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Unfriendly confines: Did racial discrimination start the Cubs' slide?

P.K. Wrigley spurned black players at a pivotal time.



"It is frequently noted that Wrigley Field is lovelier than the baseball often played on the field," George Will writes in his new book, A Nice Little Place on the North Side. "It is a hypothesis of this book that the ballpark is part cause and part symptom of the Cubs' dysfunctional performance."

Will's book is one of several about the Cubs being published this year. That's because the team's cherished ballpark at Clark and Addison is turning 100. The place was named Weeghman Park when it hosted its first game, on April 23, 1914, and another team was playing in it as part of a league that soon folded. In 1916 the Cubs moved from West Side Grounds, at Taylor and Wood, to Weeghman. It became Cubs Park in 1920 and Wrigley Field in 1926.

The birthday offers a special opportunity for the club's owners, Tom Ricketts and his family, to participate in the national pastime (merchandising). "Celebrating 100 years in one ballpark is a once-in-a-lifetime event," a team press release says, "and Cubs fans who wish to remember the occasion will be able to purchase a variety of official keepsakes in addition to the game-related promotional items." There will be Throwback Sundays, with Cubs players in retro uniforms, and historic-bobblehead Fridays.

For authors such as Will, the renowned columnist and lifelong Cubs fan, the centennial is a chance to ponder the team's history—especially its history of losing. To his credit, Will doesn't blame a billy goat for the club's long struggles. A more genuine problem has been the park's attractiveness, he says: fans stream through the turnstiles to visit the ivy-trimmed icon whether the team wins or loses, and so Cubs owners have less incentive than other owners to provide a championship club.

Will notes that the Cubs' pre-Wrigley Field record was a splendid 1,219 wins and 754 losses. Since moving to the Friendly Confines, they've been 7,478-7,833. He rests his case.

But let's look a little closer at the record since the move to Wrigley. The park didn't ruin the Cubs the first 30 years the team was in it; from 1916 through 1946 the Cubs were 354 games over .500 (2,538-2,184). From 1947 through last year, however, the team has been 709 games under .500 (4,940-5,649).

The Cubs turned into duds not in 1916, when they moved to Clark and Addison, or in 1946, the season after they were supposedly cursed by a barkeep whose goat was ejected from a World Series game at Wrigley. In 1946 the Cubs finished 11 games over .500.

The team's plunge began the following year. The Cubs were 69-85 in 1947, and they didn't finish above .500 again until 1963.

Clearly 1947 was the pivotal season. What else happened in the majors that year?

Jackie Robinson.

Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, shown in 1952. - AP PHOTO/FILE
  • AP Photo/File
  • Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, shown in 1952.

The Cubs were old in the 1940s. They needed an infusion of talent. And baseball talent was readily available and on display regularly in Chicago. It just wasn't in the proper color.

Chicago was a mecca for black baseball in those years. The Chicago American Giants and other Negro League teams played Sunday doubleheaders in Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field when the Sox and Cubs were on the road. Owners of big-league teams were happy to rent their fields to the black teams for hefty sums.

The biggest game for the Negro Leagues was the East-West Classic, the all-star game held each summer at Comiskey. In the 1940s the game regularly drew more than 45,000; except for some sportswriters, nearly all those attending were black. In 1944 the East-West Classic drew 46,247 fans, while the white all-star game in Pittsburgh drew 29,589. The white sportswriters, who ignored the Negro Leagues the rest of the year, praised the quality of baseball they saw in the Classic.

"The Cubs were in desperate need of players" in the 1940s, Glenn Stout wrote in his 2007 book, The Cubs. "Had they acted boldly, they could have had the pick of the Negro Leagues.

A Citizens Committee for Negroes in the Big Leagues formed in the early 1940s, consisting of a couple of prominent black lawyers and aldermen, a columnist for the Chicago Defender—the city's black-owned newspaper—and a Catholic bishop. In December 1942, Philip K. Wrigley, the Cubs' owner, granted an audience to a representative of the committee in his luxurious Wrigley Building office. According to the Defender, the owner told the representative he'd like to see Negroes in the big leagues, "but I don't think the time is now." The time wasn't right because there wasn't yet "sufficient public demand." That meant demand from the white public, of course.

And the public had to be prepared for such a radical thing as a Negro big-leaguer, Wrigley told the representative. If it wasn't prepared, he warned, there could be fights, and maybe even a riot. He added that certain "men in high places" didn't want Negroes in the majors.

A year later, in December 1943, Wrigley met with two members of the committee again, and this time he reported progress: the Cubs would soon be hiring a scout whose sole job would be to size up Negro ballplayers. One of the committee members gave Wrigley a list of Negro League players the committee felt were ready to play in the big leagues—a list that included Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard. Integration would arrive too late for Gibson and Leonard, who today are considered among baseball's finest players ever: both were elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972, and in 1998 Sporting News ranked them 18th and 47th respectively in its list of baseball's 100 greatest players. Wrigley voiced his doubts about Gibson and Leonard. "You don't start at the top in any business," he said—although he himself had inherited his father's chewing gum company.

A Defender reporter asked Wrigley after the meeting if the hiring of the scout meant he was now ready to actually sign Negro players. Not quite, the owner said: "The middle of a war isn't the spot to make such a departure from custom. I told [the committee members] that we would not stick our necks out now."

The Cubs finished 30 games out of first in 1943 and again in 1944. But they bounced back in 1945 with a sparkling 98-56 record, winning the pennant by three games over Saint Louis before losing the World Series to Detroit. The team's 82-71 record in 1946 was good for third place.

While Wrigley wouldn't stick his neck out for integration, Branch Rickey was happy to. The Brooklyn Dodgers' president and general manager signed Jackie Robinson in August 1945. During Robinson's MVP minor-league season in Montreal in 1946, it became apparent that Rickey would force the issue in '47. Baseball officials and three owners, one of them Wrigley, met in 1946 to consider the "race question." The committee concluded that integration would be harmful to the sport.

But it was unable to stop Rickey, and on April 15, 1947, Robinson debuted against the Boston Braves in Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. No riot ensued. Nor was there a riot when Robinson played his first big-league game at Wrigley on May 18. He drew the largest single-game paid crowd in Cubs' history—46,572—including many black fans who made the trip from the south side.

Robinson paid off, and not only for Brooklyn. In 1947 the Dodgers set single-game attendance records in every NL city except Cincinnati. "Jackie's nimble, Jackie's quick, Jackie's making the turnstiles click," wrote Wendell Smith, sports editor of the black-owned Pittsburgh Courier.

Robinson was NL Rookie of the Year in 1947, and helped lead the Dodgers to the pennant while the Cubs sank to 69-85. In 1948 the rich got richer and the Cubs stayed white. The Dodgers brought up catcher Roy Campanella, who'd starred in the Negro Leagues before Rickey signed him. He went on to be an all-star for Brooklyn from 1949 through 1956, and Most Valuable Player three times. In 1949 another Negro League product, pitcher Don Newcombe, was Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers; seven years later he became the first pitcher to win the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards in the same year. During the 26 seasons before the Dodgers integrated, the team won a single pennant. In the ten seasons from 1947 through 1956, Robinson, Campanella, and Newcombe helped them win six.

A few other teams realized that sticking one's neck out for racial justice might be good business. Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck signed Larry Doby out of the Negro Leagues in July 1947. Doby became a seven-time all-star center-fielder. He and veteran Negro Leaguer Satchel Paige, whom Veeck signed in 1948, helped the Indians win the pennant and World Series that year. Paige's first visit to Comiskey, in August 1948, drew the park's largest crowd ever to that point, 51,000 paid. He shut out the Sox on five hits. Cleveland won a second pennant in 1954 with Doby and another black player, Al Smith. The New York Giants brought up Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson in 1949 and Willie Mays in 1951, and they helped the club win pennants in 1951 and 1954.

After Robinson's first year, "the bold and smart owners reached into the talent-rich Negro League and grabbed instant stars," Mike Royko, the legendary columnist and Cubs fan, wrote in the Tribune in 1993. By the time the Cubs got around to hiring black players, "they had established themselves as the most predictable klutzes in the National League," Royko went on. "Had Wrigley the brains and/or the courage—he definitely had the money—the modern tradition of the Cubs might have been entirely different."

In June 1948 the Defender reported an impending boycott of the Cubs and White Sox by Chicago baseball fans "disgusted with the showing of both teams" and fed up with their unwillingness to sign and play blacks. The story noted that the Sox were in the basement of the AL and the Cubs were next to last.

No boycott ensued, and the white Cubs and white White Sox continued to underwhelm. Will observes in his book that the 1948 Cubs, who finished last with a 64-90 record, may have been the worst team in the franchise's history. Considering the team's history the past 65 years, that's saying something. The team was so bad in '48 that P.K. Wrigley placed an ad in the Tribune in late August apologizing for the performance and acknowledging that the club's rebuilding attempt had flopped. The cover of the September 4 Saturday Evening Post featured Norman Rockwell's famous The Dugout, a portrait of hapless, humiliated Cubs on the bench, with sneering fans above them.

But did the Cubs start a new rebuilding effort in 1949, taking advantage of Negro League talent? No. That May the Defender published an editorial that seemed aimed at Philip Wrigley. "Some years ago when efforts were made to get Negroes in major league ball clubs, the stock reply was that the public had to be 'educated' before this could happen. Branch Rickey, who is the kind of American that keeps democracy alive, simply hired Jackie Robinson and told those who did not like it to lump it. Now this is the kind of 'education' that really educates." Robinson and Campanella had helped the Dodgers clobber the Cubs twice earlier that month, inspiring the Defender to add: "Incidentally, the Cubs got two powerful lessons last week out at Wrigley field and the two professors were Robinson and Campanella."

Minnie Minoso, who in 1951 became the first black White Sox player, signs autographs at the Chicago Free Fair in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in 1957. - SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
  • Minnie Minoso, who in 1951 became the first black White Sox player, signs autographs at the Chicago Free Fair in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in 1957.

The Sox wised up before the Cubs. "White Sox Are Seeking Colored Ball Players" announced a headline in the Defender in July 1950. The paper reported that a committee had gone to the office of team vice president Charles Comiskey II to protest his refusal to hire black players. "We're not opposed to hiring colored ball players," Comiskey told the committee. "We just haven't found the right colored ball player. I'm a business man, and I know that if I find a good colored ball player for the White Sox, we would fill this park."

They soon found him. On April 30, 1951, the Sox traded for Cuban-born Minnie Minoso. The 25-year-old debuted at Comiskey the following day against the Yankees. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and 14,776 attended; as Defender columnist Chuck Davis later observed, news of the trade came too late for many Sox fans "to develop the old lumbago symptoms and hence an excuse to take the day off."

Minoso lifted the second pitch thrown to him into the center-field bullpen, a 420-foot clout. "The Comiskey plant buzzed with excitement from deck to deck," Davis wrote, "but nowhere did it sizzle like the box seats along the third base line, which, for obvious reasons, appeared to have been allotted to Bronzeville."

The Sox lost that game. (Yankee rookie Mickey Mantle hit his first career homer.) But the team soon went on a tear, winning 14 straight. The club zoomed from a dismal 60-94 the previous season to 81-73. Minoso hit .326, led the league in stolen bases and triples, and made the all-star team. Attendance at Comiskey leaped from 781,000 to more than 1.3 million.

That July, when the Sox called up their first African-American player, backup catcher Sam Hairston, it attracted little attention. (Hairston appeared in only four games in his major-league career, but two of his sons and two grandsons would go on to play in the big leagues.)

While the south-siders were turning things around in '51, the Cubs finished last, 30 under, and their attendance dipped from 1,166,000 to 894,000.

The Sox, who'd been under .500 the previous seven seasons, were over .500 the next 17. All this wasn't due to Minoso, of course; he was with the team only nine of those years. But he ignited the team's resurgence. With the Sox he made the all-star team six times, won a Gold Glove twice for his outfield play, and led the league three times in stolen bases and triples.

Minoso, who's now 88 and still residing in Chicago, has long been a city favorite. But he's also been simply another black man living in Chicago. In 1987, freelance writer Robert Heuer profiled him for the Reader. Minoso was 61. He told Heuer he'd recently been driving home to his apartment at Irving Park and Lake Shore Drive when he was stopped by undercover police officers. "I hadn't done anything wrong," Minoso told Heuer. "But they started asking me questions and looking through the car." This wouldn't be happening if he were a white Chicago Cub, the irritated Minoso told police: "I said they wouldn't be doing this if I were Jody Davis. You wouldn't be doing this if I were [Ryne] Sandberg. You wouldn't be doing this if I were [Rick] Sutcliffe. You're doing this because I'm black, have nice clothes, and drive a nice car."

From 1948 through 1953 the Cubs' shortstop was Roy Smalley Jr., a lifetime .227 hitter and a marginal defender. In 1950, Smalley led the NL in strikeouts and errors. With Smalley at short, "It is a wonder the 1950 Cubs managed to finish only 26½ games out of first place," Will writes in his book.

What Will doesn't point out is that for most of those years the Cubs had an alternative to Smalley—Gene Baker, a fine fielder who was starring for them in the minors. The Cubs signed Baker in 1950, when he was 24. He'd played shortstop before that for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. The Cubs sent him to the minors and kept him there. "With the acquisition of Baker, the Cubs' interest in African American players stopped," Stout wrote in The Cubs. "Now that they had one black player, the organization did not seem interested in any more."

But by 1953, P.K. Wrigley finally realized the Cubs could no longer afford to be uninterested in black players. Wrigley allowed in an interview with the Daily News that year that the Cubs were bleeding: he predicted the team would lose a half million dollars that season.

In September 1953 the Cubs finally brought up Baker, and they introduced another black player as well—Ernie Banks, a 22-year-old shortstop they'd signed away from the Kansas City Monarchs.

Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley and Ernie Banks, the team's first black player, chat at the team's annual luncheon in 1962. - SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
  • Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley and Ernie Banks, the team's first black player, chat at the team's annual luncheon in 1962.

As Chicago baseball fans are well aware, Banks went on to become the team's greatest player ever. He won two MVP awards, was an 11-time all-star, and hit 512 homers in 19 seasons with the Cubs. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977. Baker moved over to second base and had three solid seasons alongside Banks before he was traded.

Banks's immense talents, however, were largely wasted. When the team had begun losing money, Wrigley had cut back on player development, scouting, and the team's farm system, according to Stout. So the team continued to founder, and no matter how beautiful Wrigley Field was, fans continued to stay home. For 15 straight seasons, 1953 through 1967, the club drew less than a million. (The Sox drew more than a million in 12 of those seasons.) Wrigley had dug such a deep hole for the Cubs that even Mr. Cub couldn't dig them out.

Racial discrimination wasn't the only thing that did in the club, of course. Some teams integrated later than the Cubs and fared much better. The team's general managers made awful trades for years. And the players had to contend with the brainstorms of P.K. Wrigley during his 45 years of ownership (1932-1977). In the early 1960s, for example, he instituted a "College of Coaches"—a different coach rotated into the managerial spot every few weeks, a system that befuddled the players. His resistance to night games, which other teams began playing in the 1930s, undoubtedly hurt the team's attendance and budget. (The Cubs' first night game was in 1988.)

Banks, now 83, lives downtown. He has an office in Trump Tower, where he signs autographs. He says he still feels well and works out often. He's looking forward to singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" on April 23, the 100th anniversary of the first game at Wrigley.

I asked him recently why the Cubs didn't play African-American players sooner. "That's a good question," he said. "I don't know why they didn't do more of that."

The irrepressibly positive Banks is famously uncritical of the Cubs. But he allowed that there were other black players available in those years who could have helped the team. And he thought Baker, who died in 1999, should have been brought up sooner. "I guess they were waiting on someone to bring up with him," Banks said. (He said the team wanted its first black player to have another black player to room with.)

In 1955, the Cubs made former Negro League manager Buck O'Neil their first black scout. Shown at the announcement, from left: personnel director Wid Matthews; shortstop Ernie Banks; O'Neil; second baseman Gene Baker. - SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
  • In 1955, the Cubs made former Negro League manager Buck O'Neil their first black scout. Shown at the announcement, from left: personnel director Wid Matthews; shortstop Ernie Banks; O'Neil; second baseman Gene Baker.

Banks and Baker lived on the south side. They rode the el to Wrigley for games at first, Banks told me; then Baker got a car and they drove together to the park.

They were disappointed to see how few African-Americans attended games at Wrigley. "Me and Gene [Baker] talked about that a lot," Banks said. "We'd be bringing a relief pitcher in, and he and I would talk near second base. He'd say, 'Ernie—there's only two blacks in this ballpark. We gotta get outta here!'

"At that time, not many blacks lived north of Madison," Banks said. "I lived with a lot of schoolteachers and bankers, and they never came to Wrigley."

He was proud to have convinced John Johnson, the publisher of Ebony and Jet, to buy Cubs season tickets one year—he thinks this was in the 1960s. To Banks's knowledge, Johnson was the Cubs' first African-American season-ticket holder. But not long after Banks sold him the pair of tickets, Johnson "called me and said, 'Ernie, I gotta cancel my tickets. I can't get nobody to go with me!'"

Some have suggested that the Cubs' bias against black players continued after the 1950s. The team's longtime African-American scout, the late Buck O'Neil, signed most of the team's black players through the early 1960s. Many of them were soon traded.

"There was an unwritten quota system" in baseball, O'Neil wrote in a 2002 essay in Baseball as America, a book published for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. "They didn't want but so many black kids on a major league ballclub."

O'Neil was a Cubs coach in 1964 when the team had five black players. One of them was a young outfielder named Lou Brock. When O'Neil heard that general manager John Holland was planning to trade Brock, he advised him not to. "I don't think we'll have our best ballclub on the field," he told Holland. O'Neil wrote in his essay that Holland then "started pulling out letters and notes from people, season ticket holders, saying that their grandfather had season tickets here at Wrigley Field, or their grandmother . . . and their families had come here for years. And do you know what these letters went on to say? 'What are you trying to make the Chicago Cubs into? The Kansas City Monarchs?'"

The Cubs traded Brock to Saint Louis that summer for a sore-armed white pitcher, Ernie Broglio. It's regarded as one of the worst trades in baseball history. Brock helped the Cardinals win the World Series that year, and went on to set many base-stealing records and total more than 3,000 hits on his way to the Hall of Fame. Broglio won seven games for the Cubs before his bum arm forced him to retire in 1966.

Banks told me he recalled the club trading away many young black players. "They were with us two years, and then we'd trade them, I don't know why. Maybe they just wanted more, uh, veteran players."

Banks said the early black major leaguers often expressed regrets to each other about missing college. "We played the game because we wanted to make enough money to send our kids to college," he said. "That was a key thing for me and Billy Williams [his Hall of Fame teammate], and Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron."

He said someone in the Wrigley family told him and Williams that the club would ensure that their kids got college scholarships. Their children are long since grown, and Banks said they never got the promised scholarships. He said he and Williams still joke about it when they get together. "I'll say, 'Billy, where are those scholarships are kids were gonna get?'"

Cub Ernie Banks tags out Cardinal Lou Brock in July 1965. - SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
  • Sun-Times Print Collection
  • Cub Ernie Banks tags out Cardinal Lou Brock in July 1965.

Under manager Leo Durocher the Cubs finally started winning, and drawing fans again, in the late 1960s. And when they began losing again, they continued to draw. They were not mere losers now, but lovable ones. By the 1980s, Wrigley Field was a can't-miss tourist destination. In these more recent decades, the theory that the park's allure has inflated the team's financial bottom line, diminishing its owners' need to bankroll a championship team, is plausible.

Racial discrimination is no longer responsible for the Cubs' failure. But how much else has changed regarding race and the north-siders? Before Banks and Baker debuted in 1953, the Cubs were a white team drawing overwhelmingly white crowds. And today?

The Cubs, like the White Sox and teams throughout the majors, now field a mostly white and Latino team. On the Cubs' opening day roster last year there were ten non-Latino whites, ten Latinos, three African-Americans, and two Asians.

The dearth of African-American players isn't unique to the Cubs. The percentage of African-Americans in the majors climbed to 18 percent by the mid-1980s, but has fallen steadily since, according to a study by the Society for American Baseball Research. In 2012 they were down to 7 percent. On a 25-man roster, teams averaged five African-American players in the 1980s, and now are averaging two. The proportion of white players has dropped slightly, from 70 percent in 1985 to 64 percent in 2012, while the proportion of Latino players in that period jumped from 11 percent to 27 percent.

Why the big decline in the number of African-American players? The study's authors observed that the prevailing theories point to causes external to baseball: "African-Americans are focusing on other sports as youths, either by choice or because of fewer opportunities to play baseball." The authors also identified another cause: in recent years, teams have carried more pitchers on their rosters, and African-American players are usually outfielders and rarely pitchers.

Last April, Major League Baseball created a task force to address the decline in African-American players. The league has also established youth clinics in cities throughout the nation in hopes of recapturing interest in the game in lower-income neighborhoods.

Julian Green, Cubs vice president for community affairs, noted that the team participates in those initiatives, and has helped build and refurbish baseball fields in African-American and Latino neighborhoods in Chicago. The club has contributed nearly a million dollars to inner-city youth baseball since 1993, he said.

As for its fans, Green said the Cubs don't know what proportion of those who come out to Wrigley Field is African-American. He said the club would like to enlarge its African-American following. Since Ricketts and his family bought the Cubs in 2009, the team has "increased its outreach significantly" in the African-American community, Green said. The club has joined the White Sox in participating in the Bud Billiken parade, held each August on the south side, and gives thousands of tickets every year to children "who might otherwise not be able to go to a game.

"We want fans from every pocket and every neighborhood," Green said. "We're not the north-side Cubs, we're the Chicago Cubs—a team for the entire city."

But Green also noted that the Cubs are a "national brand," and that 30 percent of the fans attending the team's games are from out of state.

There are reasons to suspect that the number of African-Americans attending games at Wrigley has grown little from the small numbers that came out in Banks's days. One reason is the lack of African-American players. Another is the cost of attending.

Last May, on the Chicago Sport & Society blog, historian Chris Lamberti demonstrated that the typical cost of attending pro sports events in Chicago has climbed much faster in the last two decades than the cost of other goods and services. Lower-income Chicagoans are being priced out of the pro games, Lamberti wrote; and since African-Americans and Latinos have significantly lower incomes, they're being priced out disproportionately. That's true for fans of the Sox as well as the Cubs, and in most major sports.

Near the end of A Nice Little Place on the North Side, Will reminds us that baseball is just a game. "In spite of the unending attempts of metaphysicians in the bleachers and press boxes to make sport more than it is, the real appeal of it for spectators is that sport enables us, for a few hours, to step out of the river of time and into a pastime."

But having dismissed the metaphysicians, Will goes on to do his own romanticizing.

"Professional sports teams are municipal assets," he writes. They "can help infuse a dust of individuals with a unifying sense of tame tribalism. Or, as in the case of Chicago, sports allegiances can transform a fragile mosaic of mutually wary neighborhoods into something like a community, one united, albeit tenuously and intermittently, by a shared vocabulary of affections, loyalties, hopes, and anxieties."

Or maybe sports have always done less transforming and uniting than we wish they would.

Keshia Bardney and Taylor Tolbert helped research this story.

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