Breaking the Color Barrier in Detroit


Ozzie Virgil (photo courtesy of Michigan State University Libraries)

Sixty years ago today, Ozzie Virgil, Sr., became the first Black player (and first Latino) to play for the Detroit Tigers. Eleven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, the Tigers were the second-to-last team to integrate. (The Boston Red Sox would be the final team to integrate when Pumpsie Green played his first game for the Red Sox on July 21, 1959.) Virgil was also the first Dominican player in Major League Baseball, when he debuted with the New York Giants on September 23, 1956.

Osvaldo Jose Virgil Pichardo was born on May 17, 1932, in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic. He emigrated to the United States with his family when he was 13 years old. After high school, Virgil joined the Marines, serving from 1950 to 1952. In 1953, he began his professional baseball career with the St. Cloud Rox of the Northern League, the Class C minor league affiliate of the New York Giants. Virgil would spend four seasons in the minors before making his debut with the Giants in September 1956.

On January 28, 1958, the New York Giants traded Virgil to the Detroit Tigers. He started the season with the Tigers’ AAA affiliate, the Charleston Senators. There he hit .293 with 34 RBI, 4 home runs, 5 triples, and 9 doubles in 47 games. His debut with the Tigers occurred on June 6, 1958, against the Washington Senators in Washington, DC. His first home game was June 17, 1958, also against the Washington Senators. He went 5-for-5 that day and later recalled receiving a standing ovation from the crowd.

Virgil ultimately played nine years in the major leagues, also playing for the Kansas City Athletics (1961), Baltimore Orioles (1962), Pittsburgh Pirates (1965), and San Francisco Giants (1966, 1969) (he spent 1963-64  and 1967-68 in the minors). He played his final game at the age of 37 on June 27, 1969. His career batting average was .231 with 14 home runs and 73 RBI.

Virgil’s son, Ozzie Virgil, Jr., made his major league debut on October 5, 1980, and spent 10 years in the majors. In recent years Ozzie Sr. has worked with players at the Mets’ Dominican Republic baseball academy and as a minor league coordinator. Today Virgil serves as Special Catching Instructor for the New York Mets.

~ baseballrebecca