Sunday, January 25, 2015

Let's Play Two, Forever: Ernest and Eternal Thanks to Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks

Name someone whose name and fame you likely knew by the time you were 7 years old, and who is still living today.

I don't mean a family member or a cartoon character, even if they're not mutually exclusive.

Certainly, this should be a bit easier for those a good bit younger than my 46, although even with the more recent proliferation of information options, I'm not sure which actors or athletes or politicians might pervade the consciousness of a kid of 6 or under.

While I almost assuredly would have vaguely known of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford by sometime in 1975--my birthday isn't until October--they of course are no longer with us, and though I won't pretend to precisely recall my sphere of knowledge as a toddler, I really don't think I could have recognized and named still-living (and largely working) movie stars of the time such as Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Sylvester Stallone.

My guess is that my answer to the question above would be: Paul McCartney, possibly Ringo Starr, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver and Gene Wilder.

And until this past Friday night, Ernie Banks.

Banks played his last baseball game with the Chicago Cubs in 1971, so though I probably technically saw him play on TV--my dad was always a big Cubs fan--I certainly can't say I remember it.

But especially at a time when Chicago was largely devoid of great sports teams, Banks remained a larger-than-life icon whose resonance--if only to this fledgling Cubs fan at that particular time--was greater than that of Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, Bobby Hull or other Windy City superstars.

So already somewhat indoctrinated to baseball before my 7th birthday, I was probably just as aware of Ernie Banks as I was of many active Cubs of 1975 (it's possible I knew Andre Thornton, Rick Monday, Jose Cardenal, Rick Reuschel, Steve Stone, Bill Madlock and Steve Swisher by then, but more likely not really until 1976 and beyond).

And I still recall how my family got to go onto the field at Wrigley circa 1977 and I met Ernie and got his autograph, along with that of Cubs starter Ray Burris.

That was a pretty big deal to an 8-year-old.

As was going to the Baseball Hall of Fame with my family in August 1977, just a few weeks after Ernie Banks was inducted.

I also recall, without real specificity but long before the Internet, that as kids my still-best friend Jordan and I somehow came upon Jack Brickhouse's call of Ernie's 500th career homer.

So although Ernie Banks' playing career was "before my time," it's not like he was just some legend of yore.

For much of my youth, and ever since, my reverence for "Mr. Cub" was in the present tense.

Also factoring into my chagrin over his passing--and conceivably that of many others, given the huge outpouring of memories and sentiments--is that Ernie essentially symbolized the Cubs, as his entire 19-year major league career was played in Chicago (and he remained prominent here long after).

While this also means he holds the rather dubious record of most MLB games played without a postseason appearance, even in playing in a pre-free agency era, Ernie Banks was unique from contemporaries such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew, who played for multiple teams and/or whose franchises changed cities during their careers.

Banks was born and raised in Dallas, was drafted into the U.S. Army, served in Germany during the Korean War and played in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs.

He was sold to the Cubs in 1953, becoming their first African-American player when he debuted at Wrigley Field on September 17 of that year, without spending any time in the minors.

Initially a shortstop, Banks hit over 40 home runs in 5 of 6 seasons between 1955-60, winning 2 straight MVP awards in 1958 and 1959 despite the Cubs having losing records and the National League being filled with all-time greats like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Eddie Mathews and Roberto Clemente.

In 1969, at age 38--having long since switched from shortstop to first base--Banks hit 23 home runs with 106 runs batted in as the Cubs had their best season in decades.

They were in first place by 9 games on August 15, but despite having three future Hall of Famers besides Banks--Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins--the Cubs wound up losing the NL East by 8 games to the New York Mets. (1969 was the first year the leagues had divisions.)

Despite--or likely in large part because of--their disastrous collapse, the 1969 Cubs have long stood as one of the most storied teams in franchise, and Chicago, history. Though toward the end of his glorious career, Ernie Banks was part of that.

And while his career home run total of 512 now ranks him 22nd all-time, he was in 8th place when he retired after the 1971 season.

Several of those who have recently passed him by--Bonds, A-Rod, Sosa, McGwire, Manny Ramirez--have been forever tainted by steroids, other PEDs or at least rather damning suspicion.

By all accounts, all Ernie Banks was ever on was the joy of life.

For despite truly being one of the best baseball players of all-time, many tributes in the last few days have referred to him as an even better person.

His "Let's play two!" catchphrase calling for a doubleheader due to his love of the game is legendary, and Ernie Banks is being remembered for having one of the greatest, most perennially upbeat personalities not only during his playing time, but in the 44 years since he hung up his glove.

Even fairly young media members, yet alone those who go back a long way, have been expressing their admiration for a man they personally knew.

I can't claim to have known Ernie Banks, or even encountered him often.

Back when I was collecting autographs much more avidly, I saw Ernie at a few sports collectibles shows, and without recalling specifics, I'm pretty sure I saw him at Wrigley at least a few times.

But in August 2010, I had the pleasure of seeing Ernie Banks speak at the Highland Park Public Library, where a conversation he had with longtime Chicago baseball writer Phil Rogers accompanied an exhibition called Pride & Passion: the African-American Baseball Experience.

As I wrote about here, it was a thrill to see Ernie talk about baseball--and life--to fans of all ages, but especially a large turnout of kids who could only have known about him second- or third-hand.

Banks was his typically delightful self, and it was a joy to see him reminisce with another Negro League player on hand that night--Ray Knox--but I was especially thrilled to see him stress the importance of education, as he urged the youngsters to learn something new every day.

This is a brief video I shot:

The last time I ever saw Ernie Banks in person was on the evening of July 19, 2013.

Actually, rather late in the evening, around 11:45pm.

That was the night Pearl Jam played Wrigley Field...

...and a rather gnarly lightning storm forced the sold out crowd to sit through a 90-minute rain delay.

After which, Pearl Jam lead singer and longtime Cubs fan Eddie Vedder told a story about Banks, Jose Cardenal and proceeded to sing his ode to eternal Cub optimism, "All the Way."

And then, brought the at-that-point 82-year-old Mr. Cub onstage.

Seeing and hearing Ernie, speaking ebulliently to the crowd, close to midnight, at a rock concert by one of my favorite bands, within the Friendly Confines, has to rank as one of the coolest things I've ever seen.

And especially given all that he must have seen and experienced, in the Negro Leagues and as the first black Cub, through years of losing teams and the misery of 1969, and even as the team's greatest fan through the heartbreaks of 1984, 2003, 2007, 2008 and all else, Ernie Banks stands as one of the coolest people, and certainly Chicagoans, of all-time.

For while I'm sometimes suspicious of how highly certain celebrities are extolled after their death, from all I've seen and known Ernie clearly was, as I've seen cited by a few commenters:

Pure joy.

Believe it, Ernie, someday we'll go all the way. And when we get there, we'll play two.

Thanks for making the world a happier place. 

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