I have previously written about my childhood sports hero Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks. It is therefore particularly sad to write of his death this weekend at the age of 83. “Mr. Cub” had 512 career home runs in 19 major league seasons and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977. He was also selected to baseball’s All-Century team in 1999. He retired in 1971.
As I have previously written, I met Banks as a kid and I used to hang around outside of Wrigley with my friends to catch the balls that he hit over the wall. We would have gloves and transistor radios to our ears while dodging cars in the road to catch a Banks hit. I met him a couple times because he lived near us on the Northside. I would never trade any of our Banks cards from the gum packages. I must have had a dozen of them.
Banks was the ultimate old school sports hero. He did not charge for autographs and was always chatting with adults and kids alike at Wrigley. He was not the “bad boy” party animal or the high-strung celebrity athlete that you too often see today. He was civil and kind and a great role model for my friends and I growing up. When we would see him in the neighborhood, he would stop and talk to us about what we were up to. I adored him. His enthusiasm was captured in what became his catchphrase (and that of Wrigley): “It’s a great day for baseball. Let’s play two!”
There are still athletes in the Banks mold. I would include people like Robert Griffin III in that league according to people who have met him, particularly with children. However, Banks was something special for us on the Northside of Chicago.
Banks began to play for the Negro leagues at 17 and began his professional career briefly for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues (he played one season before going into the Army). While he would return to the Monarchs, he was soon pick up for $10,000 by the Cubs. He played shortstop and first base.
When I heard of Banks’ death, I immediately thought of those summer days with my friends listening to our transmitter radios with our mitts in hand outside of Wrigley and waiting for a Banks hit to come soaring over the wall. I can still smell the gum in the baseball card packages that we would buy across the street and rip open on the curb. Banks was all part of that. He was part of us. Sure, we often never cracked .500 as a team and everyone called us the “lovable losers” but we had Ernie Banks. And that was more than enough.