First Posted: 9/17/2013
DALLAS — Robert Prince Jr. doesn’t remember the exact date he heard that one of the boys from the old neighborhood had made his Major League Baseball debut on Sept. 17, 1953.
But Prince remembers where he was 60 Septembers ago. The immense pride that surged through his still battle-weary bones when the slow-moving news made it halfway around the world resonates today.
Prince was in Korea, a machine gunner with the U.S. Army’s 25th infantry division. He was bathing in a stream not far from the infamous Pork Chop Hill when Armed Forces Radio blasted the news.
Ernie Banks, the best baseball player his hometown ever produced, had been signed by the Chicago Cubs and actually played his first big league game.
“I almost fell to my knees,” recalled Prince, 83, a retired physician, living in North Dallas. “Not many blacks were playing Major League Baseball at the time, not many people from Dallas were playing and certainly no one from our neighborhood.”
Back then, they called their neighborhood North Dallas. Others referred to it as Black North Dallas. Today, the downtown Arts District stands in its place.
Ernie Banks, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Cubs, grew up at 1723 Fairmount Street. Eddie and Essie Banks raised Ernie and 11 other children there.
The neighborhood was Ernie’s world. He attended Booker T. Washington High School, which didn’t have a baseball team. No matter. He made do playing on the school’s softball team.
He was a wide receiver on the football team and also ran track. He played basketball down the street at the Moorland YMCA. He worshipped at St. Paul United Methodist. After his short 1953 season in Chicago, he ventured out to land a job as a bellman at the tony Adolphus Hotel, less than a one-mile walk but a million miles away from Fairmount.
Previously, Ernie had routinely journeyed far from Fairmount on summer and autumn weekends when he would climb on the flatbed of a truck before sun-up for the ride north to Frisco, where he earned $1.75 a day picking cotton.
“Our North Dallas,” Ernie Banks said, says, taking a breath a lifetime later, “was a great place to grow up.”
Banks’ destiny changed one day in 1947 when a neighbor watching him pound softball after softball over the outfield wall at Booker T. could stand it no longer. The neighbor happened to pitch in the Negro Leagues and managed barnstorming black semi-pro teams around Texas.
“It’s time to get off your ass and go play baseball,” Bill William Blair told the shy, quiet Ernie.
And then Blair ensured it would happen.
“I told his daddy I was taking his boy with me,” recalled Blair, who at 91 still reports to work daily at the Elite News, a community newspaper he founded 53 years ago.
“All he asked was that I take care of his boy,” Blair said. “We left to play in Nebraska early the next day.”
It hardly mattered that Ernie, who didn’t have a baseball glove, took his father’s catcher’s mitt. Blair fancied Ernie a shortstop. He bought Ernie a fielder’s glove and paid him $15 a game to play for the Amarillo Colts.
And so Ernie Banks began a baseball sojourn that would leave Dallas in the rearview mirror.
Blair eventually guided Ernie to the Negro Leagues’ famed Kansas City Monarchs in Kansas, where the shortstop was signed by a scout who fell in love with his skills, Cool Papa Bell. Banks was managed by Buck O’Neill.
After two years in the Army and a brief return to the Monarchs, Ernie Banks, at 22, reached the top of the mountain — the Cubs, where he became only the ninth black player to take a major league field.
“Not many people know I’m from Dallas,” Banks said by telephone last week from Chicago, where he quickly morphed into a civic treasure. “I used to get back there some, but I haven’t been there recently.”
The last time Banks got together with the boys from the old neighborhood was in March 2009 in the wake of his mother’s death in Dallas.
“Unfortunately, I only seem to get there now for funerals,” he said.
Dallas may get a reference later this year when Banks, 82, visits Washington, D.C., to receive a 2013 Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Among other recipients of the nation’s highest civilian honor will be former President Bill Clinton; the late Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut; country singer Loretta Lynn; North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith; and Oprah Winfrey.
“It’s hard to believe this great honor could happen to me, a kid from Fairmount Street,” Banks said. “I guess I’ve come a long way.”
IGNORED AT HOME
But not long enough for some.
William Blair thinks it’s nice that the nation is preparing to honor Banks. Now Blair wants Dallas to do the same.
“Ernie doesn’t come back home because he has nothing here,” Blair said, his voice barely above a whisper.
His determination, however, belies his soft voice.
“We have to do something about that,” Blair said. “For years, Ernie has been promising me to come back and stay for a while, but he all he does is promise.”
More than a quarter of a century ago, Blair was the driving force behind what has become known as Dallas’ annual Martin Luther King Jr. People’s Parade.
Now Blair, whose Rolodex is thick with the names of local and state movers and shakers, is determined that Dallas honor its native son.
“We’ll get it done,” he said. “And it will be sooner rather than later.”
Certainly the city can do better than The Dallas Morning News did the morning after Banks made his major league debut.
Buried in the fourth paragraph of a story headlined, “Phils Wallop Bruin Rookies to Win, 16-4” was this nugget: “Other rookie starters were Ernie Banks, 22-year-old Negro shortstop purchased from the Kansas City Monarchs …”
The Morning News was more attentive when Banks was voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1977. Although he never mentioned his hometown in his 400-word acceptance speech, it was front-page news in the sports section.
At the time, Banks, a two-time National League Most Valuable Player and 11-time All-Star who hit 512 career home runs, was only the eighth player to gain entrance to the Hall in his first year of eligibility.
Today, Banks, highly animated as if on steroids throughout an hour-long telephone conversation, became uncharacteristically quiet when asked if he has any regrets about his life in Jim Crow Dallas.
“It was a different time,” he finally said.
Seconds later, he was off and running, offering a spirited soliloquy on a one-time catcher for the Dallas Green Hornets, his father Eddie.
“He was a really smart man who taught me how to get along,” Ernie Banks said.
Carl Williams, 81, who spent his working days as an educator, once was the Booker T. quarterback who threw passes to wide receiver Ernie Banks. Impressively, he played shortstop next to second baseman Banks on the Dallas Red Devils baseball team.
He is prepared to march alongside his old friends Ernie and Robert Prince, his current neighbor in the Preston Road-Forest Lane area.
“When he went to Chicago, he took a part of all of us with him,” said Williams, who coached in the Dallas Independent School District before settling in as an elementary and middle school principal.
“The parade would be for Ernie, but there would be a lot of folks no longer with us who would be there in spirit. What a day it would be.”
Would Ernie Banks like to reconnect with Dallas through a parade?
“Absolutely, absolutely,” Banks said, his powerful voice reaching a crescendo. “I’d be glad to come home.”