On this date in 1953, the last man to ever don the #14 uniform for the Chicago Cubs – a tall, lanky man first stepped onto what he would later dub ‘The Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field’. Ernie Banks, ‘Mr. Cub’, made his debut for the team – the first of his 2,528 games he played for Chicago – appearing as the first African American player to wear the blue pinstripes.
Banks grew up in Dallas, Texas. As a child, the second of a dozen children, he picked cotton with his father. Eddie Banks had played for a traveling (Sundays) league for black players. Initially, which is ironic as he brought so much joy to the game, Ernie didn’t like baseball. His father would bribe him with a nickel or dime to play catch. His high school didn’t have a baseball team, so the young Banks played softball instead.
He was a gifted, multi-sport athlete, and showed enough promise to be recruited to play in a semi-pro baseball league at seventeen playing for the Detroit Colts in Amarillo, Texas in the summer of 1948. He was impressive enough playing against much older players that ‘the’ James “Cool Papa” Bell, along with Banks’ local mentor Bill Blair, recommended him to Buck O’Neil of the famous Kansas City Monarchs. The day after graduation, he was on a Greyhound bus to KC.
On the never-ending bus trips, Banks often sat next to fellow future Hall of Famer Elston Howard. At the end of the 1950 season, he was invited to play on a barnstorming team called ‘Jackie Robinson’s All Stars.’ This practice was common in the offseason back then as player’s salaries were significantly less than today. Robinson, who played several positions for the Dodgers, but the most at second base, even worked with the young shortstop on turning the double play.
Like many at that time, Banks was drafted into the US Army in 1951 and was sent to Germany (like Elvis Presley would a few years later, the new movie is decent). He returned to the Monarchs after his discharge in 1953. Three weeks after Banks played in the annual East-West game in Chicago, Cubs GM Wid Matthews ‘purchased’ Banks and another player from Monarchs owner Tom Baird.
O’Neil, the Monarchs’ manager at the time, told Banks and teammate Bill Dickey (not to be confused with the Yankees catcher of the same name) to be ready in the hotel lobby at 7 AM. They took a mysterious ride to the north through the Windy City to Wrigley Field. I’ve read different accounts of whether Banks had even heard of the park or not. There, they signed a contract.
You can’t talk Cubs history without talking about Ernie Banks
One week later, after playing his last game for the Monarchs, he flew from Pittsburgh to Chicago.
After a sleepless night, Banks returned to Wrigley and met longtime Cubs clubhouse manager Yosh Kawano, who gave Banks his famous #14, and a pair of black shoelaces to replace the yellow ones he’d been wearing. Kawano was employed by the Cubs an astonishing sixty-five years. On his first pitch in batting practice, Banks recalled he hit the ball into the left field bleachers using Ralph Kiner’s bat. He watched his first game in uniform from the dugout, against Robinson’s Dodgers.
On September 17, 1953, in his MLB debut, Ernie Banks nervously went hitless in three at-bats and committed an error at short, with the Cubs losing 16-4. To be fair, he faced Philly lefty Curt Simmons, one of the better pitchers of the day. His first road trip was to St. Louis, where he and new teammate Gene Baker, also black, were unable to stay with rest of the Cubs. A day later they were denied tickets to see a movie, as well.
In his second game at Sportsman’s Park, Banks had two hits, with a young Harry Caray on the call in St. Louis. The next day, Cubs’ outfielder Hank Sauer advised Banks how to face Cardinals’ knuckleballer Gerry Staley, which was successful in the eighth inning when the future Mr. Cub launched the first of 512 home runs with the team. He hit .314 for the year and would play in 424 straight games to start his career before an ankle injury sidelined him in 1956.
Banks is probably the most accomplished athlete in the history of sports to never play in a postseason. He died just twenty-one months before the Cubs won in 2016. I am proud to say when he died, I cried. Thanks, Ernie. You brought joy on a daily basis to an often-miserable team
Ernie Banks and Jim Enright, Mr. Cub, 1971
Phil Rogers, Ernie Banks and the Summer of ’69, 2011
Ron Rappaport, Let’s Play Two: The Legend of Mr. Cub, The Life of Ernie Banks, 2019