Gene Baker's name doesn't have the immediate "recognizability quotient" of a Jackie Robinson, an Ernie Banks, a Frank Robinson. Yet Baker was the blazer of many trails and the breaker of several color barriers.
If a man is remembered for the lives he's touched, then the longtime player, manager, coach and scout, who died in 1999 at the age of 74, will live forever.
"He was one of the best baseball people I've ever met," said Bill Bryk, a Major League scout for the San Diego Padres and special assistant to general manager Kevin Towers. "But more importantly, he was one of the best people I've ever been around."
Baker was the first black player on the Chicago Cubs' Major League roster. He was the first black man to manage an affiliated team in the Minor Leagues. And, for two innings in September 1963, he was the first black manager in the Major Leagues.
Eugene Walter Baker was born on June 15, 1925 in Davenport, Iowa, a small city on the banks of the Mississippi River and one of four communities that comprise the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois. It was a city he called home for all of his 74 years.
Growing up in Davenport, Baker was an outstanding athlete, starring in basketball and track, but he did not get to play high school baseball because the team was not integrated. It wasn't until he joined the Navy in 1943 that he really got a chance to show his skill on the diamond.
Back home, the slick-fielding middle infielder started playing semi-pro ball and it wasn't long before he signed with the legendary Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1947.
Baker played for the Monarchs for a few years before the Cubs purchased his contract. He spent several seasons working his way up through their system in Springfield, Des Moines and Los Angeles until he was finally called up to the big leagues in 1953, becoming the first black player added to the Cubs' Major League roster.
Known for his consistency and durability, it is ironic that Baker's chance to become the first black player to actually play for the Cubs was short-circuited by an injury that kept him sidelined until late September. In the meantime, another young black prospect named Banks was called up and made his big-league debut.
By the time Baker, then 29, was activated and made his debut on Sept. 20, he was shifted to second base, where he and Banks became the first black double-play combination in the Major Leagues. The pair, also roommates, was nicknamed "Bingo and Bango."
Integrating a team in the 1950s could not have been easy, but it's likely the two players' kinship made it a little better for both. During their initial foray to the big leagues, like many other black Major League pioneers, Baker and Banks had to stay at "black hotels" on the road while their white teammates had better accommodations.
Bill Bryk recalls Baker telling a story which he felt greatly summed up the gentleman's character.
"When things changed and black players were 'accepted' at white hotels," Bryk related, "Gene would still stay where he used to stay in those cities. He said he wanted to go back to stay where he had always been welcome."
By 1954, both Baker and Banks were mainstays in the Cubs lineup and were named to the Sporting News All-Rookie Team. While Banks went on to a Hall of Fame career and is widely considered the greatest Cub of all time, Baker's numbers were not too shabby that season as he hit .275 with 13 home runs.
An All-Star in 1955, he was known best for his consistency, versatility and durability, hitting over .250 every year. In his All-Star season, he did not miss an inning.
By 1957, he was shifted to third base but was traded early in the year to Pittsburgh. There, he played second, shortstop and third. Ironically, it marked the first time in the Majors he'd ever played shortstop, the position he'd played throughout the Minors before making way for Banks.
Baker suffered a knee injury early in 1958 and subsequently missed all of 1959. In 1960, when the Pirates won the World Series, he was primarily a backup and pinch-hitter. He also was the lone black player on the team, something of an irony since 11 years later the Pirates became the first team ever to field a starting lineup without a white player.
Baker's Major League playing career ended in June 1961, but it wasn't long before he tackled the next challenge as the Pirates sent him to upstate New York, where he became player-manager for the then-Class D Batavia Pirates of the New York-Penn League.
Although there had been two black men, Sam Bankhead and Nate Moreland, who had managed independent teams within organized baseball, Baker became the first black manager of an affiliated team in the Minors. He also hit .387, leading the team in more ways than one to the NYPL Finals, where it fell to Olean in the championship series.
He served as a player-coach for the Triple-A Columbus Jets (now known as the Clippers) in the International League the following season before moving up to the big leagues in 1963 as a coach for Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh.
On Sept. 21, 1963, Murtaugh was ejected from a game and Baker managed the last two innings, becoming the first black skipper in the Majors.
Bryk believes that had Baker stayed on in that capacity, he would have been a great success.
"I thought he would have been a great manager because he was a very intelligent, sharp guy," recalled Bryk, who spent many a game with Baker as a scout. "He was firm but fair and very approachable. Players could always come and talk to him, whereas a lot of managers in those days were unapproachable."
Bryk compared Baker's style of managing to new Los Angeles Dodgers manager and longtime New York Yankees skipper Joe Torre.
"He was a button-pusher who could get the most out of his players," Bryk explained, "an old-school guy who was well-respected."
Baker returned to the Minors to manage one more year at Batavia in 1964 before becoming a scout. He held that job for the next 23 years as the Pirates' top Midwest scout.
And through all of those years, the impact he had on those he met was immeasurable. Ranging from the players who answered to him from instructional league to the regular season to the young scouts he helped guide, Baker was one of the most respected and beloved gentlemen in the game.
When Bryk, then a Minor League manager, was released by the Padres in 1981, it was Baker who got him a job scouting with the Pirates.
"He was a very big part of my career," said Bryk. "If Gene Baker hadn't gone to bat for me, who knows what I'd be doing right now."
But even more than the help he gave him getting him that job, Bryk remembers the inspiration Baker was to anyone who knew him.
"He was just a class guy, a gentleman who knew the game so well," Bryk recalled. "Everyone loved Gene. He was the ultimate professional."