Monarchs hold special place in Mr. Cub's heart
Two years in Negro Leagues prepared Banks for Hall career
Ernie Banks grew up in Texas, became famous in Chicago and now spends a lot of his time in Marina del Ray, Calif. But Kansas City will always hold a special place in the Hall of Famer's heart.
It's the city where he learned to be a man, a place he still visits often -- and the former home to a Negro League team he never wanted to leave.
Before spending 19 seasons as a star for the Cubs -- before 512 career homers and back-to-back National League Most Valuable Player Awards enshrined him in Cooperstown; before the phrase "Let's play two!" caught on -- Banks cut his teeth with the Kansas City Monarchs.
In 1950, a 19-year-old Banks signed his first pro contract with the Monarchs, widely hailed among the most successful Negro League teams of all-time. Three years later, when manager Buck O'Neil told him his success had earned him a spot on the Chicago Cubs, Banks didn't want to leave.
Sure, he eventually warmed up to the idea in a big way. But initially, "Mr. Cub" -- the first player to have his number retired by the Cubs and a man whose statue stands right outside Wrigley Field -- didn't want to do anything but play for the Monarchs.
"I didn't want to go," said Banks, who turned 81 on Tuesday. "I wanted to stay with the Monarchs. When they said, 'Well, you have to report to the Cubs on such and such a day,' I thought about leaving my teammates. ... I just liked being around those guys. I didn't want to leave them. They were like my family."
Banks was a skinny teenager with natural ability but very little baseball experience when he moved to Kansas City. On the Monarchs, he was mentored by O'Neil -- the Negro League legend who went on to be the first African-American coach in the Majors; Curt Roberts, an eventual second baseman for the Pirates; and Elston Howard, a key member of the Yankees' great teams in the 1950s and '60s following his Negro League days.
"I was playing with experienced players, older players, and I learned so much from them," Banks said. "You know what they had? Wisdom. I learned so much wisdom from them, and I didn't want to surrender that."
Growing up in Dallas in the 1930s and '40s, Banks dreamed of going to Harvard and studying international law. He starred in football, basketball and track at Booker T. Washington High School, but baseball was hardly on his mind.
As a teenager, his father usually had to pay him a dime to go outside and play catch with him.
"I didn't understand baseball," Banks recalled. "There was no baseball in Dallas where I was born. No Major League team came through there. I had no contact with Major League Baseball; I didn't know anything about it. The only one I knew about was Jackie Robinson."
But Banks caught on quick. He began playing softball in the area, then, at 17, was invited to a semi-pro league in Amarillo, Texas. In his first game, Banks hit a home run, then, upon arriving at the dugout, was told by teammates he had to make his way to the stands.
"I didn't know what they were talking about," Banks said. "They dragged me out [of the dugout] and pushed me into the stands. 'Take your cap off!' they said. So I took my cap off and started collecting money."
Banks remembers collecting $1.25 from the crowd that day. "There weren't that many people there," he said with a laugh.
Soon, Banks would get a little more money -- but not too much more.
Banks caught the eye of former speedster and then-coach "Cool Papa" Bell, who recommended him to the Monarchs. Later that winter, O'Neil showed up in Banks' living room to give him his first contract.
Playing in the Negro Leagues wasn't easy. Aside from the rigors of segregation, players didn't make much money, their buses frequently broke down and their days were long.
Banks didn't really see it that way, though.
"I'm a cockeyed optimist," he calls himself.
"Well, my name is Banks, but I didn't care nothing about no money," he said. "It's not how much you make, it's what you do with what you have. That's what I learned from my mother."
"It was all right for us," Banks said. "You look at the value of things that the clubs in the Major Leagues had -- that was at a different level. What I had with the Kansas City Monarchs was another level. I got used to that. And when I got to the Majors, I got used to that. It's about believing and adjusting to things, whatever they are."
"That's all I knew," Banks said. "I lived in a black neighborhood, went to black schools, black grocery stores, all of that."
The Kansas City Monarchs were in existence from 1920-65, making them the longest-running franchise in Negro League history. They were the first pro team to use a portable lighting system, won 10 league championships before integration and sent more players to the Majors -- including Robinson -- than any Negro League franchise .
Records say Banks hit .255 during his first season with the Monarchs in 1950. Then, after serving two years in the U.S. Army, he improved to .347 in '53, catching the eye of the Cubs and eventually making him the first black player in the franchise's history. That led to a remarkable career in the Windy City.
But Kansas City is still a place Banks calls "a second home."
There's a BBQ place there that he frequents, and there's the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which houses countless recollections of a two-season stint in Banks' life that goes unnoticed by practically everyone but him.
"Playing for the Kansas City Monarchs was like my school, my learning, my world," Banks said. "It was my whole life."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.