Ernie Banks passed away on Friday, January 23rd, 2015, eight days before his 84th birthday. He was a Chicago icon, a Hall of Fame shortstop who won two MVP awards while playing his entire career for the Chicago Cubs. He never made it to the postseason, but was widely regarded as “Mr. Cub”, a beloved figure in spite of his team’s mediocrity – or because of it. He was the first player in the modern era to be identified as an offensive force while playing shortstop, a position not known at the time for prolific offense.
The above facts are bits that you can gather from pretty much any sports site on the Internet. When baseball loses a legend, the masses tend to get roused into writing eulogies and tributes (this one being no exception). This is especially true for baseball because it’s a sport that is incredibly driven by nostalgia, and a sport that honors and remembers its heroes more than pretty much every American professional sport league. Because of this, it’s easy to regard everyone as a mythical hero on a baseball card, and to lose sight of the people underneath those cardboard cutouts.
What’s amazing about the person that Ernie Banks was, and remains in memory, is that he was exactly the person who he purported to be on the field – a paragon of joy and good will.
Ernie Banks is the face of the Chicago Cubs franchise, even in death. He has been Mr. Cub since the 1960’s, and will remain so forever. There’s a reason his statue sits out front of Wrigley Field, and it’s the same reason that Wrigley Field is adorned with #14 flags at half mast, and why #14 will be a patch on every Cub uniform all summer long. He shall not be forgotten.
Ernie Banks has probably sponsored more Little League teams in the city than any other player (current or former) on either Chicago baseball team. His car dealership sponsored sportswriter/ESPN personality Michael Wilbon’s Little League – without him, there might not be that league on the South Side. He remained a loyal citizen to the city long after his career had ended, leaving his mark on many of those who have resided in the city for any period of time.
I only saw him in person once, in the distance at a Cubs game where he was sitting in the press box. He was announced, and the crowd cheered as he stood up and waved. Players often show up to games, making appearances on behalf of the team. Ernie Banks just showed up because he loved baseball.
What’s more, he was approachable, and made an effort to get to know those around him. Other former players can be crusty – I still remember Johnny Bench sitting ten rows in front of me at a Reds game telling a little kid (not me, I swear) asking for an autograph to piss off. Banks would kiss ladies’ hands, would sign anything and everything, would laugh and shout “let’s play two”, his signature catch phrase.
One time, I was watching a game between the Reds and Cubs on television at home, and Ernie Banks joined Chris Welsh and George Grande in the broadcast booth for three innings. The Reds were good, the Cubs were bad, and the game was over before it got started – an easy Reds victory. However, Ernie was enraptured by the game. He provided insight about nearly every player, and when George and Chris got too overly chatty with inane banter (as they do a lot), he told them to be quiet and watch the game as politely as I’ve ever heard it. When Jonny Gomes hit a gargantuan home run to left, he let out a child-like yelp of delight, a boisterous “HEY! HOW ABOUT THAT?!” that contained more joy and enthusiasm than I’ve ever heard.
Sure, he was a Hall of Famer who hit 512 home runs. Sure, he’s one of the five greatest shortstops in history. But let us not forget he was the first black player on the Cubs, breaking the racial barrier with a smile on his face the whole time, spreading joy where he surely must have received equal amounts of hate in return. And Chicago loved him. And they still love him. It’s said by many fans that nobody laughed like Ernie Banks.
There’s a strip on Addison right out front of the stadium, where the names of Cubs greats are carved into the sidewalk. Greg Maddux, Sammy Sosa, Ryne Sandberg, Hack Wilson, and others all have their spot. Ernie Banks has one, right between former teammates Billy Williams and Ron Santo. For the past three days, it has become a memorial of sorts, with homage paid by hundreds of fans. Flowers, mementos, jerseys, even homemade collages have been left in honor of Mr. Cub.
It makes sense that Ernie Banks would be the face of the Cubs. Other players have come through and hit more home runs. Others have had magnificent postseasons. Others have carried the team to glory. But nobody else played with the joy of Ernie Banks, and nobody meant it. The Cubs are a team that’s been maligned for years. They might be cursed. They haven’t won a World Series since the Kaiser ruled in Germany, since the Ottoman Empire was still a thing, since before Al Capone was a big deal. It’s easy to get bogged down in the woes of perpetually losing. Ernie Banks never let that get to him, and by extension, the Cubs became Lovable Losers. After all, it’s a beautiful day.
Let’s play two.
All images (save the first) taken by Travis at locations around Wrigley Field, Chicago, IL