In which I violate the last Cub taboo
Ask any adult of reasonable age who the most famous Yankee was, and they would say....Babe Ruth, right?
Most famous Cincinnatti Red? Pete Rose. Most famous Kansas City Royal? Gotta be George Brett, right? Most famous Atlanta Brave? Hank Aaron. Most famous San Francisco Giant? Willie Mays.
Most famous Washington National? Ahh, my bad. That's not fair. Most famous White Sox? William Ligue, Jr?
OK. My point? Who is the most famous, revered Chicago Cub?
WHAT??? Did YOU say Sammy Sosa? Come here, mutha******....
/hit you over the head with a baseball bat
/ignoring your tears
/still don't like that look on your face
Now, who is the most famous, revered Cub of all time?
Yep, Ernie Banks. Mr. Cub. Number 14, first man to 500 home runs in franchise history, first man to win back-to-back MVP awards, MLB Greatest Shortstop of the first 100 years. Signed out of the Negro Leagues, understood that every day he played baseball was a gift from God, orginated the optimistic phrase that represented baseball in the Golden Era as well as Chicago Cubs baseball to this very day, "It's a beautiful day for baseball...let's play two!!"
And, as a ballplayer, took part in more losses than any other man in NL history.
Between Ernie's last few active years, to the point that the Tribune bought the team and brought in Harry Caray, he WAS the Cubs franchise, featured in all media avenues, TV, radio, and press. During some truly lousy times with some awful teams, the Cubs trotted out Mr. Cub, and he would smile, hold out his arms, and spout some cheezy slogan (The Cubs Will Soar In Seventy-Four!) that all of Cub Fandom would swallow whole, and the Wrigleys would reel us in like fat carp.
Banks was and is pretty genuine - he truly does see himself as fortunate to have lived his life, which I guess (even with all the second-division teams) seemed much better to him than working as a roughneck or sharecropper in his native Dallas. So the Cubs, not having much more to sell during that time, took advantage of his good nature and positioned the franchise as a "feel-good", wholesome family experience, in the beautiful green ballpark where the warm gusty winds blow, and the always hopeful Mr. Cub, whose smile could light up any room would be there, at least in spirit, to greet you all!
Trust me, kids - ask any housewife Cub fan from downstate or Iowa who her favorite Cub is, and if she wasn't at one point taken by the sight of Mark Grace in his tight trousers, she will tell you all about that nice Ernie Banks.
Now, when the Tribune did take over, they cynically continued to stick to the wholesome cheery family fun at the ballpark schtick, and coupled with the success of the 1984 team:
Math equation: Cub fan buzz from 1984 > (Cub fan buzz from 2003) * 5
Along with the regeneration of Wrigleyville that immediately followed, the Tribune rode the "Wrigley Field is Baseball Heaven" wave for the next two decades, and yeah, on occassion, they would trot out Ernie Banks, to smile and wave and remind all of us older fans. Ernie is kind of a talisman to all of us - a symbol of a simpler, more gentle time (albeit a time with crappier Cubs teams).
Now, I am not saying I blame Ernie Banks for what he was and is. He truly seems to be an relatively enlightened soul who lived according to a very powerful credo that spoke to millions during some turbulent times in our nation's history: to be happy and thankful with what you have; to have hope, and when you get knocked down, to keep getting back up. It is a very zen approach to life, actually.
And please, believe me, I am taking into account what it was like to be an African American ballplayer in his era, as well as the effect of the Reserve Clause. I understand, fully understand, that Ernie Banks did what he had to do.
But I gotta tell you, if he was our shortstop today, putting up monster numbers while his team floundered and his management dithered, and he just kept chirping about 'playing two'. I'd be all over his ass right now!
I would expect him to speak up! I would expect him to call out his teammates, if not necessarily by name, as a whole, to shape up or ship out. I would insist he be up in his manager's grill, in the GM's office, going up to the owner's lux box and demanding some more pitching and a catcher who could walk and chew gum at the same time!
But, he didn't, and we loved him for it. And continued to love him, as his franchise poured his sickly sweet blue Kool-Aid down our throats. And continue to love him, to this day, as not only the 45-and-up Cub fans spin the turnstiles at Beautiful Wrigley Field, Home of Mr. Cub, but all their children, backwards-cap-Chad and suntan-Trixie, who also hand over their fifties as they fill the bleachers night after night in North America's Largest Beer Garden. Whether he realized it or not, he started it, the culture of accepting mediocrity, that win-or-lose, it doesn't matter, as long as everyone got some fresh air, some frozen malts or a few Old Styles.
The Cubs, in my entire life, have never really been about winning. They have been, primarily, about a good time in the sunshine, and this misguided, inefficient, laxadasical, casual, country-club, LOSING paradigm has been buttressed the past sixty years by the perpetually hopeful Ernest Banks. Mr. Cub. #14. Good Old Ernie. Hey, Hey!!
Sorry, Ern. I wish you had just a little Hanley Ramirez in ya. Maybe then this place wouldn't be a playground for the...well, you know, what Lee Elia said.