Ernie Banks grew up in Dallas where he played on his high school softball team. They didn’t have a baseball team. But Bill Blair, Banks’s neighbor and Negro leagues veteran, saw Ernie crushing those big softballs and recruited 17 year-old Banks to play semi-pro hardball. There he was noticed by the legendary Cool Papa Bell, then managing the Kansas City Monarchs B team and keeping an eye out for young talent to recommend. Banks saw Blair and Bell “compare notes” many times about his potential, and after two seasons with the Colts, the Monarchs sent two men, secretary Dizzy Dismukes and second baseman and Dallas native Bonnie Serrell, to the Banks household in hopes of signing Ernie. That’s how Ernie remembered it anyway. Monarchs manager Buck O’Neil remembered driving down to Dallas himself to sign Banks on nothing more than Cool Papa’s recommendation. However it happened, it probably didn’t take too much convincing after Ernie’s parents heard the starting salary: $300 a month. Banks later wrote, “This was big, big money to two people who had worked all their lives and never even come close to earning $300 a month.” Banks still had a year of high school to complete, but the day after graduation he boarded a bus KC-bound.
The 19 year-old stepped off the bus and into a banquet honoring that 1950 squad. Each player was asked to say a few words, and Banks uttered his thanks and that he hoped to make the team. The next day he found himself at Blues (later Municipal) Stadium playing shortstop against the Indianapolis Clowns. 10,000 fans packed the park, and Ernie had “the kind of jitters that are hard to describe.” He’d never even seen a park that big. His keystone partner Curtis Roberts shouted, “relax!” but Ernie found it impossible, though he did “eat up” the Clowns shadow ball routine before the game. His nerves throwing off his timing, Banks remembered that he flew out to right field each time up that first game. He also remembered Buck telling him, “Young man, you made a fine start. You hit the ball well three different times. Just speed up your swing a little bit and the ball will start falling in. Stay loose, forget the tension and you’ll be all right.” Ernie admired Buck tremendously, recalling, “(Buck) always had the right answers to cure everything from homesickness to hitting slumps.” From KC, he headed out on the team bus to cover huge swaths of the south, east, and midwest. “I learned a lot of geography on those trips and I learned a lot more about major league baseball by reading the newspapers in the larger cities,” he later recalled. He often sat with Elston Howard on the bus, whose “theories about baseball where the most interesting I had heard.”
Ernie was not a break-out star that first season. Buck remembered that he didn’t demonstrate much power in 1950. What game summaries were written didn’t give him much attention. The Negro Leagues Book by Larry Lester and Dick Clark show him playing 53 games and hitting .255 with only one homer. But some keen-eyed observer noticed something and at the end of the year he was invited to play on a month-long exhibition tour pitting Jackie Robinson’s Major League All-Stars vs. the Indianapolis Clowns. Banks, switching back and forth between the teams, suddenly found himself playing alongside Robinson, Don Newcombe, and Larry Doby. During the tour, Jackie thrilled Ernie by complimenting his hitting and coached him to turn the double play better by getting rid of the ball quicker and throwing to the second baseman at the perfect height so there would be no wasted motion on the throw to first.
Uncle Sam came calling and required Ernie’s services for two years. Ernie received a couple of letters from MLB teams inviting him to tryout upon his release, but when that time came in early 1953, Ernie’s “thoughts centered around just one thing: returning to the Monarchs and Buck.”
I wasn’t home in Dallas more than a day or two when I put in a call to Buck O’Neil. I finally reached him in Atlanta, and before I had an opportunity to ask if I still had a job with the Monarchs, he said, “We’re training here in Atlanta. I have a new uniform out and hanging in a locker. When can I expect you to report?”
Good old Buck hadn’t forgotten me! I reached the Monarchs camp two days later.
22 year-old Ernie returned in 1953 almost magically transformed into a fully formed, Hall of Fame level ballplayer. Those famously skinny, fast wrists were whipping the ball tenaciously, and the scouts were on him in no time. Buck just had to point out all the scouts in the stands to motivate his players. Former Monarchs great John Donaldson tried to convince the White Sox to sign Banks but was overruled. But over on the north side, the Cubs were interested and started trailing the Monarchs. Multiple Cubs scouts raved about Banks. “Good chance he is major leaguer right now” read one report. The Monarchs were in Chicago in early September one night, and Ernie was watching TV at the hotel when Buck told him and pitcher Bill Dickey to meet him in the lobby early the next morning. The trio headed to Wrigley Field and GM Wid Matthews’s office where Dickey signed a minor league deal and Banks signed with a shaky hand to the big leagues. Banks spent one more week with the Monarchs, during which time, “that old-time fellowship among the Monarchs really blossomed. Every man came up and shook our hands and offered congratulations…It wasn’t easy leaving those fellows. They were good friends.” And when the week was up, “I don’t mind saying I made a moist-eyed trip to the airport.”
sources and quotes:
Mr. Cub by Ernie Banks
I Was Right On Time by Buck O’Neil