I was “off the grid” the last couple of days fighting a nasty cold that won’t say uncle. So I missed the news. Very sad news if you’re a baseball fan from the days when the grass was really green and there were only 16 teams in the Major Leagues.
Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub aka Mr. Baseball, the REAL Mr. Baseball, passed away.
Banks was 83. To his final days, he was an ambassador for baseball wherever he went. “Let’s play two,” was Ernie’s famous life long catch phrase. He meant it. He played baseball when a doubleheader was a normal, regularly scheduled event in “the bigs.”
Ernie Banks wore uniform number 14. He was the face of the Chicago Cubs for 19 years. But he was that rare star who was appreciated WHEREVER he played. Banks was a lanky, power hitting shortstop decades before Cal Ripken was credited for redefining that position. As an avid Brooklyn Dodgers’ fan, I appreciated the Cubs’ “gold-dust twins”. Ernie Banks at shortstop and Gene Baker at second base.
Most eyes were on Jackie Robinson in the early 50’s as baseball continued to grapple with integration. Quietly, with minimal fanfare, Ernie Banks was also leading the way while enduring racial epithets in many cities. He smiled while Jackie often raged. Some in the Civil Rights movement suggested Banks was an “Uncle Tom” because he wasn’t more outspoken. But there was nothing timid about Mr. Banks.
“I let my bat, glove and resolve do the talking,” Ernie Banks told me in a 1962 interview. We talked in the visitor’s dugout of the old Polo Grounds, the initial home of the fledgling New York Mets baseball team. Banks’ eyes scanned the ancient ball park, remembering his early days along with that of Robinson, young Willie Mays and others who broke baseball’s color line.
Ernie Banks told me the racial strife and discord took a back seat to his love for baseball and the opportunity to play in the major leagues. He smiled when reminded of the joke that he loved baseball so much that he would play for food and board. The smile rendered that joke obsolete for me.
Ernie Banks compiled 512 home runs in an era when pitchers were dominant. He was an 11 time all-star, inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and presented with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2013.
I still remember Banks’ sparkling eyes as we sat in the Polo Grounds dugout and chatted about baseball and all the legends who’d played there for generations. I recall smiling to myself, thinking I was sitting next to a legend.
It’s nice to remember Mr. Baseball in this off-season when most of the chatter is about mega salaries and long-term contracts. It’s also appropriate as the Chicago Cubs seem to be on the verge of being relevant again. Cubbies — really ALL baseball fans — should celebrate the legacy of Ernie Banks. He shined during many frustrating seasons at Wrigley Field.
Let’s play two!