Baseball legend Ernie Banks never made it to the World Series or even played in a single postseason game in his 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs, but there's no denying that he has had a lasting impact on how fans think of baseball and race in America. This week, the two-time National League MVP will make room on his shelf for one more trophy: the Beacon of Life Award.
Major League Baseball will honor Banks, 80, as well as actor Morgan Freeman and musician Carlos Santana for their lifelong pursuit of equality during Civil Rights Game Week in Atlanta. The four-day event culminates on May 15 in the Civil Rights Game between the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies.
Banks, who signed with the Cubs in 1953, was one of the first black professional baseball players. Today, he runs the California-based Ernie Banks Live Above and Beyond Foundation, which supports underserved communities through various events and programs. The AARP Bulletin spoke with "Mr. Cub" about why he nearly turned down an offer to play in the major leagues, his most memorable at bat and caring for older adults.
Q. What was it like to play baseball during the civil rights era?
A. Civil rights have been a big part of my life. It made people aware of racial discrimination and the inequalities between black and white people. And what I tried to do is work along with that by creating better relationships with people I met in life, people who came to Wrigley Field, and people here in Chicago. I tried to get along with people who did not normally associate with blacks — and didn't know anything about blacks. I let them know there's good and bad in every ethnic group. I tried to support the image and the philosophy of the civil rights movement.
Q. What's the biggest difference between baseball today and baseball in your playing days?
A. During the civil rights era, black players encountered racial barriers, both on and off the field: teammates refusing to shake hands, fans shouting out insults, whites-only signs and many other painful struggles just to play baseball. Today's black athletes and major league players have no idea what we had to endure.
Q. Did you ever meet any of the brave men and women who were leading the civil rights movement?
A. Yeah. I knew people involved in the marches and demonstrations, and I met some of the guys like Rev. [Ralph] Abernathy and Jesse Jackson. I just got a chance to mix with other people and learn from them. It was a big change from what I had experienced in the South.
Q. How so?
A. Well, I was born in Dallas and grew up in the black community. I went to black schools. All the people I knew were black, and in 1950 when I signed with the [Negro League's] Kansas City Monarchs, most of the players were black. So my whole world was in the black community. That's why when the Cubs called me up I really didn't want to go. My friend Sherwood Brewer, who played for the Monarchs, told me over and over again, "You got to go to the Cubs. You got to go." And I said, "What's the big deal?" He said, "That's the major leagues." So I listened to him and joined the Cubs and I went from segregation to integration.
Q. Was there a bit of a culture shock at first?
A. No, I had learned a lot about race relationships watching people who were ahead of me like Jackie Robinson, who opened the door for black ballplayers in the major leagues. But it was a different experience for my father. When he first came to Chicago, he was afraid of all the people, especially white folks. The first game he went to at Wrigley Field there were all these kids that wanted autographs. He didn't know what to make of it. I remember looking up and seeing him in the stands. He couldn't sit down. It was frightening to him.
Q. What was the most profound moment of your baseball career?
A. Being elected to the All-Star team in 1955. To play with the best of the best in both leagues, that was very profound in my life. It was in Milwaukee that year, and Stan Musial hit a game-winning home run for the National League in the 12th. What was so amazing is he said he was going to do it before he went up to bat. He said, "Well, boys. I'm gonna end this. The roast beef is getting cold [waiting for me at home]." Athletes are amazing people.
Q. You've done quite a bit of philanthropy since retiring in 1971. Tell us about your foundation.
A. Ernie Banks Live Above and Beyond was set up in 1998 to help underprivileged senior citizens and children. We've awarded 32 students with scholarships from $500 to $1,000 and provided schools, community centers and organizations with everything from sports equipment to quality-of-life seminars.
Q. You also established a palliative care program in honor of your mother, Essie, who passed away two years ago.
A. That's right. Our goal is to educate family members, caregivers and individuals about palliative care. We work with the International Association for Hospice & Palliative Care. The program tries to improve the quality of an individual's existence during the last phase of life.
Q. Your father taught you how to play baseball. What did you learn from your mother?
A. She used to say, "Ernie, be satisfied with what you have and miracles will happen." I always remembered that. Whenever people in baseball would say, "Wouldn't you like to be with another team so you can play in the World Series?" I didn't say anything. [The Cubs' last championship was in 1908.] But the answer to that was, "No, I'm satisfied playing for the Cubs, playing day-baseball in Chicago, the middle of the United States." I was satisfied with that.
Craigh Barboza is a writer in Washington, D.C., and the editor of MyDVDinsider.com.