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April 20, 1956: Banks, Irvin, Jones Lead Cubs to Home Opener Win April 20, 1956: Banks, Irvin, Jones Lead Cubs to Home Opener Win

April 20, 1956: Banks, Irvin, Jones Lead Cubs to Home Opener Win

Cubs

Editor’s note: Gene Baker and Solly Drake played with the Des Moines Bruins, an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, in the early 1950s.

This article was written by Steve Dunn

Two and a half years after Ernie Banks integrated the Chicago Cubs in September 1953, Banks and four other Black players played key roles in the Cubs’ 12-1 victory over the Cincinnati Redlegs in Chicago’s 1956 home opener.1

At a time when only 1 of 15 major-league players was Black,2 Cubs shortstop Banks, left fielder Monte Irvin, center fielder Solly Drake, second baseman Gene Baker, and pitcher Sam Jones combined for 10 hits in 19 at-bats, including 2 home runs, 4 doubles, and 7 RBIs. Jones, a 20-game loser while leading the National League in strikeouts in 1955, his first full major-league season, tossed a four-hitter and went 2-for-3 at the plate. Before the ’56 season, Cubs manager Stan Hack said “the sky is the limit” for Jones.3 “All he has to do is get the ball over the plate and nobody will beat him,” Hack said.4

The Cubs, who began the season with two road losses to the Milwaukee Braves, came into the home opener with their sights set on a first-division finish for the first time since 1946. Banks had avoided the sophomore jinx in 1955 by breaking the major-league home-run record for shortstops with 44 and setting the big-league mark for grand slams with five.5

In addition, the Cubs had obtained outfielder Walt Moryn, third baseman Don Hoak, and pitcher Russ Meyer in a trade with the defending World Series champion Brooklyn Dodgers.6 Other offseason acquisitions included Irvin from the New York Giants and catcher Hobie Landrith from Cincinnati.7

The Redlegs, under manager Birdie Tebbetts, had opened by splitting a pair of games with the St. Louis Cardinals. They pinned their hopes for a first-division finish on a powerful attack led by Ted KluszewskiWally PostGus Bell, and Smoky Burgess; the acquisition of pinch-hitter George Crowe from Milwaukee; and the arrival of rookie outfielder-first baseman Frank Robinson.8

Robinson was dubbed “[the] hottest young prospect” and “[the] kid with [the] greatest potential” in a preseason poll of The Sporting News correspondents.9 The 20-year-old “certainly packs a powerful wallop,” Tebbetts said two days before the Cubs’ home opener.10 “He can field, throw and run well enough to be a regular and he will get a good chance to show if he can make it.”11

In Milwaukee, the Cubs’ lineup had included Banks, Irvin, and Baker. Against the Redlegs, Hack replaced center fielder Gale Wade with Drake. With Jones on the mound, Chicago had five Black players in its lineup for the first time in franchise history.

After scoring just one run in their first two games in Milwaukee, the Cubs exploded for six runs off Redlegs starter Art Fowler in the first inning in Wrigley Field’s 41-degree chill. Hoak led off with a bunt single and was sacrificed to second by Drake. After Dee Fondy grounded out, Banks homered onto the ramp in the left-field bleachers to give the Cubs a 2-0 lead.

Moryn singled to left field and moved to second when Robinson misplayed his hit. The next batter, Irvin, singled to drive in Moryn. Baker doubled to right; on right fielder Post’s error, Irvin scored and Baker went to third. Baker scored the Cubs’ fifth run on Landrith’s double, which sent Fowler to the showers. Fowler’s replacement, former Cub Hal Jeffcoat, gave up a single by Jones that scored Landrith. Jeffcoat finally induced Hoak to ground out to end the inning.12

The Cubs upped their lead to 7-0 in the third on doubles by Landrith and Drake, who was making his first major-league start after debuting as a pinch-hitter in the opener in Milwaukee.

Jones – who had recorded the first-ever AL/NL no-hitter by a Black pitcher in May 1955 – held the Redlegs hitless until the fifth, when Roy McMillan’s single put two runners on with one out. Jones got the next batter, pinch-hitter Crowe, to fly out and walked Johnny Temple to load the bases, but Burgess popped out to end the threat.

Another Cubs run scored in the sixth despite a baserunning blunder by Fondy. Against Tom Acker, in his big-league debut, the first batter, Drake, walked and went to third on Fondy’s single. One out later, Moryn lofted a fly into shallow center field. Shortstop McMillan and second baseman Temple bobbled the ball, but center fielder Bell grabbed it before it hit the ground.

Drake tagged and scored. Fondy then was picked off first with Irvin batting. In the seventh, Irvin doubled off the Redlegs’ fourth pitcher, Bill Kennedy, went to third on Baker’s single, and scored on Landrith’s sacrifice fly.

Ahead 9-0, the Cubs sent three more runners across the plate in the eighth. Drake led off with his second double of the day and advanced to third on Fondy’s single. Banks grounded into a force at second while Drake held at third. Moryn drove in Drake with a single, but Banks was thrown out trying to advance to third. Irvin then hit a two-run “robust drive into the left-center field bleachers.”13

Jones was closing out the win. McMillan picked up Cincinnati’s second hit of the game by beating out an infield roller with two outs in the seventh. Robinson led off the Redlegs’ ninth with a double and scored one out later when pinch-hitter Ed Bailey singled to center. Jones recovered quickly, however, striking out Temple and getting Burgess to fly out to right fielder Moryn, ending the game.

Irvin went 3-for-4 at the plate, scored three runs, and drove in three runs. The 37-year-old former Negro League player hit .271 with 15 home runs and 50 RBIs in 1956, his last season in the majors.14 Drake was 2-for-2, scored twice, knocked in one run, and stole a base. In a preseason poll of correspondents for The Sporting News, Drake was rated the “likeliest to improve,” “[the] kid with [the] greatest potential,” and “fastest player afoot.”15 A .256 hitter for the Cubs in 1956, Drake finished his two-year major-league career with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies in 1959.

Baker finished the day 2-for-5 with a double and one run scored. When he and Banks arrived in Chicago in September 1953, they formed the first Black double-play combination in the White major leagues. In 1956 Baker hit .258 with 12 home runs and 57 RBIs for the Cubs. He finished his nine-year major-league career with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1961. Banks’ round-tripper against the Redlegs was the 66th of his Hall of Fame career and followed a spring training in which he hit .408 in 22 games and belted 10 home runs.

“I was pretty lucky that the boys got all that the hitting,” Jones said after throwing 144 pitches in his complete game. “We’ve [got] a lot of good pitchers on this club. We’re all winners when the hits come our way.”16 Fifty-three of his pitches were curveballs, of which 22 were strikes. “A lot of fellows can work a game in 120 to 140 pitches,” pitching coach Dutch Leonard said, “but 144 is pretty good for you, Sam.”17

Jones beat Cincinnati four straight times in 1955, a season when he led the NL in losses, walks (185), strikeouts (198), hit batsmen (14), hits per nine innings (6.5), and strikeouts per nine innings (7.4).18

Jones was named to the NL All-Star Team in 1955 along with Banks and Baker. In 40⅔ innings against the Redlegs through this game, Jones had fanned 42 of 140 batters, allowed only 21 hits, walked 27, and hit two batters.19

In the spring of 1956, Leonard suggested to Jones that he should shorten his pivot before delivering the ball. After seeing Jones fall behind 75 percent of the hitters he faced in 1955, Leonard concluded that flaw in Jones’s delivery was causing the pitcher to lose sight of the plate before delivering the ball.20 In the Cubs’ home opener in 1956, Jones was behind less than 50 percent of the Redlegs’ hitters.21

Jones went on to a 9-14 record with a 3.91 ERA in 1956. He pitched 188⅔ innings, completed eight of 28 starts, and again led NL pitchers in strikeouts (176) and walks (115). In 1959, with the San Francisco Giants, he was named to the NL All-Star Team and finished second to Early Wynn of the Chicago White Sox in voting for the Cy Young Award with a league-leading 21 wins, 2.83 ERA, and 4 shutouts.

The ’56 Cubs finished in last place in the NL with a 60-94-3 record, 33 games behind the Dodgers. Banks hit 28 homers, drove in 85 runs, and batted .297. Despite their success in the home opener, Banks, Irvin, Drake, Baker, and Jones started together in the Cubs lineup only five more times in 1956: in the second game of a doubleheader on July 22, in a single game on July 26, in the second games of doubleheaders on August 26 and September 16, and in a single game on September 29. In the second games of doubleheaders on April 29 and May 6, Irvin pinch-hit and the other four started.

The Redlegs finished third with a 91-63 record, and their 221 home runs tied the 1947 Giants for the most of any NL or AL team at that time. Robinson was named the NL’s Rookie of the Year with 38 homers, 83 RBIs, a .290 batting average, and a .936 OPS.

Acknowledgments

This article was fact-checked by Larry DeFillipo and copy-edited by Len Levin.

Sources

In addition to the sources listed in the Notes, the author used Newspapers.com, PaperofRecord.com, and Proquest.com. He consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org for pertinent information, including the box score and play-by-play.

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CHN/CHN195604200.shtml

https://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1956/B04200CHN1956.htm

Notes

1 From April 1953 through February 1959, Cincinnati’s National League franchise was officially known as the Redlegs because the name Reds was associated with communism. Ed Coen, “Setting the Record Straight on Major League Team Nicknames,” SABR Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 48, No. 2 (2019): 67-75.

2 Mark Armour and Daniel R. Levitt, “Baseball Demographics, 1947-2016,” SABR BioProject, accessed May 19, 2024.

3 Edgar Munzel, “Hack Uncovers ‘Big Five’; It’s Hot Stove Warm-Over,” The Sporting News, April 4, 1956: 20.

4 Munzel.

5 Banks’ record for home runs by a shortstop was broken by Álex Rodríguez, who hit 57 in 2002 and 52 in 2001. Jay Jaffe, “Measuring Where Ernie Banks Ranks Among the Best Shortstops Ever,” SI.com, January 24, 2015, https://www.si.com/mlb/2015/01/24/ernie-banks-hall-fame-shortstops-chicago-cubs. Banks’ record for grand slams in a season was tied by Jim Gentile of the Baltimore Orioles in 1961 and eclipsed by the New York Yankees’ Don Mattingly, who hit six in 1987, and by the Cleveland Indians’ Travis Hafner, who hit six in 2006.

6 In return, third baseman Ransom Jackson and pitcher Don Elston went to Brooklyn.

7 The Giants had demoted Irvin to the Triple-A American Association in 1955; the Cubs obtained him in the Rule 5 draft during the offseason.

8 Joe King, “Many 1-2 Punch Pairs – But Not Big Ones,” The Sporting News, April 11, 1956: 3.

9 “Infielders Lead as Hot Prospects,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1956: 21.

10 Tom Swope, “Reds Will Go Down Line With Robinson – He’s Rookie Frank,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1956: 23.

11 Swope.

12 Jeffcoat converted from the outfield to the pitcher’s mound in the last two years of his eight years with the Cubs.

13 Lou Smith, “Cubs Pound Out 18 Hits, Blast Reds, 12-1,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 21, 1956: 11.

14 In July 1949 Irvin and Hank Thompson had integrated the Giants in a game against Brooklyn. Irvin was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973.

15 “Infielders Lead as ‘Hot Prospects.’”

16 David Condon, “In the Wake of the News,” Chicago Tribune, April 21, 1956: 31.

17 Condon.

18 Jones and the Cubs beat the Redlegs 7-5 in the 1955 season opener at Cincinnati on April 11; 2-1 in Chicago on April 24; 5-3 in the first game of a doubleheader at Cincinnati on May 8; and 3-2 at Cincinnati on September 24.

19 Tom Swope, “Sad Sam Jones Saddens Reds Again,” Cincinnati Post, April 21, 1956: 6.

20 Russ Cowans, “Leonard Helps Jones,” Chicago Daily Defender, April 23, 1956: 20.

21 Cowans.

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