When Ernest "Ernie" Banks rode into Mesa for the first time as a rookie to train with the Chicago Cubs at Rendezvous Park in the spring of 1953, he missed his stop and said he nearly wound up in Apache Junction.
But Bob Lewis, the team's traveling secretary, was waiting at the depot for him near Country Club Drive and Broadway and when Lewis saw the train go by with Banks still on it, he chased it down with his car. After all, Banks had signed with the Cubs for a then-whopping $2,000 bonus, and the Cubs didn't want to let their investment get too far down the road.
"They stopped the train," said Banks, 79, a baseball Hall of Famer, who arrived in Mesa when only three teams called Arizona their spring training home. "I didn't know where I was. I thought, ‘why am I here?' Mesa was a very small community. It's not anymore. It's grown and changed."
Now, nearly 60 years later, Banks came full circle as he stood on a grassy hill in front of where the entrance to Rendezvous Park used to be when he was in Mesa on Monday for a whirlwind tour of meetings with Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts and officials with the pro-Proposition 420 Keep the Cubs Campaign. On Tuesday, Mesa voters will decide whether to allow the city to spend up to $99 million on a new spring training facility for the Cubs ($84 million for a small-scale Wrigley Stadium and $15 million for infrastructure) that would include a private development, Wrigleyville West.
"It's remarkable," Banks said of the changes across the street from Diamond's Sports Grille, 161 N. Centennial Way, near the Marriott hotel as he looked at a vintage postcard of the long-gone ballpark built in the 1930s and torn down in the mid-1970s that Mesa Visitors and Convention Bureau president Robert Brinton was showing to him. "The old has been washed away. Bring on the new."
When the Ricketts family purchased the Cubs from the (Chicago) Tribune Co. last year for about $845 million and announced they were entertaining an offer to move the team to Naples, Fla., where they were being courted for a new facility, Banks initially supported the move, citing first-class golf courses he liked to play on and a lot of Midwesterners who frequent spring training there.
But, with the Cubs generating $138 million a year in economic impact and steeped with history and tradition, and with fans coming to Arizona from all over the world, Banks said he now believes it's important for the Cubs to remain in Mesa to retain and create more jobs in a slow economy.
Banks, a power-hitting shortstop and first baseman, later became known as Mr. Cub and coined the phrase "It's a beautiful day ... let's play two!"
He hit 512 home runs during his 19-year career, was named the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1958 and ‘59, and was a member of the National League All-Star team 13 times. He also hit more home runs than any player between 1955 and 1960. For recreation during spring training, Banks, along with teammates Gene Baker and Billy Williams, would hang out with Willie Mays at the Elks Club in Phoenix on Seventh Avenue, south of downtown.
A native of Dallas, Banks was the second oldest of 12 children and now one of nine surviving siblings, who grew up during the Great Depression and later served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Banks briefly played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro leagues, but scouts from the Cubs recognized his talent and went after him.
Banks, whose top Major League annual salary was $65,000, was the first black Cubs player, and he was named Most Popular Cubs Player of all-time in 1968. He retired from playing in 1971 and became a coach. He technically was the first black manager in the majors after former Cubs manager Whitey Lockman was ejected from a game in the 11th inning of a game in 1973, predating Frank Robinson as the first African American to manage.
After Banks stopped coaching, he said he attended a number of colleges in an attempt to determine what he wanted to do, and even took a public relations class at Arizona State University.
Banks, who lacked self-esteem growing up, later founded the Live Above and Beyond Foundation, which helps underprivileged children and seniors in poor neighborhoods. Banks' goal is to help five kids involved in his foundation get scholarships for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"I always like to look at the good side of life," Banks said. I prefer to be happy and live a happy life. I think I've done that. Not everyone is as fortunate."
With a group of investors, Banks nearly became an owner of the Cubs when the Wrigley family put a price tag on the team of $21 million in 1981 - more than what the team's next owner, the Tribune Co. wound up paying former second baseman Ryne Sandberg over time.
"It's great to be here with Ernie to embrace our history in Mesa," Ricketts said. "It puts it all in context when you have Ernie with you."
Banks said, "loyalty and family are first and the Chicago Cubs are family."