Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Historical Lessons in Pride & Passion from Mr. Cub

A Conversation with Ernie Banks
Moderated by Phil Rogers, Chicago Tribune
Highland Park Public Library
Monday, August 30, 2010
(Part of the exhibition, Pride & Passion: the African-American Baseball Experience, thru October 1)

San Francisco (by way of New York) has Willie Mays. Atlanta (by way of Milwaukee) has Hank Aaron. And Chicago, with due deference to South Side loyalists (and Minnie Minoso), has Ernie Banks.

Not only three of the greatest living legends to ever play major league baseball, but also the first African-American ballplayers for their respective teams (as Minoso was for the White Sox) after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

So although Banks has been the Cubs icon for as long as I can remember, it's sometimes easy to forget that along with being one of the greatest players of his or any era--though stellar for almost his entire 19-year career, during an astonishing run from 1955 to 1960, Ernie hit more home runs than anyone in baseball (averaging 2-7 more per year than Mays, Aaron & Mantle) as a shortstop despite playing on teams that never won more than 74 games--he was also a pioneer.

As he relayed during a compelling conversation with the Chicago Tribune's Phil Rogers Monday night, as one of several special programs the Highland Park Library is holding in conjunction with its Pride & Passion: the African-American Baseball Experience exhibition, despite showing prodigious talent during a stint with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League, joining the Cubs was not an easy decision.

According to Banks, even after integration began in major league baseball, he and other Negro League players were quite happy playing in the segregated environment, where great friendships were developed amongst one another (one of Ernie's Negro League contemporaries was Charley Pride, who went on to become a legendary country music singer and is now a part owner of the Texas Rangers). And although he soon came to love the Cubs and Chicago, Ernie relayed that in the early days, crowds of 2,500-5,000 were normal at Wrigley Field, allowing him to personally get to know a good number of fans. The always classy and chipper Banks focused on the camaraderie, even with those in the stands, but I'd have to assume he also faced a significant amount of bigotry.

A couple sweet moments at the event came when Banks introduced another former Negro League player in attendance, Ray Knox (pictured with Ernie at left), and also when he reminisced with a former WGN producer (I didn't catch his exact name) who had worked with him on a radio show way back when.

I thought it was cool that there were so many young kids in attendance (considering that even I am too young to ever have seen Ernie play in person) and most sat down front, allowing for several fun interactions with the still young-at-heart 79-year-old Mr. Cub. Such as when Banks revealed that prior to his legendary baseball career his ambition was to be an international lawyer, and then in response to asking if there were any lawyers in the audience, a kid stated that "being a lawyer is stressful."

Hopefully nobody's parents got too uptight when Banks humorously recalled Satchel Paige asking him if he could hit a "titty high fastball," especially as far more exuberantly than when discussing his diamond exploits, Ernie urged the youngsters to "learn something new every day" (as I captured in this video):

Other things I learned were that Ernie Banks played a game with basketball's Harlem Globetrotters alongside another future baseball legend, Bob Gibson (as well as famed hoopsters Goose Tatum and Marques Haynes); that one of his favorite mentors in the Negro Leagues was Cool Papa Bell, whom Paige liked to say was "so fast he can turn off the light and be in bed before the room gets dark!" (Ernie said it wasn't true but should be believed nonetheless); and that Banks would vote for Sammy Sosa and Pete Rose to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Asked "What happened in 1969?" Banks deferred to Rogers and audience members for an explanation (which included a black cat and a Willie Stargell home run), facetiously--I think--blamed the Cubs' endless futility on the legion of diehard fans who come out to support the team no matter the results and said that "patience" is the most important ingredient for a Cubs fan, along with loyalty. He also revealed--as shown in the clip below, along with a snippet of his duet with a young fan--the common reaction of opponents like Stargell and Aaron when Banks asked if they thought his team would win the pennant, even as the Cubs held onto first place for much of the '69 season.

All in all, it was quite a fun and informative presentation, and I couldn't help but think that Banks--who I remember meeting once in the late '70s--wasn't just a legendary baseball player, or even a local star who always embodied exuberance (as exemplified by his famous "let's play two" quip), but someone who has truly led a remarkable life.

In closing, Banks recalled his friendships with Aaron and Mays and in a veiled reference to modern-day athletes who get caught up in celebrity, contract negotiations and various misdeeds, remarked that all Hank, Willie and he ever cared about was "playing baseball, going home to their families and coming back the next day."


While the Banks appearance was wonderful and the Pride & Passion exhibition provides solid (though largely basic) information about the Negro Leagues, Jackie Robinson and subsequent black stars, 30 panels of text & photos plus a few pieces of memorabilia--most interestingly, old postcards of Negro League rosters--probably best merit a trip to Highland Park in conjunction with another special program. The film, The Jackie Robinson Story, will be shown at the library on Sunday, September 19 at 2pm, while on Wednesday, September 22 at 7pm, author Jonathan Eig will be on hand to discuss and sign his best-selling book, "Opening Day:  The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season."



To learn more about when and where the former Negro League baseball Legends will appear, check out www.NegroLeagueLegends.org


For further information about Ray "Boo Boy" Knox, Hank "Baby" Presswood, Johnny "Lefty" Washington and all the former Negro League Baseball Legends, go to: www.NegroLeagueLegends.org