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Was former Cubs infielder Gene Baker the first African-American manager?

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It sure looks like rather than Ernie Banks, the honor rightfully belongs to Banks’ former double-play partner.

Gene Baker in 1956
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For the last several years, it has been received knowledge that on May 8, 1973, Cubs legend Ernie Banks took over managing duties from ejected manager Whitey Lockman. In doing so, Banks became the first African-American to manage in a major league game.

The event was not much noticed at the time, according to Banks himself. At the time, no one paid much attention to who took over the lineup card after a manager was ejected. But years later, after Frank Robinson became the first “real” African-American manager in 1975 and after Dodgers executive Al Campanis made his infamous comments in 1987 on Nightline that African-American players “may not have some of the necessities” to be managers that people went back and remembered that night in San Diego in 1973 and declared Banks to be the first African-American to manage a major league baseball game.

The problem is that it appears that Banks was 10 years too late and that it was his good friend and former Cubs teammate Gene Baker that actually deserves the honor.

In an article published two years ago (and which seems to have been missed in the Cubs community), Elizabeth Bloom of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette documented that Gene Baker took over for ejected Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh on September 21, 1963, making Baker, not Banks, the first African-American to manage a major league game.

The Pirates were playing in Los Angeles that night when they took a 3-2 lead off of Sandy Koufax in the top of the eighth inning. Ron Perranoski relieved Koufax with the bases loaded and two out in the inning and induced a infield ground ball off the bat of Bill Virdon. Perranoski fielded the ball and threw to first base. It was a close play, but Virdon was ruled out.

Pirates first base coach Frank Oceak and Murtaugh both argued to the call and both were ejected. Murtaugh turned to Baker, who was coaching in the majors for the first time in 1963, after becoming the first African-American minor league manager in 1961 for Batavia in the Pirates system. According to Pirates pitcher Vern Law, Murtaugh told Baker he was in charge. Baker asked “Are you sure?” and Murtaugh said yes and left for the Dodger Stadium clubhouse. Murtaugh may not have even been aware that he was making history.

Baker made several moves in the inning-and-a-half that he managed. He brought in reliever Al McBean to pitch the eighth inning and moved around several players to accommodate some pinch-hitting moves made by Murtaugh in the top of the inning. He brought in another reliever, Joe Gibbon, to pitch when McBean got in trouble with runners on the corners and two out in the eighth. He pinch-ran for catcher Smoky Burgess in the top of the ninth and pinch-hit for the pitcher. When the Pirates failed to score in the top of the ninth, Baker brought in Tommie Sisk to get the save, although that statistic wouldn’t be official for another six years. Unfortunately for the Pirates, Sisk gave up a three-run walk-off home run to Willie Davis and the first-place Dodgers beat the eighth-place Pirates.

What’s remarkable is that almost no one seems to have noticed that Baker was running the club. At the time, no announcements were made to the press box about who was in charge of a team after a manager ejection. The game almost certainly wasn’t televised and it appears that neither of the two Hall-of-Fame broadcasters covering the game, Vin Scully and Bob Prince, noticed it. Or at least they didn’t comment on it. The Pittsburgh papers also made no mention of the incident, but these were the days when a game on the West Coast would have been listed as “Late Game” in the next day’s paper. When the Post-Gazette did report on the game, they simply said that Murtaugh had been ejected for the first time all season.

Baker himself was a quiet man who rarely called attention to himself. He certainly wouldn’t have been the type of person to crow about this achievement. He likely would have been happiest about the trust that Murtaugh placed in him.

In fact, it would be easy to pass the incident as a misremembered incident by former Pirates Vern Law and Bob Friend, except that one paper, the Independent Press-Telegram of Long Beach published this the next day:

Manager Danny Murtaugh and coach Frank Oceak were ejected by umpire Doug Harvey for their long and loud protests of the close call. Coach Gene Baker assumed command and became the first Negro to manage in the major leagues.

That article, along with the memories of Law and Friend, are pretty conclusive proof that the honor of being the first African-American to manage a major league game belongs to Baker.

If you don’t know the story of Gene Baker, you should. The short story that most people know is that the Cubs signed Ernie Banks from the Negro Leagues and called Baker up from Los Angeles at the same time to make their major league debut in September of 1953. They were supposed to be the first African-Americans ballplayers on the Cubs at the same time. However, Baker was banged up at the time and had to wait three days to play and thus Banks held that honor by himself.

Baker was a shortstop, but the Cubs moved him to second base because they felt that the older Baker would more easily make the transition to second than the younger Banks would. He played three full seasons for the Cubs and made the 1955 All-Star team before the being shipped off to Pittsburgh alongside Dee Fondy for Dale Long and Lee Walls.

But behind those numbers, there’s a real story behind Baker’s years with the Cubs and it’s not a flattering one. After the Dodgers integrated baseball with Jackie Robinson in 1947, the rest of baseball had to decide whether to follow or resist. The National League teams that embraced integration: the Dodgers, Giants and Braves, came to dominate the league over the next decade. Those that dragged their feet fell behind, and this is where the Cubs story changed. After being one of the dominant teams in baseball over the first 75 years of the National League, the Cubs became the “lovable losers” in the 1950s and their resistance to integration was a big reason for that. (Night baseball and a resistance to building a strong farm system were other reasons.)

The racial attitudes of Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley are far too complicated to go into here. In fact, pretty much any aspect of the thinking of the inscrutable P.K. Wrigley is hard to figure. But suffice to say whatever Wrigley’s personal views towards integration were, it’s clear that he felt that the almost all-white fanbase of the Cubs in the late 1940s was not open to having Negro ballplayers.

Baker was not the first African-American signed by the Cubs. That was Booker McDaniels, a broken-down 35-year-old pitcher who had played in the Mexican League for three seasons before the Cubs signed him in 1949. The McDaniels signing was a “get off my back” signing. He could be safely sent to the Cubs farm team in Los Angeles and when activists questioned why the Cubs had no Negro ballplayers, the front office could reply that they had McDaniels, but he simply wasn’t good enough to play in the majors.

In 1950, the Cubs hired Wid Matthews as their new general manager. Matthews was hailed as a forward-thinking progressive that would lead the Cubs back to relevance. His credentials were good: he had served as Branch Rickey’s assistant in Brooklyn and had scouted and helped to sign Jackie Robinson. However, although the original scouting reports seem to be lost, it appears that the Dodgers signed Robinson over Matthews’ objections, not because of his recommendation. Roy Campanella also told the story that the Dodgers failed to sign Willie Mays because of a Matthews’ negative scouting report. While Matthews was not the type of person to stand in front of the clubhouse doors to keep the sport all-white, he wasn’t a guy who would open doors for African-Americans either, even if it meant helping the Cubs.

But Matthews did have connections with the Kansas City Monarchs from his days in Brooklyn and he signed Baker in 1950 on the recommendations of the Monarchs (white) owner. The 25-year-old Baker then became the first African-American with a real shot of playing for the Cubs.

Still, it made sense for Baker to play a year in the minors. The native of Davenport, Iowa was first sent to Des Moines in the Western League, which is the equivalent of South Bend today, After ripping up that level, he went to Triple-A Los Angeles, where he hit .280 with two home runs and 12 steals in 100 games. (I’m not going to list on-base percentage because no one at the time paid any attention to it other than Rickey.)

The Cubs’ shortstop at the time was the weak-hitting and error-prone Roy Smalley. After a season like that, it would make sense to make the move and bring Baker to the majors. Except that Matthews didn’t. Instead, Baker returned to Los Angeles where he hit .278 with 11 home runs in 168 games in 1951. Smalley hit .231 for the Cubs.

The 1952 season was more of the same. Baker hit .260 with 15 home runs in 174 games (they played a 180-game schedule in the Pacific Coast League in those days). Smalley hit .222 with five home runs and a reputation for throwing errors. That season, Los Angeles Angels manager Stan Hack told Matthews that there was no reason that Baker was still in the minor leagues and that he should be promoted. Matthews sent Baker, now 28, back to Los Angeles in 1953. The excuse that Matthews gave was that promoting Baker would hurt the Angels pennant chances. Think about that for a moment. That’s like saying that the Cubs were going to leave Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell in Iowa so the I-Cubs could win the PCL pennant. In fact, that’s exactly what Matthews was saying. The funny thing was the Cubs fanbase was so apathetic in the early 1950s that no one seemed to make much of a stink about it.

By the end of 1953, the Cubs couldn’t take any more of Smalley. Or more likely, they couldn’t take any more of the integrated White Sox and Milwaukee Braves cutting into the Cubs attendance. Matthews announced that Baker would come to Chicago when the Angels season ended in September. But he also announced that they were signing another shortstop from the Monarchs named Ernie Banks. As Banks mentioned many times in his career, he was signed so that Baker could have a roommate on the road, since no white player could be expected to share a room with a black player. (Although to be fair, the Cubs scouts in 1953 were unanimous in their belief that Banks would be a very good player.)

Baker’s major league playing career ended in 1961, but not before he got something that Banks never did: a World Series ring with the Pirates. He pinch-hit three times in the 1960 Series, going 0-for-3. But famously, the Pirates did beat the Yankees.

Baker managed in the minor leagues in 1961 and 1962, becoming the first African-American manager in the minors. At the same time, the Cubs hired Buck O’Neil to be the first African-American coach in the majors as part of the “College of Coaches” experiment. O’Neil was supposed to be in line to manage as one of those coaches and thus pre-date Robinson being the first African-American manager by 13 years, but the other coaches made sure it never happened. In fact, they even conspired to keep O’Neil from being the third-base coach in a game when manager Charlie Metro and third-base coach El Tappe were both ejected.

Baker returned to his native Davenport after his coaching career with the Pirates ended. He worked as a scout for the Pirates for many years before he passed away in 1999.

This is not to take away from what Banks did for the Cubs. While Baker was a good player, it was Ernie Banks who was Mr. Cub and who made the mostly-white Cubs fanbase embrace integration. And while Banks wasn’t the first African-American to manage in the majors, it does appear that he was the first to win a game, since the Cubs beat the Padres in that game in 1973. However, we can’t be sure that another African-American coach didn’t take over a game between 1963 and 1973. Such things weren’t well-documented in those days. However, it seems very unlikely that there was an African-American coach who took over a game before Baker, since only O’Neil was coaching in the majors before Baker and we saw how that went.

Throughout Gene Baker’s career, it seems that he was in the shadows of Ernie Banks. Baker seemed OK with that, since he appeared to be a modest man and the younger Banks was a good friend of his whom he helped mentor in the majors. But he was a quality ballplayer in his own right and an all-around good baseball man. It’s past time he gets his due as well.

(Sources for this piece include The Cubs by Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson. (2007) as well as these biographies of Baker and Matthews)