Bottom of the fifth. The Braves are ahead, 4-3, against the Cardinals. Usher Walter Banks takes the field.
The announcer draws the crowd’s attention to the outfield wall where Banks and No. 79 await.
The giant numerals, visible even from the nosebleed seats, represent the number of home games remaining at Turner Field before the Braves move to Cobb County. Throughout the season the team is presenting this farewell pageantry with notables chosen to take down digits at each home game.
The man yanking the number this Friday night in April grew up not far from where he is standing and has worked for the Braves since they got to town.
“More than career longevity, Walter is known for his humble personality, his razor-sharp knowledge of baseball and his ability to make everyone feel right at home in Braves country,” the announcer booms. A video montage and photos from his 50-plus year career, including one of him with former President Jimmy Carter, beam down from a giant screen.
The number comes down. Banks waves. Turner Field cheers and chops. St. Louis ends up besting Atlanta 7-4, but for Banks, the night is one of triumph. (photo by Pouya Dianat/Atlanta Braves)
Photo: Banks’ home is filled with photographs of family members, including parents Walton and Lillian Banks, visible top right. He also has lots of Braves memorabilia collected over the years, which fills several scrapbooks. Hyosub Shin/AJC
How many seams are there on a baseball? That’s the sort of numerical ice breaker Banks engages in with fans, and his trove of fascinating tidbits is enormous. Pick any number between 1 and 100 and he’ll give you a history, geography or cultural lesson.
“Ten? Chipper Jones was No. 10. His daddy was No. 10,” Banks said one night before the first pitch. “They had a ranch in Texas called Double Dime. Texas was the 28th state. Eight and two is 10. The ranch was on 10,000 acres. When he got hurt in 2010, he hit 10 home runs. His birthday is April 24. Four and four is eight and two is 10.”
“You’re on row 18,” he said, taking note of a fan’s seat. “Louisiana was the 18th state. The White House opened in 1800 and it’s on 18 acres. Ryan Klesko used to wear number 18. Now Jeff Francoeur does.”
(It felt churlish to Google this, but it all checks out.)
Who wore No. 31? That was a grapefruit floating across the plate, and Banks sent it into the stands.
“Greg. Maddux. He wore 31 for the Cubs, too. I think they retired 31 twice because Ferguson Jenkins wore 31 and Greg Maddux wore 31. Ferguson Jenkins might have been one of the first persons from Canada ever to go into the Hall of Fame. He also played for the Harlem Globetrotters. He was a real athlete.”
(Check, check, check, check).
Banks turns 77 on July 1 (the same birthday as the late Princess Diana and Olympian Carl Lewis, he notes). He is the Atlanta Braves’ longest-serving usher and one of its longest-serving employees.
In the stands, his gait is deliberate but unrushed, like a batter waiting for the right pitch. His gentle Southern accent soaks into each word like molasses sinking into a biscuit. “Fun” and “kid” are two-syllable words when he speaks them.
Spend time in Banks’ section and you’ll pick up trivia such as how Portland, Ore., got its name. (Founders who wanted to name it after their hometowns back east tossed a coin and the guy from Portland, Maine, beat the one from Boston.) Or why the British drive on the left side of the road. (In the day of horseback travel, when a case of road rage might involve swords, it was handy to approach coming travelers with your right hand on the outside. They never bothered switching sides when wheels replaced hooves.)
Banks’ love of learning started with his love of baseball. Growing up, he and his dad would listen to the Atlanta Crackers, the minor league team that pre-dated the Braves, on the radio. The broadcasts filled his young head with numbers as announcers rattled off stats, and they inspired him to learn about the towns from which opposing teams hailed.
“I learned all the names — the Birmingham Barons, the Mobile Bears, the Memphis Chicks, Chattanooga Lookouts, Nashville Vols, the Little Rock Travelers,” he said. “I was interested in people and always wanted to go to different cities, but we didn’t have a car. I said, ‘One day I want to be able to go to different towns.’”
And then one day, the world came to him.
How his streak started
Banks’ parents, Walton and Lillian Banks, left Chambers County, Ala., for Atlanta in search of job opportunities before he was born. (He’s a proud Grady baby.) Their photos hang on a wall in Banks’ home that’s covered with other family pictures and memorabilia. Walton Banks looks sharp in a fedora and suit; his wife’s wide smile brightens the room. He worked for Southern Railway, she was a cook, and their four children grew up in Atlanta’s Summerhill neighborhood.
“It was great,” Banks recalled. “I used to walk to school. It was about six blocks and you knew just about everyone along the way.”
After Howard High School, where he ran track, Banks worked in construction for a while, then got a job at Rich’s, where he stayed for 50 years. (It was Macy’s when he retired.) A few years into his Rich’s career he heard the Braves were coming down from Milwaukee and thought a side job with the team sounded exciting.
“They established an office down on Marietta and Forsyth streets in the Commerce Building,” he said. “I got to know the people who worked there. They said, ‘We’re not hiring right now.’ I would go by there regularly, just to keep in touch. They got to know me so when it was time to do the hiring I went back by there and they said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re one of our first employees.’”
Then as now, putting up a new stadium was a successful sports strategy for Atlanta. The coming new Mercedes-Benz Stadium just helped the city snag the 2019 Super Bowl; five decades ago, the promise of a new baseball stadium helped lure the Braves. Atlanta Stadium, later called Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, opened with a 1965 exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers. Legal tangles kept the Braves in Wisconsin one more year so the Atlanta Crackers, the Double-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Braves (and the Boston Braves before that), played their final season in the new stadium. In 1966 both the transplanted Braves and the expansion-team Falcons started using the new facility.
“It was something big, something new, something fresh,” said Banks, who started ushering at age 26. “I wanted to be on board when it started out. It turned us into a major league city and I wanted to be a part of it. When the Braves came, that was something national. You really felt like you were a major city. That was the first step toward being an international city.”
Banks keeps a copy of his first paycheck, a Citizens & Southern National Bank draft stroked on April 15, 1965, for $9.77. “They were paying $4 a game,” he said.
At Rich’s, where he was a porter and later worked in the mail room and as a driver, he started out at 80 cents an hour. His father’s wise advice guided his finances.
“He could do so much. He was a carpenter, he could lay bricks. He just had a sixth-grade education but he was real smart,” Banks said. “One time he gave me 60 cents. That was a lot of money. I went to the store and had a big time buying candy.”
Afterward, Walton Banks had a discussion with his son about the importance of saving money instead of spending it all, and the lesson stuck. Banks opened his first bank account, at C&S, when he got a job at a grocery store during high school. He bought his first car via payroll deduction at Rich’s credit union and kept contributing long after the note was paid.
“An avalanche comes from one snowflake,” he said. “Wealth starts the same way. The largest oak in the forest was once an acorn.”
Banks estimates his childhood home was about where the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium’s infield was. It was after he’d graduated high school in the 1960s that parts of many Atlanta neighborhoods, including Summerhill, gave way to “progress,” as federal urban-renewal dollars got planners, and then bulldozers, fired up.
“Growing up in this neighborhood I was just like any other kid, having fun, looking forward to the summers,” he said. “It was just like a little town.”
But Atlanta, like the rest of the South, was far different back then. The year he was born, “Gone With the Wind” had its premiere at Loew’s Grand Theatre on Peachtree Street; Hattie McDaniel would win an Oscar for her role but was absent from the Atlanta festivities due to segregation. Banks recalled a school trip to Washington, D.C., when black and white travelers had to ride in separate cars.
“I stayed within walking distance of Grant Park, but I was grown before I ever went in the park,” he added. Like most of the city’s parks, Grant Park was off limits to blacks.
“Any park, we could walk through but you couldn’t sit, you couldn’t play,” Banks said.
Segregation kept Banks out of the library near his home, too.
“It wasn’t open to us,” he said. “That’s the way it was when I came into the world. That’s all I ever knew. I never had a white classmate. I never had a white teacher.”
Jim Crow’s grip on the South seemed to exact a personal cruelty with Banks. A man with such a voracious appetite for knowledge was once barred from the library; this most avid of baseball fans, who would dedicate much of his working life to major-league sports, was once barred from public parks. It’s infuriating to contemplate, but Banks doesn’t dwell on injustices of the past. Instead he reaches into his iron-clad memory bank for more history lessons.
“I was born in 1939. The population (of Atlanta) was 300,000. ‘God Bless America’ and ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ were the top songs,” he said. “And the Yankees won the World Series.”
The road scholar
Banks, who has two adult children and two grandchildren, enjoys traveling. He always begins by researching his destinations and comes home with new facts to dispense. The magnets on his refrigerator, from places like Detroit, San Antonio, Sacramento, New Orleans, Orlando, reflect his love of exploration. Discussing his trips is like tugging on a string.
“Lincoln was shot on the 14th, he died on the 15th, he was the 16th president and they carried him 1,700 miles,” he said, referring to Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 and the three-week funeral train procession that followed. “My favorite building of all time is the Empire State building. It was built in 1931 in New York City. The 31st state is California. California became a state in 1850. This past year California, in Santa Clara, had the 50th Super Bowl. The mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson, was 50 years old this year.”
His travels have connected him with key moments in history. During a trip to Memphis, he visited the Lorraine Hotel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. In Little Rock, Ark., he stopped by Central High School, desegregated over a defiant governor’s unlawful intentions with the help of federal troops in 1957. He recalled watching the rancor on television all those years ago.
“I wanted to see this building where the Little Rock Nine were marched in,” he said. “When I got there it was quiet and peaceful. I just tried to drift back in time to see how courageous those kids were.”
Banks was married for a few years, as a young man. Today he and his longtime friend and companion Geri Dunlap enjoy traveling and spending time together.
“From the time I met him he’s always carried himself in a dignified manner,” she said.
Occasionally she’ll try coming up with a topic to stump him with, but it hasn’t worked yet.
“He’ll go and research it.” she said. “He loves to read.”
They both love sports, too. They’ve talked about marriage, but a bit of independence suits them both.
“I had my home, he had his,” Dunlap said. “Maybe one day.”
Banks demurred at the notion.
“I’m so mean and hard to get along with,” he said with, literally, a twinkle in his eye.
❏ ❏ ❏
If you put a stethoscope to Walter Banks’ chest, it is tempting to imagine that instead of the usual thump-thump-thump, you’d hear the crack of a bat or the smack of a glove with every beat of his heart.
He works Section 107 at Turner Field, just behind and to the right of home plate, welcoming fans and helping them find their seats. That’s pretty prime real estate; a seat there for Monday night’s game against Cincinnati is $77, probably pricing out some families, given the additional cost of parking, snacks and souvenirs. Banks figures out a way to share his premium slice of the ballpark with a different fan each game.
On game day he drives from his home in the Cascade Road area to the Hamilton E. Holmes MARTA station, rides the train to Five Points, then catches the No. 32 bus for Turner Field. He strolls through the Braves’ fan plaza, looking for a stranger to surprise.
“I look around and just pick somebody out, and I hope they’re from out of town,” he said. “I’ll stop and speak to them. They’ll tell them me where they’re from. I’ll say, ‘Do me a favor. When you get inside, come over to 107 and I’ll let you experience batting practice.’”
Such inspired acts of kindness have made him a cherished ballpark figure among fans and a mentor to his fellow ushers.
“You can’t teach that,” said usher Damion Carpenter, who’s been working with Banks for nine years. “It says a lot about his character.”
Usher J.D. Goldstein talks about the time he worked Banks’ section like kids recall the time they caught a fly ball or scored a favorite player’s autograph.
“My first season I was like, ‘That’s Walter Banks,’” said Goldstein, who grew up seeing Banks at games he attended at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He became a colleague three years ago.
“Our job out here is to make memories for the fans, but I’ve been making memories for myself, and Walter Banks is at the top of my list,” Goldstein said. “Working with Walter is like working with an icon. Everybody in the stands knows him. Everyone wants to shake Walter’s hand.”
Naturally, Banks remembers the day the Braves announced they were moving to Cobb.
“The date was 11-11-13,” he said, recalling the shocking news. “You’ve been here all these many years. After a while you adjust to the change. Now they’re over halfway done building the stadium up in Cobb.”
He’d like to continue ushering, if he can figure out transportation and if the team will have him.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” said Banks, whose job security seems as solid (maybe more so) as just about anyone’s in the Braves organization, if not all of Major League Baseball. “Just because you’ve been here a long time, that doesn’t guarantee you anything. No matter how long you’ve been with a business, you still have to earn it.”
The distance to the new stadium and the current one from his home are nearly identical in terms of miles, but Banks is unsure how he’d get to SunTrust Park, the Braves’ home starting next season. He doesn’t like to drive at night and MARTA rail lines don’t reach Cobb County.
“I would miss the community,” Banks said, pondering the possibility of a future without the Braves. “The section I work in, I call it a community. You have so many people you get to know. They bring their children, then they grow up and bring their children. I would miss that camaraderie. If I didn’t see them, that’s what I would really miss.”
These days his supervisor, Erin Sheehan, gives him a ride back to his truck at the Holmes MARTA station after game nights. She hopes they’ll be able to continue carpooling after the Braves move.
“My favorite part of the night is driving home with Walter,” she said. “I always say, ‘How was your day?’ and he always answers in a positive way. He has taught me an intense feeling of humility and grace.”
He stays in touch even when the team is traveling or in the off season.
“He will call me on my cellphone and will say, ‘Erin, I was thinking about you and just want to say I appreciate you,’” she said, her voice catching a little.
Banks maintains a cache of scrapbooks from his time with the Braves. His photos from games and special events show him with folks like Braves legend Hank Aaron, former team owner Ted Turner, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and former President Bill Clinton. Stars such as Cuba Gooding Jr. and Jamie Foxx have spent time in section 107 over the years.
“Hope to see you at a ballgame soon,” a handwritten note from former First Lady Rosalynn Carter reads.
“Thank you for the autographed Bobby Cox baseball,” reads one from her husband.
Banks, who also has ushered for the Atlanta Falcons, during the 1996 Olympics and at Georgia Dome events, marvels at all he’s witnessed over the years, from the Beatles’ 1965 concert to the one Beyonce performed last month. He watched the Great Wallenda traverse the old stadium via tightrope and heard Hammerin’ Hank’s bat the night of No. 715.
“It was just an explosion when he hit that ball,” he said.
There is just one seam on a baseball, by the way. There are 108 double stitches; that’s the number people sometimes rummage through their minds searching for when Banks tosses out his clever question. The seam begins where it ends, like a runner ever rounding the bases, like a young boy who grows up in a neighborhood that becomes an infield and hears an entire stadium cheer for him seven decades later, as the team prepares to leave town.
“There’s been so many beautiful memories,” Banks said.
He didn’t set out intending to spend so many years with the team, but with his zeal for the game, dedication to the fans and affection for his colleagues, how could he leave?
“The Braves is a big family,” he said.
At the team’s last game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1996, Banks wore a tuxedo. He’s already thought about what his last day at Turner Field will feel like: A celebration.
“Every year when it’s going to be a new year, people are crowded downtown, they’re getting ready to drop the peach, everyone’s looking forward to the new year. They don’t look backwards at last year,” he said. “You look forward. You don’t look backwards.”
The Home Team
This is the first in a series of articles looking at Turner Field in its final season and those affected by the Braves’ move to Cobb County next season.
Some of the Braves’ long-time merchandise vendors ponder the move to Cobb County
Coming later this season
A generation of fans prepare to say goodbye to Turner Field
A look back at the legacy of Turner Field beyond the Braves
Behind-the-scenes look at ballpark cuisine and the folks who serve it.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
During the Atlanta Braves’ final season at Turner Field, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution plans a number of stories about “The Home Team,” folks who live and work around the ballpark and help make game day what it is. We couldn’t think of a better story to include in the series than a profile of one of the most dedicated and beloved figures of Turner Field. In the decades Walter Banks has spent working for one of Atlanta’s great institutions, he’s become one himself.
Multimedia reporter /
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Jennifer Brett is a multiplatform journalist and digital coach at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She is a North Carolina native and graduate of the University of North Carolina. She and her husband live in Cobb County, home of Atlanta Braves prospect Dansby Swanson and soon to be home of the Braves themselves.