Ernie Banks on His 40th Anniversary of Becoming MLB's First Black Manager
"As athletes get older, their accomplishments become greater and greater as the years pass on.”
The words of Dereck Whittenburg from ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “Survive and Advance,” which chronicles Jimmy Valvano’s 1983 Wolfpack, ring true for all sports. Some moments become etched infinitely into the highlight reels of history, to be played over and over for generations to come.
Other moments become forgotten stories, remembered only by some lucky few—perhaps an elder who shared their memories, or an attic discovery of a dusty, old newspaper clipping. Generations pass on, and history becomes a mystery.
One specific moment happened 40 years ago on May 8, 1973. It was a cool night in San Diego as the Chicago Cubs took on the San Diego Padres. A mere 4,554 fans were in attendance for this game, and presumably even fewer as the innings turned to double digits with no winner decided.
Late in the game, the Cubs found themselves in a 2-2 knot with the Padres. Cubs manager Whitey Lockman was ejected in the 11th inning. Little did he know, his ejection would pave the way for history to be made.
Upon Lockman’s ejection, he handed the lineup to Ernie Banks. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Banks was just about to become the first African-American man to manage a Major League Baseball game.
It wasn’t the first time the Cubs broke a racial barrier. On May 29, 1962, the Chicago Cubs' Buck O’Neil became the first black coach in Major League Baseball.
Incredibly enough, Banks’ milestone went unnoticed. There were no interviews, no headlines, no fanfare or recognition for the man who spent his 19-year playing career as a Cub. Even Banks himself wasn’t aware of the history that he was about to make.
“Nobody said anything to me. Not a writer, nobody called me, none of that. I never talked about it. My kids never mentioned it to me,” he said.
Banks’ most important decision was his move to pinch-hit Joe Pepitone in the top of the 12th inning.
“I let him hit against a left-handed pitcher and he won the game,” Banks recalled.
However, it wasn’t Pepitone’s talent that got him the nod. It was his mentality.
“He was a tough guy," Banks said. "There are players that go through toughness that come into the major leagues that can stand pressure, like Rickey Henderson. They just had some rough lives, and when they’re playing baseball, they know how to do it. They love to be in the tough spot. They love to be at bat, they love to be in the mound.
"I knew that he was a tough guy. That’s what I learned managing that short time. There are players on a team, not all of them, but they love tough moments.”
Just like Mr. Cub himself.
The Cubs went on to win 3-2 in 12 innings. Bill Bonham recorded the save and entered the game thanks to Banks.
Although Frank Robinson is credited with being the first black manager in MLB when he debuted at the position in 1975 with the Indians, this breakthrough by Banks shouldn't be overlooked. He will certainly never forget it, and he would love for people to know that he had the honor of managing the Chicago Cubs—even if just for a couple innings.
“It was a really inspiring opportunity for me to manage the Cubs. It was a real joy in my own life, and I’m happy I did it. I’m going to celebrate even if the Cubs don’t on May 8,” Banks said.
Regardless of whether the Cubs celebrate, let’s all take a moment on May 8 to honor Mr. Cub and his countless contributions to the game, the Cubs and our lives.
All quotes and information were obtained firsthand through a personal phone interview with Ernie Banks.
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