For 18 years, Ernie Banks amazed Wrigley Field fans (and those all around baseball) with his long and recurrent home runs (512 of them to be exact), his steady fielding and his ever-present smile -- not to mention his 14 All-Star selections, Hall of Fame enshrinement, and being dubbed “Mr. Cub.” But even though his on-field exploits are forever a part of the hearts and minds of Cubs fans, there is one milestone that isn’t brought to light often.
“I was not nervous about it. I wasn’t anticipating it … sometimes in my life, things just happen and I just respond to them,” said Banks as he recalled an inning that made African-American history.
On May 8, 1973, the Cubs were battling in a heated match up against the San Diego Padres. By the 11th inning, manager Whitey Lockman was ejected and Banks stepped in as acting manager going into the 12th. After two significant judgment calls made by Banks, the Cubs pulled out a 3-2 win.
“I picked Joe Pepitone to face a left-handed pitcher … he’s a left-handed hitter, and he got the hit to win the game,” he said. “Then I brought in Bill Bonham, a right-handed pitcher who didn’t do very well during the season and most of the pitching coaches didn’t like him and I did. He came in and saved the game.
“I just looked at the players, I knew the players, knew how they were, and knew what they could do and how they do it.”
After the win, Banks technically became the first African-American to manage a major league team, predating Frank Robinson’s managerial hire by the Indians in 1975 by almost two years. But the accomplishment went unnoticed, without a congratulations or mere sign of approval from any of his counterparts.
“I shook everybody’s hands in the clubhouse, after it was over they didn’t congratulate me, nobody congratulated me, and so I congratulated myself. ‘Thank you Ernie, you did a wonderful job,’” said Banks with a smile, apparently not taking it personally.
Twelve years after Robinson was hired, Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis declared on national television that minorities lacked the qualities necessary for a leadership role. His remark sparked a movement for greater diversity and inclusion which eventually brought leagues and camps to different parts of the world, including Mexico and the Dominican Republic. But according to Banks, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Bud Selig there needed to be change here in the United States.
“We just discussed it with [Selig], the past commissioner; we have been talking about this for a long time. Bowie Kuhn and Fay Vincent and all of them, it’s like, ‘hey, we got to start camps, like they have camps in the Dominican Republic. All the teams have camps.’ Banks said. Lou Johnson made a statement to the Dodgers, ‘Why don’t we put some camps in the US so we can develop black ballplayers.’” said Banks.
There have been numerous discussions among the friends about the fact that African-American involvement in baseball has declined. There once was a time when diamonds were filled with young African-Americans playing a game of baseball with friends or a father-son duo playing a light game of catch, but that time has passed with the diluted interest or even awareness of the game. Understanding the need for programs in the forgotten and abandoned cities of this country where young African-Americans turned towards violence because of the lack of positive influence, the push for change continued amongst this group of friends.
“Hank applied to be commissioner of baseball. They laughed at him for that and Willie Mays, he just played his own game and helped a lot of kids with the Giants and New York Mets, but we’re very concerned about the fact that the black population in baseball has really decreased,” Banks said.“It’s like you see an All-Star Game, a World Series, you don’t see any black players at all, and we’re concerned about it.”
In 1989, the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) Program was founded in an effort to increase participation and interest in baseball and softball to the underserved youth both domestically and internationally with just under half of the youth participants being African-American.
With Banks realizing his philanthropic role, he wants to relay the message that even if there isn’t a physical partaking in the game, there are other options of involvement.
“It’s not just playing. They can be a manager and they can be a coach,”Banks said. “Baseball has a good pension. You can be a scout and there are a lot of areas where baseball can fit in a situation with black ballplayers.”
As time presses on, Banks is hopeful a grander change will come.
Tune in to SportsNet Central tonight at 10:30 as the conclusion of Comcast SportNet’s Black History Month features presented by The Marines ends with the legacy of “Mr. Cub” - Ernie Banks. Luke Stuckmeyer will have the report.