My wife has known the man longer than I have — they worked together at Rich’s — and this week she made a gentle suggestion: “You should call Walter and see what he thinks of all this.”
Walter Banks is known as the Braves’ most famous usher — back in the day, he worked in Ted Turner’s box — but he’s way more than that. The Braves consider him their chief ambassador and historian. He’s featured in team promotions. On his 80th birthday, he had his bobblehead night. (One such statue sits on a shelf in our living room. I’m looking at it now.) If you care anything about the Braves, there’s a good chance you’ve met Mr. B. He’s the world’s nicest human. Any conversation with him leaves you feeling better.
At this moment, we could all stand to feel better because of COVID-19. Toward that end, here’s my conversation with the man who has worked every Braves’ opening day, including the 1965 exhibition at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (then named simply Atlanta Stadium) a year before the franchise moved from Milwaukee.
Q: How does it feel, opening day having been postponed?
A: Since you’ve been working there for so long and you know it’s a business, you know it’s not just you – it’s not about you. I think about some of the co-workers and some of the people who have been there for a long time, and they depend on their checks. They have to pay bills. Some of them are just getting started. That’s the ones I really feel sorry for. Really, it makes my day when some of those players or some of the companies or some of the teams contribute something where they could pay some of their bills. It’s a lot of people working from check to check. I just hope it will be over so they can have that pressure off them.
(Note: On March 17, the Braves announced the donation of $1 million to “create a special disaster relief fund to help gameday workers and certain other affected members of our baseball community with special financial needs that may come up before Braves baseball begins.” All MLB clubs are doing this.)
Q: I’ve been around a while, and you’ve been around a bit longer than I have. Have you ever seen anything like this?
A: No. But you know what? In every era, there’s going to be something to happen. You just have to always be prepared. Like every community has a fire department. If they have a fire, they’re going to be ready, but you hope they don’t ever have to use it. I just hate to miss (baseball). That was American’s Pastime when I was growing up – baseball and boxing.
Q: Baseball played on through the world wars, and baseball was the first sport to start playing after 9/11.
A: That’s right. The Braves played the Mets (in the first game in New York after 9/11). And after Katrina, the Falcons played the Saints down in New Orleans. That really helped with history, helped you to keep it in place. And then, when your own community had a team – that was one of the most exciting things in the history of my life, when I first heard that the Braves were coming to Atlanta. That was before we had any team. I’m still proud of the community, proud of the city. Anything with “Atlanta” written on it, it’s just exciting.
Q: Do you think they’ll play baseball this season?
A: This thing that’s going on now, it’s going to have to come to a head. There’s too much invested – businesses, corporations, hotels, cabs. Like a 30-second commercial in the Super Bowl costs … how many million? And every day, when the paper comes out and they’ve got the standings, that’s free advertising for your town, for your city. Can’t nobody ever say they haven’t heard of Atlanta — 1966 was really the beginning of that. You’re a part. Just like yourself, you’re a part of this community. You made your stamp. All cornerstones you can’t see, but they’re a big help, and they help make this community what it is. A lot of towns wish they had people to promote and write about, and they pick up the paper and see that.
Q: (After a bit of blushing.) Have you been in touch with the Braves?
A: They’ve had a couple of meetings. I haven’t gone to one. I do keep in touch with the person I work for. I don’t like to call a whole lot because I know at this time of the year they’re real busy.
Q: Maybe not quite so busy this year.
A: Oh, no. I’m just like Minnie Pearl: “I’m just so proud to be here.” And I have still got that spirit. I’ve still got that eye. You know what I mean? I hope I’ll be able to see this opening game. I’ve never missed an opening game. (I love) to get the lineups for the first game.
Q: Do you miss it? Are you thinking, “This is the time of year I’d be going to the ballpark, and there’s nothing happening at the ballpark”?
A: There’s something always happening – having a strong imagination, creating, seeing people. I might see some season-ticket holders. There’s always something to talk about. You’re around pleasant people, you’re going to talk about pleasant things. You don’t forget that. You don’t take that for granted. It’s just good therapy. Just like when I see you, I can talk about Penny (my wife) and talk about Kentucky. That’s because you are invested in a situation where people are more important, so when you talk to people you don’t talk about me-me-me. You draw them closer. Somebody could have on a University of Cincinnati T-shirt or jacket and I could tell them something about Cincinnati. The youngest player to pitch in the major leagues, he pitched for Cincinnati. (Joe Nuxhall.) And then (Cincinnati) had the first Little Leaguer to go to the big leagues — Joey Jay. Great guy. Just like Bullet Bob Turley (the 1958 World Series MVP as a Yankee against the Milwaukee Braves) — just as pleasant as he could be; he always loved to show his (Series) ring. Didn’t ask for anything, didn’t bother anybody. He’d just sit there in 107 and enjoy himself.
Q: I didn’t know Bob Turley came to Braves games.
A: He sure did.
Q: Are you optimistic there’ll be baseball this year?
A: I think so. They’re going to work something out. There’s too many jobs out there. Like Atlanta Stadium cost $18 million and they finished it in one year. Look what that investment has turned into.
Q: Are you doing OK, health-wise?
A: Pretty good. You know, you get 80 years old, you’re going to have your challenges. A friend of mine lives in Memphis. He and I were best friends all the way through high school. We call when you get 80, that’s the red zone. When you get 80, people you know are going to start dropping off. You already know this, and you use it as a tool to be thankful and, if you can, try to do something to make somebody’s day. Make somebody smile. There’s something you can do to make somebody smile.
Q: You’ve always done that.
A: You don’t have any choice. The kind of business we’re in, people can take their money anyplace. The Braves always get me a ride, an Uber, up to the stadium. I always tell the driver, “You’re a good driver.” You don’t know what they’ve been through, but I always try to leave them with something.
Q: Are you being safe? Are you washing your hands?
A: I try to stay in. If I go out, I come back in.
Q: It’s hard to believe you’re 80.
A: I’ll be 81 on July 1. Princess Di was born July 1.
And there you are. A few minutes with Mr. B, and you’ve learned some facts and, way more important, some life lessons. This conversation ended the way a thousand others have: “You tell Penny I said hello. Will you do that for me?”
For the 1,001st time, I did.
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