BY DAN McGRATH
As my mother aged into her 80s, she reluctantly eased up on the pace of her life and spent more time watching television. Ever curious, she tuned in and developed an affinity for some of the sports broadcasts she had been too busy to notice while raising seven mostly sports-minded kids.
She delighted in learning the nicknames — ‘‘Sweetness,’’ ‘‘Hawk,’’ ‘‘Ryno’’ — and while she was known to speak her mind with a typical senior’s candor, she preferred to seek confirmation about what an athlete was ‘‘really like’’ before forming a judgment.
The aforementioned ‘‘Hawk’’ underwent a typical background check.
‘‘I like that Andre Dawson,’’ she told me once.
‘‘Excellent choice,’’ I assured her.
‘‘I know he’s good, and he doesn’t seem conceited.’’
‘‘Not in the slightest.’’
She nodded, pleased that her opinion had been validated. And she always valued humility.
In a way, my mother’s Andre Dawson was my Ernie Banks. He was probably the first pro athlete to whom I really paid attention. It was not a far-fetched choice; my brother idolized Ernie, and I idolized my brother. The Cubs were on TV a lot, so he was easy to find, and he was really good. You didn’t have to be a baseball sophisticate to appreciate a gorgeously recognizable swing and 44 home runs by a shortstop.
But Banks’ popularity reached beyond style and even substance. Beyond money, certainly — especially back then. We always got the sense that he played ball because he loved to play ball, just as we did. For as eloquently as he extolled the virtues of Wrigley Field, would he not have been just as jazzed to join our pickup games in the vacant lot behind McHale’s place or to waggle his fingers at the bottom of a Wiffle-ball bat in the accidentally perfect field in the backyard?
Let’s play two? That was us on a slow day. And with Ernie it was a genuine sentiment.
That, too, helped explain an appeal that transcended Chicago’s many differences and divides. Ernie was genuine. He didn’t seem genuine; he was genuine. You can’t fake it. And kids know if you try.
He wasn’t perfect — far from it. He ran for alderman as a Republican in the most Democratic city on Earth, which suggests questionable judgment. His Hall of Fame baseball talent didn’t easily translate to the business world (a failed Ford dealership was one of a few reversals). His widow, Liz, is the fourth Mrs. Ernie Banks, so if he ever got the hang of marriage, it happened late in life.
He was one of the first athletes to try parlaying stellar name recognition into a broadcasting gig, but a rural Texas twang and less-than-perfect diction were obvious drawbacks. Plus, he never seemed comfortable narrating his own highlights. I’ll always remember, ‘‘Ah got a chance against Denvuh LeMastuh.’’
His fatal flaw was that he was too nice to be a scold or a critic. Can you imagine Ernie Banks going all Mark Giangreco on some underachieving unfortunate? Never.
But those shortcomings, in an odd way, almost made him more beloved. Ernie was one of us. He was human.
And too nice. What a cross to bear through life.
Those of us who allow an obsession to evolve into an occupation — sports fan to sports journalist — set ourselves up for disappointment when the athletes we’ve viewed as heroes from afar turn out to be something less than that upon closer inspection. Mickey Mantle comes to mind, and certainly O.J. Simpson. Bill Russell was disappointingly churlish, and Steve Carlton was better off when he wasn’t talking.
Not so Ernie. In every adult encounter I ever had with him or witnessed him in, he carried himself with dignity, courtesy and class, as nice a man as he seemed back in the day, when his childlike enthusiasm and pure love of the game — our game — transfixed us. The connection endured the aging process.
Mr. Cub? Indeed.
Mr. Chicago is just as fitting.