Ernie Banks: Remembering A Kansas City Monarch Icon


Before Hall-of-Fame shortstop Ernie Banks became Mr. Cub, he served his apprenticeship playing for the Kansas City Monarchs.

While future Kansas City Royals owner Ewing Kauffman was still running Marion Laboratories from his basement, Ernie Banks started his Hall-of-Fame career playing shortstop for the Monarch in 1950. He only played in Kansas City for parts of two seasons, but he learned lessons that carried him through his career with the Cubs and through his 83rd birthday—until he passed away on Friday.

In 2012, Ernie Banks told MLB.com:

"“Playing for the Kansas City Monarchs was like my school, my learning, my world,” Banks said. “It was my whole life.”"

Ernie Banks responded to racism and prejudice with an unbounded love for the game that obliterated all barriers. His trademark was step onto the field and say, “It’s a wonderful day for a game. Let’s play two.”

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You know that in 19 years, there had to be days where he really didn’t feel that way. The grind gets to everybody. But Banks knew he should feel that way.

Banks maintained that attitude even through the dog days of summer, and the many cold days that come with a Chicago spring. His optimism was so infectious, and his talent was so prodigious, that Banks made little boys across Chicago wish they could be like him–regardless of color lines.

That was a big deal in the Chicago of the 50’s through the early 70’s. Ernie Banks was the first African-American to play for the Cubs, but the people of Chicago didn’t see him as a black man. They saw him as a baseball player.

It was in Kansas City where Ernie Banks learned those lessons.

Kansas City was home to the greatest Negro League franchise, well before the Kansas City Royals began play in 1969. Kansas City saw baseball legends like Cool Papa Bell, Buck O’Neil, Jackie Robinson, and the king of them all Satchel Paige dazzle fans with iconic feats.

Ernie Banks was simply part of the show.

Oh, he was talented. Ernie Banks was 17 years old and playing in sandlot ball in Dallas when Cool Papa Bell discovered him and later signed him to play for the Monarchs. Banks was still in high school at the time and agreed to play for the Monarchs for $7 a game.

“It’s a wonderful day for a game. Let’s play two.”

Banks’ manager in Kansas City was Negro League legend Buck O’Neil. In O’Neil’s latter days, he become a repository of living memory that kept the Negro Leagues alive in public consciousness. However, in 1950, Buck O’Neil helped shape Ernie Banks in to the superstar he became in Chicago.

Former Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanskhi, who wrote a book about Buck O’Neil and spent many hours talking to him, recounted this story in his tribute to Banks:

"Ernie Banks played with an energy and enthusiasm that broke through all the negative emotions, melted away cynicism and pessimism and racism and, in the words of another Chicago icon Ferris Bueller, all other isms. He had learned to express his joy for the game while playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues; he was shy then, unsure, and he would sit silently on the bus as it bumped from town to town. “Be alive, man!” his manager Buck O’Neil would shout at him. “You gotta love this game to play it!”"

Banks hit .255 or the Monarchs in 1950. He then was drafted and served in the military during the Korean War in 1951-52. Ernie Banks returned to the Monarchs in 1953 and hit .347.

But, more importantly, Banks learned from Buck O’Neil how to focus on the good without getting lost in the bad. Bank told MLB.com in 2012 when asked about the poor equipment in the Negro Leagues:

"“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.”"

Playing for the Kansas City was an invaluable learning experience for the young Banks. He told MLB.com:

"“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.”"

Banks liked playing in Kansas City so much that he didn’t want to go when Buck O’Neil (who tipped off the Cubs about Banks) told him that the Cubs wanted him in Chicago. Banks later said:

"“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.”"

In 1953 Banks singed with Chicago and hit .314 for an OPS of .956 in 35 games, solving what had been a disaster area for the Cubs.

He played 18 more seasons, hitting 512 home runs and winning a gold glove along the way. Banks was the first shortstop to hit 40 home runs in 1955 at age 24. Ernie Banks then proceeded to bash 40 dingers for 4 seasons in a row between 1957 and 1960.

I’d like to say he was the Alex Rodriguez of his time, except that comparison is completely unfair. Ernie Banks didn’t cheat. Ernie Banks didn’t throw anyone under the bus, like A-Rod did with his former trainer and many teammates.

A-Rod will leave the game with bitterness, due to an out of control ego. Everyone loved Ernie Banks.

There’s not a chance that an arrogant prima-donna like Alex Rodriguez could have handled the baseball world that confronted Ernie Banks. He simply doesn’t have the same love in his heart that exuded from Banks’ every pore.

In that sense, Ernie Banks still has timeless lessons that we need to remember today. When confronted with the unreasonable, Banks didn’t try to convert the inconvertible. Instead, he simply went out and succeeded. Not only was he better off, he inspired those who could be inspired, and—in the end—brought a few of those others around.

We’re long past the days where people of color lacked so much credibility that all they could do was remain silent about injustice and find a way to excel. Yet, we need to remember that NOTHING is more effective at overcoming stupidity than achievement.

People respond more to love and success than bitterness and hate.

I hope that everyone who suffers from unjust prejudice—racial, sexual, gender identity, body image issues, or even simply those who are bullied on the playground—can learn not to get lost in hate.

That’s why we all need to remember Ernie Banks.

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