There are certain rare times when I hear of the passing of an athlete or celebrity that I feel actual true sorrow, although those moments seem to be getting fewer and farther between as I get older and perhaps more jaded. After all, these were people that I never actually knew, but simply admired for their professional bodies of work, be it on the silver screen or on the playing field, and perhaps more importantly, for the way they lived their lives when not bathed in the bright spotlight (or at least as perceived by me). Ernie Banks, who passed away last Friday, just seven days before his 84th birthday, certainly falls into this category for me.
Banks personified to me all that was good in sports. A super star on the field, Banks hit 512 home runs during his 19 year career with the Chicago Cubs at a time when neither balls nor biceps were artificially juiced, and played in 14 All-Star Games from 1953 to 1971. He was a first ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame in 1977, and was selected to baseball’s all-century team in 1999, significant accomplishments for a man who never once played in a post-season game.
Mr. Cub, as he would become to be known, became a fan favorite on the North Side of Chicago soon after he signed with the Cubs in 1953 from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League at 22 years of age. Arguably his best season came in 1958, when he hit .313 with 47 homers (a record for a shortstop) and 129 RBIs. Although the Cubs went 72-82 and finished sixth in the National League, Banks edged Willie Mays and Hank Aaron for his first MVP award, becoming the first player from a losing team to earn the award. Banks won the MVP again in 1959, hitting .304 with 45 homers and a league-leading 143 RBIs, becoming the first NL player to win it in consecutive years.
But it was Banks’ personality and the way he treated people, be it a friend or just a fan, that all who knew him truly admired. I’ve never heard a negative comment from anyone when it came to Ernie Banks, and the man truly seemed to have a perpetual smile on his face. Famous for his memorable saying of “let’s play two” in reference to how much he loved playing baseball and how everyday should be a double header, he loved his Cubs and his adopted city just as much, and it showed in his everyday life with a kind of eternal optimism that maybe only true die hard Cubs fans can appreciate.
Banks, along with a 28-year-old second baseman named Gene Baker were the first two players of color to ever take the field for the Cubs in 1953. Baker went on to have a solid career with the Cubs and the Pirates, but it was Banks that the city fell in love with. Even during that turbulent time, people in Chicago didn’t see the color of Ernie Banks’ skin, they just saw the man and the ballplayer that he was.
I had the pleasure of meeting Ernie only once when I was 14 years old. It was the year of his Hall of Fame induction and he was sitting next to me on press row at Wrigley Field, tickets that my buddy Ray Kleiman scored for us through his mother who wrote for the Chicago Tribune. Press row back then at Wrigley was basically a row of folding chairs set up on a catwalk under the broadcast booth, so I was shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Cub for most of the entire game and privy to the events of his afternoon (I still have the 25 cent game program with his image on the cover that he happily autographed for me). What I took away from that day was how he treated any and all (including myself) that approached him as though we were doing him a favor by asking to meet him, thanking each of us for coming out to the park that day to support the Cubs, and how much, even 6 years after his retirement he truly wanted the Cubs to win that game– and every game.
There have been very few better ambassadors for a city or a team than Ernie Banks was for Chicago and the Cubs. Another in that category would be the late great Ron Santo, who famously said the reason he signed with the Cubs was because of two things – Wrigley Field and Ernie Banks. Now Ernie has left us and joined his old buddy Ron, with neither ever having the chance to see their beloved Cubs win it all. But if anyone can charm the man upstairs into finally letting the ultimate celebration happen at the Friendly Confines, it will be Ernie.