It’s hard to “love” an athlete today.
We “love” them when they win. We celebrate the stats of extraordinary careers, but most names slide under the rock of obscurity when they retire, or their game retires them. Too many become famous (infamous) for off-the-field actions. Rarer yet, is the player whose name is synonymous with 1 team and 1 city because he played every game of a long career for the same franchise.
The recently retired Derek Jeter is one such example. He’ll easily make the Hall of Fame, but was he “lovable”? No. Unless you’re a Yankee fan, Jeter was easy to hate because he always seemed to do just the right thing at the right time to beat your team because that’s what great Yankees do.
I’m just creating context here, because IMHO, the last truly lovable athlete died on us late last month. His name was Ernie Banks and I- everyone in Chicago, loved Ernie Banks and he loved us back.
I don’t get weepy over celebrity deaths. For most, it’s all we have in common with the celebrated. Money and fame can’t buy an escape from the Final Curtain.
But I assure you; I had real tears rolling down my face when my favorite player ever passed just shy of his 84th birthday.
Ernie, you see, was a Hall of Fame player and person. Mr. Banks was also an important man, too. The last death occupying the entire front page of the Chicago Sun-Times (see photo) that I can remember was the first Mayor Daley back in 1976.
Ernie was more popular than Daley, too.
I don’t remember the exact moment I fell in love with baseball, but I do remember my parents treating me to a Cubs game for my 5th birthday. All I wanted to see was #14 step to the plate and hit one out of the park. He didn’t but the Cubs won the game 12-2, so it was a happy birthday.
I grew up on Chicago’s south side which is White Sox country. Being a Cubs fan made me a bit of a freak- but much to the horror of my little friends, my favorite player- my idol was- A BLACK MAN! That was not fashionable in the early 60s and it started more than a few fights.
You think the South had the exclusive rights to racist attitudes in those days? Chicago was chopped in half- black and white, but Ernie Banks bridged the races. Really, the only difference between Illinois and Alabama in those days was the separate water fountains. Sadly, that’s the way it was and all the hand wringing in the world today ain’t going to change it.
Mr. Banks broke into baseball in the segregated Negro Leagues. He persevered discrimination until his performance got him to the Cubs. Ernie took full advantage, too. Within 5 years, Mr. Cub was twice named the National League’s Most Valuable Player (playing for LOSING teams!).
He hit prodigious home runs, and was a great shortstop, but Chicago loved Banks for the man he was. Ernie was always smiling, openly grateful to be paid good money to play a kid’s game, living the dream the rest of us envied. He played with true joy, and considering how lousy the Cubs were most of his career, an optimism that merits scientific study.
The afternoon sunshine at “the friendly confines of Wrigley Field” (Ernie’s term!) was the only Performance Enhancing Drug he needed to reach the 500 home run mark- a real accomplishment in the days before chemically altered players.
Following that 5th birthday party, I went to dozens of Cubs games over many seasons hoping to see Ernie connect, but my bad luck continued. Finally, on August 24, 1971, I took the train to Wrigley to catch the Cubs play Cincinnati. Ernie had really slowed by his final season and had hit only 2 homers by that late date. In the bottom of the 4th inning, Ernie stepped to the plate, sweeping his bat back and forth over it, fingers wiggling on the slender handle (something I emulated during my little league days). He did what nobody was expecting. Crack! I heard that unmistakable and beautiful sound, and watched – like a 5 year old at his birthday party – as the ball soared sky high before landing in the left field bleachers. Wrigley went nuts right along with me.
Good thing I chose that game. It was Ernie’s final career home run, number 512.
When #14 said “I’d play for free” you believed him. When he died, a little piece of me died with him.
He’s gone, but his approach to life is the bigger story. While we all have times when this life seems like something to be endured while seeking our path to Heaven, the lovable Mr. Banks lived every day as if he were already there, and things could only get better on the other side.
RIP Mr. Cub. I am sad and feeling a little older. Those damn White Sox may have won more games but Cub fans had you- and that was better.
Greg Budell lives in Montgomery with his wife, children and dogs. He’s a 25 year veteran of radio who hosts the Greg & Susan morning show 6-9 am and Happy Hour 3-6 pm on NEWSTALK 93.1, Greg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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