Thursday, February 12, 2015

Little League Founder Sounds Off About Latest Scandal

"Fixed the World Series?"

The idea staggered me. . . It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people--with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.
"How did he happen to do that?"
"He just saw the opportunity."
--The Great Gatsby

With the news of the disqualification of the 2014 U.S. Little League champs due to using illegal players, once again last year’s feel-good story is this year’s ethics-challenging scandal. As the Chicago team churned toward the Little League World Series, apparently their leaders saw an opportunity and took it. And played with the faith of fifty million people. Hearing this, I wondered what Carl Stotz, who founded Little League in 1938, would think of it all. Since Stotz died in 1992, getting his opinion appeared to be a challenge, but fortunately my last cell phone update came with the Friends and Angels plan and I was able to get in touch with him:

DW: Mr Stotz, thanks for taking your time to talk to me.
CS: No problem. Call me Carl. I’m just glad someone down there actually remembers me.

DW: How are things going?
CS: Great, great. You know the weather is always perfect. Never have a rainout. And we just got Ernie Banks last week. Can’t get that big smile off his face. I bet he’s already said, “Let’s play two” a thousand times. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that I would actually bet. That’s not allowed up here you know.

DW: The reason I called is to get your opinion of the Little League scandal.
CS: Terrible. Just terrible. You know, I never wanted this when we started. I envisioned a program for local competition for all kids. I wanted adults to teach kids about fair play and sportsmanship.

DW: That reminds me. I’ve got bad news for you later about the Easter Bunny. But back to the scandal.
CS: I actually started worrying about the influence of too much commercial enterprise taking away from the kids and our real goals back in the fifties. The Little League World Series was great, but I started getting a bad feeling.

DW: Didn’t Howard Cosell do the play-by-play for the first telecast of the Little League World Series in 1953.
CS: Yeah, I can’t understand how it got so over-hyped. And that reminds me—Brian Williams did NOT pitch a no-hitter and win the World Series that year like he claims.

DW: Maybe he just mis-remembered.
CS: Anyway, did you hear that they kicked me out of my own organization in 1955?

DW: No.
CS: It’s true. I complained too much about the money and potential for corruption. They didn’t want to hear it. I said they were “making the boys pawns in the managers’ dreams.” That’s a quote from fifty years ago. You could look it up. Was I wrong? Now look at it. They have a $10 million dollar annual budget, the TV contract is better than some major league teams had 10 years ago, the tournament lasts through football season, keeping kids out of school. And they have the managers miked during the games so they all try to be Knute Rockne between every pitch. It’s ridiculous. And they wonder why there’s the incentive to cheat. But still, overall it’s a great organization. I’m glad I started it. Just sorry a lot of adults ruin it. You wouldn’t believe how many guys we get every week who say they wish they’d taken the time to teach their kids what was really important when they had a chance, instead of just trying to win every game.

DW: That’s sad.
CS: I know. They learn too late that the most important thing in a kids’ life is not how he does in a game when he is 12 years old. Listen, it’s been great talking to you, but I gotta go. The kids have practice in a few minutes. Big tournament in Hades this weekend.

DW: Good luck.
CS: Are you kidding? We’ll need  more than luck against those guys. Talk about cheating. Every one of their coaches sold their kids’ immortal soul for 10 more miles per hour on their fastball when they were eleven. And I know for a fact that three of their better players don’t live in their district—they play travel ball year ‘round for a team out of Purgatory. But there’s one more reason why we can never beat them.

DW: What’s that?
CS: They’ve got all the umpires.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Gene Baker: First African-American Major League Manager

Few things are more annoying than bad baseball trivia—especially when its picked up and repeated by popular media. Since February is Black History Month, I wanted to take this opportunity to correct a misconception and ensure that proper credit is given where its due. Everyone knows that Frank Robinson became the first African-American to manage a major league baseball team full time in 1975. It has been stated erroneously numerous times, however, that Ernie Banks was the first to ever serve in that capacity during a game. Indeed, Ernie Banks, who was a coach for the Cubs, did take over as manager in the 11th inning of a game May 8, 1973 after manager Whitey Lockman was thrown out.

The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide for 1974 even stated, “Ernie Banks became the major league’s first black manager, but only for a day.” An article in Sport magazine in 1988 congratulated Banks regarding the feat and several websites have mentioned it, one in 2013 even interviewed Banks and he admitted that he felt proud of the achievement. This was repeated several times after Banks passed away last month. This is all good, and Banks certainly deserves praise for his optimistic personality and accomplishments during his Hall of Fame career—except that when it comes to this particular achievement, it is completely false.
Ten years before an umpire’s thumb forced Banks into the managerial role for the Cubs, a similar event occurred. The date was September 21, 1963. The Pittsburgh Pirates were facing the Dodgers in Los Angeles. In the 8th inning with the score 2-2, Pirate manager Danny Murtaugh and coach Frank Oceak were tossed by umpire Doug Harvey and the reins were passed to coach Gene Baker. Earlier that summer Baker had become the second African-American to coach at the major league level, trailing the Cubs’ Buck O’Neil by a few months. As Baker led the Pirates, they took a 3-2 lead, then lost on a ninth-inning home run by Willie Davis.

A small article in that weeks’ Sporting News was titled, “Baker First Negro at Major ‘Helm.’” It stated, “Coach Gene Baker of the Pirates is believed to be the first Negro to ‘manage’ a big league team. He led the Bucs against the Dodgers, September 21, at Los Angeles for the last 2 innings.”

As Buck O’Neil was the only other African-American to have preceded Baker as a major league coach and special “precautions” had been taken by Chicago management to ensure that the circumstances could not have occurred that forced Baker to the role as manager, it can be said with certainty that the title belongs to Baker.

It is perhaps ironic that Banks was remembered for the feat at the expense of Baker. It was not the first time that Banks unwittingly upstaged Baker.
Gene Baker was born in 1925 in Davenport, Iowa. After starring at shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1948 and 1949 (playing the same position for them that Jackie Robinson had a few years earlier), Baker was signed by the Cubs’ organization in 1950, becoming the first African-American signed by the Cubs. Baker was then assigned to the minor leagues where he quickly established himself as a first-rate shortstop. The Cubs, who had the much-maligned Roy Smalley at short, had to defend themselves repeatedly over calls for Baker’s promotion. Smalley's arm was so erratic that the chant at Wrigley Field for double play ground balls hit to second baseman Eddie Miksis (in the manner of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance) was Miksis-to-Smalley-to-Addison Avenue. Wendell Smith (who figured prominently in the recent Jackie Robinson movie) of the Chicago Herald-American and writers for the African-American paper, the Chicago Defender, led the chorus all through the 1953 season as Baker led the AAA Los Angeles Angels with a .282 average, 20 home runs and 99 RBIs while being clearly felt to be the best fielding shortstop in the Pacific Coast League.

At the time, African-Americans were usually called up to the majors two at a time, for companionship and for rooming purposes, since they could not stay at the same hotel as their teammates in some cities and they certainly could not room with a white teammate. The Cubs solved the Baker problem when they latched on to a promising kid who played shortstop for Buck O’Neil’s Monarchs, Ernie Banks. Banks and Baker arrived in Chicago together in September of 1953.

Since they both played shortstop, this presented another dilemma. It was felt that Baker, the older and more polished of the two, would handle a position switch easier than Banks, who had a stronger arm but had never worked the pivot from the second base side. Baker reported with a slight injury sustained in his final game in LA and so Banks started first, making his debut September 17, 1953. Baker’s first game came on September 20.

Banks quickly proved to be much better than advertised, but Baker was also recognized as a very good player himself. Baker was the consummate professional baseball player. He was smooth and heady in the field. On offense, he rarely struck out, was a good hit-and-run man, a great bunter and was adept at hitting to the right side to move runners. And he could steal a base. Banks and Baker became the first African-American keystone combo and, referred to as Bingo and Bango, over the next three years together were recognized as one of the best in the majors. They both made the All-Star team in 1955.

Whereas the young Ernie Banks was almost quiet to a fault, the older and more mature Baker was outgoing and quickly mixed with all teammates. He was universally respected for his talent and knowledge of the game. Baker became an invaluable companion and mentor to Banks.

Baker was traded to Pittsburgh in 1957 and suffered a horrific leg injury soon thereafter that ended his time as an everyday player. As a tribute to his knowledge of the game and reputation, he was made a coach in the Pirate system. In 1961 he became the first African-American manager in “organized” baseball, taking over the Batavia team in the New York-Penn League. He was promoted to AAA Columbus as a coach in 1962 and became a coach for the Pirates in 1963.

Baker later became a long time scout and continued to manage in the Dominican League during the winters and most observers felt that he would have had a long Major League managerial career had the situation been different. He died at 74 in 1999. Gene Baker was a man who was always just a little before his time. But he should not be forgotten.