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Ernie Banks' talent, disposition made him beloved

The Cubs' Ernie Banks leaps over the Cardinals' Gino Cimoli to relay to first base and complete a double play on May 9, 1970 in St. Louis. | AP

BY DAN McGRATH

For the Sun-Times

At the Tribune a few years back, we commissioned a ‘‘catching up with’’ piece about Ernie Banks, reasoning that Mr. Cub had been keeping a low profile for a while and that people might be curious about what was going on in his life at age 75.

Turned out Ernie had a lot on his mind, and what we envisioned as a routine Sunday story turned into a blockbuster feature.

Among Ernie’s revelations was his dream of a trip to Stockholm, Sweden, where he would be feted as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, taking his place alongside Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Lech Walesa and Mother Teresa. No doubt some readers smirked and shook their heads at another manifestation of the childlike innocence he seemed to exude, but he was serious.

The Nobel winners he cited were honored for improving the lives of those around them, Banks explained. And that, he had come to realize, was his mission in life: Long after his baseball skills had passed, he still could use his good name, his unfailingly sunny disposition and his relentlessly cheerful outlook to make people feel better about themselves.

After all, if the humble son of dirt-poor Texas sharecroppers could reach the pinnacle of his profession as a Hall of Fame ballplayer, dine with royalty and play golf with titans of industry, what wasn’t possible in this great nation?

Ernie’s ‘‘life is beautiful’’ philosophy worked for him because it was genuine. And infectious. He was beloved as much for whom he was as for what he did.

I grew up on the South Side, in an enclave of provincialism so fierce that anything Cubs-connected was viewed with a scorn typically directed toward Communists, Republicans and work supervisors. But I never heard a bad word about Ernie Banks.

My father was as committed a White Sox fan as I have known — he might have named me Bubba Phillips if my mother had let him — and it pained him greatly when my older brother wandered off the reservation and became a Cubs fan. He did so because of Ernie Banks.

Banks vs. Luis Aparicio debates were part of the soundtrack of my childhood. But no matter how ardently he argued for Aparicio, Pops would concede that Banks was a terrific ballplayer. Let us not lose sight of that in the celebration of his legacy as the great ambassador of baseball.

Banks was in the forefront of a wave of black and Hispanic talent that transformed the game, infusing it with a dynamic energy that was a joy to behold, yet fueled by desperation. After all, the hostility and stress of minor-league tank towns were only a bus ride away.

Banks, though, got to the Cubs and took off. He was a back-to-back National League MVP at a time when Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were at the peak of their powers and Stan Musial and Duke Snider were still around and raking.

Rather than diminish him, the Cubs’ failure to win anything during Ernie’s years of noble service made his goofy optimism that much more endearing.

Behind the effervescent smile, there was a thoughtful, serious side to Banks. The racial slights he endured on his way to Chicago didn’t end when he got here. He regarded manager Leo Durocher as a cruel, jealous martinet whose ill-concealed disdain for Banks stemmed from resentment of his popularity. The preponderance of black talent on the mid-’60s Cubs probably was a factor in the franchise-altering trade that sent young Lou Brock to the Cardinals for star-crossed Ernie Broglio.

If any of those issues ate at Banks, he never let on. In any setting, he comported himself with grace, dignity and humility, as admired and beloved a figure as notoriously fractious Chicago has known.

For several years, a video greeting visitors to the Hall of Fame featured a clip from Banks’ induction speech. Noting the ideal weather and the incredible collection of talent on the stage, he cheerfully declared it a perfect day ‘‘to play two.’’ I got chills watching it.

A tweeter who posts as ‘‘Old Hoss Radbourn’’ noted late Friday that ‘‘this new guy wants me to throw both ends of a doubleheader. I like him.’’ Perfect.

If Ernie Banks doesn’t embody baseball, he is the reason so many of us love it.

I thank him for that.