There are many words to describe Ernie Banks: Mr. Cub, Number 14, shortstop and first baseman for the Chicago Cubs through some of its worst years, through some of its most disappointingly brilliant years. He was the essence of the sportsman of a time gone by: a time when kids could afford to come out to the ballpark every day in summer without and be mesmerized by the artistry of the game.
Banks was the quintessential optimist, as much a cheerleader for the Cubs and the game itself as he was a leader on the field. His “let’s play two” signature slogan defined the pleasure of coming out to Wrigley field on a sun-bleached summer day, even when the Cubs were at their worst.
He coined new slogans each year during the few years when the Cubs seemed to be destined for greatness–the days of my childhood. “From hell to heaven in ’67” was the first I recall: the year that the Cubs emerged from the dark basement to show real promise, fielding an all-star lineup I still can recite from memory: Don Kessinger (shortstop), Glen Beckert (second base), Billy Williams (left field), Ron Santo (third base), Ernie at first base, Randy Hundley (catcher), and whomever was playing right field that year (always a tough spot on the club), and a pitching staff that included the likes of Fergie Jenkins and Kenny Holzman.
“The Cubs will be great in ’68,” The Cubs will shine in ’69!” Of all that iconic late ’60s team, Ernie was special. There was always a bit of the wizard about him: the way he held the bat, his fingers like restless butterflies on a bat held improbably high, waiting for the pitch. But there was more to Ernie Banks than great ball player: he was smart, speaking about the game, sports, and everything else with thoughtfulness and great intelligence. He was a genuine nice guy, the polar opposite to ’60s team manager Leo Durocher’s mantra that “Nice guys finish last.”
There’s a reason Ernie’s statue graces the sidewalk outside Wrigley Field, and that is because he, more than any Cubs ballplayer, perhaps more than any Chicago sports figure defined the grace, humility, and sense of gratitude that marks the best sense of a gifted athlete. I’m sure that in this 21st Century age of social media and the Wikipedia, had he played the game now, someone, somewhere might dig up some dirt on the Hall-of-Famer, that his life would bear more scrutiny that it might have during his day. But perhaps not; he was the real deal. In 2013, Banks was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama for his service not only to the game, but to his tireless works beyond the ballfield, one of only seven ballplayers to have received the national honor (joining Roberto Clemente, Joe Dimaggi0, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, and Jackie Robinson).
In giving Banks the medal, President Obama said, “That’s Mr. Cub — the man who came up through the Negro Leagues, making $7 a day, and became the first black player to suit up for the Cubs and one of the greatest hitters of all time. In the process, Ernie became known as much for his 512 home runs as for his cheer and his optimism, and his eternal faith that someday the Cubs would go all the way.”
Recently, the Sporting News predicted that the Chicago Cubs would take home the 2015 World Series trophy. And maybe with Ernie Banks up there somewhere in the heavens (along with Ron Santo) rooting for the team, chanting “Let’s play two!” the Cubs may actually fulfill the promise of of 1969. If the Cubs are 2015’s Cinderella team, I say solder a World Series ring to Ernie’s bronze statue. More than any Cub, of any era, he deserves it.