Life is not fair, as all adults know. Many examples are put forward to illustrate this melancholy truth. For baseball fans of a certain age the argument-ender on this one is the sad fact that Ernie Banks never got to play in a World Series. In fact, one of the best players of the fifties and sixties never played in any post-season game, as most of his Hall of Fame career came before Major League Baseball went to the multi-layered post-season series format. And save for 1969, Banks’s Chicago Cubs never got past Labor Day anywhere near the top of the National League heap, or with a shot at getting there (for most years, make that Independence Day).
Banks was not only one of the best players of his day, but, with the only serious competition for the honor coming from Stan Musial, the sunniest. Which is a marvel considering that he played all of his 19 seasons with the Cubs, who for most of that time were never far from last place. He earned the sobriquet “Mr. Cub” for his production, which largely went for naught. He earned “Mr. Sunshine” for his unshakeable, cheery disposition. He was most quoted for saying, “It’s a great day — let’s play two.” For the way he boosted the sport, he may as well also have been “Mr. Baseball.”
Of course I know that everyone must pass from this world at some point. But I guess until I unfolded the sports page to the Tampa Tribune Saturday and learned that Banks had died Friday at 83, it had not occurred to me that this sad fact applied to Ernie as well. Ernie Banks gone! Damn!
With this much sunshine leaving the world, global warming doesn’t have a chance. At a Sunday news conference in Chicago the family announced that Banks had died of a heart attack just a week short of his 84th birthday. And what an attack that must have been, because what a heart the man had. He was the perfect antidote to the all too common surly, self-absorbed, grasping modern big league athletes — all sports — who don’t seem to appreciate the wildly affluent and privileged lives they lead, or the fans who make these magical lives possible.
Banks enjoyed a long and successful career, one financially well rewarded as this was measured in his day. But his start in life was modest. Banks was one of 12 children in a Dallas family. His father only finished the third grade and at one time picked cotton to support his family (Ernie did this as well as a youngster). Banks’ pro baseball start was in 1950 with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League where he played for the princely sum of $7 a day. After Banks returned from two years in the Army (as was standard for young men in that day) the Monarchs sold his contract to the Cubs, where Banks began his Major League career toward the end of the 1953 season.
Over the next 18 seasons Banks put up Cooperstown numbers, including 512 home runs, 1,636 RBIs, and 2,583 base hits. He hit more than 40 homeruns in five seasons (how a whippet-thin guy like Banks could do this I still don’t understand), and drove in 100 or more runs eight times. His top RBI total was a remarkable 143 in 1959. He played in 11 All-Star Games. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, the first year of his eligibility.
As good as Banks’s career numbers are, the only Major League record he holds is the dubious one of the most big-league games played without ever having played in a post-season game, 2,528. This is just one thing that in a lesser man might militate against a sunny disposition. Another difficulty was that he was the Cubs’ first black player. So he doubtless was obliged to take a lot of crap because of the unreconstructed attitudes of some baseball fans in the fifties. And the Cubs 1969 September collapse after leading the National League East almost all season — they were overtaken in the stretch by the Miracle Mets of that year — would have been enough to depress even the most ebullient spirit.
But Banks overcame all to become a star player and a star human being. Banks clearly loved baseball, loved the Cubs, and came to love Chicago. Chicagoans, taken all around not a bunch of softies, returned that love with interest. He became one of the best ambassadors baseball has ever had. After his playing days Banks stayed in Chicago where he was active in the city’s sports, charity, and civic life. He will be greatly missed. I’ve added him to my list of people I wish I had met.
There is great sadness throughout the baseball world at this incalculable loss. But how can even death have dominion over a spirit so optimistic, so enthusiastic, so sunny, so grateful that he could continue to say, “Let’s play two,” knowing full well that his Cubs would probably lose both of them?
There is much enthusiasm about and anticipation of the 2015 Chicago Cubs. The team signed Joe Maddon as field manager during the offseason, a man who worked miracles at Tampa Bay on shoestring payrolls. No shoestring payroll in Chicago, where checkbook GM Theo Epstein spent lavishly to bring stud starting pitcher Jon Lester on board. I know, I know, there has been unrewarded enthusiasm about Cubs teams in the past. If the Cubs are playing in late October of this year, long-suffering Cubs fans will be fully entitled to enjoy every moment of it. But joy will be seasoned by the sad fact that Ernie Banks will not be there to see it.
Ernie Banks. 1931–2015. Great ballplayer. Great American. Rest in peace.
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