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updated: 1/17/2017 5:42 AM

Constable: After slow start in race relations, Cubs are catching up

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  • Video: Cubs at the White House

  • There was a time when the concept of a black president was even more unbelievable than the idea of the Cubs winning the World Series. On Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President Barack Obama holds up a personalized Chicago Cubs baseball jersey during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House to honor the 2016 World Series Champion baseball team.

    There was a time when the concept of a black president was even more unbelievable than the idea of the Cubs winning the World Series. On Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President Barack Obama holds up a personalized Chicago Cubs baseball jersey during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House to honor the 2016 World Series Champion baseball team.
    Associated Press

  • It took too long for the Chicago Cubs to add African-American players to the roster, but, starting with Ernie Banks in 1953, black players have contributed mightily to the Cubs. As our nation's first black president, Barack Obama, honored the World Series Champion Cubs on Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, former Cubs greats, from left, Jose Cardenal, Ferguson Jenkins, Billy Williams and Ryne Sandberg watched.

    It took too long for the Chicago Cubs to add African-American players to the roster, but, starting with Ernie Banks in 1953, black players have contributed mightily to the Cubs. As our nation's first black president, Barack Obama, honored the World Series Champion Cubs on Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, former Cubs greats, from left, Jose Cardenal, Ferguson Jenkins, Billy Williams and Ryne Sandberg watched.
    Associated Press

 
 

On the day our nation honored Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama joked with World Series champion Cubs, including African-Americans Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, Addison Russell and Carl Edwards Jr., during a jubilant celebration in the White House.

"They said this day would never come," Obama told the Cubs during Monday's celebration at the White House. A White Sox fan, Obama probably was needling the Cubs about the team's record-setting championship drought since the Cubs won the World Series in 1908.

But that line summed up far more than baseball.

None of those things were possible the last time the Cubs went to a World Series in 1945. Back then, there were no black baseball players in the Major Leagues. There was no national holiday honoring a black civil rights legend. And the idea of black president in the White House was unthinkable in a nation where a black man still wasn't permitted to drink from a "whites only" water fountain in some states.

Then Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first black Major Leaguer in 1947. President Ronald Reagan signed a law in 1983 making King's birthday a federal holiday. Obama won the presidential election in 2008 and 2012.

"There's a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here," Obama told the crowd that included Cubs players sporting a variety of skin tones from black to white.

The Cubs were slow to come around on the matter of race. Located on the "white side" of Chicago, the Cubs, for too long, fielded an all-white team in a Wrigley Field where black fans were about as rare as 10-game winning streaks. After Robinson broke MLB's race barrier and won the Rookie of the Year in 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, you had to be stupid or racist not to realize that limiting a baseball team to white players was a losing strategy in every way.

The White Sox were a little quicker to understand that. Popular standout Minnie Minoso, a Cuban star who became the Sox's first black player in 1951, already was an All-Star by the time the Cubs finally gave black players a chance. The Cubs signed Gene Baker, a top shortstop out of the Negro Leagues, in 1950. But the team kept Baker in the minor leagues even though Roy Smalley Jr., the white guy playing that position for the Major League team, led the league in strikeouts and errors.

Making sure that Baker had another black player to room with, the Cubs brought up Ernie Banks with Baker at the end of the 1953 season. An injury to Baker, already 28 years old, gave 22-year-old Banks the honor of being the Cubs' first black player. Banks, forever immortalized as "Mr. Cub," won two Most Valuable Player awards, was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame and became one of the most beloved personalities in Chicago and in sports. He transcended racial barriers.

The Cubs have had a wealth of outstanding black players. If you were to assemble an all-African-American team for the Cubs, Banks (unless Russell turns in a Hall-of-Fame career, too) is the starting shortstop. Batting champion Bill Madlock is at third base, with Baker at second and Derrek Lee at first. The outfield is anchored by Hall-of-Famers Billy Williams in left and Andre Dawson in right, with Fowler playing center. The starting pitcher is Fergie Jenkins, another Hall-of-Famer, with Lee Smith as the relief pitcher. They'd probably be managed by Dusty Baker. But that Cubs team would have a hole at catcher. Even though the Cubs have had a variety of good catchers from Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the team has never had a black catcher.

All of baseball is short on black catchers and pitchers these days. Fewer than 8 percent of players in the MLB identify as African-American, and none is a starting catcher. Only 3 percent of MLB pitchers identify as black, according to a study last year by USA Today.

Who knows? Maybe seeing the Cubs' black players and legends shaking hands with a black president on Martin Luther King Day might inspire future African-American catchers, pitchers, ballplayers and presidents.

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