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Banks grew from early Baker influence

Banks grew from early Baker influence

Banks grew from early Baker influence
CHICAGO -- Ernie Banks was the first African-American to play for the Cubs, making his Major League debut on Sept. 17, 1953, at Wrigley Field. Three days later, Gene Baker, who was the first African-American player the Cubs signed, made his debut. If not for a minor injury, the two would've been in the lineup on the same day.

Baker signed with the Cubs in 1950 and spent three years in the Minor Leagues. Banks signed less than a week before his debut. And if it weren't for Baker, Banks may not have made it to the Hall of Fame.

"He's one of the greatest people I've ever known," Banks said Wednesday of Baker. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him."

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Baker was a star at basketball and track in high school in Davenport, Iowa, and played sandlot baseball. He got more serious about baseball when he served in the Navy. In 1947, Baker was a star infielder for St. Ambrose University in Davenport. He was signed by the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League to play shortstop and batted .293 his rookie season.

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The Cubs saw Baker and signed him, assigning him to the Des Moines Bruins of the Class A Western League. The Monarchs would eventually replace Baker with another shortstop -- Banks.

Baker hit .321 for the Bruins in 1950 and was promoted to the Springfield Cubs of the International League, then the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League.

Wendell Smith, now in the writer's wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame and an African-American, felt the Cubs were holding Baker back for no reason.

"The most controversial player in the Chicago Cubs organization is a 28-year-old shortstop who plays 2,000 miles from here," Smith wrote in August 1953. "He is Gene Baker of Los Angeles, the Cubs' No. 1 Minor League affiliate. Are the Cubs purposely overlooking this smooth fielding shortstop for whom they paid $6,500 to the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in 1950?"

In Smith's story, Wid Matthews, the Cubs director of player personnel at that time, said the team didn't feel Baker was ready. One month later, Baker and Banks arrived at Wrigley on the same day, Sept. 14, 1953. Banks was 22 and came from the Monarchs, where he had hit .380 with 23 homers. Baker was six years older.

Banks, now 81, had made his pro debut with the Monarchs on June 4, 1950. He was drafted into the Army in '51, and returned to the Monarchs in 1953, where Cubs scouts found him. The team signed the slender Dallas native on Sept. 8, 1953.

There were reports that the Cubs didn't want to add Baker to the roster until they had another African-American player. After all, having two would make it easier on travel. They could room together, eat together. Banks said he and Baker never discussed that.

They were called up at the perfect time. The Cubs were playing the Brooklyn Dodgers at Wrigley when Banks and Baker arrived. Jackie Robinson, the first player to break the color barrier in the Major Leagues, talked to the young shortstop and told him to not say anything, not listen to anything, Banks said.

"It was that type of atmosphere -- it was, 'OK, you're here, but you're not here,'" Banks said. "I fit into that. I was quiet anyways. Gene Baker, he was different. He was from Iowa, and he had played in Los Angeles against white players and had more experience."

Baker was more outspoken than Banks.

"One day we were coming back home after a game, and [Baker] said, 'All these guys are angry with you,' and I said, 'For what?'" Banks said. "He said, 'You're hustling too much, you're showing everybody up.'

"I said, 'I thought you're supposed to play hard,'" Banks said. "I said, 'What should I do?' He said, 'Keep on doing it.' He was a very bright guy. He was the brightest guy I've ever been around. He allowed me to learn from my own experiences."

Since both Baker and Banks were shortstops, the Cubs decided to move Baker to second base, because they felt he could make the adjustment easier. The next season, 1954, they were regulars in the Cubs' lineup and the first black double-play combination in the Major Leagues.

Baker was eventually traded to the Pirates and joined the coaching staff in 1963. When manager Danny Murtaugh was thrown out of a game, Baker became the interim manager, which would make him the first black to manage a team in a Major League game. Frank Robinson was not named the Indians manager until 1975.

"[Gene Baker] knows more baseball than fellows twice his age. He's one of the smartest I've ever met," Murtaugh once said.

Cubs Hall of Fame outfielder Billy Williams agreed. Williams said he always felt Baker would manage because of his knowledge of the game. In a 1997 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Baker, who died in December 1999, said he had no sense of his place in Cubs history.

"My main thought was that I should've been up years before I was," said Baker, whose first appearance was as a pinch-hitter.

Banks said he received support from people on the South Side of Chicago, where he was living.

"Very few blacks came to Wrigley Field at that time and, in my own community, people were really proud of me," Banks said in the Tribune interview. "They assisted me, made sure I got to bed on time, congratulated me. ... It wasn't like I was a star or a hero. It was like I was taken in, like a family. They would come and watch my kids, wash my car, invite me to dinner."

Robinson, who is honored each year by Major League Baseball on April 15, had been in the big leagues since 1947, which helped Baker and Banks.

"A lot of clubs had black players by then," Baker said. "The fans in Chicago were great to us. There was no prejudice against us. What we went through was nowhere near like [Robinson]."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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