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.