Ernie Banks and racism on the Chicago Cubs

Ernie Banks

Ernie Banks made his debut for the Cubs on September 17, 1953, the first black man to play for the franchise. Three days later the second black man to play for the Cubs made his debut, second baseman Gene Baker. The Banks/Baker duo was supposed to transform the Cubs into winners after years of standing in the back of the line in the National League. That never happened.

In the early 1950s several National League teams were trying desperately to catch up. The Brooklyn Dodgers brought Jackie Robinson into their lineup in 1947, and that team wasted no time fielding more black players. Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe were next, followed quickly by Junior Gilliam. The Giants had Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Hank Thompson, and it wasn’t a coincidence that those two teams were winning the pennants. From 1947 to 1956, either the Dodgers or Giants won eight of the ten pennants.

The Cubs, Pirates, Cardinals, and Phillies resisted integration, and they paid a price for it. Between 1947 and 1959, only one of those teams won a pennant. The Cubs, Cards, and Bucs failed to win another pennant until they integrated.

Baseball in the 1950s was still very white. That’s because several teams didn’t integrate for years (the Phillies waited until 1957, and the Cubs, Bucs, and Reds only finally relented during a seven-month period over the 1953-54 seasons). The other reason the game stayed white was the way teams integrated: they usually only signed stars. The Cubs were happy to have Banks in their infield, but they weren’t going to give the fourth outfield spot to a black man, they weren’t going to sign black relief pitchers. Those were white men’s jobs.

The Dodgers didn’t have that prejudice, they saw an opportunity and took advantage of it. They were willing to sign black players who might only be average big leaguers. They were willing to hire black pitchers. Some teams thought black players weren’t smart enough to be pitchers. The Detroit Tigers didn’t have a black pitcher until 1966.

Banks became a superstar in his third year when he hit 44 home runs. He hit 40 homers four more times before he was 30, and he won two MVP awards. But the Cubs kept languishing because they had not recognized how the game had changed. They had a black superstar, but no one else to help him. They kept trying the same options, didn’t bother to scout or sign minorities. 

In 1961 the Cubs finally put a black kid from Whistler, Alabama in left field. His name was Billy Williams. Five years later they gave Fergie Jenkins a shot on the mound. But in between they gave up on Lou Brock, whom they traded to the Cardinals for a sore-armed white pitcher. All four of those players: Banks, Williams, Jenkins, and Brock, ended up with a plaque in Cooperstown. All four came up with the Cubs when the team was still wary of black ballplayers. 

After integration, the Cubs didn’t win a pennant until 2016, almost seven decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. The Curse of the Billy Goat? Um yeah, that’s a quaint story, but it was more like The Curse of The Silly Quota. 

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