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President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Hall of Fame baseball player Ernie Banks in the East Room at the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. | Getty Images file

How to build character: Watch Ernie Banks

SHARE How to build character: Watch Ernie Banks
SHARE How to build character: Watch Ernie Banks

I wanted to swing a baseball bat like Billy Williams, and I wanted to be as happy to be alive as Ernie Banks.

I failed at the first, but I’m still working on the second, and on a good day I’m ready to play two.

EDITOR’S NOTE:This article originally appeared in 2013 on the Voices blog.

That’s what I remember most about Ernie Banks back in 1965, when he was a Chicago Cub and I was a boy of 11, watching all those afternoon Cubs games. Jack Brickhouse might interview Banks on the pre-game show and Ernie would offer up the usual jock clichés – “We gotta make our breaks” and that sort of thing — and then he’d so often say this crazy thing, right into the camera: “Let’s play two.”

And Banks meant it. You can’t fool an 11-year-old boy. Ernie was up for a double header all the time.

They say sports build character and this is true. Nothing builds character like fumbling a catch on a kickoff during a big game of the Bogan High School freshman-sophomore football team in 1970, leading to a loss, and then having to ride back on the team bus, trying not to be a baby about it. Not that I’d know anything about that.

But watching sports builds character, too. Or, to be precise, watching the Cubs as a boy built character.

Billy Williams had the most beautiful swing, which I tried so hard as a fellow left-hander to copy. Better yet, he had this classy stoic way about him. Whether he hit a home run or struck out, he was all cool.

And Ernie Banks had the most beautiful personality. He was a murderously good hitter too, of course, batting fourth to Billy’s third and making it impossible for pitchers to intentionally walk Williams. But it was that good cheer that drew me in most.

That was the way to be. Could you choose it? Could you work on it? Was a happy enthusiasm for life a matter of genetics or practice?

I’m still trying to figure that out.

Years later, I got a chance to meet Ernie Banks when he wandered into the Sun-Times newsroom one day, unexpected and unannounced, and just stood there. Turned out he had almost no photographs of himself from his playing days and wondered if he could look at whatever we had.

Could he? You bet. Photo editor Rich Cahan, who was thrilled, led Ernie — Mr. Banks — back into the library and piled files of photos in front of him on a table. Ernie spent a couple of hours quietly picking through them while we tried to leave him alone, but that wasn’t easy. Then Rich arranged to have copies made of the photos Banks liked.

OK, so that was an 11-year-old boy’s perception of a man, a perception fixed in time though the boy grew up and learned that nobody is that upbeat all the time. That was the public Ernie Banks, whose sunny disposition was the soft glow from a fierce competitive fire that made him a star in the old Negro Leagues and gave him strength against the personal slights that surely came his way when he broke in with the Cubs, a pioneer of integration.

I don’t think it’s too much to say that Ernie Banks was good not only for the Cubs, but for the entire city of Chicago during an era of great racial tensions, a reminder to all us white folks living in all white neighborhoods that the loveliest people come in all colors.

Now I read that Ernie Banks is to be awarded one of our nation’s highest honors, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That sounds better than a Cubs double-header.

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