It’s hard to express what Ernie Banks meant to a boy in the ’60s, a boy who was a fan of a certain baseball team, a boy who didn’t know any better but soon would.
It wasn’t just the joy that so many of us associate with the man who was called Mr. Cub. It was his accessibility, the unconditional welcome he offered to anyone within smiling distance. I suppose that’s what the best kids’ performers offer to children without uttering a word: I’m one of you.
If you grew up in the Chicago area and were a fan of the Cubs, you didn’t need to announce that you were Ernie when you came to the plate in the playground, the backyard or wherever someone had thrown down pieces of cardboard for bases. You would wiggle your fingers around the handle of the bat like someone playing the keys of a clarinet. That’s how Ernie did it, on the way to 512 home runs. If there is a bigger compliment than a pantomime that everyone knows immediately, I don’t know what it would be.
It was beyond innocent then. We didn’t know about Ernie’s struggles as a black man playing a white man’s game. We didn’t know about the history of whites-only hotels or color barriers or any of that insanity. If you were 8 or 9 or 10, you simply saw a man who loved to play baseball. And because you loved to play baseball, there was nothing more that needed to be said between you and Ernie Banks, your best friend.
Forget about 1969 for a moment, the heartbreak of it all, the scarring. It’s impossible to dismiss the collapse by the Cubs, of course, the blown divisional lead, the Amazin’ Mets. You’d have an easier time dismissing a birthmark. But Ernie somehow rose above all that desolation. As a 9-year-old, not even the brutality of having your heart ripped out could turn him into the bad guy. Not to a kid who knew that the Cubs first baseman took it as hard as you did.
Ernie’s face, with cheekbones made only for a smile, told you it was going to be OK, even if something inside you told you it wasn’t. And it most certainly wouldn’t be.
He was near the end of his career then. He was 38. The narrative would become that he was a shell of himself, and I suppose he was, compared to what he had been. But he hit 23 home runs and had 106 runs batted in that season. I know 30 major-league teams that would pay lots of money for that today.
In quieter times, when construction isn’t causing chaos at Wrigley Field, there’s a statue of Ernie in his batter’s stance outside the ballpark, fingers in mid-wiggle. It’s nicely done and very much like the real thing, in that people flock to it and want their photos taken with it. That’s how it was with Ernie. If he tired of the constant attention, if he wanted to erupt after hearing another imitation of Jack Brickhouse doing his “Hey, Hey’’ home run call, it would have been stunning. No, it would have been beyond that. Those of us of a certain age would have been crushed by the idea of it.
You could live your life counting on Ernie’s genuineness. If you couldn’t, then surely all hope was lost. He had the unofficial title of Cubs ambassador, but that designation was unnecessary, like calling a bear furry. You couldn’t have separated his love for baseball or the Cubs from him. It was one big ball of fun called Ernie Banks.
His baseball skills were ridiculous. He was a Gold Glove shortstop before moving to first base. He was a two-time National League Most Valuable Player. He was a Hall of Famer.
But his kindness was such that all those accolades would end up taking a backseat to what he was: a good man whose love for a child’s game shined through.
He never won a World Series. That unfortunate fact was always chained to him. He was the Most Lovable Loser of all the Lovable Losers. But he rose above it. If the Cubs never won it all, it wasn’t because of something lacking in him. It certainly wasn’t because of some deficiency of optimism on his part. This man truly thought that if he believed in something hard enough, it would happen. The way a kid would believe.
The kid died Friday night. He was 83. He can rest easy now. He can finally play as many games as he wants.