This article was originally published May 28, 2007
Ernie Banks, the most iconic and beloved of all sports figures in Chicago, has died at the age of 83. I wrote this tribute 7 years ago when the Cubs finally decided to honor Banks by commissioning a statue of his likeness to be displayed at Wrigley Field.
It was the hands that drew your immediate attention. The huge 42 ounce bat being held perpendicular to the ground was motionless as was the rest of his lithe 6′ 1″, 180 lb frame. But the hands were busy. The way they nervously gripped and re-gripped the bat was mesmerizing, the fingers in constant motion. And then the pitch, the graceful ripple of a swing… and the ball would take flight.
Few of Ernie Bank’s 512 home runs were Olympian blasts where the ball would arc so high and exit the yard out on to Waveland Avenue, scudding underneath the low clouds that would sometimes hang over Wrigley Field. Instead, the Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer had a graceful, silky swing that would produce a screaming line drive – a “frozen rope” ballplayers call it – that would leave the playing field almost before the pitcher could turn around in disgust to watch the flight of the ball.
And then, the trot around the bases, the long legs effortlessly stretching out, covering the distance to home plate with such ease and grace that tens of thousands of kids all over Chicagoland tried to imitate it. In suburban parks and city streets, youngsters could be seen gripping the bat the way he did, moving like he did. They wanted a baseball glove just like his. To possess his baseball card was to make the lucky kid a celebrity for blocks around.
But beyond all of that, Banks was the sunshine of our childhood. The ear-to-ear grin, the flash of impossibly white teeth and that famous call “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame… Let’s play two!” had kids and ballplayers alike chuckling along with him, knowing full well that if given the chance, Banks would most certainly have made good on his own suggestion.
The late great Chicago sportscaster Jack Brickhouse referred to Banks as “irrepressible.” Indeed, Banks optimism and good humor along with the courtliness and good manners of a southern gentleman made him perhaps the most popular player in Chicago sports history.
Michael Jordan may have brought the city of Chicago professional basketball championships. And Walter Payton of the Bears may have been beloved for his work ethic and effort on the field. But in the corner of every Chicago sports fan’s heart who saw him play or heard of his exploits, there is a special place reserved for Ernie Banks.
Now finally, 36 years after his retirement from baseball, the Tribune Company, current owners of the team, have agreed to erect a statue of Banks at Wrigley Field.
It took a determined campaign by no less a personage than Jesse Jackson who suggested the idea on a popular sports talk radio show a few months ago. Since then, radio personality Mike North has been talking up the idea and a petition drive got underway. Then Jackson, in a meeting with Cubs President John McDonough, made his pitch and today, the team announced their decision to erect the statue by opening day, 2008.
The 76 year old Banks was delighted:
“Isn’t this wonderful?” exclaimed the Dallas-raised Banks. “Who would have thought this could happen? A young kid from a family of 12, picking cotton . . . had no idea that he would ever do anything in baseball or be a scientist or anything . . . would wind up with a statue at Wrigley Field. That’s an amazing thing.”
“It reminds me of all the people who helped me throughout my life to achieve things, all of the people who touched my life. You know, Buck O’Neil, Jackie Robinson, Wendell Smith, Jack Brickhouse . . . all of these people touched my life. It’s just amazing to me.”
Wendell Smith, a Hall of Fame sportswriter for the now defunct Chicago American had a special relationship with Banks. A pioneer himself, Smith was the first black sports columnist for the Chicago Sun Times as well as the first black sports anchor at WGN TV. But it was Smith who brought the young Ernie Banks to the attention of the Cubs in 1951 while the 20 year old was playing for the old Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. Smith was a tireless crusader for black athletes, recommending Jackie Robinson to Branch Rickey when the Dodgers President was contemplating breaking the color barrier in the Major Leagues. And in 1961, Smith wrote a series of articles worthy of being considered for every major journalism award – including a Pulitzer – on the shocking, degrading Jim Crow conditions that black baseball players had to endure during spring training in Florida and elsewhere in the south.
Wendell Smith constantly reminded the young Ernie Banks that he was representing his race and that his behavior off the field as well as his performance on the field was constantly being judged. This placed an enormous, unseen burden on Banks that he reflected on many years later:
“It’s an awesome burden to feel you’re carrying the hopes of a whole race, under constant scrutiny, thinking that every error, every strikeout, every failure in the clutch was taken as a reflection of inferiority in your whole race. Robinson felt it in Brooklyn and Larry Doby felt it in Cleveland. Now it was the weight on Banks in Chicago. His alternative to succeeding was going back to Dallas and working as a bellhop in the Gustavus Adolphus Hotel or the equivalent, which was no alternative at all. So Banks kept up his good nature and held his tongue along with the few other black players. “It also labeled us with the next wave of players who came into the majors and we were called ‘Uncle Tom’ because we didn’t question anything,” he said.
We never knew, of course. Hero worship was less complicated back then. We were quite egalitarian in our choice of role models, not recognizing the implications of our admiration for a black man. But when it came to Ernie Banks, the love and affection felt by those of us who followed his every move – even if we weren’t Cubs fans – transcended the game, his race, even life itself. There is no more intense, loyal relationship than there is between a young boy and his sports hero. And while this may not be true today, it was certainly true in the days when baseball was king and the players were gods.
Life may move on. Baseball and the games change. But Ernie Banks remains the same vital soul he was when last he picked up a baseball bat. His charities and youth outreach programs still provide Chicago’s African American and other minority kids with challenges and chances that they probably would not ordinarily get. He is still a regular fixture at Cubs conventions and at Wrigley Field were he is still worshiped as the most popular Cub player in history.
Of one thing I am certain. The statue they erect in his honor and will unveil next year will have a smile creasing its bronze facade. There is just no other way to remember Ernie Banks. And there is no better way to honor him.