In 1987, the Chicago Tribune’s Jerome Holtzman wrote a long article about Ernie Banks. It was seemingly a reminiscence of Banks’ 500th homer, hit at Wrigley Field on May 12, 1970, but Holtzman was really intent on writing a kind of profile and appreciation of Banks. Holtzman noted Banks’ ebullience at the ceremonies after his 500th homer, and wrote that
Such emotion seldom was displayed by Banks during his early years with the Cubs. Stan Hack, who was Banks’ second manager (Phil Cavarretta was the first), once made the statement, which became widely quoted, “After he hits a home run, he comes back to the bench looking as if he did something wrong.” What Hack and some of the Cubs coaches didn’t realize was that Banks was unusually shy.
The second oldest of 11 children, Banks was raised in modest circumstances in Dallas in what was then the segregated South. Eddie Banks, his father, had been a semipro ballplayer with the Dallas Black Giants, Houston Buffaloes and also played with teams in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and in his native town of Marshall, Tex.
“My father tried everything,” Banks recalled. “We didn’t have much money, but I can remember him buying me a finger-mitt. Cost two dollars and ninety-five cents. Sometimes he’d give me a nickel or dime to play catch with him.”
The elder Banks picked cotton and also worked as a laborer on a WPA construction gang-the Works Progress Administration funded by the federal government at the height of the Depression in an effort to relieve the poor. For a time, Mrs. Banks was employed as a bank janitor. Perhaps it was mostly nostalgia but Banks’ mother, in an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, described her son as an almost model boy.
She said he never “prowled” at night and was a “regular” at Sunday school and church. “He liked to stretch out on on top of his bed and read for hours,” she said. “He was an an average student in school.”
After he became a baseball star, Banks always had an ample fund of poor-boy stories, which he enjoyed telling: How he shined shoes and mowed lawns, cut wood for Dad, did the dishes for Mom and helped take care of the younger children. Eddie Banks couldn’t remember the boy shining shoes or cutting grass but did recall that Ernie had a brief fling at cotton picking. “Ernie never learned how,” said Papa Banks. “The only work he ever did”-the elder Banks didn’t consider baseball work-“was at a hotel. Ernie was to carry out garbage but the cans were too heavy. After three days, he quit and didn’t even go back to collect his money.”
Like fellow Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, Banks jumped to the big leagues from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Tom Baird, the owner of the Monarchs, sold Banks to the Cubs in tandem with a little-known pitcher, Bill Dickey, for $20,000-$15,000 for Banks, $5,000 for Dickey. The deal was made on a Monday, the day after Banks appeared in the Negro American League’s East-West All-Star game that was played at Comiskey Park. Several White Sox scouts were in attendance but were unimpressed.
The next day, Wendell Smith, a Chicago sportswriter, picked up Banks and John “Buck” O’Neil, the manager of the Monarchs, at their hotel and drove them to Wrigley Field, where Cub officials gave Banks a final look.
When the Monarchs folded three years later, O’Neil was added to the Cubs’ scouting staff and subsequently helped in the signing of dozens of black players, including Lou Brock. More than a scout, the courtly O’Neil, persuasive and with impeccable manners, was an organizational troubleshooter. When Billy Williams was in the minors and threatening to quit baseball-he was homesick-O’Neil was dispatched to Williams’ home in Whistler, Ala., and convinced him he had a bright future in baseball. Now 75, O’Neil is still on the Cub payroll as a consultant.
“We knew Ernie was a good prospect,” O’Neil said in a telephone interview from his home in Kansas City. “But we didn’t know he would develop that fast.”