Shortstop Ernie Banks and Second Baseman Gene Baker were first African American infield double play duo in Major League baseball. From 1954 – 1956, they were the #1 infield double play combo for the Chicago Cubs. Click on the following link for more:
I surprisingly found myself rooting for the Chicago Cubs to win this year’s World Series. At first, I did not care which team would come out on top. The Cleveland Indians had turned back my hometown Kansas City Royals’ effort to win what would have been a third consecutive American League pennant. But I did not hold that against them. To their credit, they were the best team in the league. Initially I began watching the Series as an impartial fan with a love for the game. But suddenly, I began humming the Cubs’ fight song and after the team fell behind three games to one I still held on to hope that they would somehow pull it out.
After they won Game Six to tie the Series at three games each, I started to question how I suddenly had become a Cub fan. I discovered it had nothing to do with the “curse”, having sympathy for the 71 years of futility and frustration suffered by the Cubs and their fans since the team’s previous World Series appearance in 1945. It did not matter about Cub first baseman Leon Durham’s error in the 1984 NLCS, or the “Bartman” fan interference call in the 2003 NCLS. I realized I wanted the Cubs to win the World Series because of my late father whose favorite baseball player happened to be the late Ernie Banks, “Mr. Cub”.
My love for baseball blossomed at the end of Jackie Robinson’s career. I know my father and older brothers must have watched him in action on our family’s first television, a black and white Philco, but I cannot recall as a toddler seeing him on the tube. However in 1957, one year after Robinson’s last season, I became captured by the sport I still have a passion for today. Henry Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves’ defeat of the New York Yankees that year is my first TV World Series recollection. My favorite players on the hometown Kansas City A’s that year were Hector Lopez and Harry “Suitcase” Simpson. Also in 1957, the early stages of my love for baseball were nurtured by my father’s accolades for “Mr. Cub”.
Banks played for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1950 and 1953 before signing with Chicago. I am sure this is when my father first became aware of him. Although Negro League baseball had begun its decline in the 1950s due to the integration of the Major Leagues, the Monarchs were still a viable team with Buck O’Neil the manager. Due to his work schedule my father probably did not go to many Monarchs’ games, but he read about Banks in the Kansas City Call newspaper. Once Banks got to the Cubs, he gave my father plenty to talk about.
In order for baseball’s “great experiment” of integration to fully work, there had to be successful players to build on the accomplishments of Jackie Robinson. No player did more statistically on the field in the 1950s to solidify the place of African-Americans in the Major Leagues than Ernie Banks. He is in the forefront of any conversation about the best player in the Major Leagues during the mid to late 1950s.
From 1955 – 1959, Banks hit 248 home runs, more than any other Major League player during that period of time; more than Mickey Mantle (231), Eddie Matthews (226), Willie Mays (214), and Henry Aaron (166). He hit over 40 home runs five times in his career, leading the National League twice with 47 in 1958 and 41 in 1960. Banks also knocked in more runs (RBIs) than anyone else during that time period with 693, an average of 115 per year. He was named National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1958 and 1959, the first and one of only four African-American players to receive a league MVP honor for consecutive years; Joe Morgan (1975 – 1976), Frank Thomas (1993 – 1994), and Barry Bonds (1992 – 1993, 2001 – 2004) being the others. An eleven time All Star, Banks is a member of the 500 career home run club with 512.
The Kansas City CBS affiliate TV station could not televise the weekend national Game of the Week due to the television blackout policy in the 1950s for cities with Major League teams. However, if Ernie Banks and the Cubs were scheduled to play, my father would put aluminum foil on our TV antenna in an effort to pick up the game from the station in St, Joseph, Missouri (54 miles from Kansas City). Despite having only a screen 60% clear that faded in and out when an airplane flew overhead, we sometimes could still see Banks in action.
My father admired Ernie Banks for excelling in the face of the Cubs’ adversity and frustration. The team never won more games that it lost during Banks’ prime seasons. Also, he loved the always upbeat enthusiasm “Mr. Cub” kept for the game. And my father saw the obvious in Ernie Banks, a Hall of Fame player. Five months before my father died in 1977, his favorite player was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
There is no doubt Lephus Mitchell, Sr. would have been rooting for the Cubs’ this World Series. After Kris Bryant threw the ball to Anthony Rizzo for the final out in Game Seven, I envisioned my father smiling broadly. He would have been very happy. He would have felt the Cubs won the 2016 World Series in honor of his favorite player; Ernie Banks.
To learn more about the Negro League baseball era, read “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. To order go to (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown) http://www.klmitchell.com
Based on the historical information I have read, many times on this blog I have stated it appears the slow progress of integration in Major League baseball during the 1950s hindered the careers of many good African-American players. A prime example of this is Gene Baker. After two seasons in Negro League baseball, Baker became the first African American player signed by the Chicago Cubs. However, it would be three years before he took the field in a Cubs’ uniform.
Born on June 15, 1925 in Davenport, Iowa, Eugene Walter Baker in 1948 and 1949 played shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs; who were managed by John “Buck” O’Neill. After signing with the Cubs before the 1950 season when 25 years old, Baker stayed in the team’s minor league system for four years. The top shortstop in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) for the Cubs’ Los Angeles Angels Triple AAA affiliate, he averaged 12 home runs, 62 RBIs, and a .284 batting average during those years. At that time the Cubs were getting less than mediocre play from their shortstops, but the team dragged its feet promoting Baker. Even the Cubs owner, P. K. Wrigley, began to question how Baker could still be in the minor leagues.
On September 20, 1953, Baker made his Major League debut as a pinch hitter. Ernie Banks, who the Cubs had signed from the Kansas City Monarchs on September 3, played shortstop that day and hit his first Major League home run. After Baker had left the Monarchs in 1950 to sign with the Cubs, Banks followed as “Buck” O’Neill’s new shortstop. He had made his Major League debut on September 17 and beat Baker by three days to be the first African-American to play a Major League game for the Cubs.
The Cubs moved Baker to second base the next season making he and Banks the first African-American double play combination in the Major Leagues. Baker is credited with helping Banks develop into an All Star fielding shortstop; while he was himself selected to play in the 1955 All Star Game.
After the 1957 season began the Cubs believed they needed more power in their line up. They also had a 22-year-old second baseman, Tony Taylor, ready for the Major Leagues. A month and a half before his 32nd birthday, the team traded Baker to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Dale Long and Lee Walls who combined to hit 44 home runs for them the following year. The Pirates were a young upcoming team who had only four players 30 or older. Baker became a utility infielder backing up 20-year-old second baseman Bill Mazeroski, 26-year-old shortstop Dick Groat, and 23-year-old third baseman Gene Freese. After missing most of the 1958 season due to severely injured knee, the team released him after the season and he ended up out of the Major Leagues in 1959.
However, needing a reliable utility infielder and pinch hitter, the Pirates signed Baker at the beginning of the 1960 season. The team won the National League pennant and defeated the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series. Baker got the opportunity to be on a championship team, something his former double play partner Ernie Banks never experienced.
Gene Baker gained the reputation of being a “smart ballplayer”. In 1961, the Pirates named him manager of their Class D minor league team.