Pittsburgh Pirates' Gene Baker quietly crossed baseball's color lines
February 7, 2016 12:00 AM
Gene Baker made three pinch-hit appearances in the '60 World Series. In 1961, he became the first black man to manage an affiliated team when the Pirates hired him to pilot their Batavia, N.Y., farm club.
This team photo of the Pittsburgh Pirates was taken early in the 1960 season. Row 1, from left,: Gene Baker, Roberto Clemente, batboy Bob Recker, Joe Christopher, Tom Cheney, Roy Face, Rocky Nelson, Bill Mazeroski, Bob Oldis. Row 2: Manager Danny Murtaugh, coach Frank Oceak, coach Sam Narron, coach Bill Burwell, coach Lenny Levy, Smoky Burgess, Dick Schofield, Gino Cimoli, Bob Skinner, Hal Smith, Bill Virdon, Don Hoak. Row 3: Traveling secretary Bob Rice, Harvey Haddix, Bob Friend, coach Mickey Vernon, Dick Groat, Joe Gibbon, Dick Stuart, Earl Francis, George Witt, Vernon Law, Fred Green, Wilmer Mizell, coach George Sisler, trainer Danny Whealan.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It seemed insignificant at the time, and the record books have all but forgotten it. But for the final inning and a half of an otherwise meaningless September baseball game, Gene Baker made history.
Near the end of the 1963 season, the 8th-place Pirates traveled to play a three-game series in Los Angeles against the pennant-bound Dodgers. In the top of the eighth inning of the Sept. 21 game, the Pirates took a 3-2 lead, chasing Dodgers starter Sandy Koufax to the clubhouse.
The Pirates ended up stranding three runners on a close play at first base. Manager Danny Murtaugh and coach Frank Oceak argued the call and were ejected from the game. Mr. Murtaugh turned to Mr. Baker and asked him to take over.
“Gene, he questioned Murtaugh. He said, ‘Skip, are you sure?’ ” recalled former Pirates pitcher Vern Law. “ ‘Yeah, you’re the man.’ ”
For the rest of the game, Mr. Baker served as the team’s manager, marking the first time a black man had managed a major league club. It was one of the many color lines he quietly crossed on behalf of baseball’s integration efforts.
“This was really an obscure historic achievement for Baker and the Pittsburgh Pirates that may not have had a resounding impact on the game, but it’s a part of the story of the integration of baseball,” said Samuel Black, director of African American Programs at the Heinz History Center.
PG graphic: Breaking color barrier (Click image for larger version)
Baseball fans love history, but this piece of trivia has eluded most. Pittsburgh newspapers failed to mention Mr. Baker’s unplanned achievement in coverage of the game. The Post-Gazette merely noted that Mr. Murtaugh’s ejection was his first of the season.
As curators at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum pointed out, one California newspaper made the case for Mr. Baker’s feat.
The Independent Press-Telegram of Long Beach buried the news. “Manager Danny Murtaugh and coach Frank Oceak were ejected by umpire Doug Harvey for their long and loud protests of the close call. Coach Gene Baker assumed command and became the first Negro to manage in the major leagues,” it noted, near the bottom of the article. “The event was witnessed by a full house of 55,100, including 5,811 ladies. The paid attendance was 48,038.”
The Pirates lost, 5-3, on a 9th-inning Dodger home run off Tommie Sisk, according to a play-by-play account on the website Retrosheet. It would have been a forgettable game except for Mr. Baker’s historic — and historically neglected — role in it.
“I think he deserves more attention than he has received,” said Charles F. Faber, a baseball historian and retired professor who has written about Mr. Baker. “What I’m thinking is that very early in his career, a black player in Organized Baseball was still kind of rare, so newspapers were likely to mention the race. But by the time he got to Pittsburgh, the major leagues had lots of black players, and race was no longer as newsworthy as it had been earlier.”
Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers had carefully curated the moment Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier 16 years earlier. But Mr. Baker’s first managerial stint came by happenstance, a promotion that lasted less than two innings due to a hot-headed argument.
Mr. Murtaugh wasn’t trying to make history, Mr. Law said. He just wanted to win a baseball game.
“I didn’t think much about it being a historical moment,” he said.
Born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1925, Eugene Walter Baker didn’t start playing organized baseball until joining the Navy during World War II. His career took him from a semi-professional team in Davenport to the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues to the farm system of the Chicago Cubs.
At 28, he became the first black player to appear on the Cubs’ official roster. A week later, the Cubs signed Ernie Banks, and Mr. Baker, a shortstop, moved to second base. They became the first black double-play combination in major league history.
Mr. Baker joined the Pirates in 1957 as part of a multi-player trade, moving to third base in an infield that featured Bill Mazeroski and Dick Groat. He was a part of the Pirates’ 1960 World Series team, though a knee injury he sustained in 1958 had curbed his playing time.
In 1961, the Pirates hired him to manage their farm club, the Batavia (N.Y.) Pirates, making him the first black manager of an affiliated minor league team, Richard Puerzer, a University of Pittsburgh graduate, wrote in an article for the academic journal “Black Ball.”
The Pirates promoted Mr. Baker to join the major league coaching staff in 1963. He later moved back to Iowa and served for more than two decades as the Pirates’ chief scout in the Midwest.
“He was a good, solid baseball man. He knew what he was doing. Organizations latch onto people like that,” said former pitcher Bob Friend, who started the game in 1963. “You don’t have a guy stick around in an organization — unless he is liked or he is producing — as long as Gene Baker spent with the Pirates.”
Mr. Baker died in 1999 of a heart attack.
“He had a good career, a great career, better than a lot of people I knew. He was there for you every day,” Mr. Law said. “He lived his life the way most players should live their lives.”
But his accomplishments go unrecognized. Mr. Banks often is erroneously remembered for becoming the first black coach to manage a major league baseball game, but that instance came a decade after Mr. Baker’s. In 1975, Frank Robinson was the first black manager hired in the major leagues.
“He was very proud of some of the accomplishments that he made with the Pittsburgh Pirates,” said Mr. Baker’s widow, Jackie Baker, whom he married in 1989. “He was a black man in a white man’s sport, and he did very well in that sport.”
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.
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