammates seemed to like him. Kennedy, who spoke with a Southern drawl, told the Bulletin they had been “wonderful. They encourage me, and they kid me. Everybody has been fine.”
Yet the Phillies never seemed willing to commit. Though the club signed him to a contract on April 6, 1957, 10 days before the season opener, it quickly traded for Cuban shortstop Chico Fernandez, who had been in the Dodgers’ organization, spending $75,000 to acquire his rights.
On April 13, Claude Harrison wrote in the Philadelphia Tribune, “What we would like to know is what does (Kennedy) have to do in order to prove he’s Major League material? At the beginning of the season word came out of Clearwater that he couldn’t field. Yet he has made only one blunder. While on the other hand the player they paid $75,000 for makes two in one day. What more can the Phils ask?”
The answer for the Phillies’ quick turn against Kennedy is complicated. But it is known Kennedy lied about his age. He entered spring training claiming to be 22. He was actually 30.
Exactly when the Phillies found out is unclear. Some surmise it was on the eve of the season and that’s why they traded for Fernandez, who was 25. Hair said it was common for ballplayers in those days to lie about their age.
“They used to tease each other about your real age and your baseball age,” he said. “It wasn’t a thing. You did that. It was sort of an in-house joke.”
The opening day lineup was revealed with Fernandez starting at shortstop. As a Cuban, he became the Phillies’ first minority player to appear in a game, though Kennedy was still the first African-American.
On April 16, the day of the Phillies’ first game, the Tribune featured a picture of Fernandez and Kennedy joined by two autograph seekers, with the headline “City Hails Phils’ Negro Players.” The last line of the first paragraph read, “Thousands of negroes are happy because the Phillies have finally seen the light.”
The beginning of the season came at a time of great racial unrest in Philly. The Supreme Court had just ruled Girard College was violating the Constitution with its ban on black students, and protests had recently erupted over comments by a local reverend who said black people should be arrested for standing on street corners. The Phillies had been struggling the last few years after a World Series appearance in 1950, on the field and in attendance. A refusal to follow other teams and integrate, Threston said, was seen as one reason for their problems. Even the crosstown A’s had added a black player in 1953.
Kennedy wouldn’t play in the season opener. He appeared for the first time April 22 as a pinch runner. When the Phillies demoted him about two weeks later, having gotten just two at-bats in five games, many people questioned how someone who played so well in spring training had such a short leash in the regular season. Casey Stengel, the legendary manager of the New York Yankees, was quoted in the Tribune saying, “They (the Phillies) are always running around trading for this fellow and that fellow. Why don’t they look under their noses? They’ve got a pretty good shortstop in that fellow (Kennedy).”
He played minor league ball for a few more years before retiring and settling back in Jacksonville. The last time he was interviewed, a year before his death in 1997, Kennedy told author Mark Kram he figured he could’ve lasted in the majors if he’d been born 10 or 15 years later.
“Either that or I was with the wrong team,” he said. “If I had come up with a team that had an established black player in place, that could have helped.”
Kennedy said in 1997 he was disappointed but not bitter at how his opportunity with the Phillies turned out and considered himself luckier than most black players of the era, who never had any opportunity to play in the Majors. Said Hair, “If he was upset, he kept it to himself.”
A spokesperson for the Phillies said staff members recall some type of honor or celebration for Kennedy, but they couldn’t find anything specific. A newspaper archive search reveals no coverage of a ceremony for him since the 1980s, and Threston said there’s no way Kennedy would’ve been honored in the years shortly after he stopped playing for the team.
He didn’t have an easy life after quitting baseball. Kennedy’s wife died in 1978. With his five children grown, according to Kram’s 1997 article, Kennedy spent his last years in a small Jacksonville house once owned by his uncle, surviving on pension checks from an old mill job.
The bright spot was still baseball. Even in his 70s, he continued to play in a recreational adult league, teeing off against former college and high school players who were 30 or 40 years younger and showing that the Phillies perhaps shouldn’t have worried about his ability in spite of his age. There in Jacksonville, among the baseball community, he was always remembered.
“When you said John,” Hair recalled, “everybody knew who you were talking about.”