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‘We knew Ernie Banks before we knew Martin Luther King’

FILE - In this 1970 file photo, Chicago Cubs' Ernie Banks poses. Banks, the two-time MVP who never lost his boundless enthusiasm for baseball despite years of playing on losing Cubs teams, died Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. He was 83. (AP Photo/File) ORG XMIT: NY161

Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs. (AP Photo/File) ORG XMIT: NY161

With Chicago’s historic election for mayor entering the home stretch, perhaps this is the time to remember another remarkable moment in the city’s politics.

Which is when Ernie Banks ran for alderman. In a racially mixed district. As a Republican.

OPINION

Asked how he thought the great Cubs star would finish in the race after his surprise announcement in December, 1962, Richard J. Daley answered, “Out in left field.”

Once again, the mayor’s political instincts were sound as the Chicago Republican Party gave the nomination to another candidate by a vote of 84-3.

“I don’t understand the political game too well,” Banks said. “They try to strike you out before you even get a time at bat.”

One question nobody seems to have asked about Banks’ odd adventure is why he bothered. He had never expressed much interest in politics or government, after all, or in the greatest social issue of the day.

“The only race we have in baseball is trying to beat the throw to first for a hit, or trying to steal a base,” Banks once said, and as the struggle for civil rights heated up in the 1960s this see-no-evil attitude frustrated his friends who supported the movement at that time, and for many years afterward.

“You have to be grateful for what you have,” Banks told Rebecca Polihronis, the Cubs’ community relations coordinator and manager of their charitable arm. “Being bitter is only going to hurt you.” The message was the same to Arlene Gill, a long-time employee in the Cubs’ front office. “There are some things you can’t change,” Banks told her. “And if you can’t change something, complaining isn’t going to help.”

Marjorie Lott, Banks’ third wife, who was the equal opportunity officer at the Chicago Transit Authority when they met, said Banks just didn’t feel comfortable challenging the status quo.

“He had a certain kind of respect for authority, for the white man who had given him the opportunity to succeed in a white world,” Lott told me for a biography of Banks that has just been published. “He felt a certain kind of loyalty. He was more of a peacemaker. He wanted to please everybody and be happy. I don’t think he felt he would be very good at the fight.”

Banks’ attitude caused a rift of with one of his closest friends in baseball who was politically engaged in the ’60s, Hank Aaron.

“I talked to Ernie and I talked to Willie Mays, too,” Aaron told me. “I said, ‘Ernie, you’re in Chicago. Willie, you’re in California. We can control the press a little bit. We’ve got to make people realize that things aren’t as good as they seem.’ But it just wasn’t in their makeup. They were not going to say anything. I had some very bad feelings about that. What does it mean if just Hank Aaron is speaking out alone?”

But this criticism was mild compared with that coming from the growing Black Power movement, which Banks called silly and impractical. “How can Banks be an Uncle Tom?” one militant told Sports Illustrated. “Why, he’s never been a Negro.”

But as the decades went by and the early days of the civil rights movement were viewed from a historical perspective, the actions of Banks and other athletes of his era who did not speak out have come to be seen in a different light.

“He played his role because he proved something that we as blacks already knew,” Timuel Black, Chicago’s revered civil rights activist and historian, told me. “It was that given the opportunity, we’re just as good as anyone else, and better than most.”

Banks’ mere presence, and his brilliance as a ballplayer, also set a powerful example for the children who idolized him. “I don’t think we even realized he was a black man,” said Ned Colletti, who often made the journey to Wrigley Field from his home in Franklin Park to root for the Cubs. “He was just our hero.” Years later, Colletti’s infatuation with Banks and baseball led to a job in the Cubs’ front office and eventually to his becoming general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

And simply seeing Banks shake hands with Jack Brickhouse after one of their many televised interviews provided an example that some young fans who seldom met black people at a time when the color line was seldom crossed never forgot.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a longtime friend of Banks who presided at his funeral, also believes that Banks played his part in racial understanding..

“Some heroes, their strength is not talking, it’s doing,” Jackson told me. “Sometimes, people express their pain in extroverted ways and sometimes people internalize it. Ernie internalized his pain.”

It is important, Jackson says, to remember the timetable of events on the road toward racial equality and how one milestone led to another. “We knew Ernie Banks,” he said, “before we knew Martin Luther King.”

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Ron Rapoport is a former Sun-Times sports columnist and the author of Let’s Play Two: The Legend of Mr. Cub, The Life of Ernie Banks, published this month by Hachette Books. He will speak about “Let’s Play Two” and sign books during the following appearances: Tuesday, April 2, 7 p.m. — Frugal Muse Bookstore, 7511 Lemont Rd., Darien (Special guest, former Cubs pitcher Rich Nye).;Wednesday, April 3, noon — University Club of Chicago, 76 East Monroe, in conversation with Tribune sportswriter Phil Rosenthal; Thursday, April 4, 7 p.m. — Barnes and Noble, Old Orchard, 55 Old Orchard Center.