Ernie Banks’ Early Life and Baseball Career

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.”

Published in: on September 12, 2010 at 5:32 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Scenes from Before the 1988 Old Timers Game

Leo Durocher, nearly 83 and preparing to manage the N.L. All-Stars at the Old Timers Game of 1988 [before the All-Star Game], was listening to the Cincinnati Reds’ team physician, in a pregame clubhouse meeting, telling the players not to exert themselves in the 90-degree heat.

Durocher, who was drinking milk, not alcohol, as he talked, said: “He was talking like a professor. He told us, ‘Drink Gatorade! Get plenty of water! Keep the fluids in your body!’
“Finally, I hit the table and I said, ‘Damn it, Doc! Take a hike! I never held a meeting this long for a World Series game.’
“And everyone broke up, laughing. And that ended the meeting.”

Durocher added: “I never held long team meetings. After we beat Cleveland three straight (in the 1954 World Series), we were dressing for the fourth game, and Alvin Dark said, ‘Are you ready, Leo?’ I said, ‘Whenever you are.’ And Dark said, ‘This is a lousy town. Let’s beat ’em and go home.’ We didn’t need no meeting.”

Billy Williams told a reporter: “You should have been on the team bus. Leo was sitting next to Jocko Conlan. They were chirping away. All in a good frame of mind.”

Duroocher showed off a black and blue bruise near his left elbow and said: “When Jocko talks to you, he’s in the habit of grabbing you. Since my quadruple bypass, my doctor told me if I hit anything I’ll get a bruise. I bruise easily. And Jocko has trouble hearing. I kept telling him, ‘Jocko, I’m sitting alongside of you. It’s me. I can hear.’ ” [Read more about Conlan here.]

Life had quieted down for Durocher. He explained: “No more cards. I don’t go to the club. I don’t monkey around.

“I hang around. Play golf. Take it easy. What the hell, I’m in no hurry to go anyplace. I’m older than dirt: 83 coming up, July 27.

“I talk to him (Dr. Michael DeBakey, a heart surgeon) all the time. He told me, ‘Stop walking four, five miles a day. Two miles is as good as five.’ He said, ‘Play nine holes of golf, and if you feel good, take the cart for the last nine. But whatever you do, don’t walk 18. Don’t walk up and down those hills.’ ”

He told of watching the ’88 Cubs “on television. Once. With that Maddux pitching. Good-looking pitcher. They’ve got a good-looking young club. Some of those guys can play.”

Pete Rose and Durocher talked in the Reds clubhouse.

Charlie Hustle said: “He’s the greatest. He gave an hour’s talk last year in Santa Maria (Calif.). I had goose bumps. And I had to follow him. They gave him a Cadillac.”

Durocher confirmed what Rose said and added that the Cadillac had a sticker price of $37,750.

“Everything on it, from bumper to bumper. And in my color. Medium blue. And that wasn’t the half of it. They even paid the taxes. It only cost me $42 for the license plates. And the fellows said, ‘If you come back in 1939, we’ll give you another one.”

Ernie Banks said of meeting Durocher, his manager for the game: “Sure, I saw him. He said, ‘Nice to see you, how things going?’

“He’s my friend.”

The preceding was derived from a Jerome Holtzman article in the Chicago Tribune. A month earlier, the Dallas Morning News covered the June 25, 1988 Equitable Old Timers Game at Arlington Stadium. A few excerpts:

The players assembled for the Equitable Old Timers’ Game at Arlington Stadium on Saturday came for different reasons; some for money, some for camaraderie. They told stories. A couple complained about old timers throwing curves. Most were a little nostalgic, such as it is.

They came in all ages, sizes and degrees of talent. Bob Feller, 69, dressed next to Mark Fidrych, 33. Johnny Logan and Eddie Mathews, teammates on the 1957 world champion Milwaukee Braves, huddled in one corner, a bare-chested Mathews pointing to a bruise on his right bicep. Ten feet away, Walker was giving batting tips to Rangers manager Bobby Valentine.

Two elements go into the making of a successful Old Timers’ game , former Ranger Al Oliver said: No one gets hurt, and no one gets embarrassed.

Most say they have nothing to prove, but some know of players who did. Johnny Mize remembered seeing Ty Cobb in an Old Timers ‘ game once. The word on Cobb was that he would do anything to get on base.

Cobb told the catcher to back up from the plate because he hadn’t swung the bat in a while, and he didn’t want to hurt him with a wild swing. The catcher scooted back; Cobb put down a bunt.

“He was probably 70 years old and still trying to get on base,’ Mize said.

Mize has no such inclination. Like former Yankee teammate Joe DiMaggio, he goes to the games only for the reunions and to take a bow.

“I’ve had two knees replaced, and I had to see how it would feel if I hit the ball off the end of the bat,’ he said. “DiMaggio’s 74, and he’s a year younger than me. We’ve been in this game since 19-and-30. Fifty-eight years. There weren’t any agents then. No banks, either.’

Johnny Vander Meer, who 50 years ago gained fame by throwing no-hitters in consecutive starts, said the competitiveness lingers in some.

“A lot of pitchers still get that feeling inside,’ he said. “We wouldn’t give our wives a hit. They want to hit them out; we want to get them out. Everybody wants to look good, but when you get to be my age it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.’

Bob Feller says his wife, Ann, wants him to bear down and strike out everyone. But he says he understands the show. He long has been part of it, going back to his barnstorming days in the late 1940s with Satchel Paige. Feller organized everything. Made sure everyone got paid. Worked as the traveling secretary.

He was a charter member of the Equitable Old Timers ‘ tour, which began in 1986. He plays in about a dozen games a year, along with such regulars on the circuit as Mize, Warren Spahn, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Joe Torre and Enos Slaughter.

Feller also performs exhibitions in minor league parks, sometimes as many as 60 a year. He will be in Tacoma, Wash., on Monday, Spokane, Wash., on Tuesday, Calgary, Alberta, on Wednesday and at another Equitable game next weekend in Toronto.

He remembers Willie Stargell facing him in a game in Washington right after Stargell retired in 1982. Two men were on, two out. Stargell took a strike and then hit a ball that “went 10 feet foul, but about 480 feet.’

“I come back with the overhand curve,’ Feller said. “He misses, gives me a dirty look, and we all go home.’

Fidrych looks the same as he did when he won 19 games as a rookie for the Detroit Tigers in 1976. His weight is holding at 175. The curls still spill out of his cap, pulled tight against his forehead. He still talks to the ball and pats the mound, his trademarks in five years before arm problems ended one of baseball ‘s most popular careers.

He owns a farm and a 10-wheel truck and hauls gravel in Massachussetts. But he makes two or three Old Timers ‘ games a year, just for fun.

“I like it,’ he said. “It’s good just to get out, to put the uniform on again, to see the ballparks. Just the feeling you have to put on the “uni.’ I have my life at home now, and it’s nice . . . ‘

His voice trailed off, and he looked toward a corner of the clubhouse.

“But it would nice to still be playing,’ he said, softly.