Ernie Banks’s Illness and the Civil Rights Movement

The summer of 1963 provided a number of defining moments of the Civil Rights movement, beginning in May with the Birmingham Campaign and climaxing with the March on Washington. The dehumanization and enslavement of black people was once again an issue that refused to be ignored, and it again threatened every area of white ownership, including baseball. To combat this, Major League Baseball cemented itself as the pioneer of civil rights, while trampling any actual diversification movements. Because of this, many fans believed black players were insulated from the Civil Rights movement, but the reaction to Ernie Banks’ disappointing season suggests quite the opposite.

While America bombed and gassed people throughout the world and across country in the name of freedom and civility, baseball meandered onward, becoming the model for racial integration. In July of 1963, Commissioner Ford Frick testified in the US Senate that there had been “no incidents based on race” in baseball post-integration.1 During the RNC the following year, Branch Rickey, the man who had hired Jackie Robinson, repeated Frick’s claims, adding that baseball precipitated desegregation in restaurants, on trains, and in hotels across the country.2 For this, MLB became the leading expert on the subject of public desegregation.

But this progressivism was merely an illusion predicated on harnessing black labor and gaining political and economic capital. In reality, most black players were still paid far below their white counterparts, and they were fearful of joining or echoing the Civil Rights movement and therefore losing their jobs. By this point, roughly half of MLB superstars were black, and while they each had significant fan followings, they were the exception, not the rule, and things would have been much different had they not been such money-makers for the owners. However, this labeling of MLB as progressive worked so well that by the beginning of 1964, there were sports media personalities decrying black baseball players for remaining silent, some going so far as to say that black players had “voluntarily acquiesced to racial segregation and discrimination in certain instances.”3 Like most majorities, white baseball had shifted the burden of diversity to the black minority, diverting attention from the inherent racism within the country’s economic and political structures.

As the Civil Rights movement heated up in the summer of 1963, Ernie Banks and the Cubs did the opposite. The star now-first baseman had struggled all season, and by mid-June, the team began failing to compensate for this loss of production, slipping from second to fourth in the league. Writers who had previously been supportive of Banks began turning on him, labelling his problems psychological and insinuating he had been distracted since his mayoral election loss that winter.4 Though no writer spoke overly harshly about fan-favorite Banks, a number implied that he was done with the Cubs and they should get rid of him before he damaged the team further.

Banks was hardly the only player scuffling—he had the fourth-highest OPS on the team—but he was the only one blamed for the team’s plight. It would be easy, and not entirely inaccurate, to chock this up the Banks being the superstar on a team full of relative nobodies, but at a time when black people were vying for equal rights and threatening white power, it was essential for white people to undercut this movement at every opportunity. Diversity in baseball slowed to a halt. Unlike when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and led the way for dozens of black players, Buck O’Neil becoming the first black coach ushered in no such movement. It would be years before MLB allowed a second black coach. Baseball had been primarily a white sport, and the owners wanted it to remain that way.

Racism was pervasive throughout major league ballparks, and many black players received an increase in threats and slurs. Baseball owners, afraid of losing revenue to professional football, did little to combat or dissuade this trend. There also existed the fear of losing special status as a sport rather than a business, and therefore losing justification for the reserve clause, if the owners became overtly political.5 Any action, it was believed, would lessen the owners’ bargaining power in new CBA talks in 1964. As usual, those in position to most effectively combat racism were those it most greatly benefitted, and so baseball, despite its status, remained a racist sport.

Toward the end of the 1963 season, Banks fell ill, missing the final 20 games of the season. Though Banks insisted he felt fine, he was finally hospitalized on August 5th. One immediate fan and media reaction was to assume this was a cover-up by the Cubs for Banks’ poor performance as they did not want to end his career on such a sour note.6 shortly after the season’s conclusion, doctors finally identified the illness as sub-clinical mumps in addition to a previously-diagnosed blood infection. Many newspapers expressed relief at this finding, predicting Banks would have a bounce-back season and leads the Cubs to the pennant victory he had promised that season.7

When Banks was declared 100% healthy at the beginning of January, his doctor’s note was read to the team’s stockholders.8 Banks was once again a commodity for the Cubs, who needed stockholder support to counteract the slight dip in attendance over the previous two seasons. A year removed from his foray into politics, Banks was no longer viewed as either a threat or a money hole. That season, Banks improved offensively and the Cubs honored his contribution to the franchise. The owners could again utilize him to increase revenue without worrying about his connection to the Civil Rights movement.

Ernie Banks’s 1963 season is not an example of the advancement in medical technology since that time or the beginning of a tragic downfall, but rather an indication of the deep ties between racism and capitalism in baseball and American society as a whole. Because baseball gained most of its money from those either unaffected by or opposed to the Civil Rights movement, it felt no obligation to shield its players from racism or support black players who wanted to join the movement. Instead, money and racism caused black players like Banks, who were not seen as useful to the team, to be attacked and charged with the decline of a team or of the sport in general.

1 Tucson Daily Citizen, July 17, 1963.
2 Independent Press-Telegram, July 19, 1964.
3 Pittsburgh Courier, March 14, 1964.
4 Corpus-Christi Caller-Times, June 6, 1963.
5 Manitowoc Herald-Times, September 16, 1963.
6 Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1963.
7 Chicago Tribune, October 1, 1963.
8 Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1964.

Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports

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1 comment on “Ernie Banks’s Illness and the Civil Rights Movement”


Thanks very much for the article. Even though I’m in STEM, I greatly appreciate the recent group of BP writers coming from the Humanities and Social Sciences point of view. Baseball is a singular part of our society.

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