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Thom Loverro: Ernie Banks' little-known first chance at history

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Sports,MLB,Thom Loverro

With all the attention on the film "42," the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, more focus has been placed on the decline of black baseball players in today's game and of interest in the history of black baseball.

For instance, if you were moved to conduct a little research, you might have found that Robinson was not the first black player in baseball. That historic honor is believed to go to John "Bud" Fowler, who in 1878 played with a professional team in New Castle, Pa.

It wasn't a one-time appearance, either. Fowler played for various white teams on and off until 1899 -- right up until the time that the color line was being enforced.

Another important year in the social history of baseball -- and America -- came in 1975, when former Baltimore Orioles great Frank Robinson was hired as the first black manager by the Cleveland Indians. Robinson would go on to manage the San Francisco Giants, the Orioles, the Montreal Expos and of course the Washington Nationals.

But while he was the first black manager hired in major league baseball, he wasn't the first black manager in the game. That moment happened 40 years ago Wednesday, when Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, was thrust into duty in the Cubs dugout.

Ernie Banks is baseball royalty. A two-time National League Most Valuable Player, Banks played shortstop and then first base for the Cubs -- who come to Washington on Friday to begin a three-game series with the Nationals -- from 1953 to 1971, making 14 All-Star teams, blasting 512 home runs and driving in 1,636 runs. He never played on a World Series team, but he made history 40 years ago Wednesday in a game against the San Diego Padres.

The Cubs and Padres were locked in a 2-2 tie in the 11th inning when Cubs manager Whitey Lockman was ejected. He handed the lineup to Banks, a coach on his staff, and a black manager was officially calling the shots in a regular season major league baseball game for the first time.

Banks' record as a manager? 1-0.

"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," Banks told Comcast Sportsnet Chicago, recalling the historic game. "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. I did, and he came in and saved the game."

There was no particular notice of the significance of the moment.

"I shook everybody's hands in the clubhouse," Banks said. "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.' "

Two years later, Frank Robinson got the full time Indians job. But Banks had his moment, and maybe deserved more.

Examiner

columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.

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