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Cubs historic moment: Ernie Banks and Buck O’Neil

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A terrific photo of two all-time greats.

Bettmann / Contributor

This isn’t a sleuthing post, because the caption information supplied by Getty Images gives it away:

New member of Chicago Cubs coaching staff, John (Buck) O’Neil, 51 (r), congratulates Cubs first baseman Ernie Banks after Banks slammed out 3 homers in the game with the Milwaukee Braves here 5/29. O’Neil was the first African American to coach in the Major Leagues.

This game happened Tuesday, May 29, 1962 at Wrigley Field. Buck O’Neil, one of the most famous of Negro League players, was indeed the first Black coach in Major League Baseball. Indeed, as hinted in the caption, the promotion of O’Neil to the major league coaching staff had just been announced that day. Richard Dozer of the Tribune wrote:

O’Neil, 50, a scout in the Cubs organization since 1956, accompanied the team on the last road trip and was in uniform before a number of games, but did not remain in the dugout while the game was in progress.

In announcing the appointment of O’Neil, General Manager John Holland said the new coach would not be a member of the head coaching rotation, a group composed of El Tappe, former head coach; Lou Klein, the present chief; and Charlie Metro, who is awaiting his turn.

That’s really too bad. O’Neil, who had a wealth of baseball knowledge, might have been a very good “head coach” in the otherwise-ridiculous “College of Coaches” system, but baseball wasn’t ready for that sort of thing in 1962, unfortunately. The Cubs, who were thus a pioneer in hiring a black coach, declined the opportunity to make a statement by putting O’Neil in that rotation. Instead, per the Tribune article:

“Buck will serve as an instructor,” said Holland, who had predicted more than two years ago that O’Neil would be the first of his race to serve as a big league coach. For the last seven seasons O’Neil has aided in the Cubs’ spring training instructional program.

O’Neil, as a scout, had signed or guided several Black players into the Cubs organization, including Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Lou Brock and George Altman. Here’s more on O’Neil’s role as a scout for the Cubs.

As for the three-homer game? Per usual for the horrid 1962 Cubs, they lost despite Ernie’s heroics, 11-9. In fact, Banks came up with one out in the ninth inning with a chance to hit a fourth home run, but he grounded out. Altman followed with a homer for the Cubs’ ninth run, but Ron Santo flied to left to end the game. Just 3,468 were in attendance to see the last of Ernie’s four career three-homer games.

As for O’Neil? If you have never watched his wonderful 2006 speech at the Hall of Fame on behalf of the Negro Leaguers inducted that year, it’s absolutely worth seven and a half minutes of your time. He passed away only a couple of months after giving the speech. Buck O’Neil was a national treasure, and the photo above is a wonderful moment between two key figures in Cubs, and baseball, history.