Ernie Banks is such an important part of baseball history, yet the future of the game is what concerns the Hall of Fame slugger who spent his entire career with the Chicago Cubs.
Banks broke into the big leagues in 1953, five years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. So many African-American players of that era made enormous sacrifices to make it possible for minorities to play major league baseball.
Yet the numbers and percentages of African-Americans playing in the league now continue to dwindle.
"That is something that keeps pounding at me. Why is that? What is happening here?" says Banks, who slugged 512 home runs. "We have the RBI program, which was started for inner-city kids. But not many blacks are playing baseball. It disturbs me. I have talked to Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, Billy Williams…all of us are wondering what has happened. We are kind of confused about what to do about it. How can we help the situation? What caused this to happen. Where are the black players in baseball?
"Jackie Robinson had talked about getting the first black coach and we got that in Buck O'Neil in 1962 with the Cubs. Then he talked about getting a black manager, and we got that in Frank Robinson with the Cleveland Indians. We had the first black general manager--Bill Lucas with
Atlanta. Then Bob Watson with the Yankees became a general manager. But now, where are the players? Is it because basketball became such a booming thing because of Michael Jordan?"
Banks concedes that talented young African-American athletes have more options available to them now than when he was growing up. College football and basketball scholarships are plentiful for multi-sport athletes, for instance. But professional baseball should remain a viable alternative.
"The Jackie Robinson Foundation provides scholarships for the kids who go to college. And I think they had a day at Wrigley Field when they invited four college students to a Cubs game. And they will have some students out here in
Los Angeles, as well," said Banks.
"I have a copy of Jackie Robinson's Hall of Fame speech that he made in 1962. It was very brief and to the point. Jackie actually was my mentor. Many years ago when I was playing in the Negro Leagues, we would have these barnstorming tours after the season. I played against Jackie's team and one day in
Mississippi, he came up to me and said: 'You can play in the Major Leagues.' I just listened; I didn't say anything. He said, 'Yeah, you've got quick hands, you swing the bat good and you understand the game. I am going to recommend you to the Dodgers.' And he did.
"So Jackie became like a mentor to me. It was fortunate that we both played in the National League. I always watched Jackie and followed Jackie. I just followed him around and later on in his life he became more business-like. He started a bank in
Harlem, so I wanted to do that. He started some low-income housing; I wanted to do that. He worked for a major corporation called Chock-full-of-Nuts. I wanted to do that. He also connected with Nelson Rockefeller; I wanted to do that. I wanted to emulate his life. He was such a real pioneer. He used his celebrity to help make this a better world. That's what Jackie was all about. And he had a great partner in Rachel."