Baseball icon O'Neil made history with Cubs

Negro League legend became MLB's first black coach in 1962

Baseball icon O'Neil made history with Cubs

CHICAGO -- When Dexter Fowler led off Game 1 on Oct. 25, he became the first African-American player to appear in a World Series game for the Cubs. Ernie Banks and Billy Williams never had that opportunity. Chicago's last World Series appearance before last fall was in 1945, two years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier with the Dodgers.

"It's crazy to even think about that, because you look back and you look at your parents -- my parents weren't even alive then," Fowler said. "It's a lifetime. It's awesome to be the pioneer, the first one."

Buck O'Neil also took an important step with the Cubs in 1962. That year, he was named to the team's coaching staff and became the Major Leagues' first black coach.

O'Neil had managed in the Negro American League, leading the Kansas City Monarchs from 1948-55. He won two league titles in '53 and '55, and shared a title one season.

Cubs general manager Wid Matthews hired O'Neil as a scout after the Monarchs' season ended in 1955, with an assignment to search the predominantly black high schools and colleges for talent. In his biography, "I Was Right on Time," O'Neil said the Cubs respected his eye for talent.

"But they didn't hire me just for my eye, they also hired me for my skin," O'Neil wrote. "That may make them seem prejudiced, but they were just being smart."

That's because having a black scout was expected to help the team sign African-American ballplayers.

When O'Neil was added to the Cubs' coaching staff, he joined Elvin Tappe, Lou Klein and Charlie Metro in the "College of Coaches."

"Ernie and I and George [Altman] were proud of that," Williams said of O'Neil's promotion. "Buck had beaten the bushes [as a scout] for a long time. He was like a father figure to us."

John Holland was the Cubs' general manager in 1962, and he told O'Neil there was a chance he would be part of the rotation to manage.

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"I soon found out there was no chance of that happening," O'Neil wrote.

On July 15, 1962, the Cubs were playing the Houston Colt 45s in a doubleheader. It was Metro's turn to manage that day, and he was thrown out in the first inning of the second game. Tappe, the third-base coach, took over, while Klein moved to third. Tappe was then ejected, and Klein took over managing duties.

O'Neil should've moved to coach third base, but pitching coach Fred Martin was called in from the bullpen to take over instead.

"After 40 years in baseball and 10 as a manager, I was pretty sure I knew when to wave somebody home and when to make him put on the brakes," O'Neil wrote in his book. "I would have gotten a huge thrill out of being on a Major League field during a game. Not going out there that day was one of the few disappointments I've had in over 60 years in baseball."

Altman, 83, who played for the Cubs from 1959-62 and again from 1965-67, remembered that game.

"[O'Neil] should've gotten an opportunity to manage that year because of the fact that he was the best manager of the group," Altman said in a recent interview. "He had experience and knowledge -- and the players all took to him, even as a coach. He was a fiery guy. In the dugout, you could hear his booming voice giving encouragement to players and so forth. Everybody loved Buck."

In his book, O'Neil wrote that the other coaches were fearful that if he got the opportunity, someone else would lose their job. There was some friction in Spring Training between O'Neil and Charlie Grimm because they would manage intrasquad games against each other and O'Neil's teams always won.

"The reason was simple -- [Grimm] chose the white players and let me have the black players," O'Neil wrote. "If he had Lou Brock, George Altman, Billy Williams and Ernie Banks, he might have won."

The Major Leagues would not see a full-time African-American manager until Frank Robinson was hired by the Indians in 1975.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.