Davenport is a small town in Iowa that’s only a mere 68 square miles. Known for not much more than its location along the Mississippi river and former WWE Champion Seth Rollins, it has a population of 102,612. That is the third largest in the state of Iowa, a state beloved by baseball fans around the globe because it’s the home of Ray Kinsella, Kevin Costner’s character in the movie Field of Dreams. But Iowa’s baseball roots run deeper historically, giving us baseball players such as Hall of Famers Cap Anson and Bob Feller. But from Davenport came a middle infielder named Gene Baker in a time where our Nation’s past time was just beginning to succumb to the idea of inclusion and integration as Branch Rickey brought in players such Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe. In 1953, the Chicago Cubs joined the party when Ernie Banks became their first player of color and went onto play in 14 All-Star games, winning 2 MVP awards. Banks, however, was not supposed to be in that spot. That spot originally belonged to Davenport’s Gene Baker.
Baker was a shortstop by trade that ended up making the Major Leagues as a second baseman, but after his military service, Baker got his start playing with Ernie Banks as teammates on the Kansas City Monarchs on the Negro Leagues. Baker was the first African American signed to the Chicago Cubs. In 1953, the Cubs were looking to make an indelible mark helping change the game’s perception, and its starting shortstop (the role Banks would assume) was to be Gene Baker. Just a year prior, Baker was an Angels farmhand. His manager at the time was former Chicago Cub Stan Hack, and Hack was adamant that Gene Baker would be a difference maker for any big league organization in the near future. Hack proclaimed that he was ready and decided to send him to the North Side for Spring Training, telling the Cubs that if he balled out, they can keep his contract because the Angels didn’t have the space. The Cubs then signed Ernie Banks afterward midway through the season, right before Baker was scheduled to be called to the Major Leagues. The signing of Banks was a reluctant one that was mainly done so that Baker would have a roommate on the road. Fate decided, however, that Gene Baker would be injured and miss a few weeks the day they were called to Wrigleyville. Ernie Banks made his debut at shortstop and became “Mr. Cub” and their shortstop of the future. Baker made his debut with the Cubs just a few weeks later. He entered 1954 as their starting 2nd Baseman, and they were the first African American double play combination in MLB history. Baker had a productive ’54 season as he hit .275 with 13 homeruns. He made the NL All-Star in 1955 when he had a .715 OPS, hitting .268 with 11 homeruns. He was known for his glove work, so much so that baseball lifer Bobby Bragan said he was the best shortstop he’d ever seen, including Pee Wee Reese. He was traded to the Pirates midway through the 1957 season, and was on the 1960 World Series team as the backup to Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski.
Ernie Banks was quoted after Baker’s death in 1999 saying that “Gene was the brightest person I’ve been around.” Ernie Banks credited his personality to Baker.
As for Baker following the end of his playing career, he became the second African American coach in the Major Leagues, just half a season after Buck O’Neil became the first. In 1963, on September 21st, Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh was ejected. Baker took over as the manager for the rest of the game, and was the first black man to manage in the Major Leagues, even before Frank Robinson was hired to manage the Cleveland Indians. Baker finished his career as a scout for the Pirates. While Baker certainly wasn’t as successful as Banks, his impact on the Cubs, Pirates and baseball is still felt in 2020.
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