Without Buck O’Neil, there wouldn’t have been a Mr. Cub.
It was O’Neil, while managing the Kansas City Monarchs, who persuaded an overwhelmed shortstop named Ernie Banks to rejoin the Monarchs after he had gone back home to Dallas.
“He saw something in me that I didn’t know I had, and he nurtured me all the way to the Hall of Fame,” Banks said of O’Neil, his manager with the Monarchs in the early 1950s. “If it wasn’t for Buck, I would not have played baseball and I would not have been in the Hall of Fame.
“My life would have been totally different.”
Banks, who spent 19 years with the Cubs, hitting 512 home runs and winning the 1958-59 Most Valuable Player awards, began his career in Kansas City in 1950 for the pennant-winning Monarchs. He spent two years in the military and returned in 1953.
“At the end of that year, we’re playing in Chicago,” Banks recalled from his home in Los Angeles. “Buck called the night before. He told me to meet him in the lobby at 7 in the morning. There he was smiling, and we took a cab and saw the big red sign, ‘Wrigley Field, Home of the Cubs,’ and I said, ‘What is this?’? ”
O’Neil shepherded him upstairs to the general manager’s office, and Banks signed with the Cubs.
“It was Sept. 18, 1953,” Banks recalled. “He got me in the Hall of Fame, and my dream was to see him in the Hall of Fame. He was a wonderful man.”
And a pretty fair manager. O’Neil succeeded Frank Duncan as manager of the Monarchs in 1948 through 1955, winning league titles in 1948, 1950, 1951 and 1953.
“He had leadership ability and communication skills,” said Banks. “He had a tremendous knowledge of baseball. That’s the one thing I picked up from him when I joined the Monarchs. I didn’t talk a lot, I just watched him.
“He just had a sixth sense. I’d be sitting by Buck and if a ball was hit, he knew right away if it was a hit, or he knew right away if it should have been caught, or if a pitcher had power over the hitter or if the hitter had power over a pitcher. The man had an amazing mind for the game. ”
O’Neil joined Banks with the Cubs in 1962 as the first African-American coach in the major leagues and spent four seasons in Chicago. Instead of hiring a manager in 1962, the struggling Cubs experimented with a collage of coaches that ran the team.
Cubs outfielder George Altman, who played for O’Neil in Kansas City in 1955, said Chicago should have hired O’Neil as the manager.
“The Cubs missed a great opportunity, because there’s no one better at handling men than Buck,” Altman said from his home outside St. Louis.
Both Banks and Altman, who broke in as an outfielder, credited O’Neil — a first baseman during his days — for teaching them the nuances of playing the position, thus extending their careers.
“He was a terrific manager, and the guy could really inspire a ballplayer,” Altman said. “When I showed up, in the middle of the summer out of Tennessee State, I expected to sit and get used to the environment, but he threw me right into the fire the first day. That showed he had confidence in me.”
During the 1955 season, O’Neil, then 43, would occasionally fill in as a player. He was playing third base in Lexington, Ky., when a temperamental left-hander for the Monarchs got upset when someone made an error and started lobbing pitches.
“Someone then hit a hard shot to Buck at third that almost broke his leg,” Altman said. “Buck hobbled out to the mound, and you could hear him all over the park: ‘Boy, if you don’t get something on this ball, you and I are going to go round and round on this mound.’
“The next thing, all you could hear was that mitt popping. The guy was throwing bullets. Buck could be tough, and you knew he meant it, too.”