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Mr. Cub and the Summer of '69
By Phil Rogers
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Phil Rogers
All rights reserved.
Killing With Kindness
When Ernie Banks walked into Wrigley Field on a hot summer night in 2010, it had been almost 39 years since Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Deron Johnson couldn't handle the ground ball that went down as the last of his 2,583 hits for the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs enjoyed an off night on a trip to Washington and Cincinnati and were sitting in fifth place under new management. Mike Quade, a native of Chicago's northwest suburbs who had fallen in love with baseball watching Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and Fergie Jenkins, had just replaced Lou Piniella as manager — the team's 24th managerial change since Banks retired.
Maybe Quade would be the one. Maybe 2011 would be the season.
In baseball, as in life, you never know. Even with a team that couldn't win when it had the equivalents of Alex Rodriguez at shortstop, Evan Longoria at third base, Josh Hamilton in left field, and Roy Halladay at the front of the starting rotation.
If you love the game, you love your favorite players. You love them forever if they are named Ernie Banks, if they smiled at you, if they said something silly while they signed an autograph. To be at Wrigley Field on this night is to understand how there can still be an innocence in hero worship, at least for the players lucky enough to have competed before sports talk radio, steroids, and fantasy baseball.
For Banks and the players of his generation, the fantasy was just to play baseball, to make an honest living playing a game with a stick and a ball.
It always starts out so simple, and before long it turns into something else altogether. For the lucky few, like Ernie Banks, the game never got ugly, even if much about life out of uniform was more difficult than people knew.
Banks has been at Wrigley Field often since his last game there in 1971, continuing a treasured relationship with the only team he ever played for and the tortured fans who continue sports' longest, saddest vigil, waiting for the championship season that never happens.
Banks knows the disappointment as well as anyone, but you wouldn't say he has suffered.
He had his moments, for sure.
In June 1964, Banks was upset when the Cubs traded his roommate, Lou Brock, to the St. Louis Cardinals. But it wasn't his style to show it, so he simply made a quiet vow to the young outfielder.
"Don't worry, Lou," Banks said. "You'll still be able to get into the Series. I'll send a ticket down to you in St. Louis."
Brock got the last laugh. After helping take the Cardinals to the 1964 World Series, where they beat the Yankees in seven games, Brock sent Banks a package that contained the box his Series ring had been in — without, of course, the ring.
Banks could laugh about that, as he can laugh about almost anything. He laughed often on this night, speaking to a room packed with Cubs fans from the ages of 55 to 85, some of whom brought along children or grandchildren in the hope the younger generation would get to know the player they idolized as adolescents or young adults.
Banks kept a cap on his head, concealing the retreat of what had once been a nice head of hair. He had put on some weight during the four decades since his retirement, but he still had a physique that almost any man his age would envy. He was a little rounder around the middle, perhaps, but hardly overweight. He wore a yellow polo shirt bearing the logo of Cog Hill's No. 2 course, Dubsdread, which had long been on the rotation of great golf courses he loved to play while in Chicago.
Many of the fans came bearing relics for Banks to sign — old programs, baseballs he allegedly hit over Wrigley Field's ivy-covered walls, or photographs. They chose to celebrate the times when they were younger rather than stay home and dissect the 2010 Cubs guided by the little known Quade, who inherited the job when Lou Piniella gave up and went home to Florida, hoping like so many before him to wash off the stain of Cub-specific failure before going elsewhere to resume a less aggravating life.
There is no elsewhere for Ernie Banks, and that's all right with him.
His franchise had gone 63 years without a championship when he retired in 1971, and the team would be no more successful without him than it had been when he was one of the best players in the game — a wiry, country-strong shortstop whose power hitting placed him on the same level as Henry Aaron and Willie Mays in the late 1950s. The four-year tease that was the Piniella era extended the Cubs run without a championship to 102 years.
But like the T-shirts say, anybody can have a bad century. Why let the final score spoil the fun? Banks never did, although he burned to know the joy that Brock must have experienced while standing with his teammates at the top of the baseball world. He dreamed about what a World Series parade down Michigan Avenue would be like. It is his nature to dream, and few Americans have ever had dreams as outlandish and far-flung.
On this night at Wrigley, a gentleman in the crowd rose to tell Banks that he remembered reading how he often visited zoos when the Cubs were on the road and wondered if he still has an affinity for studying animals.
Banks answered the question thoughtfully but did not stop there. Thinking about zoos makes him think about circuses, and thinking about circuses makes him think about one of a thousand career paths he considered.
"I loved clowns," Banks said. "I read about clowns. I wanted to be a clown. I was going to Sarasota [Florida] to clown school, to train to become a clown. I liked clowns because they wore big shoes, red nose, sad face. Clowns looked sad but they made people laugh. That was always interesting to me."
In any conversation with Banks, it seems, there are always unexpected twists and turns. When he's asked to talk about baseball, he finds a way to turn the subject to business. Asked about his businesses, he turns it into a conversation about interpersonal relationships.
Banks says his "whole life was about education," and that he has always had a desire to learn something every day, which was still true as he approached his 80th birthday. He reels off a list of colleges he has attended, all strictly for the knowledge and not for a particular course of study — Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, Arizona State, Truman College, and Columbia College.
"I went back to school after I retired," Banks said. "I felt like my brain needed a massage. I didn't know anything when I finished playing. What can I do? What have I learned? It's all of that. It's like, 'Wow, I have to start out all over and catch up to guys who went to Harvard and Yale and Princeton and all that.'"
With the help of the late Phil Wrigley, who owned the Cubs during Banks' 19 seasons, Banks got into the car business and a variety of other enterprises. He would win some and lose some financially, just as he would love and lose in marriage.
On this night, he was married to 54-year-old Liz, his fourth wife in a line of commitments that began when he proposed to his high school sweetheart while in Germany with the Army. Marriage was perhaps the one area of his life where he had genuine regrets, although you'd never hear him talk about them.
Over and over again, he is asked to explain his trademark expression — "Let's play two." The stories he provides as its origin have changed wildly through the years, but as he's aged Banks has come up with an answer that provides a ring of truth.
He said he wanted to play doubleheaders because he was happiest at the ballpark.
"I was married, and that was the only place I could make my own decisions, when I came to ballpark — when to swing, when not to swing, when to run," Banks said at Wrigley's stadium club. "I couldn't do that at home. That's why I said let's play two. I didn't want to go home because I couldn't make those decisions."
Banks never gave up on love or life. That isn't in his nature.
He believes he was fortunate to have played before the lights were installed at Wrigley Field. "In my time, we had baseball in the afternoon and love at night," he said.
Banks has never understood how anyone could choose to live by themselves, without a husband or a wife. He loves to play matchmaker, making it a goal to be invited to more weddings every year than he had been the year before. At last count, his high was climbing toward 40 different couples who had asked him to help celebrate their nuptials in a calendar year.
Mark Grace was single throughout his tenure as the Cubs' first baseman. Banks spent most of those 13 years trying to find Mrs. Grace.
In public appearances, like conversations, Banks often breaks out in song to make his point. That's a skill that would suit him at home, as well, especially at bedtime.
Ernie and Liz adopted a newborn in 2008, Banks' fourth child. He was 77 when Alyna Olivia came home from the hospital and ready to sing lullabies to her just as he once had to his twin sons, Jerry and Joel, and his daughter, Jan.
That's all well and good — "Happy for you, Ernie," "Way to go, Ernie" — but when Chicagoans of a certain age congregate at an event Banks is attending, the thing they want to do is talk about baseball, particularly the Chicago Cubs.
They want to tell Banks what he means to them. They want to tell him how they saw him hit a home run at Wrigley Field when their father took them to their first game; how they were there on Opening Day 1969, and how they saw him hit grand slams, especially those fans old enough to know about 1955 when he set the record with five. They want to thank him for being so considerate, so giving of his time, and then ask him to give just a little bit more, enough to sign this picture they've had squirreled away in their home office since the Nixon administration.
Banks is happy to do it, although he admits that at one point in time his motivation was driven by the fear this was all going away as fast as it had arrived.
"I tried to sign every kid's autograph," Banks told the crowd at Wrigley. "Because in my mind I thought that one day I might have to ask this kid for a job."
* * *
Jarvis fires away ... That's a fly ball, deep to left, back, back ... HEYHEY! He did it! Ernie Banks got number 500! The ball tossed to the bullpen ... everybody on your feet ... this ... is IT! WHEEEEEEE!
Jack Brickhouse's time-capsule call of Banks' 500 home run preceded Banks' appearance on a Chicago talk radio station in the spring of 2010. After playing the often-replayed clip, the host asked Banks what he thought about when he heard it.
His answer was, frankly, sad. "I think that's about all anyone knows about me," Banks said. "People know I hit 500 home runs. Some people know the number was 512. But after all the time I was with the Cubs, that's about all that people really know."
No player chatted with more players, stadium workers, and baseball fans than Banks during his stay with the Cubs from September 1953 through '71. No player was ever more accessible for interviews, whether with Chicago reporters or those based in New York and elsewhere.
Yet in a Sport magazine piece that ran at the end of the '71 season, writer Paul Hemphill described Banks as having kept the public at arm's length, his substance obscured by his style, the person beneath his pleasant, often-cherubic exterior still a mystery after all these years.
Hemphill's story was "The Last Days of Ernie Banks" and contained the contents of a one-on-one interview conducted in a private area at Wrigley Field while also describing the non-stop flow of chatter between Banks and everyone whose path he crossed. The purpose of the piece, Hemphill wrote, was to "make some sense of this man who has managed to show not a sliver of his inner self in nearly two decades of being in the spotlight."
Writers have never stopped trying to explain the questions that come with the Chicago icon known as Mr. Cub. How can a genuine baseball great — one of the best players ever at shortstop, arguably the game's most important position — devote his career to a losing organization and emerge as a more cheerful retiree than players whose dresser drawers are stuffed with World Series rings?
The New York Times' Malcolm Moran, a reporter too young to have known Banks in the era when he was a favorite of writers like Dick Young and Jim Murray, was beyond puzzled by a Banks sighting, in uniform, at Wrigley Field before Game 1 of the 1984 National League Championship Series.
Briefly kicked to the curb by Dallas Green after the Tribune Company's purchase of the team from the Wrigley estate, Banks had been given back his post-playing career job as a low-responsibility ambassador for the franchise. It figured he would be somewhere at the ballpark for the start of the Series against San Diego, the Cubs' first playoff action since the 1945 World Series. But what was with holding court in the dugout, wearing a No. 14 uniform with a patch that read, "NL EASTERN DIVISION CHAMPIONS"?
Banks was there to throw out the ceremonial first pitch — a memorable effort, as he would fling it from the pitching rubber to the plate behind his back, a move he said he borrowed from Satchel Paige, one pulled off with the gracefulness that was lacking when Leon Durham allowed Tim Flannery's ground ball to go through his legs in Game 5 — but he looked awkward in uniform, almost as if he might try to sneak onto the field in the top of the first.
"There was something a little sad about [this]," Moran wrote. "Hall of Famers appear in suits and ties, and wave before they throw out the first ball, and then take their box seat. Banks dressed in the clubhouse with players who were not yet born when he first put on the Cub uniform. ... And yet somehow Banks' appearance performed the same function as the ivy on the outfield walls, the reminder of a time when scorecards did not cost $3, as they did here today, and pencils were nowhere near 20 cents."
Banks told Moran and other reporters that it was wrong to consider the Cubs losers. "They're what you call good sports," he said. "To be a good sport, you have to prove that you're a good loser. But to prove that you're a good loser, you have to lose. This is what I'm saying: The only way to prove that you're a good sport is to lose."
* * *
In a 2005 Chicago Tribune feature, David Haugh wrote that Banks sometimes tells friends he hasn't suffered enough. "They say, 'What do you mean you didn't suffer enough?'" he said. "I see people in other parts of the world, they have no shoes, sleep on the floor, no food. That's real suffering. When I see some people struggling, I have empathy for them, but they really don't know what the bottom is."
Banks said his goal is to win a Nobel Peace Prize. "I've looked at people who have won it, [Desmond] Tutu, Lech Walesa, people who gave of themselves, helped others, and made this a better world," Banks said. "I can imagine myself in Stockholm. I visualize that, dream at night about that, being on that stage. That's the legacy I'm searching for."
Haugh closed the piece with writings of Oriah Mountain Dreamer in The Invitation, which Banks said summarized his outlook on life.
It doesn't interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing.
It doesn't interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dreams, for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring for your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been open to life's betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain. I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with the wildness and let ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without causing us to be careful, be realistic, or to remember the limitations of being human.
It doesn't interest me if the story you're telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself, if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your soul. I want to know if you can be faithful, and therefore trustworthy. I want to know if you can see beauty even when it's not a pretty day, and if you can source your life from God's presence. I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of a lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, "Yes!"
Excerpted from Ernie Banks by Phil Rogers. Copyright © 2011 Phil Rogers. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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