Friday, September 14, 2018

When Spock Met Casey and Leo: The Birth of Baseball Analytics

While Moneyball and the Sabermetric revolution have swept baseball in recent years, I have discovered that the origins can be traced to a unique meeting of minds that took place decades earlier. A recently released classified document, previously stored at a government facility in Roswell, New Mexico, shed light on this.

It seems that the 22nd-century Starship Enterprise, in an effort to study primitive culture, used a warp-slingshot maneuver around the Sun to travel back in time and landed in mid-1950s New York City, where one member of the crew encountered and became enamored with the American game of baseball.

The scene opens as men are standing around a batting cage before an exhibition game between the Yankees and Giants:

Spock (talking to a funny-looking catcher wearing pinstripes): . . . and so, it is not logical for anything to be completed until it is, indeed, over.

Yogi: Yeah, I never thought about it like that. But that makes sense.

(Leo Durocher and Casey Stengel walk up.)

Leo: Hey, who's the elf? Get a load of those ears.

Yogi: Meet my new friend, Mr. Spock.

Spock (addressing the group): I have to say that I find myself strangely drawn to your game of baseball. It induces a curious emotion of enjoyment. We do not have anything similar on Vulcan.

Casey: Say, is that where you got those ears? I remember a feller on my team in Brooklyn back in '13 had ears like that. Couldn't hit worth a damn.

Spock: I've spent the last hour analyzing your scorebooks from the previous ten years and I believe I can help improve the efficiency of your decision making. Most importantly, I find that your reliance on human emotions, intuition and so-called tradition does not allow you to make the most logical of choices. I have compiled some facts which should help you. As you know, without facts you cannot decide with logic.

Casey: All that analysis is well and good, but what I need right now is a left-handed batter who can hit the ball over the shortstop's head.

Leo: I'm all for anything that will give me an edge. What do ya got?

Spock: First, the selection of players for your roster is most illogical. That can be improved immediately by proper statistical analysis to allow you to identify the most efficient players.

Leo: I don't need no numbers to tell me nothing like that. I know a ballplayer when I see one. And I also know the ones that ain't got the guts to play when things are tough.

Spock: Regrettably, history suggests that you do not. Not only that, but you  are guilty of using a double negative. It does not make sense to play the same players in the same spots in the batting order every day, making no allowance for the pitcher or other variables.

Leo: That's a pile of crock. I know ball players. I can tell a winner from a loser just by looking at him. And I know how to make out a line up card. I play the hot hand, see. I got 30 years of experience to tell my gut what to do. Give me some scratching, diving, hungry players who come to kill ya. That's what I want.

Spock: Your experience actually prohibits you from making a rational decision as it reinforces mistaken assumptions based on anecdotal evidence. The human brain possessed an infinite capacity for making it believe what it wants to believe. An example is your erroneous preoccupation with diminutive second basemen. Though the newspapers call them fiery sparkplugs, I fail to realize how an elevated basal temperature can help win games. You would be much better served by playing a larger man with an elevated launch angle in his swing at that position.

Leo: I don't want any of those big, slow guys--they can't help you win even if they do hit one outta the park every now and then.

Spock: Take your former man Stanky, for example. He could not hit, he could not run, he could not field . . .

Leo: Yeah, all the little sonovabitch could do was beat ya.

Spock: The little, to borrow your colorful metaphor, sonovabitch, could do one thing however: get on base. In 1950 he walked 144 times. That allowed him to reach first base in 46 % of his at bats. This, more than any nebulous intrinsic factor or annoying antics, was responsible for his value to winning games. This leads me to the next point: simply dividing the number of hits by the number of at bats is a poor evaluation of a batter's efficiency. I would submit that the percentage of times a batter reaches base, by either a hit or a walk, termed the on-base percentage, represents the highest good. 
Leo: So you're saying that a walk is as good as any kind of hit?
Spock: Obviously not. This is where the OPS, or On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage comes in. A hitter is rewarded for extra-base hits.

Leo: Aw, you're just throwing out an alphabet soup. Give me a good pair of binoculars in the centerfield clubhouse, a bunch of scrappers and I'll win ya a damn pennant. I want guys who hustle, bunt, hit and run and steal. That's the type of club that wins.

Spock: I fail to understand your fascination with the so-called hit and run. First, it is an obvious misnomer as the runner runs, then the hitter hits. It should be called the run and hit. Second, according to my analysis, the risks far outweigh the benefits. I can find no plausible reason to employ this tactic.

As far as the bunt is concerned, I find it to be a most inefficient maneuver. While logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the individual, which would seem to favor the sacrifice, my research shows that a man on first with no outs has a 32.0381 % chance of scoring, whereas a man on second with one out has only a 27.57286 % chance.

Leo: But you're not taking into account who's at the plate and who's coming up behind him. Or whether the man on the hill is tired or can't field bunts. And what the crowd is doing. There's a lot more going on that your stats can't tell.

Spock: Also, it can be shown that unless you can be certain that a runner will be safe 72.95398 % of the time or more, it is illogical to attempt a steal. The advantage of gaining the extra base is simply outweighed by the risk of losing the all-important out.

Leo: But stealing unsettles the pitcher, moves the fielders and gets your team into the game. Not to mention the fans. Once they all get on their feet, everybody starts playing better. We get momentum.

Spock: I find your insistence on the archaic notion of rallies and momentum to be quaint, if not misguided. These concepts simply do not exist in nature.

Leo: You're full of it. Why, I've seen games won merely because the boys in the dugout got on the pitcher and he lost his edge. I've seen great hitters go into a slump after a pitcher sticks one in his ear. I've seen an entire Series lost by a rally that started with only a ground ball hitting a pebble. How do you and your numbers account for that?

Spock: The question is irrelevant. The facts are the truth merely because they are. No amount of arguing can change that. Once we eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is indeed the truth.

Another erroneous assumption is that of the so-called clutch hitter. Logic dictates that a .300 hitter will be successful in 30 of 100 clutch situations, while a .250 hitter will be successful 25 times. The result is pure math. Human emotion and collective euphoria provide the impression that some men are better in tight situations than others, but in reality, they are not. Also, the RBI is perhaps the most flawed of your statistics. RBIs are merely the result of a man coming to bat with many men on base, nothing more.

Leo: Don't tell me that bull. I know in my heart that some guys are better when the chips are down. Take a nice guy. He won't win you as many games because he doesn't want it as much.

Spock: If you continue to rely on emotion, sir, you will forever be incapable of making a rational decision. You must accept the fact that many of your tactics are simply not supported by logic.

Leo: I'm getting tired of this guy. He ain't said nothing that makes any sense yet.

Spock: Sir, your disregard for simple grammatical rules is becoming alarming. As far as pitching, your insistence on keeping the statistic of Wins is not logical. A Win for a pitcher is a most ineffective measure of his success as it is dependent on far too many variables of which he can not control. Alternatively, I would suggest Walks Plus Hits Per Innings Pitched or WHIP.

Leo: I'll whip you, you pointy-eared freak. I've heard just about enough of your . . .

Spock: Also I would like to suggest a new measure of effectiveness for all players: Wins Against Replacement, or WAR. I would not expect someone with your primitive math skills to understand how it is calculated. You should just accept the efficiency of it.

Leo: Okay Tinkerbell, that's it. (Leo lunges for Spock and takes a swing. Spock side-steps the punch, places his hand on Leo's shoulder and squeezes. Leo slumps quietly to the ground).

Casey: (looking at Leo's prone body) There's a lot of guys in this game that have been trying to do that for years. You know young feller, a lot of what you're saying makes sense and then some of it is pretty darn sound. I've always said that sometimes it's better to understand things than it is to figure them out. Why, as far as what you said about lineups, I've been doing that for years. Now, take my guy over there. There's a chance he'll hit off this guy pitching for them today and he probably will. But take this other guy. He'll probably hit him better because he always has and what's more, he's a lefty.

And another thing, they say that some of my players drink whiskey, but I've found that them that drink milkshakes don't win many ballgames. You could look it up.

Now look at this feller over here. He's twenty and in ten years he's got a chance to be a real superstar. Now that feller over there, he's twenty and in ten years he's got a chance to be thirty.

Spock: Fascinating. You have a most remarkable ability to speak at length and yet say virtually nothing. Also, your ability to completely destroy the English language is unsurpassed. But somehow, there is a certain perverse logic to your speech and your recent history of success in the postseason is undeniable.

Casey: Now there's them that will tell ya they knew me before I wuz a genius and they probably did. And also they'll tell ya that them things can't be done, but sometimes that don't always work. Now I've always thought that good pitching beats good hitting and vice a versa .  .

Spock: I must return to my ship now. Live long and prosper Old Perfessor.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Luke Easter: The Gold Rush of 1949 and What Might Have Been

He was Paul Bunyan in a baggy flannel uniform with a number on the back. Like Bunyan, he spawned tall tales of superhuman feats and was a pioneer. But instead of a giant blue ox, he rode a massive Buick, and instead of an axe he carried a large hunk of Pennsylvania white ash. For Pacific Coast fans in 1949, two things were certain: 1) they had never seen the likes of Luke Easter, and 2) they couldn't get enough of him.

While there have been many great players in the annals of baseball, only a handful sparked genuine box office sensations, bringing fans out to ballparks in staggering numbers single-handedly: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Mark Fidrych, Hideo Nomo, Fernando Valenzuela. These men combined transcendent talent with charisma and a never-before-seen "It Factor." When Luke Easter hit the Pacific Coast League in 1949, he caused a turnstile phenomenon every bit as impressive as anyone else in history.

In the days of a mere 16 major league teams--and none west of the Mississippi--the Pacific Coast League was more than just a AAA minor league, it was as close to the bigs as possible. It was generally felt that the top PCL teams could compete with lower-level teams in the majors and it was not uncommon for players to remain on the coast rather than go east--preferring the lifestyle and the fact that often they made more money.

The PCL had possessed plenty of great players in the not-so-distant past; men with names like Lazzeri, Doerr, DiMaggio and Williams who had stepped straight into the major leagues and, with very little adjustment period, launched Hall of Fame careers. But none of them ever drew the crowds Luke Easter was to draw in 1949.

The PCL had integrated the preceding year with a solitary player. San Diego, with its recent affiliation with the Cleveland Indians and integration-minded owner Bill Veeck, had signed hometown product John Richey. A catcher by trade, Richey had been met with few theatrics and little fireworks. While he was a solid player, a regular .300 hitter, and drew quite a few curious whites and many more proud blacks to games, he was a workmanlike player and could not remotely be called a star. Easter, on the other hand, was a super nova.

Signing with Bll Veeck after helping the Homestead Grays win the final Negro League World Series (the Negro National League disbanded soon after, throwing the rosters of its teams into limbo), Easter was joined on the 1949 Padres by fellow Negro League alumni Artie Wilson and Minnie Minoso.

Although Wilson was a slick fielder and Minoso a Hall of Fame talent, Easter quickly overshadowed them both by force of personality and deeds, in addition to sheer size. But then, the 6-foot-4, 240 pound man had the natural gifts to do so. Easter arrived toting an already-impressive legend. He was accustomed to being a headliner. In addition to his dominating heroics during winters playing in Puerto Rico and Venezuela against many major leaguers, there was the home run he hit in the Polo Grounds while playing with the Grays that landed in the distant center field bleachers--a spot reached by no man in the stadium's more-than-half-century of existence [it would later be reached by Joe Adcock and Lou Brock].

Luke had a past that was complicated by both mystery and hyperbole. He had told Bill Veeck he was only 26 when he signed (a little fudging was not uncommon in those days by men for whom segregation had robbed their youth), but his true age was uncertain, even, at times, to Luke. Later research of census reports, his social security application and an old family Bible confirmed that he was born in 1915, making his 1949-age 34 years old, past the prime of most baseball men of the era. Although some said he had only played softball until 1947, in reality he had played on a topnotch St. Louis black industrial semipro team, a teammate of Sam Jethroe, from 1941. After a stent in the Army, he played for an Abe Saperstein traveling baseball club before joining the Grays in 1947, replacing the tragically short-lived Josh Gibson as the resident power-hitting legend of the lineup.

Luke Easter was a colorful player in a time in which the game, like television and society, was strictly black and white. He liked living the way he liked his cars, cigars and the length of his home runs: large. A card-playing, back-slapping slick dresser with a constant smile and a deep-throated chuckle, he lit up more rooms than Con Edison.

While there were those who questioned the honesty of his card-playing, he was generally given a pass due to his exuberant personality (of course there was that story of the time on the Homestead Grays' bus that 5-foot-2-inch pitcher Groundhog Thompson took exception to Luke's winning ways with the cards and, challenging his integrity, pulled a knife and offered to cut him down to size, but that story merely added color to the legend). Luke was the kind of guy who could take all your money and have you walk away thinking you enjoyed yourself and, what's more, that he was a good guy. How else to explain the fact that he won so much dough from Homestead Gray owner Cumberland Posey that by midseason teammates learned to collect their pay early on road trips, lest they find the owner tapped out and unable to make the payroll, thanks to Loveable Luke.

Upon arrival with the Padres in the spring at their Ontario, California camp, Luke quickly served notice that the stories about his prowess were true--if not actually understated. He hit exhibition pitching to the tune of .474 with four home runs in 38 at bats. And he began a tradition of launching awe-inspiring 400+ foot home runs. Equally as impressive as the home runs were a succession of savage line drives that witnesses swore would have carried forever had they not collided violently with fences. When he stepped into the batting cage teammates, opponents, vendors and fans all stopped what they were doing to watch, hoping they would see something they had never seen before. They were seldom disappointed. Luke was nothing if not a showman with impeccable timing.

Like any new hotshot in any league, Luke had to prove he was impervious to assaults--both verbal and with weaponized horsehide. Due to his physical size, the immensity of his preceding press and, especially, his color, Luke was forced to handle more than the usual dose of both, but handle them he did. Soon pitchers learned that it was best to let sleeping giants lie as stories of what he did to hapless baseballs after getting up from being brushed back only added to his legend (the most impressive, which survived years, was that he mashed a line drive home run to center field that, seemingly defying the laws of physics, narrowly missed the terrified pitcher's head on it's trajectory toward the fence).

The press, which uniformly loves anyone who makes easy copy, immediately fell in love with Luscious Luke. They ate up his act. They were thrilled when, soon after he received his signing bonus, he drove into the ballpark in the "longest, loudest 1949 Buick that's built--one of those racy models with four portholes on each side amidship." They all laughed when manager Bucky Harris enviously told them his new Buick only had three portholes. They reveled in the story of Luke sitting in the back of his new car while diminutive roommate Artie Wilson drove, telling everyone Wilson was his chauffeur (and also when the story morphed to Wilson riding in back and telling everyone the large man driving was his chauffeur and body guard--the better to keep away the throngs of Wilson's admirers).

They loved it when Luke, asked by a reporter where he got the large diamond ring he wore "that looked like the headlight on the Santa Fe Chief," replied (with a wink?) "I stole it."

Luke got off to a fast start once the season began. After a 15-game hitting streak in May, he was batting over .400 and he and teammate Max West were neck and neck for the league home run lead.

Soon, it was reported that attendance was up drastically all over the league compared to 1948 and there was little doubt about who was responsible. Coast fans turned out to see Luke in numbers that far surpassed those that had turned out for guys like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio and, instead of fading after the initial curiosity was satisfied, only increased. It was a genuine spectacle. A frenzy. Like a century before, news began filtering back east of the gold rush, causing excitement and dreams of riches (among owners). The May 25, 1949 headline in the Sporting News informed the sporting nation, "Giant Negro First Baseman of San Diego Padres--The No. 1 Coast League Box Office Draw."

Initially, there was little hiding of, dare we say it, the elephant in the room: "Easter, Padre Negro From St. Louis . . ." began one headline, "Luke Easter, the giant St. Louis Negro . . . " led off another article. It was always up front--reminding fans of the obvious--throughout the early season.

May 22, with the Padres in San Francisco for a Sunday double header against the Seals (in the former House of DiMaggio), 23,366 fans showed up. In addition, it was reported that more than 5,000 were turned away and another thousand stood on car tops to peer over the walls. It was the largest Sunday crowd in PCL history. While the papers stated that an "estimated 8,000 Negroes were in the stands to see the Padres' sensational colored star, Luke Easter," that left almost 16,000 non-Negroes in the stands, no less enthusiastic to see Luke. His appeal crossed all boundaries.

All reserve and box seats were sold out two weeks in advance of the initial appearance of Easter and company at the Hollywood Stars' Gilmore Field. That series, June 7-12, produced the largest single-series count in the history of the field. "Any way you analyze the record series crowd at Gilmore Field," a newsman wrote, "Luke Easter, the Padres' Negro first baseman, was the magnet." And Luke didn't miss the opportunity to show off: he hit .393 with four home runs for the week. For good measure, he pounded three balls over the 18-foot-high center field scoreboard (which stood 400 feet from home plate) in batting practice one day. At the time, only two players had ever cleared it in games.

Through the first ten series of the year, the third-place Padres had drawn almost 350,000 fans at home and on the road--far outdistancing the next-closest team.

Sniffing something more than a baseball story, Life magazine dispatched photographers to the coast for a photo-chronicle of Easter, further increasing Luke's legend to the rest of the country.

Luke continued his furious hitting: he had 19 home runs and 72 RBIs by June 3 (after 62 games). But there were now worries. Alarming reports of trouble with Luke's right knee started popping up and it was noticed that his speed on the bases and agility around first base, which had been described as amazing for a big man, were now diminished. He had injured the knee during a first base-collision with Larry Doby in the Indians spring camp before joining the Padres and the knee was also hit with a pitch early in the season. Although doctors were contemplating surgery on the knee (x-rays showed the kneecap was chipped) Luke insisted he would play, "as long as I can stand the pain, 'cause I shore likes to play and I likes the money I'm making."

Although the headlines and articles, which invariably invoked his race in the first sentence, seem anachronistic and the phonetic spelling of Stepin Fetchit-grammar patronizing if not insulting, there is no mistaking the impact Luke had for his race: there in the first sentence about a player packing stadiums and hitting dramatic home runs, and inspiring deep concern about his health, was the fact that he was an African-American. All could see that men of his race could not only play, but play with the best, and make money for owners at the same time (which is always nice).

It could be said accurately that Luke Easter single-handedly made black players acceptable on the Pacific Coast. After Luke hit the coast, only the most bigoted idiot would suggest that blacks weren't able to compete, or welcome, or couldn't be serious drawing cards for white fans. Soon, other coast teams signed black players.

"Prompted by the record-breaking box office draw of Luke Easter, the Portland Beavers became the third Coast league club to bid for the lucrative patronage of colored fans by adding two Negro players to their roster . . ." the Sporting News reported after they signed two Newark Bears, Frank Austin and Luis Marques, June 1. In mid-season the Angels signed Kansas City Monarch pitcher Booker McDaniels, becoming the fourth PCL team to integrate after San Diego, Oakland (Wilson had moved to the Oaks early in the season) and Portland. The Padres added another black player, Venezuelan short stop Parnell Woods, in June.

While it was nice that Luke made black players acceptable in the league, he was much more than just a black man who played baseball; he was a man who played baseball great, who just happened to be black. His fame and appeal was due to much more than just his color. Or his home runs. It was the way he hit them. And also his charisma. He had the charming ability to be at once humble and cocky; possessing an easy-going, down-to-earth disarming humor that allowed him to fit, and be liked, everywhere. He could aw-shuck his way through an interview with the best of them, but there was little doubt that he recognized, and appreciated, his own talent. Years later when someone told him, "I saw your longest home run," Luke answered, "Did you see it land?" When the answer was affirmative, Luke shook his head. "If you saw it land then it wasn't my longest."

As Luke continued to hit (after 75 games, he was hitting .357 with 23 home runs and an astounding 87 RBIs), he was compared with the very best, the Holy Grail of all baseball comparisons--the Great and Powerful Bambino--and, somehow in view of his impact, no one laughed at the comparisons. "His power is prodigious," wrote one reporter. "There aren't many like him. . . Like the late Babe Ruth, Easter attracts record-breaking crowds wherever he goes."

Sacramento manager Del Baker, who had played, coached and managed in the PCL and major leagues for for 37 of his 57 years, and had literally seen them all, said, "I've seen alot of powerful batters in my time, but for sheer ability to knock a ball great distances, I've never seen anybody better than Easter--and I'm not excluding Babe Ruth."

Reporters, learning that Easter had been given a $2,000 signing bonus and was earning a salary of $4,700 for the year, observed the massive crowds he was drawing throughout the league, quickly did some basic math and sensed something was amiss. They began badgering Padre President Bill Starr with annoying questions about bonuses and pay raises. "At no time has Easter mentioned salary to me," Starr told them in June. "As far as I know he's well satisfied."

When asked himself, Luke denied any concern, told them that Starr had assured him he'd be given a sizeable bonus at the end of the season, and added amiably, "His word is good enough for Ol' Luke."

But suddenly, it was all over. In spite of hopeful news that the trainer had devised a new knee brace to help Luke, his condition continued to worsen. He could still hit, but he was in obvious pain moving around the bases or playing first base. In late June, Dr. Worth Martin, San Diego team physician, consulted an orthopedic specialist who took further x-rays and exams and recommended that Luke stay out of the lineup for a few days to rest the knee.

And then he was gone. Luke left for Cleveland June 24 at the request of team vice-president Hank Greenberg to have his knee examined. As if to underscore the fears of PCL owners, only 6,769--the smallest Sunday crowd of the season--turned out to San Diego's Lane Field June 26.

A great cry of gnashing of teeth and wailing was heard from owners up and down the Pacific coast.

An operation was performed on Luke Easter's knee at the Cleveland Clinic July 1. It was announced that he was expected to be out for six weeks, but there was growing suspicion on the coast that he was gone for good. Still, the hearty still held out hope. Two weeks later, it was breathlessly reported in the papers that Luke had started walking after an 11-day stay in the hospital and had wired that he hoped to return to play with San Diego by mid-August.

But it was not to be.

The Indians, American League pennant winners in 1948, had struggled all season, particularly with their hitting. Owner Bill Veeck was in serious trouble and reportedly entertaining offers for the purchase of his team. He needed some help. Veeck announced on August 11 that he had purchased Luke Easter from the San Diego Padres.

PCL owners, realizing that their cash cow was not coming back, grumbled that the purchase cost them at least $200,000 collectively in lost gate receipts. The Coastal Gold Rush of 1949 was over.

Luke Easter had played in 80 games and hit .363 with 25 home runs and 91 RBIs. He had drawn more fans to stadiums in the Pacific Coast League than anyone in history. And he had done it all while playing with a broken knee cap.


Luke spent the next three seasons as a mainstay in the lineup of the Cleveland Indians. He hit 28 home runs and 107 RBIs in 1950, then followed with seasons 27 and 103 and 31 and 97. 
A series of injuries to his legs slowed him in 1953 and finally in 1954, at the age of 39, unable to play defense in the major leagues, he was cut loose by the Indians. Luke made his way to Buffalo and proceeded to pound AAA pitching--leading the International League in home runs and RBIs in both 1956 and 1957. In 1959, at the age of 45, he went to Rochester, another AAA team, and played another five seasons.

At each stop, Luke was loved by both teammates and members of the community. He was known as a man who would do anything to help someone out. Teammate need a buck, a good laugh or an introduction to Luke's buddy Louis Armstrong at a jazz club? Community member need a favor, an autograph or an appearance for charity? Big Luke was the man. He never disappointed.

"Easter was a big, strong happy guy, the kind of guy you wanted on a ballclub." said a Cleveland teammate in 1994.

"Luke, who was still a star in the minors, was a great person," said a teammate from his later years in the minors. "I loved him. He was an everyday guy who was good for young people. He gave me more encouragement than my manager. He told me, 'You'll be there. Don't worry about it. You'll make it.'"

After finally giving up baseball, Luke returned to the Cleveland area and took a job in the auto industry. He was elected Union Steward and, as a favor to fellow workers, often took a load of payroll cash to the bank. On one of those trips in 1979, he was confronted by two men, one of whom pulled the trigger of a sawed-off shotgun aimed at the big man's chest. More than 4,000 people paid tribute to him at his funeral, many making the long drives from Buffalo and Rochester.

Luke Easter left behind a pile of smiles in ballparks and clubhouses across the country:

And awe: everywhere he went, he deposited baseballs in previously unexplored places. There was the one at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium over the auxiliary scoreboard in right field (the longest ever hit at the stadium). There was the one over the center field fence scoreboard in Buffalo's Offerman Stadium (only person to ever do that) that was so dramatic in it's majesty that it was immortalized on the plaque commemorating the stadium when it was torn down:

He left a legacy in every city. Consider:

"Few have ever attained the near-mythical status accorded by Luke Easter. Never in the city's sports history has an athlete made such an impact on the community."--statement at the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 1997.

"He was considered the most popular baseball player in the Rochester Red Wings' History,"--1979 Rochester newspaper article.

One of the largest park and recreation centers in Cleveland was renamed Luke Easter Park in 1980. Today it remains a popular site for activities in the African-American community.

Luke Easter:

If the designated hitter rule had been adopted earlier, he might have played in the majors until he was 50.

If he had joined the Negro Leagues ten years earlier, he might have been as celebrated as Josh Gibson.

If the major leagues had integrated ten years earlier, he might have been . . . . .

Monday, July 9, 2018

Interview with Former Cub All-Star Don Kessinger; One of Baseball's Good Guys

For me, Don Kessinger was one of the guys who defined the era of the 1960s and 1970s in baseball--a solid player with a reputation as being an even more solid character. So I was happy when he accepted my request for an interview while researching my upcoming Ernie Banks book [shameless plug--watch for it March, 2019].

Although Don Kessinger always looked like he only weighed a buck and a quarter by the time those steaming Chicago August day games rolled around, he possessed a rare graceful athleticism that made him stand out even among professional athletes. He grew up in the small Arkansas town of Forrest City where he starred in every sport. Heavily recruited as a basketball player by every major university in the region, he picked the University of Mississippi because it boasted one of the best baseball programs at the time and he was offered the chance to play both sports. He not only played, but he excelled in them, making All-SEC and All-America in both.

On the basketball court, the 6'1 Kessinger was a prolific-scoring guard (without the aid of the three-point shot). His high game occurred during his junior year when he dropped 49 on Tulane. He came close to achieving a rare double his senior year by topping the SEC in batting (.436) and narrowly missing in basketball (averaging 23.5, second only to the 24.6 of Kentucky's Cotton Nash).

Signed by the Cubs in 1964, by the next year Don was with the major league club in Chicago and he teamed with fellow rookie Glenn Beckert to form one of baseball's most stable keystone combos for nearly a decade. Added to future Hall of Famers at first and third, Ron Santo and Ernie Banks, that gave the Cubs one of the all-time classic infields. "They used to say we had a Million Dollar Infield," says the 75-year-old Kessinger, "but Beckert would always say, 'Yeah, but $900,000 of it is on the corners.'"

"I was really lucky with the timing to join a club like that," he continues. "There was a chance to play fairly soon and I was accepted pretty much immediately. On some teams, especially back then, rookies weren't welcome, there's a lot of garbage going on. But there was none of that on the Cubs. All the older guys were just great. Ernie, Billy, Ron--they were not only great players, but they were very welcoming to younger players. And we ended up with a group of players that turned into a pretty good team."

"Of course I was in awe of Ernie Banks when I got there. I think all the young guys were just because of who he was and his stature and what he had done in the game. And you found out very quickly that he was just a great guy; very relaxed, always optimistic, always saying something on the field to keep you up. He made the young guys feel welcome and a part of the team."

"It developed into a very close team; the most close-knit of any team I've ever been a part of. After a few years, we had a core of guys--there was very little change. We would go to spring training every year knowing what the lineup was going to be."

It was evident right away that Kessinger had the ability to play shortstop in the major leagues. Hitting was another matter. Manager Leo Durocher played an important role in Kessinger's development. He not only plugged him into the lineup on a regular basis, but he encouraged him to become a switch hitter and stuck with him through early struggles. Kessinger eventually became the leadoff hitter and table setter for the team.

"Being a former shortstop, I think Leo took more of an interest in that position. The one great thing Leo brought was there was absolutely no doubt about who was in charge. That was a big change for the Chicago Cubs. I will always be grateful that he played me and Beckert when we were kids. Even though we might not have been ready yet, he stuck with us. Maybe he could see what we would become."

Durocher, who joined the Cubs to great fanfare before the 1966 season, was not an immediate success. "In 1966 we lost 100 games. It was a long, long year. But Leo wasn't worried about wins that year. He knew he was building something for the future. We could all see that we were going to be a good team, regardless of our record in 1966. We added guys like Randy [Hundley] and Fergie [Jenkins] and we could see they were going to make us better. We felt the future was very promising. It was exciting to know that we were going to be a part of something special."

The Cubs of the '60s probably had one of the greatest backcourts in baseball history: utility infielder Paul Popovich had set the West Virginia high school scoring record with more than 40 a game and played on a great West Virginia University team with a guy named Jerry West. Who would have won a one-on-one contest between infielders? Kessinger diplomatically laughs. "Paul was a great basketball player. We're still good friends. We played a lot of basketball together as a team during the winter in those years, playing local teams for charity and stuff. I don't know who would win if we played one-on-one. Let's just say we both liked to shoot a lot."

Kessinger made his first major league All-Star team in 1968, then followed with his finest season in 1969, hitting .273 with 38 doubles and 109 runs. He repeated on the All-Star team and won his first Gold Glove. The year 1969 will always be bitter sweat to Cubs fans as the team lit up the baseball world for five months, but was overtaken in September by the charging Miracle Mets. Many historians have placed the blame for the finish on manager Durocher, but don't expect Kessinger to throw Leo under the bus. "I will always believe that we had the best team in baseball that year," he says. "All those day games might have worn us out by the end, but that's not an excuse. And it wasn't really Leo's fault for not playing other guys more either. You have to remember what Leo did for the franchise. Without him, we probably wouldn't have even been in that position. Later Leo was very helpful to me when I was managing the White Sox and we talked quite a bit. Sometimes when we talked, he alluded that if he had to do it all over he would make some changes."

Regardless of the finish, the '69 team holds a special place in the hearts of fans. "That was just such a fun year, and a fun team. Also, it wasn't just the closeness of the players. It was the relationship between the player and fans; it was very special."

Years later, catcher Randy Hundley started the cottage industry of fantasy camps--his Cubs camps were the first, giving the players and fans a chance to interact. "Randy Hundley's fantasy camps were great. It was good to see all the guys every year. And when it started we were still all young enough to move a little. Now, frankly, I have a hard time fitting into a baseball uniform."

Kessinger went on to a 16-year career as a six-time All-Star. He was traded to the Cardinals in 1975, the last of the old gang to leave the Cubs. He returned to Chicago in 1977, joining the White Sox. In 1979 Bill Veeck made him the last American League player-manager. He kept the job for one year before retiring. While on the South Side, Kessinger became a footnote to history as the manager the night of the infamous Disco Demolition game: "Craziest thing I ever saw in a ball park."

Speaking of superlatives, Don Kessinger did one of the scariest things I ever saw in a ballpark when I was young: he got up in front of a packed stadium at a Billy Graham crusade and gave his testimony. In my ten-year-old mind, batting with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie game was fun--that's what you wanted to do--but talking about Jesus in front of a big crowd? Terrifying.

"I had an opportunity to speak at the Billy Graham crusade in Chicago in 1971 because I was a Chicago player," says Kessinger. "But I wanted people to realize that I wasn't there just because I was a baseball player. I wasn't a baseball player who was a Christian. I was a Christian who happened to play shortstop for the Cubs. Religion always played an important part of my life and I don't mind sharing that. They gave me an opportunity to speak. The only scary thing about it was that when they say six minutes, they mean six minutes because of the TV schedule. There's not a lot of room for error."

Don returned to University of Mississippi as head baseball coach from 1991 to 1997, then became associate Athletic Director. In the mean time, his wife and son had founded Kessinger Real Estate in Oxford. Don joined them in the business in the 1990s. The Kessingers and the business thrived in the college town.

Two of Don's sons followed him to star on the Ole Miss baseball field and now there is a grandson on the team. Don Kessinger is a humble guy who was always aware of his position as a role model and who readily admits that he's lived a charmed life. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

A Father's Day Memory: The Donny Anderson Football

As Father’s Day arrives, I am reminded of an episode from my childhood. While helping clean out my mother’s garage not long ago, I came across a once-familiar object. It had stiff, dark-brown, cracked, musty smelling leather (or artificial leather), with tattered gray threads that had previously been laces. An old NFL emblem was barely visible on one side. The once white stripes on either end were almost worn off. It had formerly held air but was now shriveled. I looked closely and there, on one side, just next to where the thumb goes to throw a perfect spiral, was a smooth, worn area that previously held an autograph--no longer discernible to anyone except me; a name long-forgotten by most people. A name, an autograph, a football I would never forget: the Donny Anderson football.

            In 1969, in my eight year old mind, Donny Anderson was the coolest pro football player not named Joe Namath. He was my second-favorite player on the Green Bay Packers—a big-bonus running back, the acknowledged future star of the team. He had scored a touchdown in Super Bowl II. He was regularly seen on commercials combing Vitalis (not the “greasy kid stuff”) into his flowing blond hair with one arm while holding a gorgeous blond with the other.

One day, while loafing in the sports section of a department store, waiting for my parents to finish shopping, I came face-to-face with my hero’s smiling image. It was on the side of a box and the box was wrapped around a football. Not just any football, this was an official NFL size and weight football—it said so right on the ball, just beneath the official NFL emblem. There was a picture of Donny Anderson on the box, confidently looking at me, cradling this very ball in his arm (holding it just the way Vince Lombardi had surely taught him to prevent fumbles), wearing his glorious number 44 Green Bay Packer uniform. And, most importantly, the ball was imprinted with Donny Anderson’s own autograph—it was actually embedded into the ball! In my wildest dreams, I could never have imagined a treasure of such immense proportions.

            Normally in our cash-poor family, gifts were exclusively reserved for birthdays and Christmas. We knew better than to even ask for exceptions. But this was different—it was a Donny Anderson football. I just had to have it. Playing with a ball like this, running like Donny Anderson, how could I possibly not grow up to follow in his footsteps and play running back for the Green Bay Packers?

But sometimes Moms don't seem to understand. They tend to worry more about tangible things; like having enough money to pay the rent and buy groceries. I pleaded my case in vain. But I couldn't just give up easily. I desperately searched my brain to come up with just the right words, just the right phrase that could somehow illustrate the importance of this object. I had to make her understand the gravity of the situation; to force her to realize that a prize like this comes along once in a person’s life—and sometimes never.

All I could manage was: “But Mom, it’s a Donny Anderson football.”

            After we got home, following one of the longest car rides of my life, my Dad, with a combination of great benevolence and sheepishness, pulled the football out of a bag. From the look on my mother’s face, I immediately knew that one of us was in big trouble. But my Dad quickly deflected all the blame to himself and I was spared maternal wrath.

That night, as I lay in my bed, the football held tightly in the crook of my arm under the covers, I could hear my parents talking in the living room and I knew my Dad was still catching heck, and might continue to catch heck for quite some time. I strained to hear the conversation but the only words I could make out with certainty were:

“But Honey, it’s a Donny Anderson football.”

            Over the years, the imprinted autograph on the ball was gradually rubbed out as I bobbed and weaved through the backyard, dodging imaginary would-be tacklers and scoring spectacular touchdowns. Similarly, Donny Anderson’s own NFL career was rubbed out too quickly due to injuries (and possibly too many blonds). I never did get to play running back for the Green Bay Packers and the ball was eventually abandoned in the back of a cluttered garage. Time has a way of changing our values and once-treasured objects become forgotten.

I have come to realize that objects themselves are not nearly as important as the memories associated with them. Looking back, I sometimes think it would have been nice to have mentioned this episode as my Dad lay dying of cancer thirty five years later; to share the memory once again of the Donny Anderson football, of when he bent the rules, just one time, because he understood. But I didn’t. Sometimes, you just don’t think of these things until it’s too late.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Ex-Cub Pitcher Rich Nye and the Coolest Post-baseball Career Ever

It's always interesting to hear about the post-baseball careers of former major league players. Once upon a time, pro baseball players weren't millionaires, they were regular guys who just happened to be bigger, stronger, faster and have much better hand-eye coordination than the rest of us. Alot of them played for $10,000 to $20,000 a year and when they finished playing, most of them needed to look for real honest employment. Some were more prepared than others. I recently had the chance to talk to one of those guys: Cubs pitcher Rich Nye.

Rich Nye was always an inquisitive sort. A 6-5 left-handed pitcher, he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in civil engineering. While studying engineering, he also pitched for the school's baseball team--well enough to get himself drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1966 in the 14th round, the 265th player taken.

Rich was sent to Rookie ball, then quickly promoted to Class A. He impressed enough in those two stops that he was called up for a cup of coffee at the end of his first year and compiled a 2.12 ERA over 3 games, warranting a closer look in the spring of 1967.

Nye made the team coming out of spring training and was installed into the starting rotation. He had a live arm, a devastating change up and one of the best pickoff moves around. He went on to a 13-10 record with a 3.20 ERA in 30 starts for the Cubs that year, earning the Cubs' Rookie of the Year Award. He pitched his way into team lore with a 6-3 win over the Reds at Wrigley Field July 1, 1967, putting the Cubs into position to take over first place the next day--the first time the team had held first place past June in 32 years. "That was my favorite moment in the majors," Nye says. "It was just such a great atmosphere at Wrigley. The year before, we lost all the time and nobody came to the games--in some of the games in September it looked like there were more vendors at Wrigley than fans. But in 1967, everything was different. The more we won, the more fans came out. The day we took over first place the people in the stands wouldn't leave until they raised the flag on the scoreboard that showed we were in first. It was like a World Series atmosphere. I'll never forget it."
Nye was only 23 years old. His future in baseball looked bright. But it wasn't to be. He slumped in 1968 and fell off manager Leo Durocher's radar the next season. Durocher was old school and did not exactly sit around discussing his philosophy with the college-educated players. "If Leo had something to say to you, you'd read about it in the paper," is how Nye describes his relationship with the manager. "He really didn't make you feel like you were part of the team if you were on the bench."

Many have blamed the Cubs' 1969 collapse on Leo's misuse of his bullpen. Nye, along with Don Nottebart, Ted Abernathy and Hank Aguire became part of the Dead Man's Brigade, a rarely-used bunch that could have given the other pitchers much-needed rest. Nye was traded to the Cardinals in 1970, but his career was soon over courtesy of a torn rotator cuff.

As Nye plunged into the next phase of his life, he quickly realized that civil engineering held little appeal. "Taking soil samples 60 feet deep in the middle of a Chicago winter was not exactly fun."

He used his smarts to become a commodities trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and soon entered the Veterinarian Program at the University of Illinois, graduating in 1976. He had always held a love and fascination with animals. As a player, he had frequented zoos in each city while teammates found other pursuits on the road.
Nye's life course was further changed when he did an externship before his senior year with a well known expert in birds. "I always loved birds," he says. "It was just natural that I gravitated in that direction." He became one of those lucky guys who are able to combine his passion with full-time employment.

At the time, the specialty of avian medicine did not exist in the veterinarian world; there were no boards or extra training available. But that didn't deter Nye. With exotic birds being imported by the millions at the time, he went to pet shops and performed free exams on birds, learning while building a reputation as the go-to guy for all problems avian. Soon, word got around the midwest: your parrot feeling poorly? Cockatiel have a cough? Toucan with a tummy-ache? Dr. Nye is your guy.

Rich joined another like-minded vet and used the dough from his trading gig to bankroll a different kind of practice--one of the first exotic-only animal clinics in the country. He became a charter member of the Association of Avian Veterinarians in 1980. He later served on the board for more than a decade and also served as president of the organization. In addition, he authored several book chapters on the subject.

Although birds are his main thing, Nye treats all sorts of exotic patients. A typical day at the office for Dr. Nye might include cleaning the teeth of a chinchilla, incising and draining a turtle's abscess, fixing up an iguana and operating on a blue cockatiel. And loving it.

The hands that once hurled baseballs proved quite adept at maneuvering surgical instruments in tiny places. He became renowned for performing hysterectomies on exotic birds.

Question: bird hysterectomies?

Visions of winged creatures crowding in to his waiting room complaining of painful menstrual cramps comes to mind (had he suggested this as a life's work while in Berkeley, one of his classmates might have justifiably asked what he had been smoking).
"It's actually more of an oviductectomy," he explains casually, only partially clearing up the confusion. "Pet birds have no way to control egg laying. That becomes a problem. So the procedure takes care of that." The 45-minute operation is performed with a hot wire and forceps while Nye sits down at the operating table wearing magnifying loops and a head lamp. The bird is anesthetized as a human would be--using monitors and positive pressure ventilation.
Nye is semi-retired now, but still practices one day a week, lending his expertise and serving as a mentor to the younger doctors in the busy practice. "I've been a vet for more than 40 years and I still love it."

Nye remains proud of his baseball career, particularly the part he played in the resurgence of modern Cub Nation. And he never lost the love of the game. He continued to play senior league, over-40 and over-50 baseball for decades, mostly playing outfield to spare his ailing wing.

"Playing baseball was not for the money for most of us back then" he says of his major league days. "It was a passion." He regularly gets together with several former Cubs for charity appearances and enjoys discussing his career. Looking back, a particular major league thrill was the first time he faced his idol Willie Mays. "I grew up in the bay area and he was my hero. It was a spring training game. I had retired eight batters in a row and he came up. Standing on top of the mound, I remember thinking, 'I thought he'd be bigger.' In Phoenix Stadium there was a green wall in center field that was about 30 or 40 feet tall and 430 feet from home plate. I get two strikes on him. The count's two-and-two. I've seen other guys go up the ladder with high fastballs and get him out, so I throw my best fastball and he hits it off the top of the fence. But at least I held him to a triple. It was so great just being on the field with him, though, watching him do his thing. He rounded first and second, then, without slowing, turned and backpedaled into third, never taking his eye off the ball. You knew if they'd bobbled the relay, he would have spun and went home."

"1967 was exciting. The whole atmosphere changed. We bred a whole bunch of Cub fans in those years."

Rich Nye: a lucky guy who got to earn a living while living out his passion--twice.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Vietnam Veteran's Day Salute to Former Major League Pitcher and Honorary Green Beret Pete Richert

I'm always impressed by stories of guys who take their own time to do something for others. And it's a shame when these stories are sometimes lost with time. Since Vietnam Veteran's Day was last week, I thought I would take a look back at one such story--of a major league baseball player who showed his support for American troops..

Pete Richert was a two-time All-Star and a top relief pitcher who had a thirteen-year major league career from 1962 to 1974. While playing for the Washington Senators in the mid-1960s, Richert met and befriended a group of wounded Vietnam veterans who changed his life. I recently spoke to him about the experience:

"Playing in Washington, we were close to Walter Reed Army Hospital and I ended up doing a lot of work with wounded soldiers," says the 78-year-old Richert, who now lives in California. "I always thought that was important. I got involved with a group of seven or eight officers who had been shot up and lost limbs. I met one and he invited me to visit their ward. They had a certain ward there, Ward One. They were all Green Berets, the special forces. They were really impressive guys; very smart, very dedicated. We would sit around and talk and later they would come over to my apartment and we would do things together, drink and party, watch games on TV. They were special guys. Their attitudes were just amazing. Here they were, severely wounded, some had lost arms or legs, and yet everyone of them said they would go back there in a heartbeat--to help their fellow soldiers. I thought that was incredible."

Seeing the need, Richert became more involved in projects to help returning injured vets adjust.
"It built up and became a big thing for me. I started a program where guys from other teams would stop in and visit the wards at Walter Reed when they came to Washington to play us. Most baseball players were happy to do it. And the guys in the hospital loved it. It was really a great thing for their morale. The AP picked up the story and called it the VIP program for Very Important Patients. I certainly thought they were very important--they were true heroes in my book. A few years later, I got traded to Baltimore, but that was still close so I kept it up."
As it became well-known that the cause was close to his heart, Richert was a natural choice when Major League Baseball sought members for a 16-day goodwill tour following the 1968 season. He didn't hesitate when asked.

The trip included Ernie Banks, Ron Swaboda, Larry Jackson, Cardinals' General Manager Bing Devine and Al Fleishman, public relations advisor for the Cardinals. The group met in San Francisco and flew to Vietnam in a military jet with 160 GIs. Once they arrived in Saigon, the men were issued combat boots and fatigues and split into two groups--Richert, Banks and Fleishman headed north.

Richert (middle) and Mr. Cub meet with GIs

They visited U.S. soldiers throughout the region; sometimes at large firebases where they gave talks in mess tents filled with hundreds of soldiers, but more often dropping in on small outposts and talking to the men in small groups. "We would go to a big camp and have dinner with the guys at night. During the days we would fly helicopters out to little encampments. We would land on top of a hill and meet the guys. The jungle, the Mekong Delta, wherever GIs were at, that's where we went. One day somebody broke out a glove and ball and I pitched to Ernie in front of the guys in the middle of a swamp. And, of course, we visited a lot of hospitals."

They chatted with the troops and answered endless baseball questions. "It was important just to talk to the guys and show them we supported their efforts. Me and Ernie both took a pad and wrote down numbers of the family of those who lived near us. When we got back I made forty or fifty phone calls to parents, just to tell them we saw their sons and they were all right and said 'Hi.' That was a big deal for them to receive those phone calls."

The baseball group received an overwhelming welcome from the young men, who were both enamored by the big leaguers and starved for any information from the "real world."  Richert's sideburns were as big a hit with the troops--many of whom had been out of the U.S. for two years--as his baseball status.

Richert met a young GI who was a gunner on a helicopter who traveled with a puppy he had named Tripper. He had found the puppy and as he was walking with the dog in front of him, the dog set off four or five booby traps--traps in which a tripped branch throws the victim against spikes on a tree. The puppy was not hurt due to it's size, but they would have nailed the young soldier. They would take off with the kid training his 60-caliber machine gun on the ground for cover, but once they achieved a safe height, he took out a harmonica and began playing. The sight of a teenage soldier, sitting between a machine gun and a puppy, flying in a combat helicopter, playing a harmonica was a sight Richert would not soon forget.

"We went into one place and there was an area marked off with barbed wire. I asked someone what that was and they said, 'That's the Green Berets--special forces--nobody goes in there.' They had their own area. That night they had a big thing for us and we answered questions and talked to the troops. When we finished, four Green Berets walked in and said, 'Richert, you're coming with us.' So they took me and Ernie out. It turned out that my buddies on Ward One had called them and told them we were coming and arranged a welcome for us with the Green Berets. They took us and we spent the whole night with them. Ernie didn't drink so I had to take up the slack for him to hold up the honor of Major League Baseball. It was rough, but by the morning, we had earned our Green Berets.'

Many of their visits were uncomfortably close to the enemy. It was not uncommon to hear both friendly and enemy fire. One night, Richert and Banks were startled awake by the sounds of combat as Viet Cong troops were trying to breach the perimeter of the base--less than 300 yards away from their quarters. Richert had served in the National Guard and Banks had served in the Army in 1951-52, but neither had faced hostile forces up close. It was an eye-opening experience. "To see what those young men faced on a daily basis certainly put things into perspective," says Richert. "It's hard to explain the courage that it takes to function in that environment without seeing it up close."

While two previous baseball-player trips to Vietnam had been uniformly heralded upon return, Richert's group met an ambivalent response. Coming ten months after the Tet Offensive, patriotism was no longer in style. That did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for Richert. "These guys were just doing their jobs," he says. "They were true heroes." Richert, who played on a World Champion team with the Dodgers in 1963 and appeared in three straight World Series with the Orioles from 1969 to 1971, adds, "It was the most significant thing I did as a baseball player."

Monday, February 12, 2018

Who Was Major League Baseball's First African American Manager? (The Answer May Surprise You)

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, 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.

Speaking of that game, The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide for 1974 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 Ernie himself came to believe that he had been the first. Like so many baseball history errors, this was repeated over and over as journalists including those in Sports Illustrated, guys like Joe Posnanski, and virtually everyone in Chicago added it to their lists of factoids about Mr. Cub. 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. . . ”

As Buck O’Neil was the only other African American to have preceded Baker as a major league coach and special precautions had been put in place by Chicago management to ensure that O'Neil never left the dugout during a game, 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 second African-American signed by the team. The first, 36-year-old pitcher Booker McDaniels, appeared to be signed only for publicity purposes, with little intention of ever being brought to Chicago (McDaniels pitched two years for Los Angeles in AAA and finished with a record of 11-13). The saga of Cubs' owner P. K. Wrigley dragging his feet on the integration issue is another story in itself.

Baker was 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 Street. Wendell Smith (who figured prominently in the Jackie Robinson movie 42) 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.

The Cubs finally announced that they were bringing Baker up when the Pacific Coast League season ended in September of 1953. At the same time, they signed a promising kid who played shortstop for Buck O’Neil’s Monarchs, Ernie Banks and, in a rare move, brought him straight to the majors without a stop in the minors. 

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  mixed easily with all teammates. Baker became an invaluable companion and mentor to Banks.

While researching another project, I had the opportunity to talk to a number of Baker's teammates with the Cubs. Their opinion of him was unanimous: everyone appreciated not only his ability as a player, but his head for the game and his overall attitude. "I liked Gene," said Bob Talbot, who had played with him three years in the minors and came up to the Cubs at the same time. "He was a good guy. He got along with everybody and just went out and did his job. He had been a great short stop in the minors and was a very good second baseman with the Cubs. Everybody respected his knowledge of the game. He became the leader of the infield. I always thought he would have made a great manager for somebody."

Baker was traded to Pittsburgh in 1957 and suffered a 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. He made a valuable contribution to the history of the game which should not be forgotten.