Baseball has a rich tradition here in the Quad Cities.
An athlete who made his mark on the game has a legacy that reached the Rock Island Arsenal.
A look at his story as we take you Inside the Gates.
Baseball historian Dr. Bruce Storey says, “Everybody remembers Ernie banks, but nobody remembers Gene Baker, and he was there first.”
Gloria Dzekunskas is with the Rock Island National Cemetery, and tells Local 4 News, “He was in the U.S. Navy during World War II and he passed away in 1999 and is interned here with his wife.”
From 1953 to 196, Gene Baker was turning double plays as a second and third basemen with the Chicago Cubs and later, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Dr. Storey says, “He was the first black baseball player signed by the Chicago Cubs, who then signed Ernie Banks to be his roommate.”
Baker was a basketball standout at Davenport Central and then at St. Ambrose.
“He nearly didn’t play baseball at Central, he didn’t play baseball at all. He was a basketball player,” says Dr. Storey.
It was not until he served in the Navy for two years during World War II that Baker got the baseball bug.
Dr. Storey recalls, “While in the navy, he learned how to play baseball, and that’s where he became such a good baseball player. The Kansas City Monarchs signed him to the Negro leagues. He was scouted by major league teams including the Cubs and signed away by Kansas City to the Cubs.”
Baker would win a World Series in 1960 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, thanks to the memorable walk-off home run by Bill Mazerowski.
“What really made him special was the first black Cub, the first black coach, the first black minor league manager, and on a technicality, the first black major league manager,” says Dr. Storey.
In 1962, Pirates Manager, Danny Murtaugh was suspended two games, opening the door for Baker.
Dr. Storey tells Local 4, “Frank Robinson became the first black manager in 1975, but Gene Baker did manage two games in 1962. That’s part of his unique background, he’s a very special person in baseball. Not only did he serve the country two years in World War II, and really deserved to be buried at the Rock Island Arsenal, but being all these firsts you here about, its just amazing all the things he did in his lifetime to deserve something like that.”