As a kid growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s, I loved baseball. But most blacks then didn’t love the Chicago Cubs.
There were two reasons for that. The Cubs played at Wrigley Field on Chicago’s North Side and blacks almost literally took their lives in their hand walking or driving though the lily white, rabidly hostile neighborhoods around the ball park.
The other was that most blacks then lived on Chicago’s South Side. They adored the Chicago White Sox who played at Comiskey Park on the South Side.
Many remembered that five years before Jackie Robinson crashed through the color bar in baseball in 1947 with the Dodgers, the Chicago White Sox gave him a tryout in 1942. When the Sox were away, team owners rented the stadium out to Negro League teams and the biggest game for the Negro Leagues was the East-West Classic all-star game held each summer at Comiskey.
My father and other blacks regularly jammed the park to watch some of the era’s top baseball talent. Nearly all of whom in the early to mid-1950s still had almost no chance to crack the color bar that had morphed from the rigid barrier before Robinson broke it in 1947 to a gentleman’s arrangement among the owners to clamp a tight quota on the number of blacks that each team could have on their roster at any one time.
Despite my disdain for the Cubs, the name that I and every black baseball fan in Chicago knew was Ernie Banks. I closely followed Banks exploits.
I’d listen to Cubs games on the radio. When the announcer said “And now Banks is stepping to the plate,” I got a thrill of pride and anticipation that with that easy almost nonchalant trademark batting style of his with the right elbow cocked high, he would smack one out of the park. When he did, I screamed with delight.
The avalanche of accolades, tributes to, and remembrances of Banks, on his passing made the obligatory gush that he was a great player and a model of decorum and civility. The undertone to this is that Banks, unlike Robinson, was a great guy because he never uttered a peep about racial bias within and without baseball. This supposedly enhanced his status as a paragon of greatness. This deliberately distorts and ignores what Banks said and had to face when he broke in with the Cubs in 1953.
Banks lived on Chicago’s South Side not far from where I lived. He often commuted to Cubs home games on the El Train. He had no choice.
Though he was the biggest name and biggest draw the Cubs had, he could not buy a home or rent an apartment in the neighborhood surrounding Wrigley Field. I remember my father and other blacks talking about how Banks privately would complain that few blacks ever came to Wrigley Field for Cubs games. Years after he hung up his glove in 1971, he opened up and expressed his disappointment at the invisible racial barrier for Cubs games. “I lived with a lot of schoolteachers and bankers, and they never came to Wrigley,” he said.
Banks tried to do something about that. He cajoled John Johnson, the publisher of Ebony and Jet, to buy Cubs season tickets one year. A decade after his debut with the Cubs, Johnson became reportedly the Cubs’ first African-American season-ticket holder. It was all for naught.
Johnson didn’t use them and Banks told why. “He called me and said, ‘Ernie, I gotta cancel my tickets. I can’t get nobody to go with me,’” Banks said.
Banks did not turn a blind eye to the Cubs unstated quota system for black players in the 1950s. He acknowledged that the Cubs would quickly trade away young black players. He flatly attributed the reluctance of blacks to come to Cubs games to the lack of black players on the team.
Even though we didn’t go to Cubs games, Banks still deeply appreciated the support he got from the blacks on Chicago’s South Side especially in the neighborhood where he and I lived. He said “Very few blacks came to Wrigley Field at that time and, in my own community, people were really proud of me. They assisted me, made sure I got to bed on time, congratulated me. … It wasn’t like I was a star or a hero. It was like I was taken in, like a family. They would come and watch my kids, wash my car, invite me to dinner.”
I was not a fan of the Cubs. I was a fan of Banks. I cherished him for his phenomenal baseball skills, grace, warmth and dignity. He was a sports role model for me and other young blacks in Chicago at a time when we desperately needed them in the big leagues. He was a man who never forgot that his achievements on and off the field meant so much to us. That’s the other Mr. Cub I’ll always remember.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author political analyst and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson.