OPENING NIGHT: Remembering Mr. Cub

I kept this card in my pocket until is was just a blank wad of cardboard.

I kept this card in my pocket until is was just a blank wad of cardboard.

This winter, as we Cub fans thought about the team that was taking shape for the 2015 season and beyond, we could think about experiencing things that Cub fans haven’t experienced for decades, or even a century. However, there was one thing we hadn’t counted on.

This marks the first baseball season in over six decades without Ernie Banks. Ernie left us the night of January 23, and it makes perfect sense that he went at night. Ernie lived in the sunshine, just as the sunshine lived in him. He brought joy to a game that should always have joy. Every time you saw Ernie Banks, he was always cheerful. In fact, he once said, “I treat everyone as if they have a sign that says, ‘make me happy.'” That sunshine within Banks was why everyone, Cub fan or not, even those who were born after he no longer played, loved him.

Everyone who ever met him was always treated like the most important person in the room by him. I took my wife to the 1994 Emil Verban Memorial Society luncheon (it’s a real thing, I promise), and Banks was holding court. As my wife approached, he turned and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Ernie Banks.” Of course the fact that my wife happens to be a knockout didn’t hurt either But everyone got the thrill of not only meeting this great player, but also a great man.

As a four-year-old going to his first Cub game in 1967, all I knew going in was that the Cubs wore blue hats like mine, and Ernie Banks was Mr. Cub. All I wanted was for Banks to hit a home run that day. And he did. I don’t remember much about it (again, 4 years old), but my dad told me it was pretty much the same as every Banks home run, a rope to left field that you were never quite sure would clear the wall.

My dad was actually there the day Ernie hit #500. When I heard he was blowing off work to go, I wanted to blow off school to go too. He nixed that, but I managed to let the Cubs interfere with my education enough in later years…it was their fault, putting Wrigley Field right between Uptown and Lane Tech. But I digress…#500 was, again, classic Banks. Another rope into left. In fact, one habit I picked up from my dad was this kind of lifting motion with my hands, urging the ball over the wall. Kind of how a bowler waves at his ball trying to get it into the pocket. I know Dad was doing that as soon as Banks hit the ball. In fact, one of the biggest kicks I ever got was finding that ticket stub and showing it to Banks.

The name Mr. Cub fit him perfectly too. Not only because he was the greatest player in the history of the franchise, but he embodied the hope and optimism that we all feel, particularly then. The Cubs were contending for the first time in Banks’ career, and he believed as we all did…the Cubs would be great in ’68, the Cubs would shine in ’69, the Cubs would glow in 7-0. Something about the way he’d say it, we’d all believe. Hell, he had me believing those early 80s teams weren’t all that bad.

He had the same love for the game as I felt…when you’re a kid and school’s out, who didn’t want to play two? Three? Hell, as many as you could squeeze in before either the sun went down or it was time to eat. Ernie was right there with us, he just loved playing ball. Hell, his love of the game is why now that I’m in my 50s I still wear #14 when I play softball. Ernie was also a nightmare for baseball coaches all over Chicago, as every kid mimicked that finger-wiggling thing he did when he held the bat.

It was perfectly fitting that he was a Cub. When he got bought from the Kansas City Monarchs, the Cubs narrowly won a bidding war over the White Sox and Yankees. If Banks had been a Yankee, would his desire to play two every day have had the same ring? It’s easy to want to play more when you’re winning the pennant every year. If he had plied his trade in Comiskey Park, he would have turned the 1950s Sox teams from pretty good ones to great ones.

Instead, he was a Cub. In the late 50s, as he won back-to-back MVP trophies for second-division teams, it was said, “without Banks, the Cubs would finish in Albequerque.” Then once he got some help in the form of Ron Santo and Billy Williams, he had some more of his prime wasted with the “College of Coaches”. He was a diamond on a trash heap for the majority of his career.

Finally in the twilight of his career, he had a shot at contention. But as we all know, it was never to be. Still, his career spanned a watershed period for Major League Baseball. It started with him and Gene Baker integrating the Cubs in 1953, in an era where there were 16 major league teams, and none farther west than St. Louis. By the time he retired in 1971, there were 24 teams, including 5 in California. Of course, every team was integrated. When he came to Chicago, the great Cub power hitter of the era was Hank Sauer, a tobacco-chewing behemoth who swung a 40 ounce bat. Banks swung one in the low 30s, and looked like a buggy-whip when he unleashed into a pitch.

But his career was also a great one. One of the ten greatest shortstops of all time. 512 career home runs (including one on that day in 1967). An equal to his contemporaries, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

But his joy, his optimism, it embodied what the Cubs are all about. Without that optimism, you could never endure the heartbreaks of 1969, 1970, 1984 or 2003. That optimism is what makes you believe that he’s in whatever astral plane you believe in, lobbying for cosmic intervention.

And if the time ever comes when the Cubs finally become the last team to win a baseball game in a season, you can believe a lot of us will find our thoughts going to Ernie Banks.

Thanks for that, Ernie.

Let’s play two.

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