SABR

Gene Baker

This article was written by Charles F. Faber.

Near the end of the 1953 baseball season two young men joined the Chicago Cubs and broke the club’s color line. Two shortstops, they became roommates and the first African American keystone combination in major-league history when one of them was converted into a second baseman. The shortstop, Ernie Banks, was purchased from the Kansas City Monarchs, spent his entire Organized Baseball career with the Cubs, earned the nickname Mr. Cub, and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. The second baseman was called up from the Des Moines Bruins and spent parts of only five years with the Cubs before being traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Gene Baker was never a serious candidate for the Hall of Fame, but continued making important breakthroughs after his playing days were over.

Eugene Walker Baker was born in Davenport, Iowa, on June 15, 1925, the eldest son of Mildred and Eugene O. Baker. He spent his childhood in the Quad Cities area, in Davenport and across the Mississippi River in Moline, Illinois, where his father at one time labored in the iron works.

Gene attended Davenport High School, where he starred in track and basketball. As there happened to be no blacks on the high-school baseball team, Gene played sandlot ball. Davenport was a perennial powerhouse in Iowa high-school basketball, which was the most popular sport in the state. Baker was a star on the basketball court. In 1943 the 17-year-old, 6-foot, 142-pound guard was named to the All-State first team by the Iowa Daily Press Association, with the following accolades: “Most improved player on this year’s Davenport cage team. Clean type of player, fouling infrequently. So alert that he caused opposing guards to foul. Best passer in the Mississippi Valley loop. Will be 18 in June and it looks like the army after that.”

After the state tournament, in which for the second consecutive year Davenport made the final four, a Waterloo coach wrote in the Waterloo Sunday Courier: “In Gene Baker, Davenport’s dusky guard, the river city boys had one of the outstanding individuals in the tournament. He was easily the best passer in the meet and his rebounding and scoring set him out as one of the better basketball players seen in this meet recently.”

As it turned out, Baker went not into the Army, but the Navy, where he played both baseball and basketball, first for the Ottumwa Naval Air Station and then for the Seahawks of the Iowa Pre-Flight School in Iowa City. In newspaper accounts of the games, Baker’s race was frequently mentioned, in keeping with the journalistic practices of the era. The Waterloo paper wrote: “Baker, the shortstop, is one of the greatest and most versatile Negro athletes developed in Iowa. Speedy, a good base runner, he also hits the agate hard.” An Associated Press report on the Seahawks basketball team referred to “Gene Baker, brilliant Davenport Negro.”

His service obligations fulfilled, Baker returned to Davenport, where he played semipro baseball. His exploits on the diamond caught the attention of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. By this time Baker had grown one inch in height and added 28 pounds to his still slender frame. He was the Monarchs’ regular shortstop in 1948 and 1949. Early in the 1949 season the Davenport Democrat and Leader wrote: “Among the [Kansas City] stars is Gene Baker, Davenport high school graduate who sparkled as a rookie shortstop last season. In his second year Baker is set to make his bid for notice from the major league scouts. He was told last year that he would get attention after one year’s service in the Negro American League, and there are those who classed him as the second Jackie Robinson.” That may sound like hyperbole from his hometown newspaper, but the scouts were indeed paying attention. After the season Gene returned to Davenport and played recreation-league basketball, but the spring of 1950 found him in Organized Baseball in the Chicago Cubs organization. After a few games with the Springfield Cubs in the International League, he was acquired by the Des Moines Bruins of the Western League, as the team’s first black player. At the end of June he moved up to the Los Angeles Angels of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. California newspapers reported that the 25-year-old shortstop was regarded as one of the most promising players in the Cubs’ farm system. Bobby Bragan, manager of the Angels’ chief rivals, the Hollywood Stars, said Baker was “as good a shortstop as I’ve ever seen – and that includes Pee Wee Reese.”

Baker lived up to his promise. On September 1, 1953, the Cubs purchased his contract from the Angels. It was reported that Baker was the first Negro player to ever appear on the Cubs’ official roster. A week later the Cubs purchased Ernie Banks from the Kansas City Monarchs. Both shortstops reported in Chicago on September 14; Banks became the regular shortstop, and suddenly Baker was a second baseman. He made his major-league debut on September 20, striking out as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning of a Cubs 11-8 loss in St. Louis.

Although Baker had been hailed as the best shortstop in the Pacific Coast League, he was shunted over to second base because it was believed that as he was older and more experienced than Banks, he might be better able to adjust to a new position. Baker proceeded to give his young teammate tips on playing the shortstop position. “He certainly helped me when I came to this club,” Banks told an interviewer with United Press International. “He showed me how to study the batters and how to swing (my position) when the infield shifted. He worked with me on coming across the bag for the double play and showed how to make a short toss for it.”

Baker hit .275 in 135 games during his rookie season. Both he and Banks made The Sporting News all-rookie team. Soon newspapers ceased mentioning Baber’s race whenever his name appeared in print. Gene’s best season came in 1955, when he hit .268, led the league with 18 sacrifices, and was named to the National League All-Star team. He pinch-hit for Don Newcombe in the seventh inning and flied out. Baker was a good but sometimes erratic defensive second baseman. Three times he led NL keystone sackers in errors. In 1955 he led his cohorts in putouts, assists, errors, and total chances. On May 27 of that year his 11 putouts tied the National League record for putouts in one game by a second baseman.

On May 1, 1957, Baker was traded along with first baseman Dee Fondy to Pittsburgh for infielder Dale Long and infielder-outfielder Lee Walls. There was no way he could match the play of future Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski at second base, so Baker played mainly third base for the Pirates. On July 13, 1958, the third sacker fell on his left knee while charging a ground ball and ruptured a ligament that attaches the kneecap to the leg. Baker later said, “We were playing at St. Louis and Curt Flood hit a swinging bunt. I came in fast and must have slipped. Then there was a crack that sounded like a 30-30 rifle.” The infielder was carried off the field. The knee required surgery, and Baker was out of action for the remainder of the season. He spent rest of the year back in Davenport on crutches.

The Pirates hoped to have Baker back in 1959, but when spring came he was unable to play. Pittsburgh placed him on the 30-day disabled list in April. In May they restored him to the active list and immediately placed him on waivers for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release. But they did not cast Baker aside. They signed him as an instructional assistant for their minor-league clubs. Baker worked predominantly with minor-league players, but also helped with the analysis of minor-league clubs and scouting programs. Pittsburgh manager Danny Murtaugh said that Baker “knows more about baseball than fellows twice his age. He’s one of the smartest I’ve ever met.” During the offseason Baker returned to Davenport, spent time with his wife and two children, sold insurance, played an occasional round of golf, and rooted for his favorite basketball team.

In January 1960 Baker began a series of exercises and tests on his injured left knee at Southern Illinois University’s Physical Education Research Laboratory in Carbondale. Impressed by the work at Carbondale, the Pirates’ general manager, Joe L. Brown, hired kinesiologists from the lab to work with Baker and to develop a training program aimed at preventing injuries to other players. “We’ve had encouraging reports on Baker,” Brown told the Associated Press in February. “We hope he can make a comeback. He’s a fine utility infielder. If he can play for us he’ll be a plus factor. But it is still too early to tell whether Gene can play. Regardless, he will remain in the Pirates organization. He’s got loads of talent in the field of scouting and instruction.” Throughout his ordeal the Pirates were compassionate, generous, and supportive of Baker—qualities not always evident in major-league clubs.

During 1960 spring training Baker went with the club to Fort Myers, Florida, as a nonroster invitee. By late March he was playing well. He was the talk of the training camp and earned a big-league contract. Manager Danny Murtaugh said he expected Baker to be the club’s number one utility infielder during the season. As it turned out there was not much need for Baker’s services and he became almost a forgotten man during the Pirates’ drive to the 1960 pennant. Second baseman Mazeroski and third baseman Don Hoak each played more than 150 games. When Dick Groat was injured, Dick Schofield capably handled the shortstop position. Rocky Nelson filled in for Dick Stuart at first base. Baker played only one game at second and seven games at third base. Otherwise, he was used mainly as a pinch-hitter and occasionally as a pinch-runner. All told, he appeared in 33 games during the season. In the World Series Baker did not play in the field, but he came up three times as a pinch-hitter and failed to make a hit.

During spring training in 1961 the club decided to keep Baker as a utility infielder and send Dick Gray to the minors. In response to a complaint that the Pirates should have kept the younger man rather than the 36-year-old Baker, general manager Brown said, “I don’t care if Gene Baker is 136 years old. We are making our plans entirely on a one-year basis.” Although Gray had looked good in spring training, Brown said, the club could not base all of its opinions on a short trial. A sportswriter accused Brown of favoritism and wrote that it proved that spring training was a waste of time and money. Actually neither Gray nor Baker played very well in 1961 or thereafter. Gray was the regular third baseman for Columbus in 1961 and accepted a utility role in 1962 before retiring from Organized Baseball without ever making it back to the majors. Baker sat on the Pirates’ bench almost all spring, getting into three games at third base and occasionally pinch-hitting. He played his last major-league game on June 10, 1961. On June 20 he was released as a player to make room for outfielder Walt Moryn, purchased from the St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates kept their promise that there would always be room in the organization for Baker. On the same day he was released, he was named player-manager of the Batavia Pirates of the Class D New York-Pennsylvania League. He took over a club that was floundering and led it to a third-place finish. He was the first black manager in Organized Baseball in the United States. (One source stated that Nate Moreland had managed Calexico in the Arizona-Mexico League a few years earlier, but this has not been confirmed.) Baker found Class D pitching to his liking, hitting .387 in 55 games, by far the highest average in his career. Ebony magazine, in an article about Baker’s experience in Batavia, wrote, “Since occupying his new post, Baker has learned that having to be a coach, ball player, bookkeeper, field manager, and big brother to 18 men is not a bed of roses.”

In 1962 Baker was promoted to the Columbus Jets of the Triple-A International League as a player-coach, and became the first black coach in Organized Baseball. The promotion put him once again in competition with Dick Gray for playing time at third base. Neither won the position, which was taken by Bob Bailey, the Pirates’ $175,000 bonus baby. Baker found Triple-A pitching difficult to hit and wound up with a woeful .115 batting average in 22 games.

In 1963 Baker was again back in the big leagues as a coach for Pittsburgh—the second African-American to coach in the majors behind Buck O’Neil. Sportswriter Red Smith wrote that “Baker snores like a locomotive coming over Crazy Woman Ridge.” Baker was assigned Roberto Clemente as his roommate, much to the outfielder’s chagrin. “With this coach I could not sleep at all. I keep asking them to let me sleep alone, but they say no, can’t do it. All I could do is warm up and play, warm up and play, always sleepy, no pep. One game in Milwaukee they brushed me back at the plate. To brush back a player … you can wake him up. They brushed me back and I felt good, loose. I hit .320 for the year. And now I sleep alone.”

In a game at Los Angeles on September 21, 1963, Baker made baseball history. A rhubarb ensued when a Pirates batter was retired on a close play. Pittsburgh manager Danny Murtaugh and coach Frank Oceak were ejected by an umpire after their long and loud protests of the call. Baker assumed command and became the first African-American to manage in the major leagues. Of course, he acted only briefly as manager, so his accomplishment is not listed in most record books. Another managerial stint soon came his way when he was appointed manager of the Aguilas Cibaenas club, which represented Santiago in the Dominican Republic Winter League. Several Pirates and Columbus Jets players were on the Santiago team. Meanwhile, back in Pittsburgh, Murtaugh decided to reduce his coaching staff from six to four. Baker was dropped as a coach, and it was announced that he would manage Batavia again in 1964. After one more season in upstate New York, he became a scout for the Pirates and stayed in that role for many years. For 23 years he was the Pirates’ chief scout in the Midwest.

In 1974 Baker gave a long interview to Loren Tate of the Mount Vernon (Illinois) Register-News. “Arms and legs … that’s what I’m looking for,” the scout said. “I see as many as six teams in a day when I’m in an area where night ball is played. I watch perhaps 75 percent high schools and 25 percent colleges. Sure, I see a lot of guys who can never make it, but you have to see them all to find the great one. Guys in my business don’t worry about positions. We can’t look down the road and visualize what the big club will need three years from now. … .For the most part I’m just looking for the best players, regardless of position.” Watching a game between the University of Illinois and the University of Minnesota, Baker analyzed for the scribe the strengths and weaknesses of various players he was scouting.

Throughout his life Baker maintained his home in Davenport. His son, also named Gene, was an outstanding sprinter for Davenport Central High School from 1964 through 1966, He was one of the state’s top performers in the 100-yard dash, the quarter-mile, and the 220-yard dash. He anchored the school’s 440- and 880-yard relay teams, which were among the best in the nation. Not confining his achievements to one sport, he made the all-state football fourth team as a running back.

Eugene Walter Baker died of a heart attack on December 1, 1999, at the age of 74. He had been hospitalized at Genesis East Medical Center in Davenport for three days. He was survived by his mother, Mildred, and his wife, Janice, both of Davenport, his son, a daughter, a stepdaughter, and 12 grandchildren. He was buried in the Rock Island National Cemetery, just across the Mississippi River from his beloved hometown.

 

This biography is included in the book "Sweet '60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates" (SABR, 2013), edited by Clifton Blue Parker and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.

 

Sources

The Baseball Encyclopedia, Ninth edition. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

Clark, Dick, and Larry Lester. The Negro Leagues Book. Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1994.

New York Times

Palmer, Pete, and Gary Gillette. The Baseball Encyclopedia. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004.

Spatz, Lyle (editor). The SABR Baseball List & Record Book. New York: Scribner, 2007.

www.baseball-reference.com

www.newspaperarchive.com

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