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Ernie Banks remembered for radiating optimism, smile

Ernie Banks radiated optimism — and that beaming smile — both on and off the field, family and friends told mourners at the baseball legend’s downtown memorial service Saturday.

There was more laughter than tears at the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue with the pews full of sluggers like Hank Aaron, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins and Minnie Minoso and roughly 300 fans.

Hank Aaron at the service for Ernie Banks Saturday at Fourth Presbyterian Church. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

Hank Aaron at the service for Ernie Banks Saturday at Fourth Presbyterian Church. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

Banks, the Hall of Fame Chicago Cub with 512 career home runs, died Jan. 23 at age 83.

Banks’ twin sons, Joey and Jerry Banks, told mourners the love friends and fans felt for their father has helped get them through his passing.

“We’ve heard countless of stories of interactions with fans. It makes our mourning and his passing easier,” Jerry Banks said. “With every tear we shed comes 10,000 stories of laughter, followed by ‘That sounds like Dad.’”

Jerry Banks urged the thousands in attendance to scream his father’s favorite slogan at the top of their lungs on what would have been Ernie Banks’ 84th birthday: “Let’s Play Two!” mourners shouted.

Joey Banks thanked his father for teaching him life lessons: “Thanks Dad, for teaching us how to be winners, without winning all the time.” Joey Banks then poked fun at the Cubs’ record by adding, “Sorry Cubs fans,” as the crowd laughed.

It’s no secret Ernie Banks liked talking to people, and asking questions. Joey Banks said his father taught him how to learn by just listening.

Mr. Cub’s most prized possession was the Presidential Medal of Freedom that he was awarded by President Barack Obama in 2013, Joey Banks said.

John Rogers, a family friend, shared Ernie Banks’ experience that day, including that he had forgotten his photo ID and was stuck at the White House gates waiting to get in to receive the prestigious award.

Guards recognized him, and were able to get him to the Secret Service, Rogers said. Once inside, Ernie Banks treated everyone in the White House equally, from the butler to food service employees to Oprah Winfrey, who was also receiving an award from the president, Rogers said.

Williams drew big laughs while remembering personal moments he shared with Ernie Banks, including the many drives down Lake Shore Drive from the South Side to get to Wrigley Field.

Former Cub, Billy Williams gives a remembrance at the service for Ernie Banks Saturday at Fourth Presbyterian Church. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

Former Cub, Billy Williams gives a remembrance at the service for Ernie Banks Saturday at Fourth Presbyterian Church. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

The two roomed together for nearly three months when Williams first joined the Cubs. They talked til 2 a.m., prompting Williams to get another roommate, he joked. “After that [2-1/2 months], I had to get out of there,” Williams said.

“I can still see him coming up to me with that smiling face, welcoming me to being a member of the Chicago Cubs,” Williams said.

And he recalled the constant energy Ernie Banks expelled, even when his team was dragging.

“He says ‘It’s a good day for two’ when all we could think about was one,” Williams said.

A fan of slogans to mark the baseball season, Williams created one for the 2015 season in honor of Banks: “The Cubs will win as a team in 2015.”

Jenkins called Ernie Banks “unassuming” and a team player: “He always wanted to be a teammate.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. made the audience rise to say “Happy birthday,” to Ernie Banks. He recited the lyrics to “Smile,” and said Ernie Banks — the first black Cubs player – sometimes did have pain behind the smile.

He recalled a conversation he had with Ernie Banks about the Cubs someday creating a statue for him. He was humble enough to believe it wouldn’t happen, Jackson said. But soon enough, he stood next to his own statue outside Wrigley Field in 2008, with that bright smile, standing next to his fellow Hall of Famer friends Aaron and Williams.

“He was more than a champion,” Jackson said. “He was a hero.”

Reverend Jessie Jackson Sr. gives a remembrance at the service for Ernie Banks Saturday at Fourth Presbyterian Church. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

Reverend Jessie Jackson Sr. gives a remembrance at the service for Ernie Banks Saturday at Fourth Presbyterian Church. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

Others in attendance included Lou Brock, Glenn Beckert and Randy Hundley.

For many, a goodbye to Ernie Banks marks a goodbye to a golden part of their childhood — rushing home from school to watch the stellar 1969 Cubs play on WGN.

Gov. Bruce Rauner told those in the church that he was 13 back then, calling it “the summer of dreams.”

Those golden years playing baseball stuck with Ernie Banks his entire life, as he continued close ties to the Cubs organization and to its fans.

“Ernie Banks is not Mr. Cub because we loved him,” Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts said. “He is Mr. Cub because he loved us back.”

After the church service, a procession took Ernie Banks past his own statue at Daley Plaza, then to his favorite playground, Wrigley Field.

Fans wave goodbye to Ernie Banks as the procession heads to Daley Plaza and Wrigley Field. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

Fans wave goodbye to Ernie Banks as the procession heads to Daley Plaza and Wrigley Field. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times