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Sneed: The beauty of life, loyalty of the fans kept Ernie going

Ernie’s bucket list . . .

“Isn’t life wonderful!”

It was the daily mantra of baseball legend Ernie Banks, who died of a sudden heart attack last Friday, leaving behind a wife, four children and a nearly completed bucket list.

“Ernie always kept a list of things he wanted to accomplish,” said Grant “The Bartman Ball” DePorter, a close pal of the baseball ambassador known as Mr. Cub.

“In the last several years, Ernie crossed off many things that were on that list,” said DePorter, an avid baseball fan, sports showman, CEO of the Harry Caray restaurant group, and frequent Banks sidekick who spent the past six years chatting frequently with him at the eatery.

“For instance, Ernie wanted to learn chess,” DePorter said.

“He thought it would be good exercise for his mind. So about a year ago he had someone teach him chess. Sadly, I never got to play with him — even though I recently brought an oversized chess set that used to belong to my father to the restaurant. I wanted to surprise him with it and spend the afternoon playing chess.”

“Ernie wanted to learn more about what was going on in the world and knew that I had gone through FBI Citizens Academy,” he added.

“We would have long talks about what I had learned, and he was fascinated by what I had told him. So about a year and half ago, I put Ernie in the six-week FBI Citizens Academy. Ernie loved it!”

Banks, one of 12 children born to a struggling family in Texas, married three times before settling down with his fourth wife, Liz, and adopting a daughter who is now 6 years old.

<strong>Ernie Banks and his wife, Liz, at an event in 2010. | Sun-Times file photo</strong>
Ernie Banks and his wife, Liz, at an event in 2010. | Sun-Times file photo

Interestingly, the much married Banks, who made a point of never saying anything negative about anybody and loved to talk about what amazed him in life, also had a desire to unite people in wedlock.

“One of his goals was to perform a marriage, so Ron Kittle from the White Sox connected Ernie with the same organization that licensed Ron and [White Sox owner] Jerry Reinsdorf to marry people.

“So Ernie got his license and performed a marriage,” chirped DePorter.

“The only goal I know on Ernie’s list he never achieved was winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

“But he did get pretty close to that when President Obama gave Ernie the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award a little over a year ago,” said DePorter.

Banks, whose positive attitude had become legendary, was stunned to learn he was going to get the medal, and seemed humbled — almost nervous — about the whole thing.

“I just don’t know what to say,” he told Sneed back then. “And I’ve got to have something to say,” he added.

But the zip came back in his voice when Ernie chatted with Sneed’s assistant, Diana Novak Jones, who talked to him shortly before he left for Washington, D.C., to receive the medal in 2013.

“We talked for a while about the medal and what it meant to him, his relationship with the president, what he thought he might say at the ceremony. But then he wanted to ask me a few questions,” Novak Jones said. “He asked me if I was married, and I said I was engaged,” she said.

“He asked me if I was a Cubs fan – I said I was — then he immediately said we should get married at Wrigley Field. He said he’d marry us, at home plate!”

Hey. Hey. Holy cow!

The response of her fiance, Blake Jones, was not surprising. “Blake said: ‘Let’s scrap everything! Let’s do it,’ ” she said. “Of course, he was joking.”

Said a longtime Banks buddy who asked to remain anonymous: “Don’t get me wrong . . . Ernie was a great guy, an eternal optimist . . . but you knew it was almost beyond reality — because he’d be that way at a funeral. He truly loved life but he loved it his way . . . which made him great to be around.”

<strong>Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame slugger Ernie Banks smiles after an interview at the Cubs offices in Chicago on March 24, 2014. | M. Spencer Green/AP</strong>
Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame slugger Ernie Banks smiles after an interview at the Cubs offices in Chicago on March 24, 2014. | M. Spencer Green/AP

Shortly after learning that Banks was going to receive the honor from Obama, DePorter tells Sneed he volunteered to help the Chicago Cubs’ first black player collect his thoughts for his acceptance speech.

“I wanted to remind Ernie what he had accomplished in his baseball career, so I surprised him with a giant stack of newspapers going back to 1950 that had every major story ever written about him.

“I suppose because Ernie was always playing baseball he never saw the stories that people were writing about him — so we spent about four hours together as Ernie read these stories about himself for what seemed to be the first time.

“When we got to 1977, the year Ernie was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Ernie read all of the wonderful things that people were saying about him. One caught his eye. The headline read: ‘Ernie Banks The Apostle of Love.’”

“The story talked not just about Ernie as a baseball player but also about him as a great human being and all of the nice things that Ernie had done. It made Ernie watery-eyed to read it. He said that stack of newspapers was one of the greatest gifts he had ever received. He relived four decades of his life in four hours — and what a life it was!”

DePorter claims he found a newspaper article saying Banks was also the first African-American to manage a baseball team, despite reports to the contrary.

“Ernie managed the Cubs for just one game, when Leo Durocher got thrown out of the game,” he said. “I sent it out to have it framed, but never got a chance to give it to him.”

In his 2013 interview with the Sneed column, Banks told Novak Jones he prized loyalty above all.

Although he gave President Barack Obama a Cubs cap, he praised him for his loyalty to the White Sox.

“Loyalty, that’s what I think about the Cubs. He [Obama] believes in the White Sox. That’s loyalty, I lived with loyalty. It is very important.”

And it was the loyalty of the Cubs fans that kept Banks loving the game.

“There’s no finer place to play in Chicago. They’re loyal, they’re supportive, they forgive and forget.

“We can lose, and they’re still going to play the song.”