John Franklin Ritchey (1923-2003)

John Franklin Ritchey
Courtesy Amy Essington

John Ritchey integrated the Pacific Coast League, the AAA-level minor baseball league on the West Coast, when he played as a San Diego Padre in 1948. The second-generation baseball player was born in 1923, in San Diego, California and was the youngest of nine children. His father William played catcher and managed the San Diego Giants, a local African American team for which John served as batboy.

Ritchey played baseball at Memorial Junior High School and San Diego High School as an outfielder and then catcher. He also played on a local team for the American Legion, a youth baseball program. In 1938, the San Diego team went to the American Legion tournament finals in South Carolina. Tournament officials did not allow Ritchey and another black teammate, Nelson Manuel, to play. In 1941, the San Diego team returned to the finals, this time in North Carolina. Ritchey and Manual played in the semi-finals, integrating the league, but again officials prevented the pair from playing in the finals. After graduating from San Diego High School in 1941, Ritchey began his studies at San Diego State College.

In 1943, the Army drafted him. He served for three years with the 1323rd Construction Engineers in Europe and the Philippines. After returning home and resuming college, Ritchey met Lydia, his future wife, and began to think about supporting a family. He played for the Chicago (Illinois) American Giants, a Negro Leagues team, for one year in 1947. He succeeded in the league, batting well enough to earn a try-out for the Chicago Cubs.

Rather than signing with the major league team, San Diego Padres owner Bill Starr signed Ritchey to a contract with the minor league San Diego Padres on November 22, 1947. Ritchey pinch hit in the first game of the 1948 season and then became the first-string catcher. The PCL was not the first minor league to integrate, but it was the first minor league not affiliated with any teams of the Brooklyn (New York) Dodgers to integrate. It was also the first league to integrate all teams in the league.

John Ritchey’s PCL career included stints on the Portland (Oregon) Beavers, Sacramento Solons, and San Francisco Seals. Of his seven years in the PCL, Ritchey hit .282. He played catcher with some time in the outfield and he played winter ball in Venezuela. Ritchey died in 2003.