The circle of old baseball cards above represents a prevoiusly unbroken strand of African Americans on the Cubs’ roster, dating all the way back to 1953, when Ernie Banks was their first African American player. The players inside the circle include MVP winners (Banks and Andre Dawson), Batting title winners (Bill Madlock, Derrek Lee), Hall of Famers (Banks, Billy Williams, Dawson), Rookie of the Year winners (Williams, Jerome Walton), and everything in between. There are pitchers and catchers, infielders and outfielders, stating pitchers and relievers, and even a couple of catchers. And I’ll be real impressed if anyone can tell me who the catchers are in the picture above.
The Cubs’ recent trade of Marlon Byrd to the Red Sox was inevitable, given his contract status and the fact that Brett Jackson is their future in center field. But when the trade was commenced, it left the Cubs in a place where I thought they would never be: devoid of any African American players on their 25-man roster. I’m not always given to using trite phrases, but I never thought I’d see the day when that happened.
The Cubs franchise has had its troubles with race, historically. Cap Anson, the face of the White Stockings in the 19th century, refused to let the team — “his” team, for all practical purposes — play against teams with African American players. And if you haven’t heard the name George Stovey before, here’s your chance to learn about one of the game’s most unfortunate stories.
In the 20th century, Buck O’Neil revealed that the infamous trade of Brock-for-Broglio was made to appease the racial sensitivites of Cubs fans, and because of a de facto quota of four African American players on the team. The Cubs traded away the wrong player, though, as Brock went on to a Hall of Fame career, while another African American outfielder named Ellis Burton was kept by the team instead. Have you ever heard of Ellis Burton before? Neither have I.
But in the last half of the 20th Century, names like Banks and Williams and James and Madlock and Burris and Durham and Dawson and Smith (both Lee and Dwight) and Dunston and Walton and Rhodes and Jones and Byrd (and dozens more) have found a place on the Cubs roster. To now find that roster lacking African American players is a sad moment in the franchise’s history. Cap Anson might be pleased, wherever he is, but I’m certainly not.
This is not to suggest that the Cubs should sign or trade for players specifically because of their race. The best players should be on the field, regardless of their color. But at the same time, there is a rich heritage that has been interrupted within the past week, and nobody seems to have taken note of it, or made any comments on it in a meaningful way.
I, for one, hope that this dearth of African American players is a momentary blip. The percentage of African American players in the majors as a whole has dropped to just 8 percent, for a variety of reasons that others can describe better than I could. And when an African American player is acquired, I hope he helps the team reach the point that Banks and Williams and Dawson and the others never did, which is winning the World Series. That’s the day that all Cubs fans are waiting to see.