In 1947, U.S. Army veteran John Ritchey led the Negro Leagues in batting. The following year, Johnny became “the Jackie Robinson of the Pacific Coast League” when he “broke the color barrier” playing for his home town San Diego Padres.
He would have a successful ten-year professional baseball career with a .300 lifetime batting average, but never made it to the major leagues. If he was playing today, there is no question Johnny would have fulfilled his dream of becoming a “big leaguer.” America was a different country 70 years ago.
He was on the 1938 San Diego Post 6 American Legion team that won the national championship in Spartanburg, South Carolina, but was not allowed to play because of his race.
In 1940, Johnny and teammate Nelson Manuel "broke the color barrier” during the national American Legion semi-finals playing for Post 6 in Shelby, North Carolna. The championship series moved to Albemarle, North Carolina where San Diego would meet the Albemarle Legion team.
Johnny and Nelson were not allowed to play and Post 6 lost. The incident left an indelible mark on the entire team.
He enrolled at San Diego State College in 1941, played baseball and joined the U.S. Army during World War II. Johnny saw combat in Europe and transferred to the Philippines until the war ended in 1945. He attained the rank of Staff Sergeant and earned five battle ribbons.
John Ritchey was a proud veteran and lifetime member of the American Legion. He suffered a stroke and had difficulty talking, but to the end, he could still recite his service number.
He died in 2003 and, in 2005, the San Diego Padres unveiled a bronze bust of Ritchey at Petco Park for “breaking the color barrier.” In 2017, he was inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame at the San Diego Hall of Champions.
On April 15, 2019, Jackie Robinson Day throughout MLB, the Padres created a $20,000 John Ritchey San Diego State University Scholarship for a graduating high school senior who “breaks barriers.” His family accepted the Padre Foundation’s check on his behalf. Granddaughter and former high school softball player, Carlee Battle, fired a strike for the ceremonial first pitch.
The San Diego Padres are recognized as “the military’s team.” The team also awards four scholarships annually to military affiliated students and they help support San Diego County’s American Legion Baseball program.