Ernie Banks, Operation PUSH, and the Quest for a Black Manager

Long after most sensible people had retired for the day, and in front of a sparse crowd at San Diego Stadium, a called third strike immediately changed the course of baseball, until it didn’t. In the top of the 11th inning of a tedious game more suited for the doldrums of August than May, Billy Williams was called out on a third strike that manager Whitey Lockman furiously protested far past the point of ejection. With both Larry Jansen and Pete Rieser absent, the chain of command dictated the managerial position be filled by Ernie Banks. As the first Black manager in Major League Baseball, Banks rose to the challenge, swiftly leading his team to victory in the twelfth inning after pinch-hitting Joe Pepitone, who drove in the winning run, a move that placed the Cubs in a virtual tie for first in the division. No more than several thousand witnessed this benchmark, however, and so nobody bothered to make note of its ensuing manufactured insignificance.

In the summer of 1973, Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) turned two years old. The organization, founded by Reverend Jesse Jackson following his resignation from the Chicago chapter of the SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket, was geared toward improving the economic conditions of Black people in Chicago. The operation immediately supported impoverished Black children and Black businesses in the city, receiving mixed results due to budgetary restrictions. Inspired by his love of the sport and his friendship with Hank Aaron, Jackson soon targeted baseball as the organization’s first national push for equality. Representatives of the PUSH reached out to the White Sox and Cubs, as well as other teams, demanding more Black managers, coaches, and administrative assistants.

In the initial meetings, Jackson spoke frankly about the lack of opportunity for Black people in the white world of baseball, asserting that “the Black athlete…is a knee injury away from oblivion.” Jackson further discussed the press’s complicity in erasing Black people from executive positions, noting their willingness to portray Black athletes as having “attitude problems” rather than trying to voice “collective racial frustrations.” In essence, Jackson concluded, Black athletes are not “looking for breaks, we’re looking for justice.”1

From this initial meeting, Operation PUSH quickly assembled a team of Black Chicago athletes to push their clubs for more inclusiveness and monetary compensation at all levels. Heading the operation were Hank Aaron, Bears lineman George Seals, and All-Star Cubs players (and future Hall of Famers) Ferguson Jenkins and Billy Williams.2 This group seemingly achieved near-immediate success, as Ernie Banks in May became the first Black person to manage a major league game. But it soon became apparent that this “progress” was superficial at best and merely the product of circumstances beyond the team’s control.

And so progress stalled; Operation PUSH’s message fell on deaf ears. Jackson repeatedly criticized the Cubs for not promoting Banks to manager, to which owner Phil Wrigley asserted Banks did not possess the temperament to be an effective manager: the superstar player was far too nice. The Cubs thus chose Lockman over Banks, but the former’s assertiveness and anger did little to improve on-field performance, and so the Cubs were again in the market for a new manager in July of 1974.3 Coincidentally, in July and August of 1974, Jackson increased the call for Black managers, pressuring several organizations, particularly the Braves and the Cubs, each of which responded by picking a white manager. The arguments each club put forth rested on the notion that Black candidates were not as polished as white ones and needed far more seasoning in the minor leagues.

For the predominantly white fanbase of the Cubs, diversity, particularly in areas they could not see, was hardly an issue, and so the managerial controversy was anything but controversial. Banks very infrequently spoke about racism in baseball, choosing instead to allow his play to do the talking, and so despite fan attachment to Banks, Wrigley’s assessment of Banks as a manager made sense. He was simply too nice to be able to manage the strong personalities on the team, and the club must look for somebody more like Durocher.4

Not only did many Cubs fans remain oblivious to the plight of the Black player, they infested the ballpark with both casual and overt racism. For several years, as the team grew more competitive and drew in larger numbers of fans in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wrigley became a particularly rowdy place where it was common to see a number of Confederate flags flying in the bleachers, as a supposed tribute to the team’s southern players.5 The predominately white crowds also co-opted Black Panther chants, reinventing them to fit the Cubs.

The city’s sports media also downplayed the significance of racism. For a three game series at Wrigley in September of 1974, Cardinals outfielders Lou Brock and Bake McBride required security guards around the perimeter of the bleachers for precautionary measures after they received numerous letters containing death threats and racist slurs from a man who mailed them to Busch Stadium. Though the pair were not the first Black athletes to require police protection in Chicago, the city’s sports media largely brushed off the severity of the racial epithets hurled at them, citing a number of white baseball players and managers, like Leo Durocher, who had also received death threats at various points in their career and concluding that “most athletes who have achieved stardom have been threatened in some way.”6

Though anti-war and Civil Rights protests raged on in Chicago throughout the 1970s, they were met with much adversity. Gentrification and decentralization (due to the opening of the Sears Tower driving away small businesses that had previously occupied that territory) made Black political organization difficult, and increased homicide rates gave police the authority to crack down on Black gatherings.7 Despite these inhibitors, Operation PUSH extended its reach, shifting from baseball to academics, with a focus on education for inner-city children.

Largely removed from these events, the white population of Wrigley Field packed itself into the stadium each night, cheering on its increasingly mediocre team. From the bleachers, Confederate flags and repurposed Black power chants reached the ears and eyes of Bill Madlock and Ray Burris, who nonetheless put on their uniforms each day and played their hearts out. Absent from this picture was Ernie Banks, who was again making his way through the minors, this time as a coach. Perhaps of his own accord or perhaps due to external circumstances, Banks ended his career in baseball in 1976 having managed precisely two innings of one major league game that most of his fans had not witnessed. Were that game at Wrigley, perhaps more would have seen it, but it is unclear whether more would have understood its significance enough to change the course of professional baseball during these years.

Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports

1 Chicago Tribune, March 30, 1973.
2 Herb Nipson, Ebony, September 1973.
3 John Snyder, “365 Oddball Days: In Chicago Cubs History,” 156.
4 Chicago Tribune, January 8, 1972; The Pantagraph, June 1, 1974.
5 Stuart Shea, “Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines,” 298.
6 Chicago Tribune, September 30, 1974.
7 Chicago Tribune, July 8, 2012.

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