Cubs 101 Pt 7 - Ernie Banks
I became a Cub fan in 1969, which amongst many, many other things, was the year Ernie Banks hit his 500th home run on a gloomy day in May against the Atlanta Braves. Obviously, every last one of his 512 dingers was Cubs property; so by May, 1969, Ernie had copyrighted the name of "Mr. Cub" for all perpetuity. Therefore, he was every 5-year-old Cub fan’s favorite player. It is a shame, however, that the Banks I saw was a weary, hobbled version of his former MVP self.
Mr. Cub was one of the very few happy accidents of the Phillip Wrigley era. Signed as a shortstop in 1953 from the suddenly inconsequential Negro Leagues, the talented, ebullient Banks stuck out like a Mercedes hood ornament on a rusted Ford Escort for the plodding Fifties-era Cubs. Ernie’s main weapons, ones he shares with current Cub Alfonso Soriano, were fast-twitch muscles coupled with lightning-quick wrists. In an era when most shortstops played defense and tried to get out of the way with as little damage as possible at the plate, Ernie’s league leading totals for homers and RBIs in 1958 and 1959 represented ultimate Value Over Replacement Player, as the kids like to say now, an ultimate VORP that was utterly wasted on these putrid Cubs teams.
Free agency has spared many fine players the same fate that Ernie suffered during his 19 years with us. It is hard to come up with a single modern analog to him. Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken labored mightily for many years apiece on some dreadful teams, but each managed to see October a couple of times. Michael Young of the Rangers has played 1,200 games without reaching the playoffs. Ernie logged over 2,500. Next highest on the list, is another Chicago player, naturally – Luke Appling. Ron Santo is fifth on the list. But of all the players in history that have grounds to grumble, to bemoan their fate, none are more deserving than Ernie Banks, and as you all well know, Ernie Banks is amongst the last people in history to actually do so. Year after year, Mr. Cub would predict a pennant, and whether he meant it deep in his heart, or not…let’s just say that either Banks was the most naïve man ever, or the best actor ever.
For the first dozen years of his career, there was absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe what he believed. Banks was and still is the Midwest distributor of pure, unadulterated "hope". In these days after the election of Barack Obama, we have been well versed on the definition of "hope", and Obama has been unfairly credited as the Midwestern distributor of this precious commodity. What President Obama was actually selling was "optimism", which is the idea of using information learned and applying that information to lend credence to a philosophy. Obama stressed "change" – but he based his optimism on the indication that his people were ready for it. In other words, he had reason to have "hope", and his timing was impeccable. But Ernie, his timing was awful.
Up until the point in time that Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins blossomed, not only was Ernie Banks the best player the Cubs had, he was the only player they had. And by the time help arrived, ol’ Ern’s knees were shot, he was banished to first base, most of his gifts had diminished, and his manager, Lou Durocher, openly shopped him around the league. He was no longer the best player – Williams had taken those reins over – and by the fateful months of August and September 1969, which represented the closest that Hall-Of-Famer Ernie Banks would ever come to postseason play, he was depleted and could do little to stem the tide. If he was half the player he had been, the Cubs probably hold off the Mets. But such is life, and timing, and Banks’ timing was simply horrible.
Unlike several other Chicago sports legends with bad knees that immediately come to mind, Ernie has never wasted a moment’s effort on bitterness towards his former owner, management or medical staff. I have met him several times, first in 1977 on a Cubs Caravan in my hometown, where he made himself quite at home with my coaches from school and a few other local dignitaries. Even after a man’s portion of Wild Turkey, he gave all of us kids ample time and attention when our turn came. He asked me about my grades, and gave me a high-five for my efforts.
A buddy of mine lived in the same condo building as he did in the late nineties, and we often saw him in the lobby or the parking garage. He always had a joke or crack to make, and just like on his first teams, he shone above the rest of the snobs that lived in that joint. Things typically went as so: one time he rolled up in a huge Benz, which was necessary because, well, Ernie has a huge ass, thus he needs a huge Benz. As he and his huge ass emerged from within, we raved about his Benz. He replied that we needed to get ourselves our own Benz. I replied that I couldn't afford one, because I don't have baseball money like him. "Nah," Ernie said, "you know I didn't make no real money in baseball. This is my wife's money!" Well, sure, man, you were pre-free agency, and sure, all of what is yours IS your wife's, too, but come on – you're Mr. Cub, with a lifetime contract. Just a few fractional pieces of general truth in our conversation – the kind of schist that guys like to toss around.
Most recently, Jason went to Mr. Cub's wine tasting and found him to be most engaging – mainly because Ern wanted to talk Cubs, rather than wine. Nearly every one of my friends who claim to be Cub fans have their own story about Banks, and without exception he has proven to be accessible, attentive and interested.
Few athletes have endured the bad luck and poor planning that Banks had to endure, in a competitive sense. But he realized how fortunate he was. He not only got to play in the major leagues, in front of the best fans in the world, he also won 2 MVP awards, and was chosen as the "best shortstop of the second half of the decade" by MLB. In contrast to the never-ending swell of players now who claim to be disrespected over the difference between 15 million and 20 million dollars, Ernie Banks knew who paid his salary, and he understood that God smiled on him. Ernie "gets it". Claim "small sample syndrome" if you wish, but to me, the man has shown nothing but class, not only publicly, but to everyone I have ever talked to. Therefore I proclaim that Ernie Banks is class.
Jackie Robinson recounted that Branch Rickey insisted that Jackie swallow his pride for the first couple of years in the league, and turn the other cheek, until African-Americans were accepted in the sport. Because I am cynical, I have wondered for years if Ernie's "let's play two" persona was his version of "doing the dance" that Rod Tidwell resisted for so long in "Jerry Maguire". That somehow he felt like he had to be endearing, just as Jackie Robinson was asked to be humble, in order to gain acceptance. But, over fifty years later, there's no more reason to do the dance if you don't want to. Ernie Banks wants to dance, because that's just the way he is, and Phil Wrigley was right about one thing – too bad he didn't have nine Ernie Bankses.
Buy Chicago White Sox and Cubs tickets at Coast to Coast Tickets!