Farewell Mr. Cub: A tribute to Ernie Banks

I’m going to step away from politics and media for one post and share memories of a childhood hero.

Ernie Banks was just the best. All of the accolades today include his lifetime stats: 512 home runs; 1,636 RBIs; two-time National League MVP; a Gold Glove; first black player for the Chicago Cubs; 11-time All-Star; a 17-year career, all with the same team.

He will always be a champion to me. He never won a World Series — and you know that he and fellow teammate, No. 10, the late Ron Santo, who played third base and would go on to become a longtime Cubs radio broadcaster, would have loved to. But he always exemplified the most positive aspects of what it meant to be a baseball player. He was the Cubs’ ambassador. He was “Mr. Sunshine” as well as being Mr. Cub. And he brought a ray of hope in the summer of 1969.

Because the Cubs were in first place.

That summer, I was a young teenager and already a lifelong Cubs fan. Friends and I would ride to Wrigley Field on the El, get off the Red Line early in the morning, and walk to the beautiful ballpark at Clark and Addison to watch baseball in the sunshine. We would sit along the wall on Sheffield Avenue and wait until the gates opened to let us into the bleachers. For one dollar. (Yes, you youngsters. There were no reserved seats in the bleachers back then, and people would arrive at 6 a.m. to get a seat closest to the ivy in the left field bleachers. All for $1.)

I went to maybe a dozen games that summer, and, like many a Cub fan before and after me, I was sure that this was “the year.” Most fans had a favorite player, and for me it was the first baseman. Ernie Banks had switched from shortstop, where he won his MVP awards, to first base, but he was great at both positions, even if his MVP days were behind him. He was already a player-coach, and he instilled a sense of optimism in his fellow players as well as fans.

Besides the prodigious hitting, the Cubs defense was fantastic. Cubs fans in the bleachers developed a chant for the players who were so successful at making double plays: “Fourteen, Eighteen, Eleven, and Ten! Come on, infield, do it again!” That would be Ernie Banks, No. 14, at first; Glenn Beckert, No. 18, at second; Don Kessinger, No. 11, at shortstop; and Ron Santo, No. 10, at third.

We made homemade signs out of cardboard and magic markers. Wrigley had no electronic scoreboard, and we would wait until the people behind the green hand-turned scoreboard posted scores from other games, so we could cheer when teams chasing the Cubs lost. We watched Ron Santo click his heels after each Cubs victory. It seemed like even the White Sox fans on the South Side of Chicago were cheering for the Cubs that year.

We were wrong about the outcome, of course. The Cubs went into a “September Swoon” and lost the pennant to the New York Mets. They were in first place until mid-September, when they lost 17 out of 25 of the last games of the season to sink to second place. The “Miracle Mets” went on to win the World Series that year over the Baltimore Orioles.

Nothing new about that — the Cubs seem to go into a swoon no matter what month it is. (Hey, we all thought 2003 was going to the “the year,” too, until the ill-fated sixth game of the NLCS. The Cubs led the series 3-2, but in the sixth game, Cubs Manager Dusty Baker left pitcher Mark Prior in a little too long, and the Cubs defense collapsed in the eighth inning after fan Steve Bartman grabbed a fly ball in foul territory along the third base line, robbing outfielder Moisés Alou of a catch and possible out. The Cubs had been ahead 3-0 and were five outs away from a World Series. But the Marlins scored eight runs in that inning. The Cubs lost the game 8-3, and they lost the game the next day, too, sending the Marlins to the World Series. Which they won, beating the New York Yankees, 4-2.)

Sorry. I’m still bitter about that one.

Ernie Banks was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977. My husband and I went to Cooperstown, N.Y., a decade ago, and it’s an incredible place to visit: the history, the photos, the memorabilia, the lockers, the memories it invokes. I’m neither the most ardent nor the most knowledgeable baseball fan. But when we got to the Hall of Fame room, I knew there was one bust I had to see before I looked at any others. Ernie’s.

The Cubs retired No. 14 in 1982 — the first number retired by the team. A statue of Mr. Cub in a batting stance greets fans in front of Wrigley Field. Besides his lifetime work as a Cubs ambassador, Ernie Banks established the Live Above & Beyond Foundation, helping youth and the elderly. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2013.

So thanks, Mr. Cub, for your smile, for your optimism, for your hope. I’m sure you and Ron Santo are swapping stories about what could have been.

Let’s play two, indeed.

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