You might know that 32 years ago today, Frank Robinson was hired by the Cleveland Indians as their new manager. He became the first black manager in baseball history.
Well, sort of.
In 1973 — Tuesday, May 8 if you want to be precise about it — Ernie Banks actually became the first black man to manage in a Major League Baseball game. It was in San Diego. The Cubs were playing the Padres. Chicago trailed 2-0 going into the eighth but then Rick Monday hit a two-run homer to tie it up. The game went into extra innings.
In the 11th inning Cubs manager Whitey Lockman was tossed out of the game. And Banks, who was coaching for the Cubs replaced him as interim manager.
It wasn’t just that — Banks was an active manager in his two innings. In the 12th, Cubs catcher Ken Rudolph led off with a double. Banks then had Don Kessinger bunt him to third. He then pinch hit Joe Pepitone (who had not started because of an upset stomach — uh, yeah). Pepitone promptly doubled in the go-ahead run. In the ninth, Banks put Bill Bonham into the game, and he retired the Padres 1-2-3, and the Cubs won.
Banks’ big moment was hardly reported at all. I’m sure there’s a story out there that mentioned the fact that Banks was the first black man to manage even an inning of a Major League game, but I can’t find one. I do find a couple of stories stories that mention how much Banks enjoyed his brief managerial experience. “It’s a combination of a lot of feelings,” he said. “Feeling great that I was there. Feeling good about the win. Feeling good for the players.”
But the real find is an interview with the Long Beach Press Telegram sports editor one day before Banks quietly made a small bit of history. Dixon pointedly asked Banks if he wanted to become baseball’s first black manager.
“I defintiely want to be a major league manager,” Banks said. “It’s not necessarily that I want to be the FIRST black manager, though. … I don’t think being black or white makes a difference, either. It’s the rapport a manager has with his players that counts today. … I’ve learned that the complete athlete respects his boss no matter what the boss’ color.
“My main mistake might be that I’d be too easy-going. But a few losses probably would change that attitude.”
Wonderful stuff. But my favorite Banks quote, for so many reasons, is this one:
“I don’t think a bad black manager would be any worse than a bad white manager.”