They were not only exceptional players; the 2017 inductees into the Cactus League Hall of Fame were also pioneers who helped change the face of sport and society.
Willie Mays, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin and Ernie Banks were African Americans who helped break baseball’s color barrier in the 1940s and ‘50s. They became star players who also helped establish the Cactus League.
Collectively, they will become the first class of players inducted into the Cactus League Hall of Fame during the league’s annual luncheon at 11 a.m. Feb. 22 at the Embassy Suites by Hilton, 5001 N. Scottsdale Road.
Individual seats to the luncheon begin at $75 and are available to the public while supply lasts. To experience this historical ceremony and be part of the Cactus League tradition, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The careers and accomplishments of Mays, Doby, Irvin and Banks will be celebrated at several events leading up to and during the 2017 Cactus League season.
The timing is fitting. February is African American History Month and 2017 marks the 70th anniversary of the breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier.
A free exhibit featuring the Cactus League Hall of Fame inductees will open at Scottsdale’s Civic Center Library on Jan. 18. The library is just north of Scottsdale Stadium, spring training home of the San Francisco Giants.
The exhibit and the Cactus League Hall of Fame are both produced by the Arizona Spring Training Experience, a branch of the non-profit Mesa Historical Museum.
Mays, Doby, Irvin and Banks also will be honored at a ceremony during the March 4 Spring Training Festival on the Scottsdale Civic Center Mall.
The 2017 Cactus League Hall of Fame class
Larry Doby served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and began his baseball career with the Newark, New Jersey, Eagles of the Negro Leagues.
Doby became the first African American to play in the American League when he joined the Cleveland Indians in May 1947. That next spring, when the Indians opened spring training in Tucson, he became the first African American to play in what would become the Cactus League.
Before he hung up his cleats, Doby would be a seven-time All-Star, lead the American League in home runs twice and finish a 12-year big league career with 253 home runs.
In the 1948 World Series, he batted .318 and knocked in the deciding run of Game 4. The Indians won the series – and Doby became the first African American to play on a Major League Baseball championship team.
Doby would go on to become the second person of color to manage a Major League Baseball team — the Chicago White Sox in 1978. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.
With his broad smile, upbeat demeanor and deep love for the game, Ernie Banks was known to all as simply “Mr. Cub.”
As the Cubs’ first African-American player, he was among the first to help integrate Arizona spring training when he came to camp in 1954.
It wasn’t long before Banks earned a second nickname — Mr. Clutch.
He was named Most Valuable Player in 1958 and 1959, the first National League player to win that award in consecutive seasons. He hit 40 or more home runs five times, drove in 100 or more runs seven times, and was an 11-time All-Star.
Banks trained with the Cubs, in both Mesa and Scottsdale, for his entire career – except for the 1966 season when the Cubs held spring training in Long Beach, Calif.
He ranks as the Cubs’ all-time franchise leader in games played, at-bats and total bases and is second in hits, home runs and runs batted in.
At the time of his retirement he was tied for eighth on the all-time list with 512 home runs and 12th all-time with 1,636 RBI. While some of his franchise numbers have been surpassed, he’s still widely considered the greatest player in Cubs history.
Banks was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility, and in 2013 he received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Willie Mays was one of those generational athletes who redefine a sport.
“The Say Hey Kid” was a five-tool player before the term existed — excelling in all aspects of the game. Mays could hit for average and for power, run, throw and play defense as well — if not better — than any of his contemporaries and few before or since.
Mays began his professional career as a 17-year-old center fielder for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League. He was discovered by major league scouts in 1950 and was eventually signed by the New York Giants.
Mays would win the 1951 National League Rookie of the Year, hitting 20 home runs with 68 RBI and a .274 batting average.
Together with teammates Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson, Mays was part of Major League Baseball’s first all-African-American outfield.
Mays missed most of two seasons in the early 1950s serving with the Army, but he returned to Phoenix and the Giants for spring training in 1954. He proceeded to win the National League MVP award and was voted to the first of 20 consecutive All-Star teams.
Regarded among the all-time greats of the game, Mays’ 660 career home runs placed him third behind Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron at the time of his retirement. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1979.
By the time Monte Irvin signed with the Giants in 1949, he was a World War II veteran and already a bona fide four-time all-star in the Negro Leagues.
If not for the time he spent serving in the U.S. Army with an all-black engineering unit from 1943-1945, Irvin may very well have been the first African American to play in the major leagues. He was, in those years, considered the leading candidate to break the color barrier.
Irvin and Hank Thompson became the Giants’ first African American players when they joined the team in July, 1947.
Irvin would spend six years with the Giants and most of his spring training seasons in the Valley.
He enjoyed his best season with the Giants in 1951, hitting .312 with 24 home runs and a National League leading 121 RBI. He was a teammate with Willie Mays on the 1954 World Series championship team.
A decade after his playing days were done, Irvin became Major League Baseball’s first African-American executive when he was hired as public relations specialist to the commissioner’s office in 1968.
He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.
Editor’s Note: Mr. Phillips is the city of Scottsdale public affairs manager.