Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ernie Banks

This is not my tribute to Ernie Banks who died yesterday. I wrote that almost three years ago after having written too many tributes to dead people that should have been written while they were still alive.

Beyond the sadness of losing the man who was my greatest childhood hero, several thoughts came to mind since receiving the news of his passing last night.

Buck O'Neil and Ernie Banks
Ernie Banks, who in 1953 became the first African American to play for the Cubs, was one of the last major league ballplayers to have come out of the old Negro Leagues. Banks played for the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the preeminent teams in the glory days of Black Baseball. Banks was scouted and signed to his first contract with the Monarchs in 1951 by none other than Cool Papa Bell, one of the greatest players black or white, to ever play the game. His manager in KC was Buck O'Neil, a very good player in his own right, who would eventually become the first African American coach of a major league team, the Cubs. In that capacity, O'Neil signed Lou Brock to his first major league contract. Cubs fans the world over know exactly how that deal turned out.

O'Neil would later come to nationwide attention largely thanks to being featured prominently in Ken Burns' PBS documentary, Baseball. He spent the final years of his life helping create and drumming up support for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and tirelessly spreading the news about the glory days of the Negro Leagues, dispelling the old notions that Black Baseball was a second class operation.

O'Neil was also instrumental in gaining induction of several Negro League players and executives into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Although he himself was inexplicably overlooked in the balloting, he graciously took to the podium on July 29, 2006 in Cooperstown, NY during the induction ceremonies of several of his fellow players:

We lost Buck O'Neil shortly after he gave that speech but his spirit lives on not only in the museum he helped build, but in the revival of interest in an often overlooked, yet very significant part of American history.

With Ernie Banks's passing, we have lost one of our last direct connections to that history.

Of course by the time Ernie Banks came to the Monarchs, the team and the rest of the Negro Leagues were in their death throes, having become virtually irrelevant on April 15, 1947, the day Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The door to the majors was opened up that day, if only by a crack for African American players, who were banned from playing in "organized baseball" since the 1880s. It took twelve years before every major league team would have at least one black player on their roster. and most teams like the Cubs, were hesitant to have more than two or three at any time. Consequently, while there were opportunities for black ballplayers in the big leagues, those opportunities were few and far between. Unless you were a player of the caliber of say, Larry Doby, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin or Ernie Banks, your chances of making it into the big leagues were infinitesimally small. And with the drying up of the Negro Leagues, the twenty years or so following the "integration" of the game were particularly difficult ones for most black players.

Ernie Banks was not particularly outspoken about race and the injustices faced by people of color in America. For better or worse, he did not feel it was the athlete's responsibility to comment on such things. That probably worked to his benefit. Unlike players like Jackie Robinson who became a very prominent spokesperson for civil rights in America, Banks with his child-like enthusiasm, his easy-going demeanor, and his media-savvy, made him less threatening to white folks, especially during the fifties and sixties in the (at the time) lily-white north side of Chicago, playing on a team whose fans represented that demographic. I don't think it's a stretch to say that Mr. Banks's popularity eased the path for black players who followed him into the majors.

In time Ernie Banks became unquestionably the most beloved player in the team's long history. The question, and at this point it's purely an academic one, is this: was Ernie Banks the greatest player in the team's history?

One could argue that he wasn't even the best player among his teammates. Here's what baseball historian and statistician extraordinaire Bill James has to say about one of them:
Billy Williams was Ernie Banks without the PR.
In the comments section to my tribute to Banks, my friend, writer, historian, Cub (and Ernie Banks) fan, and expert on every aspect of the game of baseball, Francis Morrone, wrote this:
Leo (Durocher) got to where he couldn't stand the sight of Ernie. He just hated him, and hated how (as Leo perceived it) Ernie manipulated the press and the public. Leo wanted to bench Ernie (not without reason, as by the late sixties Banks was a complete liability in the lineup) and felt he couldn't.
Fightin' words to be sure to any dyed-in-the-wool Ernie Banks fan but unfortunately the facts and stats support them, especially in the twilight of his career. 

There have been several great players (though not many in our lifetime) who could challenge Ernie Banks to the title of greatest Cub ever. I'm about to stir the pot to boiling over with one of them.

His name was Adrian Constantine Anson. Anson played a remarkable  27 years of big league ball, 22 of them with Chicago. He came here in 1876, the same year the team's owner William Hulbert and his associates formed the National League. Anson, a first baseman, quickly became established as one of the stars of the game. In 1879 he became player/manager (where he got his nickname "Cap") and led the team, at the time known as the White Stockings, to five championships in eight years. 

As manager, Anson was an innovator in those early years of the game, credited with coming up with or perfecting strategies such as the hit and run, sending players signals from the bench, placing a coach at third base, the hook slide, hitting to the opposite field, all aspects that we take for granted today.

Such was Cap Anson's influence on the team that the nickname White Stockings was replaced with "Anson's Colts". When Anson finally departed from the team in 1898, his loss was so profound that the nickname was changed again, this time to" the Orphans". The team would keep that unfortunate name for four years, until a newspaperman reporting from spring training (another invention of Anson's), referred to the promising crop of new players on the team as "cubs." The name as you can imagine, stuck.

Cap Anson by many accounts is considered the greatest major league player and manager of the nineteenth century.

There was another side to Anson however. During an arduous road trip in 1883, his team was scheduled to make a stop in Toledo to play an exhibition game against the minor league Toledo Blue Stockings. Out of fatigue, he balked about playing a meaningless game but his boss, team president Albert Spalding insisted as the Chicago team's success assured a huge draw in the northwest Ohio city. Further complicating the issue, when he got to the ballpark, Anson refused to take the field unless an agreement was made that the Toledo catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker, an African American, would not play. Charlie Morton, Toledo's manager refused to take his catcher out of the lineup and assured Anson that if his team refused to take the field, the Chicago nine would forfeit their share of the hefty gate receipts. Anson relented that time, but in later meetings with Toledo, and other teams that had black players, he got assurances that no black player would ever take the field against the Chicago team. 

In some circles, Cap Anson is given much of the credit (or blame), for the "gentlemen's agreement" among baseball club owners and officials, which banned African Americans from organized baseball for sixty years. 

Even for his day, Anson was a virulent racist who would make Ty Cobb look like a card carrying member of the NAACP. 

Despite that, Anson's contributions to the game are indisputable.

In his list of the 100 most important people in baseball, John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian, places Cap Anson at number 64, just below Jacob Ruppert, (the Yankee owner who signed Babe Ruth), and just above Bill Veeck. 

Sadly, the name of Ernie Banks is not anywhere to be found on the list.

Let me point out, it's Thorn's list not mine. 

If it were my list, highly biased of course, Ernie Banks would be near the top. When he became a big leaguer in the fifties, the game of baseball was in its doldrums. Attendance was down drastically, either because of TV or out of fear of the changing neighborhoods where the ballparks were located. In the sixties, teams built brand spanking new polyester-laden stadiums indistinguishable from one another, each with all the personality of a  block of styrofoam. The Cubs were holdouts in the National League and during the sixties, there was Ernie Banks, the lone voice in the crowd, extolling the virtues of day baseball, played they way it should be played, ("baseball in the daytime, loving in the nighttime" being one of the least quoted of the rakish Mr. Banks's favorite comments), played on grass in the "Friendly Confines" of Wrigley Field. Eventually, the burghers of baseball saw the light and dynamited all those concrete-clad mausoleums and replaced them with new ballparks all modeled after Wrigley Field. 

Baseball is back to at least some semblance of being the way it should be, played on real grass (if not in the daylight), in real ballparks, which in my estimation, is thanks in no small part to Ernie Banks. 

Now there's a contribution worthy of John Thorn's list if you asked me. 

Last night an amazing thing happened. As I was working on a website devoted to baseball, I was testing out a feature that retrieves ballplayers' stats. The random name I plugged in to test the program was what else, Ernie Banks. Not more than two minutes later, as his lifetime stats were staring me in the face on my computer, my son came in the room to deliver the news that Mr. Banks had died. 

I took that to be some kind of sign. 

Personally, what would put Ernie Banks at or near the top of my list of most important people in the game of baseball is this: He is the person who without a doubt, is most responsible for making me fall in love with the game. 

I have no doubt that I am not alone in that sentiment. And for that all I can say is this:

Thank you Mr. Cub, you wear that title well.

May you rest in peace.

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