"Once Buck O’Neil took him under his wing, he changed."
Back when Spitballin’ was just a glimmer in the eye of the newly-founded BallNine, we envisioned sharing incredible baseball stories from former players as a way to entertain and educate. We wanted fans to hear from guys they remembered from their youth and for the new generation of fan to hear stories that help keep the game’s great history alive.
The site launched two years ago this week and through Spitballin’ and other features, we have been able to bring you first-hand stories from guys who have played, managed, scouted or umpired from the 1940s forward.
But nothing hits quite like talking to the family members of the greats who have played the game.
This week, Joey Banks, son of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, joins us for a special two-part Spitballin’.
Today we’ll take a trip back in time with Joey to remember his childhood and early impressions of his dad at the ballpark and next week we’ll examine Ernie’s legacy and his place in baseball history.
A very good ballplayer himself, Joey played at Scottsdale Community College and USC before a minor league career. That of course came after being around the game from as far back as he can remember.
It’s one thing to have your dad’s friends giving you tips about baseball and life as you’re growing up. It’s a totally different ballgame when your dad’s friends are Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Ron Santo.
We’re all familiar with the usual Ernie Banks stories; from being Mr. Cub, to the guy who said, “Let’s play two!” We know about the 512 home runs, the back-to-back MVPs, his Presidential Medal of Freedom, statue at Wrigley and plaque in Cooperstown. We know he set a standard for power-hitting shortstops that has only been approached by a scant few ever since.
What fans might not be as familiar with are the Banks family stories about baseball and what life was like growing up the offspring of one of the most popular athletes to ever play any sport professionally in Chicago.
We want fans to be able to look behind the curtain and learn different perspectives they may not have considered and hear stories they may not have heard before, directly from the folks involved.
Somewhere the sun is shining and it’s a beautiful day for baseball, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Joey Banks.
It’s such an honor to talk with you, Mr. Banks. At BallNine we like to educate our fans on the game’s history through the players themselves, so it will be great for our readers to hear stories about your dad and your experiences as well. Let’s start out in your childhood. When did you get your start playing baseball?
I started playing at seven years old. Our bus driver had a team on the Southside of Chicago in the Chatham YMCA League. Instead of being called the Cubs or Giants, we were called the Blues. A lot of people would ask why we were called the Blues. I would tell them that’s what we gave teams when they played us. You schedule a game with us, you’ll get the blues.
I love it! You were a great ballplayer yourself. What was your experience like as you got older and developed as a player?
I went to high school in Scottsdale, Arizona because my dad was retired by then. I was a freshman in 1975, so he had been retired four years, but he was still a first base coach and hitting instructor. He was still travelling a little and still on the tail end of saying goodbye to the game. He was around pretty much all the time for our games. It was difficult being his son. My game was more about hitting the ball on a line and running, his game was to hit it out and jog around the bases. I had a similar glove as him though and quick hands like my dad. Because I was around the game so much, I had good instincts too. The game became second nature to me and my twin brother. I grew up playing catch and playing pepper.
As far as playing in college, I went to Scottsdale Community College and played there for two years. I hit .481 my freshman year and then .360 my second year then I transferred to USC. Ron Santo’s son went to Scottsdale after me. He was a freshman there when I was a junior at USC. I played with Lou Boudreau’s son Jim. He was a freshman when I was a sophomore.
“Those nights we got to spend the night in the ballpark and have a sleepover. You know, Playboys and beer, maybe a couple of cigarettes. Whatever we could find to get in trouble.”
What are some of your earliest memories that you have of your dad playing for the Cubs?
Going to the ballpark and hanging out in the clubhouse and dugout a little before the game. Once we were old enough, probably around nine, or ten, we would run around the ballpark and come back around the sixth or seventh inning. You would think it wouldn’t be a very wise idea nowadays, but that’s what we did. We had some kids we were friends with who were regulars at the ballpark that were a little older. That made my mom feel a little better about it. Then we became batboys when we were about 11.
That must have been a fun experience. What was that like?
The Cubs didn’t let the players’ sons work as bat boys for the home team. There weren’t any sons besides Santo though. Billy Williams had five girls, so he didn’t have any boys. We didn’t even have a father-son game. Some clubs had them, but the Cubs didn’t because there weren’t any sons. We worked in the visiting clubhouse and there were three guys, teenagers, who would run the clubhouse and then there was the clubhouse manager plus me and my twin brother Jerry. We did the grunt work. We ran the laundry, cleaned the clubhouse, did the floors. We weren’t given anything special to do. We received the players’ equipment sometimes and set it up. We’d get it in the middle of the night and then set it up. Those nights we got to spend the night in the ballpark and have a sleepover. You know, Playboys and beer, maybe a couple of cigarettes. Whatever we could find to get in trouble.
Joey Banks, one of Ernie Banks' twin sons, with his dad during Ernie Banks Day at Wrigley Field in 1964.
That had to be a really cool experience working in a Big League clubhouse at that age. That sounds like every young baseball fan’s dream.
Yosh Kawano was the clubhouse manager for the Cubs. He was a very famous clubhouse manager. His “Gilligan” hat is in the Hall of Fame. He wore this bucket hat all the time. I don’t remember him smoking cigars, but he had that grumpy attitude and ran a tight ship. He would tell us to get out very easily. When the players weren’t around, he would tell us to grab what we wanted and get out. We’d grab Bazooka bubble gum or some seeds; maybe some chicken soup. That was about all they had to eat. That and Ron Santo’s pizzas. Santo had his own single-serving frozen pizza. They would concession them to the fans and any leftovers would come down to the clubhouse. It tasted like cardboard. It was horrible. You went to other ballparks like Atlanta and you’d get friend chicken, mashed potatoes and a dinner.
The visiting clubhouse was very uncomfortable. There were wood floors and chicken wire lockers. Their locker room had a balcony on it and you can look down and see all the fans under the stadium. I remember Tuesdays would be ladies day and Ken Reitz would yell out, “Hey you!” Some lady would look up and say, “Me?” and Ken would say, “No, the one next to you!” I would think, “Man, I want to be a ballplayer. They get all the girls!” It was my first understanding of ballplayers and how they attracted girls, most of them were pretty good looking.
Did you have any players on the Cubs who you looked up to as a kid? Or guys that treated you particularly well?
I always liked Jose Cardenal. He was a little guy with big hair. Billy Williams was always like a father figure. Fergie was great too, but Billy was more like a dad. He taught me a lot about hitting. I liked Carmen Fanzone too, he was a utility infielder who played the trumpet. He used to beat me up a lot. He used to hold me down and put his beard on me; turn me upside down and shake the change out of my pockets. It was a fun thing. That’s the closeness of some of the guys. The veterans were very close, but not everyone was. Billy and Fergie were a big influence, but Jose always reminded me of what I wanted to be as a ballplayer. Little and scrappy. Joe Pepitone was a Cub too. I saw him ride through the turnstile on his motorcycle with his girlfriend on the back of it like he was a Hell’s Angel. I thought that was really cool. I wouldn’t call him a role model, but Peptione was a free spirit that I liked. I still like him and talk to him to this day; I talk to a lot of the guys still.
Was there a time when you realized how important your dad was in the scope of baseball history?
I would say when he hit his 500th home run. I was in fifth grade and that was special. Before that though, there were a few games where he won the game for the Cubs. The fans could always get so close to the players, so they were right there by the players’ parking lot. They would be shaking the car, grabbing his shirt and pouring beer on the car it was almost like a riot leaving the parking lot. I would ask, “Dad, do they like you?” He would just say, “Yea, they like me.” I would say, “It doesn’t really seem like it!” Then there was school. I may not even get a few steps past someone and I’d hear, “That’s Ernie’s son.” You start to get it that my dad was somebody different. I knew early that he was different, but he never acted differently. We would go eat and the guy would say, “Come right in!” I’m not sure if he ever paid for a meal, even though I’m sure he always offered to. Of course then getting the call for the Hall of Fame too you realize his place in history.
Were you at the Hall of Fame ceremony when he was inducted?
Yes, we were there and it was really special. It was in a field with a stage and some chairs set up. It wasn’t much of a venue. Cooperstown was a small village, not even really a town. We flew into Syracuse and drove to Cooperstown. In the 70’s, I imagine maybe 500 people lived there. We stayed in a bed and breakfast. It was this huge colonial mansion that had like one door.
We went drinking afterwards. It was me, my brother and Roy Campanella’s male nurse. There were only two bars in town. We went to one and the lady told us we weren’t old enough. We were about to be 18 and that was the drinking age at the time, but they wouldn’t serve us. So we went to the other place and they served us, so we had some beers. When we came back [to the bed and breakfast] the lady behind the counter was like, “Who is coming in at this hour?” She looked over and I had fallen and had these grass stains on my pants. It was a tough ride back the next morning! I don’t know how I got away with all that stuff.
During a visit by his parents to his home in Chicago, Chicago Cubs star shortstop Ernie Banks plays with his twin sons as his mother, Essie Banks, holds Jerry and his father, Eddie Banks, holds Joel. January 19, 1960.
Did your dad ever talk much about his experience playing in the Negro Leagues?
No, he never really talked about that, but I know it shaped him. He was a shy kid. Once Buck O’Neil took him under his wing, he changed. Buck was an outgoing personality and my dad looked up to him as a father figure. My dad’s dad was a lot older. He was one of 11. My dad wasn’t naïve, but he was sheltered a little bit. He lived in the projects growing up. But Buck and the Negro Leagues, plus the military were big early influences on my dad. He played in the Army overseas in Mannheim, Germany. He was in Fort Bliss, Texas doing KP duty and asked one of his friends to sign him up for baseball, so he started playing there. He did something during the games and they sent him to Germany to play and then he came back to the Kansas City Monarchs. So he went from the Monarchs, to the Army and then back to the Monarchs.
That’s some experience and a great way to have your “coming of age.” Did your dad ever share some of his own favorite stories from his playing days?
Yes he did and I was part of one of them. One story was when he got hit in the head with a pitch by Moe Drabowsky before helmets were worn. He was concussed and missed the rest of the series. When he came back a day or two later, he hit three home runs in one game against three different pitchers. That was one of the things that he was proud of. He got hit in the head without a helmet and didn’t get intimidated. He was a tough guy in that sense.
He really was. You mentioned being a part of one of his stories. Could you share that one with us too?
I played in Korea in games between the Braves minor leaguers against the Korean professionals They took Hank Aaron, Billy Williams and my dad on the tour with them too to do a home run derby against these Korean professional players. All three of those guys were in their 50s at the time and you had these big Korean guys. They were all over 6’0” and weren’t these little middle infield types. You had like 1,600 home runs between them. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure we won the derby.
When it came time to play the games, we would rotate the DH spot. So one game, Hank would DH, the next game it would be my dad. One of the games my dad DH’ed and I was hitting behind him. He came up with the bases drunk and hit a grand slam. I was on deck and I got to meet him at home plate. I said, “Nice going!” He said, “Thanks, son,” and kept going. It was special for both of us. We beat them so bad they stopped televising the games. Hank’s son Lary Aaron was also a part of the tour. He was on the Single A team with the Braves. He played outfield in the games, some of them when Hank was the DH. That was the first time that two Hall of Famers got to play with their sons.
Joey and Jerry banks, the twin sons of Ernie Banks, speak during his memorial service. 2015
Wow, that’s pretty amazing to have two generations of Banks and Aarons on the same team. That had to be an incredible experience and I am not surprised that memory remains so important to this day.
Yea it was special to go there. We played against the Samsung Lions and Samsung was a great host for us. We didn’t have a curfew when we went out there and we tied them the first game 3-3. That was not good. Our manager Eddie Haas implemented a curfew and chewed us out. I remember him yelling “Embarrassing!” The coaches went to the DMZ and toured places around Korea as part of the trip. Samsung was still 10% of Korea’s income at the time. They were huge. Their team owner also owned the hotel plus we toured one of his meat factories and a Korean Art Gallery that he owned. I don’t remember him being there, but I knew that it was his hotel and his team and he was quite the host.
That had to be quite the tour and I think this is a great place to leave off before we start to talk some of your other memories. Let’s pick it up next week and discuss how you view your dad’s legacy. I think you may have some other fun stories for us as well.