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Remembering Monarch Baseball Great Ernie Banks

Ernie Banks, one of baseball’s all-time greats as a player and as a person off the diamond, died Friday. He was 83.

His sunny disposition and skills on the field took off when his professional baseball career began with the Negro Leagues in Kansas City. Cool Papa Bell, another former Negro Leagues player and a Baseball Hall of Famer, tipped off Kansas City Monarchs manager Buck O’Neil on the raw abilities of Ernie Banks.

At the time O’Neil, who died in 2006, had not seen Banks play.

“No, I didn’t have to. Cool Papa had seen him,” said O’Neil. “And he said, ‘You’ve got a kid in Dallas, Texas. Ernie Banks. I think he could play shortstop here.”

With the Kansas City Monarchs.

O’Neil went to Dallas and met the shy 19-year old Banks in 1949.

“He was very shy,” said O’Neil. “Ernie Banks. Could you believe it?”

Banks, in a 2002 interview, said Buck O’Neil made quite an impression.

“He came to my house in Dallas, Texas, and talked to my mom about playing baseball and he thought I can play,” said Banks. “Then I came to Kansas City, which was a real joy being around him.”

In the spring of 1950, O’Neil saw first-hand what Cool Papa Bell had told him.

“You know I saw those soft hands, arm was true and I saw those wrists,” said O’Neil. “And that quick bat. A natural. Couldn’t miss. Couldn’t miss.”

Banks played briefly for the Monarchs, then went into the service in 1951-52. He returned to the Monarchs in ’53 a young man around the fatherly Buck O’Neil.

“If you would do something wrong, he would say, ‘Boy, why you doing that.’ In baseball and even off the field. He’d say, ‘C’mon you know better than that. Start thinking.’ He was more like that. A teacher. Just everything,” said Banks.

Toward the end of the ’53 season, the Monarchs sold him to the Chicago Cubs where he reached his prime. Banks connected for 512 homeruns in his 19 years with the Cubs.

In a 2004 gathering to honor the living members of the 500-homerun club, Banks talked about the beginning of his career in Chicago.

“When I came from Kansas City, I didn’t know about any power. No home runs,” said Banks. “When I walked into Wrigley Field and looked around.” I looked out there at the bleachers and the vines and I said, ‘Wow, is this all there is to it?” he added with a laugh.

After weighing around 140 pounds when he signed with the Monarchs, Banks’ body matured after reaching the big leagues. From 1954 to ‘55, his homerun total jumped from 19 to 44. He also hit five grand slams in ’55. Bob Speake, a former Cubs teammate who lives in Topeka, remembers the fifth in a road game at St. Louis.

“I was in the batter’s circle when Ernie was up and the bases were loaded. I had a premonition that he was going to hit his fifth one,” said Speake. “Record-breaking. He hit a fastball into the hot dog stand in deep left field. Very memorable. That shot.”

Banks had developed as a complete hitter and a person. No matter how poorly the Cubs played, Banks always had a bright outlook. His most memorable phrase was “Let’s play two.”

Buck O’Neil said Ernie Banks was an outstanding student of life.

“Oh man, one of the best,” said O’Neil. “He got that from me and guys in Negro Leagues baseball.”

On the flip side, Banks was grateful for what he picked up from the Monarchs and under O’Neil’s leadership.

“I’m just so happy to be part of his life and around his life. I learned a lot,” said Banks. And many since have learned a lot about humility from Ernie Banks.

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