Ernie Banks: One of a vanishing breed – one of us

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Journalism is a kabuki, a ritualized form, polished over the years.

We have our traditions. Some subjects we avoid. You’ll never see the “Lotto: Sucker’s game or stupid tax?” headline.

On the other hand, every snowfall is covered like a fresh shock, like an unexpected occurrence. Snow in January in Chicago; who’d have imagined?

Our rituals are particularly strong when a celebrity passes away. Scribes automatically share a personal vignette, supposedly to offer illumination into the fallen star, but actually thinly disguised braggartry. Yup, knew him, hung with him.


Though my one encounter with Ernie Banks says nothing about me, other than I can give directions, and a lot about why the city is honoring him today.

Banks walked up to me, about 15 years ago, because I was the guy at the desk by the door on the fourth floor of the old Sun-Times newsroom. He introduced himself and asked where the picture desk was.

Not that I believed it was him immediately. Back then, all sorts of people would show up at the paper. Delegates from distant planets. A pair of men in full-braided gaucho outfits, brandishing guitars, wearing enormous sombreros. You never knew who you’d bump into. I once turned the corner and almost smacked into Ben & Jerry, the ice cream makers (“Ben!” I cried, almost falling to me knees. “Jerry! I love you guys!”)

But he looked like Banks. And he had on this expensive-looking leather Cubs jacket. I figured, if he were a street person, he probably wouldn’t have that jacket. So I walked him back to the photography department.

“Ernie just wandered upstairs,” remembers Rich Cahan, who was a photo editor. “I do recall him saying that he just didn’t remember what it looked like — the game that is. That he remembered the sounds, the cheers, but couldn’t remember what it looked like.”

The photographers gathered around, started pulling out photo files.

“Keith Hale, who was working in the lab during those years, offered to make copies of Ernie’s favorite pictures, or all of the pictures,” said Cahan. “Ernie was thrilled, and Keith went right to work as soon as he left. They were ready for Ernie the next day.

But Banks never came back for his photos, which was also in keeping with him. Child-like innocence and follow-through do not go together — if they did, Banks might have spent his career on the Cleveland Indians or the Chicago White Sox: both teams wrote him letters, while he was in the Army in Germany, inviting him to try out. But in his excitement returning home, he forgot. He rushed back to the Kansas City Monarchs, where the Cubs snapped him up, for a song.

Which relates to why Banks came by the paper himself. Derek Jeter would send a go-fer. When you have money up the ying-yang, you have go-fers, and you send them.

Banks did not have money up the ying-yang. When the Cubs signed him in 1953 to play for their Cedar Rapids farm team, he did not dicker. He did not negotiate. He did not use a lawyer or an agent. He had forgotten about the Indians and White Sox.

“I was so nervous I had to hold my right hand with my left as I scribbled Ernest Banks . . . on a document that seemed to be a mile long,” Banks wrote in his autobiography, “Mr. Cub.”

He did not even notice how much he was being paid. Banks found out later, from the Monarchs manager, Buck O’Neill.

“On the way back to the South Side, Buck kiddingly grabbed hold of my right arm so I wouldn’t jump out of the automobile as he asked, ‘Do you realize that you signed for $800 a month? After your first full year in the majors, I want you to write me with news that your salary has been doubled. It’s all up to you now.”

Even in 1954, $800 a month wasn’t much for a professional athlete. Banks earned just $6,000 in 1954; an average American salary was $4.500. It’s the equivalent of earning $60,000 a year today.

It’s easy to rhapsodize the simple past, when you’re not the one who got shafted. “Show me the money” is never going to tug at your heartstrings the way, “Let’s play two” does. But someone was making big money from baseball in 1954. It just wasn’t players like Ernie Banks. Our affection is cold comfort, a booby prize. People still love Derek Jeter, despite his millions.

When Jeter retired from the Yankees last year, the team produced a video where Jeter, the grateful star, instructs his driver to pull over and he walks the last few blocks to Yankee Stadium, a god among mortals, as the camera records the stunned and grateful reaction of the delighted proles.

Derek Jeter earned $12 million in 2014, about 300 times the median household salary.

Ernie Banks earned $85,000 in 1971, his last year in baseball, about 10 times the median household salary.

That’s how America has been going. The top floats away, and the the lower classes scrabble for crumbs. We don’t even get the same quality hero anymore. Ernie Banks was a great guy, but there was something tragic about him, about all those players, because they got screwed. Which is also why we love them so much, because we’re getting screwed too.

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