Ernie Banks dealt with so much but never let it show

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Unlike teammate Ron Santo, Ernie Banks got to enjoy his status as a Hall of Fame member before he died. | Getty Images

I guess I always felt Ernie Banks would never die.

Maybe a lot of you felt the same way. A guy named Mr. Cub isn’t like the rest of us.

A Hall of Fame baseball player with 512 home runs — back when steroids were the province of Eastern Bloc weightlifters and the steak was the ballplayers’ muscle-builder of choice — Mr. Cub was more than a jock.

He was a living, breathing symbol of sporting greatness.

In fact, he was a symbol of so many things that in his later years he almost seemed like a living, breathing statue representing among other things: triumph over racism, total effort without support, optimism in the face of gloom, athletic superiority, unflinching love for America’s Game and — greatest of all — infectious joy for the gift of being alive.

I’ll tell you this: I am so happy he got to enjoy being a Hall of Famer for more than three decades and that he got to revel in the glory of his real statue, placed in front of his beloved Wrigley Field in 2008. It breaks my heart to think of a guy such as Ron Santo, Ernie’s passionate teammate, who was inducted into the Cooperstown elite after he was dead and buried. What good is a great honor bestowed to a ghost?

When I was a little kid, I watched Banks play a few times on TV and almost swooned when I snagged one of his 1959 star-spangled All-Star bubblegum cards in a random purchase at the local dime store. That’s when Ernie was at his peak, accomplishing so much on bad teams.

But I also watched him many times in person, usually from the bleachers at Wrigley, all through my college years in Evanston, with my 1971 graduation coinciding with the end of his career. He wasn’t that superior in his waning days, not at first base, anyway. But his bat was always magic. And his swing, all wrist and speed, with those fingers dancing on the end of that skinny ash handle, was capable of astounding power at any moment.

My buddies and I played whiffle ball with a plastic bat, and anybody who batted left-handed and cranked the ball toward our imaginary Sheffield Avenue was Billy Williams, and anybody who batted righty and jerked one onto left-field “Waveland’’ was, of course, Ernie himself.

But when Banks’ playing days were over, he became a symbol of something yet again: the gracious, smiling — hence lovable — loser. I spoke with Banks many times through the years, just chatting, but 1969 was a season I never brought up. Nor did he.

You only get so many chances in life, and that was the Cubs’ most-promising moment to win a World Series in more than half a century, from 1945 to 2003 — with four Hall of Famers on the team and an eight-game lead over the Mets in August — and then … nothing. That one taught me three lessons that I’ll never unlearn.

Life ain’t fair. Good guys finish anywhere. You better buck up from a broken heart.

And that was Ernie Banks for the rest of his days — a symbol of the mended heart urging others younger than himself to “play two,’’ or 10, or a thousand. Whatever it takes, pick yourself up and strive onward. And enjoy the competition. He always did.

The alternative? Mope around and complain about the raw deal the gods dealt you.

But team failure in baseball was nothing compared to what Banks had seen in the South, growing up in a society so segregated that there was even a professional baseball league for “Negroes,’’ because there was no way blacks were going to play in the white man’s major leagues.

The Negro Leagues were the flip side of the “colored’’ entrances to public movie theaters, the separate drinking fountains for blacks, the back-of-the-bus culture that Banks, like his brethren, could either accept silently or rail against and risk destruction and even death.

Ernie had to swallow a lot. I guarantee you that. But had he rebelled angrily against the unfairness in society in his era, there is no way he would have played big-time ball at all. And how he loved baseball.

His courtesy was authentic. He had kindness inside like a pilot light.

He was a great athlete, a fine teammate, a good man, and like the memories he leaves for us all, he lives on.

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