This is an homage, and while death is a serious issue, baseball is baseball, so forgive a little irreverence as I eulogize an immortal.
I don’t like the Cubs … never have. That said there are a few things that Sox fans will begrudgingly admit they like or respect about the Cubs.
Ernie Banks was also not one of those guys Sox fans more than begrudgingly respected. There was no begrudgement (maybe not a word, but Ernie liked playing around with language). He was one of the very few Cubs players who Sox fans would outright admit “I wish he played for the Sox”.
Perhaps least important is simply the stats. Ernie Banks still played more games in a Cub uniform than any player in history … and that history dates to 1876 and the founding of the National League. This is even more impressive because Banks lost prime parts of his early career not playing in the Majors (he had a stint in the US Army and time in the Negro Leagues prior to joining the Cubs). Despite this, Banks managed to collect over 500 home runs in his career. In the wake of the steroid era, the 500 home run club has lost a bit of luster, but keep in mind that Banks was only the ninth guy to do this, and only the fifth to do it playing predominantly in the pitcher-friendly National League.
He was a 14-time All-Star, and that came in a magical time in baseball history. This was one of baseball’s true golden ages with the likes of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and a host of others. He had good enough defense to win one Gold Glove Award at shortstop (which is never easy), and led the NL twice each in home runs and RBI (take a look at that list of beasts whom he had to out-hit to win those titles!). He managed over 2500 hits. He spent the second half of his career at first base, and is still one of only two people to hit at least 200 home runs at two different positions. Perhaps most incredibly, Banks was a power hitting shortstop. With perhaps the only exception being second base, this is the least power driven position in baseball. Shortstops are supposed to be relatively short guys, close to the ground, quick like jackrabbits. In fact, Banks was not a really big guy, but still managed to hit for considerable power. He owned the Major League record for home runs by a shortstop until Cal Ripken, Jr. shattered that in the early 1990s. In fact while outfielders and first baseman hit home runs with impunity, there have only been four to hit as many as 250 in a career (Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, Banks, and Miguel Tejada), and two of them needed “a little help” to get there … if you know what I mean.
Miguel Tejada is an admitted steroid user, so Ripken and Banks are the only two to accomplish this honestly. To just go off on a brief ‘roid-fueled tangent, I have spoken about how the steroid abusers tried to eclipse honest players of this era (guys like Frank Thomas), but those guys were also revving their tires all over the legacy of the players of yesteryear who are now lower on career and single season accomplishment lists because of this garbage. This means that real fans have to work harder to keep the true legacies alive in the hearts and minds of up and coming fans.
Looking past the numbers, Banks was a part of that first generation of African-American players who integrated Major League Baseball. He likely didn’t have it as rough as Jackie Robinson when he arrived, but there still had to be that pressure (for example being the first and only African-American on the Cubs) to perform well enough to prevent any thought of “THEY’re not good enough” to enter anyone’s mind. On top of that, Banks till had to make road trips through places like St. Louis and Cincinnati which were not known for being that welcoming to minorities … and I’m sure Jackie Robinson hadn’t won over everyone by the time Banks arrived. I can’t fathom what that had to be like. It is tough enough to try and be a great baseball player … I can’t imagine what it was like to do this as an African-American in the 1950s. Its for this, and his great play that Banks won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is hard to believe, but there were some people who didn’t like what Ernie Banks represented.
Beyond that … there was simply Ernie Banks. Banks had a love of baseball that went to the very core of his soul, and it was obvious to anyone. Banks would talk baseball with a lamppost. He had no pretensions, and was approachable by fans who adored him like no other. I suspect that he was like Bill Veeck in that regard.
When you think of all the big honors that one can get at the end of a baseball career:
- Baseball Hall of Fame (Cooperstown)
- Local Hall of Fame (state, city, team)
- Number Retired / induction to a team’s “Ring of Honor”
- statue inside/outside the park
- earning the epithet “Mr. >>insert team here<<
Each of those things can be given to multiple people, except that last one. When the acclimation of the fans is that you are “Mr. Cub” … you are the only “Mr. Cub”, and the only one there is ever going to be.
The fans are saying “This is the guy we hold up to represent our team above all others”. That’s damn near a curse! How can anyone live up to that? Ernie Banks did. I’m not even sure anyone earned that nickname for any other team before he did. Minnie Minoso is “Mr. White Sox”, and Tony Gwynn is “Mr. Padre”.
However, I think Ernie was the first to be saddled with that level of love and respect by the fans.
Ernie Banks retired in 1971. I’ve been to autograph shows in the past five years where he also attended, and the line was out the door for him. Keep in mind … his autograph is not remotely rare … Banks signs for just about anyone … yet the people still came out. I suspect it was a lot of people who maybe had never met him, and wanted to say they had met him or some were bringing their kids to to show them Mr. Cub.
Perhaps the final thing to say about Ernie Banks is that he was endlessly positive. He was a people person, and there is nary a story about him claiming that he said something bad or did something wrong. This is amazing because Ernie Banks holds one baseball record that no one wants to take from him. Even Cubs fans will admit that Ernie played on some brutally bad Cubs teams … in his 19 year career, the Cubs managed 6 winning seasons. Thus, Banks holds the unfortunate distinction of playing the most games in the history of Major League Baseball without having played a post-season game. I say this not to harass Cub Nation, but rather to demonstrate that he did not allow that aspect of his career to define him. I compare that to Ted Williams who was perhaps Baseball’s greatest hitter, but I think it clung to him that he never won a World Series (like all Red Sox teams between 1918 and 2004, the only World Series he was in went all 7 games before the Red Sox lost). Somehow, not winning the World Series hangs over great players like a rain cloud. Banks refused to allow that to be what he was about. He was about support and hope and people.
Charles Barkley was correct when he once proclaimed in a commercial “I am not a role model”. He was not saying “Charles Barkley is not a role model”, he was saying “professional athletes are not role models”. I’m not sure anyone is necessarily a role model because of what they are, but rather because of who they are. For all of this, this is why Ernie Banks remains a role model.
In a sad irony, many Cubs fans trudged out to Wrigley Field to lay flowers at the statue of Ernie Banks which is outside of the stadium. In a sign of all the things that can’t possibly get worse for the Cubs, the statue is in fact currently off display to get refurbished.
Requiescat in pace atque eamus caelestia catuli.
Update (1/25/15): Noted Cubs owner Tom Rickets and noted “Not-so-Great Communicator”/Cubs fan Rahm Emmanuel have announced that the statue is being rushed back into service, but will be placed in Daley Plaza for about a week starting this Wednesday so that Cubs fans can leave candles, flowers, or pour out a 40 0z Napa Valley Chardonnay to pay respects.