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Medal of Freedom winner Banks: "Is this a great country or what?"

Cubs legend Ernie Banks has known President Obama since attending a reception the day before Obama announced his candidacy for the 2008 presidential race. And he still can’t get him to go to Wrigley Field or wear a Cubs jacket, he said.

“What I learned from him in that is the loyalty that he has,” Banks said Tuesday. “He followed the White Sox, that’s his team, and that’s it.”

But if Obama won’t go to Banks’ baseball home, it hasn’t stopped the president from bringing the Hall of Famer to the White House in November to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

“Is this a great country or what?” Banks said before a pregame ceremony at Wrigley to celebrate his latest honor. “[The award] just means life is just wonderful, [that] when you do things and try to help people and share things, it really comes back to you. … It’s almost like the Nobel Peace Prize to me.”

In fact, two of the other 15 recipients of this year’s Medal of Freedom are Nobel winners, and another, former president Bill Clinton, is a former Nobel nominee.

Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker has known Banks since the early years of Baker’s playing career with the Atlanta Braves.

“I just remember Ernie was never in a bad mood,” Baker said. “I wouldn’t believe how a guy would never be in a bad mood. But it’s 40 years and I’ve still never seen him in a bad mood.”

Perhaps ironically, Banks attributes that to his early playing days in the segregated Negro Leagues, before former Negro Leagues star and ever-upbeat Cubs scout Buck O’Neil signed him and Banks became the Cubs’ first black player.

“It was from Buck O’Neil and playing in the Negro Leagues, traveling with those guys,” Banks said, “getting all the wisdom that they had about life and playing.”