Obama honors Ernie Banks, Oprah Winfrey

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WASHINGTON — Cubs great Ernie Banks and television mogul Oprah Winfrey were honored by President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday along with 14 others at a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony where Obama gave recognition to gay partners of deceased honorees.

Tam O’Shaughnessy accepted a medal on behalf of her life partner, astronaut Sally Ride, and Walter Naegle accepting on behalf of his partner, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

The ceremony in the East Room drew Chicagoans with connections to the honorees: Winfrey’s beau, Stedman Graham; Obama and Banks friend John Rogers; Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts; Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.; Sen. Dick Durbin D-Ill; and former Cubs greats Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins.

Other honorees were former President Bill Clinton (former Sec. of State Hillary and daughter sat in the front row for the event); former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee; country music singer Loretta Lynn; author and feminist Gloria Steinem; and former federal judge Patricia Wald.

Banks, known as “Mr. Cub,” played his entire career at Wrigley Field, where he coined the famous phrase “let’s play two,” which Obama referred to in his remarks.

“In the sweltering heat of a Chicago summer, Ernie Banks walked into the Cubs locker room and didn’t like what he saw. Everybody was sitting around, heads down, depressed,” he recalled. “So Ernie piped up and said, ‘Boy, what a great day! Let’s play two!’ That’s ‘Mr. Cub’ — a man who came up through the Negro Leagues, making $7 a day, and became the first black player to suit up for the Cubs and one of the greatest hitters of all time. And in the process, Ernie became known as much for his 512 home runs as for his cheer and his optimism and his eternal faith that someday the Cubs would go all the way.”

“And that’s serious belief. That is something that even a White Sox fan like me can respect. But he is just a wonderful man and a great icon of my hometown,” Obama said.

Winfrey is a long-time friend of Obama and first lady Michelle. They share funny first names, Obama said.

“Early in Oprah Winfrey’s career, her bosses told her she should change her name to Susie.”

“I have to pause here to say I got the same advice. They didn’t say I should be named ‘Susie,’ but they suggested I should change my name. People can relate to Susie, that’s what they said. It turned out, surprisingly, that people could relate to Oprah just fine.”

“In more than 4,500 episodes of her show, her message was always, ‘You can.’ ‘You can do and you can be and you can grow and it can be better.’ And she was living proof, rising from a childhood of poverty and abuse to the pinnacle of the entertainment universe. But even with 40 Emmys, the distinction of being the first black female billionaire, Oprah’s greatest strength has always been her ability to help us discover the best in ourselves. Michelle and I count ourselves among her many devoted fans and friends. As one of those fans wrote, ‘I didn’t know I had a light in me until Oprah told me it was there.’ What a great gift.”

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