He was “Mr. Cub,” the Black ballplayer whose signature phrase, “Let’s play two,” described his love of baseball better than anything else. And Ernie Banks, the Hall-of-Fame slugger, did love baseball.
And baseball fans did love Ernie Banks.
For the better part of six decades, Banks, 83, was the consummate Cub. He was also a ballplayer who appreciated the game in ways contemporary players do not, which is the saddest part about his death Friday night: No one else is there to replace him.
The game does need more Ernie Bankses. It needs athletes who are sincere, warm and cockeyed optimists – ballplayers who see good even in the worst of circumstances.
As much as Ernie Banks loved playing ball, he loved people more. That will be their most endearing memory of him, particularly those whose memories date to the 1950s and ’60s.
From his final at-bat for the Cubs until his death, Banks remained as tied to the franchise as Stan Musial was to the St. Louis Cardinals, as Mickey Mantle was to the New York Yankees and as Bob Feller was to the Cleveland Indians.
“Words cannot express how important Ernie Banks will always be to the Chicago Cubs, the city of Chicago and Major League Baseball,” Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said in a statement. “He was one of the greatest players of all time. He was a pioneer in the Major Leagues.”
Banks was all of what Ricketts said and more. He reached the bigs not long after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and Banks, one of the few surviving ballplayers from the Negro Leagues, went on to have a 19-year career that was the equal of Robinson’s if not its superior.
The years have made some people forget how great Banks was, and they forgot because he didn’t play for teams that ended atop the league standings. He spent his entire career on Cubs teams that were solid but not great. They never gave Banks the chance to showcase his talent under the spotlight of October baseball.
So all some people had of him were images not from his playing career but from times they bumped into Banks at Wrigley Field, at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, at baseball card shows in a cavernous exposition center somewhere or at an old-timers game in a big-league ballpark.
But wherever he was, Ernie Banks was the consummate gentleman, just as his late mentor and old coach Buck O’Neil had always been.
The two were ballplayers cut from the same bolt of cloth. They loved baseball so much they didn’t need to get a single penny to play it. Their love of the game wasn’t manufactured for the TV cameras or for ad agencies.
Ballplayers like Banks would be multi-million-dollar babies today. Their pictures would grace the cover of sports magazines and they would be talked about with the reverence we reserve for a small fraction of ballplayers.
He gave all of himself to the game, and can anybody be certain the game returned the favor?
Unlike ballplayers of a recent vintage, Ernie Banks would not have cared if the game didn’t. He would just ask the gods of the game tonight if he could walk onto the emerald grass in Wrigley, step into the batter’s box one final time and take a swing.
Even had he swung and missed – he would not have missed, though – Banks, bat in hand, would have trudged back to the dugout, left his bat, grabbed his shortstop’s glove and headed onto the emerald field with a tip of his Cubs cap and a smile.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images for BMW)
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