The first African-American to play major league baseball in a Cubs’ uniform was Ernie Banks.
Banks made his major league debut Sept. 17, 1953, at Wrigley Field against the Philadelphia Phillies. He went hitless that day, but in his second big league game, played Sept. 19 against the Cardinals at Sportsman’s Park, he banged out two hits. In his next game against the Cards, he hit his first of 512 career home runs.
While Banks was the first African-American to play for the Cubs, he wasn’t the first African-American to wear a Cubs uniform. The Cubs called up Gene Baker from the minor leagues in early September, but, because of an injury, Baker didn’t make his major league debut until Sept. 20.
Both Banks and Baker were shortstops, so the Cubs decided to move the older and more experienced Baker to second base. Together, they formed the first black double-play combination in baseball history. In 1954, they were named to The Sporting News All-Rookie team, and, in 1955, both Banks and Baker were selected for the All-Star game.
One of the greatest sluggers in baseball history, Banks played for the Cubs until his retirement in 1971. In his first year of eligibility, the player affectionately known as Mr. Cub was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Baker played for the Cubs until he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1957. While his playing career never equaled that of his Cubs teammate, he did achieved one goal that eluded Banks. In 1960, while with the Pirates, Baker appeared in a World Series game.
An injury prevented Baker from becoming the first African-American to play in a Cubs uniform, but after his career was over, Baker made his own baseball history as a coach and manager.
When his major league career ended in 1961, Baker became the first African-American to manage an affiliated minor-league team as player-manager with the Class D Batavia Pirates of the New York-Penn League. In 1962, he served as a player-coach with AAA Columbus where he helped black players, like future Hall-of-Famer Willie Stargell, prepare for the prejudice and hostility they would encounter once they made it to the major leagues.
In 1963, Baker became only the second African-American to become a coach with a major league team when he joined manager Danny Murtaugh and the Pittsburgh Pirates. A year earlier, Negro League legend Buck O’Neil had become the first black coach in baseball history when he joined the Chicago Cubs.
It wasn’t until 1975 that Frank Robinson became the first African-American to manage a major league team, but he wasn’t the first African-American to manage in a big league game. Twelve years earlier, on Sept. 21, 1963, after Murtaugh was tossed out of a game, he had Baker manage the Pirates for the last two innings.
Baker returned to managing in the minor leagues in 1964, but he never was given the opportunity to manage in the major leagues. He eventually became a scout in the Pirates organization and was so highly regarded for his ability to recognize and develop young talent that he became the Pirates’ top scout for the Midwest for the next 23 years.
Black History Month is the perfect occasion to honor the courage of Jackie Robinson in integrating major league baseball’s playing field and recognizing the greatness of players like Ernie Banks. It’s also an opportunity, however, to remember those lesser known figures, like Gene Baker, who led the way in the struggle to integrate baseball beyond the playing field.
RICHARD “PETE” PETERSON is the author of Growing Up With Clemente and Pops: The Willie Stargell, scheduled for publication in May.