Friday, June 17, 2016
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 a severely injured knee, the team released him after the season and he ended up out of the Major Leagues in 1959.
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.
To learn more of the Negro League baseball story, read “Last Train to Cooperstown:
The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown)