Monday, May 7, 2012

Mr. Cub

In assessing my work on this blog after three years, I realized that my posts in appreciation of specific individuals were mostly posthumous. I resolved to change that. In this post, the subject at 80 years of age, is still very much alive and well.

I asked my 11 year old son the other day who was his biggest baseball hero. He thought about it for a couple of seconds and said: "Ryan Theriot?" The question mark was his not mine. Now my son's baseball experience is much more participatory than mine was at his age, he plays a lot more than he watches. Yet he is very much aware of big league players throughout the Majors, way more than I am, and frankly his answer surprised me. Not that Ryan Theriot is a bad ballplayer. He was a decent shortstop and second baseman for the Cubs for six seasons before being traded in 2010 to the Dodgers. He spent 2011 with the Cardinals and this year he's playing for the Giants. While he's a lifetime .281 hitter, not bad for a middle infielder, most of his stats place him solidly in the realm of an average major leaguer. Frankly that's not a bad place to be considering the fact that he is after all, in the Big Show, and his annual salary is well above three million dollars. Still those kind of stats usually do not make a ballplayer a hero in the eyes of most children.

It could be something about Theriot's easygoing Cajun demeanor that appeals to my boy, or the fact that he can relate to the ballplayer's relatively modest size and stature. But I suspect Ryan Theriot became my son's hero when he drove in the winning run in the rain delayed, extra inning game that was to be my son's first visit to Wrigley Field, the day he fell in love with baseball.

I bring this all up because the other day, Ernie Banks was interviewed on a local radio talk show. Not that Banks had entirely left my mind but hearing his voice, still strong, optimistic and jubilant after all these years, brought back a rush of memories from my childhood.

Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, was my greatest baseball hero. His only competition for greatest hero of all was Stan Mikita, the great centerman for the Black Hawks. All in all I'd say between the two, it was about a tie. Beside his great skills, Mikita's appeal for me rested on the fact that like my father, he came from Czechoslovakia.

Unlike Mikita, I came to Ernie Banks entirely on my own. Like my son's choice of hero, it was probably as much Banks' personality and demeanor that appealed to me as his on field performance. Ever the optimist, Banks would gleefully predict in verse the Cubs' chances at the beginning of each season:
  • The Cubs are due in '62
  • The Cubs will come alive in '65
  • Wrigley Field will be heaven in '67
  • The Cubs will be great in '68
  • The Cubs will shine in '69
Only the last prediction would come true, for a while that is, until the team imploded in September in nearly historic proportions. As far as I can recall, that was the first year when I really followed baseball seriously, paying attention to the box scores and standings daily, until the collapse when it became too painful to watch the Cubs' 9 1/2 game lead in mid-August evaporate to the ultimate World Series Champions that year and the still despised New York Mets. As I mentioned in this space before, it was a tough lesson for a 10 year old.

As for Ernie Banks, outwardly he seemed unfazed, his prediction in spring training the following year was this:

The Cubs will glow in 7-0.

They did that for a while, but ended up finishing second, five games behind the Pirates in the weak Eastern Division of the National League. For Ernie Banks, time was taking its toll. Realizing that he would likely wrap up his long and distinguished playing career without ever winning anything must have been a bitter pill to swallow. But he never let on. That season, on May 12th to be exact, Ernie Banks hit his 500th home run. He went on to hit 12 more home runs, then hung up the spikes for good at the end of the 1971 season. 

Ernie Banks was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1977.

Ever since he left the team, even though he moved away from Chicago, Ernie Banks has remained unquestionably devoted to the Cubs, just as he was during his playing years. I read a story about a recent conversation between Banks and a lifelong baseball fan as related by a third person. He described Banks ebulliently describing the joys and wonders of Cubdom to the man, completely winning him over. Someone said to the observer: "but that guy's a lifelong Yankee fan." The observer of the conversation said: "Well he's a Cub fan now."

Ernie Banks coined the term; "The Friendly Confines" to describe Wrigley Field, a term that lives on today. His number 14 was retired by the team in 1982 and a flag bearing his name and number flies over the left field foul pole, near the spot where so many of his home runs landed. Recently a statue of him was unveiled and currently stands on Clark Street, just outside the main entrance to the Friendly Confines. He's immortalized standing in his familiar batting stance, anyone who ever saw Ernie play can instantly recognize that statute from blocks away.

It would be remiss of me to fail to point out that Ernie Banks is not only a great person, inspiring teammate, and stellar promoter of his team, but he was unquestionably a great ballplayer, perhaps one of baseball's most overlooked stars. In his prime in the late fifties, an era where his competition included Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, and Henry Aaron, as well as several other baseball immortals, he was named National League MVP two years in a row. In addition to his 512 career home runs, (21st on the all time list, just behind Ted Williams and tied with Eddie Matthews), Banks was an 11 time All-Star, he had two seasons where he scored over 100 runs, eight seasons where he drove in over 100 runs, and five seasons where he hit over 40 home runs. He even won one gold glove award at shortstop, the toughest fielding position in the game. In case you're interested, here are his stats.

Still, like his longtime teammate, the late Ron Santo, Ernie Banks means so much to so many in ways that go well beyond the playing field. Because of my son's sheer joy and enthusiasm for the game, I've nicknamed him; "let's play two", after Banks' most famous quote. 

It would be hard to find a big league ballplayer today with that kind of enthusiasm. We hear more about agents and contracts than we hear about the love of the game. On kids' day at a White Sox game a few years ago, my son and I were standing by the visitors' dugout where we made friends with some Baltimore Oriole fans, a father and his children, who were following their team around the country. One of the kids was wearing a jersey with the name and number of the Orioles' star second baseman. The father told me that player's was the only autograph his son didn't have in his collection. The second baseman soon walked by only a few feet away from us, and as the kids begged him to come over and sign their caps, jerseys or whatever, he just kept walking, without so much as an acknowledgment of his faithful fans. My biggest thrill in the game that day was to see that particular player boot a routine ground ball. 

This reminds me of another of Ernie Banks' famous quotes. He once said: "It's important for ballplayers to sign autographs for kids because you never know, one day that kid could become your boss." Great as he was, Ernie Banks never made the same kind of money as that second baseman. He never even came close to what the journeyman Ryan Theriot makes. The last year I could get info on, the year it almost happened for the Cubs, in 1969 Ernie Banks made $85,000. When he broke into the big leagues in 1953, he was the first black player to play for the Cubs. I don't know this for a fact but I can only assume he suffered the same indignation that many of his contemporaries did as trailblazers in their game of choice. For better or worse, once again Ernie Banks never let on. 

It dawned on me the other day while listening to Ernie on the radio why I briefly lost interest in baseball around 1971, only to return as a fan of a different team a few years later. No it wasn't as I thought, because I was so bitterly disappointed by the 1969 and 1970 seasons. It was because Ernie Banks no longer played with the Cubs. When I think of Ernie Banks I think mostly of that image above, which was the very likeness of him included in my souvenir pack of black and white photos of my heros, Kessinger, Beckert, Williams, Santo, Hundley, Jenkins, and most of all, Ernie Banks. Somewhere I still have the portrait I painted of him based on that photo. When I think of him, I think of the lovely summer afternoons of my childhood spent at the half empty old ballpark, filled mostly with kids watching adults playing a kids game. The oldest adult of all those players turned out to be the biggest kid of them all.

Once he was gone, something was lost. Baseball for me became an adult game and I became a fan of a team where the fans were mostly rowdy adults, whose players smoked cigarettes in the dugout, and whose beer guzzling TV play by play man was funny, irreverent, and cynical. I became that way too. That's the time I lost my childhood for good. Eventually that play by play man would move to the north side and the age of innocence was officially lost for the Cubs as well. There was no turning back after they put lights up in the joint and started to play games at night. Sadly, Ernie Banks with his childlike enthusiasm, his eternal optimism, and his unquestioned loyalty to the Cubs, is an anachronism in the old ballpark now almost always filled to capacity, usually with beer guzzling, profanity spewing louts, too young to remember him, and too old to be children. In a complete reversal, seeing the White Sox play at U.S. Cellular Field is now a much more family friendly experience than seeing the Cubs play at the once Friendly Confines. 

Yes I became a White Sox fan after Ernie Banks left the Cubs. It's a story that the consummate Cub, Mr. Banks would hate to hear. That's why he was my biggest hero. 

It turns out as I realized the other day, he still is.


Francis Morrone said...

Great post. But I'm wondering if you ever read Leo Durocher's autobiography. Leo 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. BTW, I, too (as I think you know), idolized Ernie Banks as a kid. And he hit his 500th home run on my birthday.

James Iska said...

I wonder how many kids idolized Leo Durocher!

BTW, I mistakenly implied that Ernie hit his 500th on May 12th, 1971. Got the date right but the year wrong, it was 1970. I could never forget that date.

Happy Birthday Frank!

Francis Morrone said...

The kids who idolized Leo all lived in Brooklyn, and smoked and gambled behind the tenements. They all wanted to pal around with Bogey and Bacall the way Leo did.