Batavia’s Baker

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That above is the large metal plaque at Batavia’s Dwyer Stadium in upstate New York honoring Gene Baker, who enjoyed two stints as the manager of the Batavia Pirates, Pittsburgh’s then-Class D affiliate.

Today, the short-season A team occupying Dwyer is the Batavia Muckdogs, an affiliate of the Miami Marlins (funnily enough, just like the New Orleans Zephyrs). But the Muckdogs make sure to honor Baker for what he accomplished in Batavia more than a half-century ago.

I snapped that picture while my friend Mike and I were taking in a ‘Dogs game while I was visiting family and pals in Rochester last month. Before reading that sign, I had no idea what a huge role Batavia, and Baker, played in the complete integration of Organized Baseball.

As a second baseman-turned-utility-infielder, Baker integrated the Chicago Cubs along with a guy named Ernie Banks in 1953. However, despite an All-Star nod in 1955 and a World Series ring, Baker’s playing career didn’t go nearly as well as his double-play mate and future Hall of Famer, thanks largely to a crippling knee injury. He finished his playing days with the Pirates in the early 1960s. A great SABR Bio Project essay on Baker’s playing days appears here.

However, the Bucs kept their promise to find a place for Baker within their organization after he retired as a player, and he was named manager of the Batavia Pirates for the 1961 season.

With that move, the Pirates and Baker, according to numerous opinions and sources, made history as Baker became the first African-American manager anywhere in American Organized Baseball. While some pundits feel, for example, that Nate Moreland actually earned that distinction before Baker did by helming the Calexico franchise in the Arizona-New Mexico League, Calexico was an independently-owned franchise that had no Major-League affiliate

Thus, in historical hindsight, many observers and researchers do believe, in fact, that Baker was the first to break that barrier, and he did it in Batavia, about a 45-minute drive from my hometown of Rochester. Stated the June 28, 1961, issue of The Sporting News:

“The Pirates, finding a new job for Gene Baker after dropping him from their active list, sent the infielder to Batavia (NYP) as manager, June 19. The 35-year-old veteran, who broke into the major leagues in 1953, is the most prominent Negro to be given a managerial post. …

“In making the appointment, General Manager Joe L. Brown said, ‘Gene has been most valuable to us in the past as a player, instructor and scout. He is a fine gentleman with outstanding baseball experience and knowledge. We know he will do a fine job in the managerial field.'”

Count legendary Baltimore Afro-American columnist Sam Lacy among those who believed Baker blazed trails in Batavia. Lacy interviewed Baker by phone in late June 1961, shortly after Baker, a native of Davenport, Iowa, arrived in the small, upstate New York city. In Lacy’s subsequent July 1 article, Baker painted a very grateful and optimistic picture. Stated the new skipper:

“‘This could be the beginning of a brand new era in baseball.

“‘I can only hope that I can do the job that is expected of me. It means so much to all concerned. …

“‘This is a wonderful opportunity. Not only for me but for other fellows more deserving than I. If I can only deliver for them, it will mean so much to the colored player and to baseball in general.

“‘The reception I got Monday night was heartwarming. Fans and players alike  wished me well and pledged their full cooperation. Nothing like it has ever happened to me before.

“‘The Pittsburgh organization is tremendous. It has given me every opportunity to progress.

“‘With God’s help, I hope to vindicate their judgment. And if I do, I’m sure there’ll be other teams to follow suit — just as they have done in other respects.”

But, as Lacy pointed out, the task ahead of him certainly wouldn’t be easy — at the time, Batavia was floundering in seventh place. But Baker assured the scribe that with a little tinkering and the encouraging of the squad’s multiple young, talented prospects, the B-Pirates could stabilize the ship and even climb into the top four in the New York-Penn League.

Lacy wasn’t the only sports scribe who took notice of Baker’s appointment to the B-Pirates — the news traveled to Norfolk, Va., where New Journal and Guide columnist Cal Jacox hailed the development under the headline, “Progress Continues In Baseball”:

“With the appointment last week of Gene Baker as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Class D farm club at Batavia, N.Y., organized baseball opened a new area of employment for colored players who have completed their major league careers.

“For years, there has been speculation as to when a colored ex-big leaguer would become a full-time pilot. … [T]he names of Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella were prominent in the managerial sweepstakes. … But fate decreed otherwise and, instead, Baker has the distinction of being the first former major leaguer to get the call. …

“Ever since 1947, organized baseball has been moving forward in its relationship with the colored players … They’re seeing action in probably all of its leagues … Their play is outstanding and their presence on the field is accepted by the fans even in the deepest Dixie … In tapping Baker for the pilot’s post the management of the Pittsburgh Pirates thus continued the steady march of progress that has, over the years, become a trademark of the national pastime.”

Back in upstate New York, Batavia seemed to welcome Baker with open arms, as a July 1, 1961, Afro-American brief reported:

“‘We welcome Gene Baker to our town and our club,’ declared Norris T. Dwyer, president and general manager of the Batavia Pirates …

“Dwyer assured the AFRO that ‘everything will be done to make him comfortable and to assist him in the job he’s attempting to do. No one in this office doubts that a young man of his character and experience will succeed.’

“On the subject of his new manager’s race, Dwyer said, ‘Gene is a baseball man. That’s all we want here.”

The Bucs management’s faith in Baker paid off, and big-time — within about two and a half months, Batavia climbed from seventh in the NY-Penn League to second, and they made the league playoffs. Late in the season, Baker even shrugged off his bum knee and manned third base in a bunch of games for the B-Bucs in their run to the league finals.

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Once again, news hound Lacy was all over the story; in a Sept. 2, 1961, article in the Afro, the journalist expounded on Baker’s achievements in upstate New York:

“Baker’s success has been phenomenal. And the front office of the world champions at Pittsburgh are jubilant.

“‘We are elated over Gene’s good work,’ declared Bob Clements, Buccaneer scout in charge of the New York area. ‘Mr. Brown (owner Joe L. Brown) was with me in Jamestown (NY) when the team played there last week. And he was greatly pleased with the team’s progress under Baker.'”

Lacy also interviewed Baker himself, who was effusive in his comments to the sportswriter:

“Naturally, I’m happy about [the team’s success]. But the praise shouldn’t go to me alone. The team did it.

“We started hitting and the pitching firmed up for us. … We just started climbing, and that’s all.”

Gene Baker’s achievements rightfully earned him a promotion in 1962, with the big-league Bucs moved him up to the Triple-A Columbus Jets, where he became the first African-American coach in Organized Baseball. He also did a little playing for the Jets, although he struggled a bit when he did so.

In ’63, Baker moved up again, becoming a coach for the big-league club, becoming the second African American to break that barrier, after the legendary Buck O’Neil. In fact, in September of that season, Baker even, albeit briefly, became the first black man to manage a major-league team when Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh and coach Frank Oceak got tossed from a game against the Dodgers.

However, for reasons that are somewhat unclear, Baker was bumped back down to Batavia for the 1964 season, but after that he served as a Pirates scout for 23 years.

Baker eventually retired to his hometown of Davenport, where he died in 1999 at the age of 74 and, because of his meritorious Naval service during World War II, was buried in Rock Island National Cemetery.

There probably remains debate as to whether Gene Baker was, in fact, the first African American to manage a team in organized baseball; a few other candidates do exist, such as Moreland, but much of the discussion involves the parsing of details and situations at the time.

But there are three facts that are quite clear about Baker. One, he was the first former African-American big leaguer to manage a team in Organized Baseball; two, he achieved unqualified success during that 1961 season; and three, partially as a result of No. 2, Baker remains beloved in Batavia, including by the current Muckdogs, as the plaque at the top of this post displays.

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