Darrell Huckaby - Banks ushered in Atlanta's Braves era

I am not an autograph seeker. I just don't see the draw of having a human being write his or her name on a slip of paper to keep for posterity. In my adult life I can only remember asking one person for an autograph, and that person was Bob Hope. I don't know if Bob Hope was in a class by himself as an entertainer and national icon, but I know that whatever class he was in, it didn't take long to call the roll.

Well, now I have two autographs in my collection. Let me tell you how it happened.

I went to the Braves game Thursday night. Yeah, yeah - I know. I said when Barry Bonds' name was placed - asterisk-free - above Hank Aaron's on the all-time homerun list that I wasn't having anything to do with baseball until the powers that be cleaned up the steroid issue.

But it's baseball, y'all. How long can a full-blooded American raised in the '50s, when Ted Williams and Joe Dimaggio were bowing out and Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were bowing in, stay mad at baseball.

Besides, my friend had great seats, just a few rows behind the owner's box. Plus it was Western night and they had a lot of beautiful girls down on the field in cut-off jeans and cowboy hats tossing out free T-shirts between innings.

OK. I didn't know that when I said yes to the invitation to go the ballgame, but it turned out to be an added bonus - none of which has anything to do with the autograph I collected at the game.

And speaking of the game, it was a good one. Mike Hampton pitched five innings and didn't pull, tear or break anything so far as I could tell. The Braves showed a lot of offense and a lot of defense and the bullpen was stellar. We root, root, rooted for the home team and they won, 9-4, and a good time was had by all - none of which was the best part of the night.

The best part of the night was getting to watch Walter Banks in action for the first time in a long time.

Walter Banks, for those of you who don't know, is an usher at Turner Field - but saying that Walter is an usher at Turner Field is like saying that the Pope is on staff at the Vatican.

Let me tell you about him. He was born in Atlanta, in 1939, and went to work in the mailroom at Rich's 20 years later - a job he would keep for approximately five decades. He was a baseball fan during a time when being an Atlanta baseball fan meant rooting for the Crackers, which Walter did. When it was announced that the Braves were moving from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1965, he hired on to be an usher in a stadium that wasn't even built yet.

When the first game was played - an exhibition between the Braves, who were forced by the courts to remain in Milwaukee an extra year, and the Detroit Tigers, Walter was in the stands, warmly greeting each fan who crossed his path and treating each one as if he or she were a special guest whom he had personally invited to his home.

Walter ushered for the beloved Crackers of his youth that year - for $4 a game, he once told me - and when the Braves finally returned for good the next year, Walter was there, too - and has been ever since. That's right. Walter Banks has served as an usher, first at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and more recently at Turner Field, since 1965 - more than 40 years. In all that time, he has missed fewer than a dozen games.

For most of that tenure, Walter has served as the usher responsible for the section of seats adjacent to the owner's box, and in that capacity has served as host and goodwill ambassador to presidents and kings - or at least those who would be king, and has treated each as warmly and graciously as those eager fans - of whom I was one - who showed up to see the likes of Al Kaline and Harmon Killebrew compete against Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Rico Carty on that April night 43 years past.

But here's the thing. Walter Banks treats everyone he encounters like royalty.

I have intermittently watched him do his job since I was 13 years old and have chatted with him on numerous occasions. I have never ceased to be amazed by the way he conducts himself. I have never seen a friendlier person or a more dignified one, nor have I seen a human being so at peace with himself. I hope I can be just like him when I grow up.

When Hank Aaron retired, the Braves found other homerun hitters. When Phil Niekro left they found other pitchers, and when Bobby Cox steps down, there will be other managers - but there will never, ever, ever be another Walter Banks in the Braves organization.

And that's why I asked him to sign my scorecard at Thursday night's game - and that's why I will keep it forever.

I am not certain about Bob Hope, but I know for a solid gold fact that Walter Banks is in a class by himself when it comes to what he does.

Darrell Huckaby is a local author and educator. He can be reached at dHuck08@bellsouth.net.