CHICAGO -- Ernie Banks might be baseball's ultimate natural. He climbed to the top of his profession without ever making a plan and learned to be comfortable under any circumstance, a trait that came in handy Wednesday.
Banks joined former President Bill Clinton, singer Loretta Lynn, Oprah Winfrey and 12 others in receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House luncheon.
It might not be the Nobel Peace Prize, which the 82-year-old Banks has publicly coveted for decades, but it's a tribute far beyond anything he could have imagined growing up with 11 siblings in segregated Dallas, where he walked past Neiman Marcus without being allowed to do more than look in the windows.
Ernest, as parents Eddie and Essie called him, was a dreamer who was willing to go where his talent would take him. All he ever needed was a chance and somehow he made the most of it, even when sometimes he still wanted to be on the bus with the Kansas City Monarchs.
Banks hit a batting practice home run on his first swing at Wrigley Field and was on his way to back-to-back MVP seasons in the National League and a lifetime as Mr. Cub. His high school, Booker T. Washington, didn't have a baseball team, but Banks stood out enough playing fast-pitch softball that he was recruited to play semi-pro baseball as a 16-year-old. He was recommended to the Monarchs by Cool Papa Bell, who saw him playing with the deceptively named Detroit Colts, who were based in Amarillo, Texas.
He would be sold by the Monarchs to the Cubs in 1953, when he was 22, because the Cubs were looking for another African-American they could pair with infielder Gene Baker, whom they had signed in 1950 but stashed with the Triple-A Los Angeles Angels for three seasons. Banks says he experienced "a real shock" when Monarchs manager Buck O'Neil and pitcher Bill Dickey shared a cab with him from the Pershing Hotel on Cottage Grove Avenue, in Bronzeville (Chicago's equivalent to Kansas City's legendary intersection of 18th and Vine), to Wrigley Field. It was a 57-block ride that changed everything.
"My life is like a miracle," Banks said. "I was surprised I came to Wrigley Field. Buck O'Neil was the manager of the Kansas City Monarchs. We got in a cab and started driving, looked up and [I] saw this big red sign that said Wrigley Field. What are we doing here?"
Banks said he hadn't asked O'Neil where they were going the night before, when the manager had ordered Banks and Dickey to be in the lobby early.
"I've always had this thing that ignorance is bliss," Banks said. "I didn't ask Buck where we were going … Like I said, my life is like a miracle."
Banks remembers the three men walking upstairs at Wrigley Field to meet with Wid Matthews, the Cubs' general manager, who explained his plan.
"He mentioned this to Buck O'Neil, he mentioned this to Bill Dickey and he mentioned this to me," Banks said. "He said, 'You're going to play here, you'll be back in 10 days to join the Cubs when you get off the road.' I went back and finished the season with the Kansas City Monarchs, then joined the Cubs … I really didn't want to come. Do you believe that?"
Tom Baird, the owner of the Monarchs, and Matthews had agreed on a deal the night before. The Cubs paid the Monarchs $20,000 for the rights to Banks and Dickey (who would never play in the Major Leagues).
This was six years after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball's color barrier, but Banks was in no hurry to join the pioneers in the Major Leagues. He was loving his life traveling with the Monarchs during the season and then barnstorming with guys like Robinson and Roy Campanella in the fall.
"I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas -- came from a family of 12 [children], second child, first boy," Banks said. "So my life, I came out of a segregated society into an integrated society. When I played, when I came along, there was segregation. The Kansas City Monarchs were all black, and I enjoyed being with them. Eating on the bus -- peanut butter and sardine sandwiches and crackers -- talking to them, learning from them. Many of those players who came out of the Negro League, their parents came out of slavery times. Buck O'Neil's parents came out of slavery time. To be around them and hear about their lives, how they feel about things, many of them even though they couldn't play in the Majors, didn't want to play in the Majors. They said they were happy [in the Negro Leagues], satisfied with playing here. 'We like what we do, we like each other.'
"When I was called up to the Cubs, I felt that way. 'Gosh, I don't want to leave these guys.' They said, 'You're going to the Cubs, they have Ralph Kiner, Hank Sauer, all those guys playing with them.' My thought was, 'I don't want to play with them, I want to stay with you all.' One guy, Sherwood Brewer, said, 'Ernie, you have to go to the Major Leagues.' … He said it's the Majors, as high as you can go. I say, 'I'm already as high as you can go, I'm playing with you guys.' They forced me into taking the flight to Chicago."
This was an era when blacks and Jewish players had to be tough to stick around. Banks always took his lumps willingly, whether it was having to live in far south Chicago because housing covenants prevented mixed neighborhoods or getting drilled with fastballs.
Monte Irvin says that the first black players in the Major Leagues "had to learn to duck before you could learn to hit." He played against Banks in 1954 and '55 and with him on the '56 Cubs and was always struck by Banks' tolerance level.
"They knock him down, he wouldn't complain," Irvin said. "Go on to first base. At that time they would [throw at black players]. Somebody else on the Cubs might hit a home run to beat a pitcher, but they waited until Ernie came to the plate before they knocked anybody down. That happened to me, too. That's just the way it was."
Banks always got his revenge at the plate. The NL MVP in 1958 and '59, he ended his Hall of Fame career with a .274 batting average, 512 home runs and 1,636 RBIs.
He always seemed to have a smile on his face, even when times were the toughest. Leo Durocher had wanted to trade Banks when he arrived to manage the Cubs in 1966, feeling that the bad knees that forced Banks to move from shortstop to first base were making him an overall liability.
Durocher was also threatened by Banks, who had long been the franchise's most popular man. Owner Phil Wrigley would not let his manager trade Banks -- Wrigley had vetoed a 6-for-1 Banks deal with the Milwaukee Braves after the 1960 season -- but couldn't stop him from writing other first basemen into the lineup.
The line of potential replacements included John Boccabella, John Herrnstein, George Altman, Willie Smith, Lee Thomas, Clarence Jones, Gene Oliver and Dick Nen.
"Ernie knew that Leo didn't like him," Ferguson Jenkins once said. "But you play hard for yourself, not the manager. So Ernie was always going to Spring Training, and someone always had his job, and Ernie would always win it back."
When Banks wasn't in the lineup, he would try to sit as close as possible to Durocher on the bench. He would never snap at the manager or complain through Jack Brickhouse or his friends with the Chicago papers.
"When somebody resented me, didn't like me -- and that was the case with Leo -- I kind of killed them with kindness," Banks said. "On the bench, I'd always sit beside him, on the plane sit beside him, in the dugout sit beside him. He's always looking around and seeing me … When you light a fire under my heels, it just made me better. I focused more, concentrated more, reached inside of me and got more out of myself. Overall, [Durocher] made me a better player toward the end of my career."
Banks never planned the ride he has been on. His genius is not letting anyone get in the way, including himself.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.