I have been sitting at my keyboard trying to write something to sum up the life of Ernie Banks, saddened, nearly weeping at the loss of the man who personified the Chicago Cubs, not just for people like me who grew up watching him, but for every generation since.
Ernie Banks, known to all as "Mr. Cub," a title he wore with pride, died Friday, January 23, just a few days short of what would have been his 84th birthday January 31. We all thought he'd be around forever -- after all, Ernie's mother lived to be 97 before she died about six years ago. Unfortunately, Ernie didn't make it that long.
He died short of one other thing, too -- seeing his beloved Cubs play in a World Series.
All right, now I really am crying. We have not only lost a Hall of Fame baseball player, but one who embodied our team, the one we've all lived and died rooting for, a man who said "Let's play two" every day he came to the ballpark just because he wanted more baseball in his life and ours, and certainly there isn't a person on Earth who loves baseball who could disagree with that idea.
When someone of the fame that Ernie Banks achieved dies, it's traditional to write an obituary summing up, in a few hundred words, the person's life. How is that even possible to do for someone like Ernie? He was a man who lived 10 men's lives, a man who squeezed every bit of living out of a life not only in baseball, but in bringing pleasure to every single person he met. I met Ernie on a number of occasions and every single time he'd make me feel as if I were his best friend, though I'm sure he only vaguely recalled each occasion. That's a gift for any human being, and Ernie wore it well.
One thing I'd like you to do today is re-read the Top 100 Cubs profile I wrote about Ernie in 2007, now almost eight years ago (I edited it a bit to update Ernie's rankings on the all-time lists, but otherwise it's what I wrote then). That'll tell you about the nuts and bolts of his career, the statistical milestones, the achievements on the field.
But there was far more to Ernie than that. Here's one key passage that helps explain Ernie Banks the man, not from me but from another writer I quoted in the article, well-known author Bill Bryson:
Once on a hot July afternoon I sat in a nearly airless clubhouse under the left-field grandstand at Wrigley Field beside Ernie Banks, the Cubs' great shortstop, as he autographed boxes of new white baseballs (which are, incidentally, one of the most pleasurably aromatic things on earth, and worth spending time around anyway). Unbidden, I took it upon myself to sit beside him and pass him each new ball. This slowed the process considerably, but he gave a little smile each time and said thank you as if I had done him quite a favor. He was the nicest human being I have ever met. It was like being friends with God.
From Ernie himself, on what was going through his mind when he was rounding the bases with his 500th home run May 12, 1970:
I was thinking about my mother and dad, about all the people in the Chicago Cubs organization that helped me and about the wonderful Chicago fans who have come out all these years to cheer me on. They've been a great inspiration to me.
He meant that, too. It wasn't just words to Ernie. He loved all of us just as we loved him. His optimism and happiness were part of his everyday life, not an act, but his reality. And this quote, also from Ernie, sums up his life in two sentences:
You must try to generate happiness within yourself. If you aren't happy in one place, chances are you won't be happy anyplace.
There is no doubt that Ernie Banks generated happiness within himself every single day of his life and spread that happiness around him so well that each and every one of us as Cubs fans -- not just those of us who saw him play, but those who know him only from his prodigious career statistics and some old video -- holds Ernie in his or her heart as not only the greatest Cub ever, but the most beloved, and I cannot imagine either of those things ever changing.
There is one thing to be noted about Ernie's career line, something I wrote about in the top-100 profile but that bears repeating here. Through 1960 -- seven years into Ernie's career, through his age-29 season -- he appeared to be heading not only to be a great player but perhaps one of the greatest of all time, what might be termed today a "first-tier" Hall of Famer. He'd won back-to-back National League MVP awards for two losing teams. He'd hit 40 or more homers five of the previous six years. His contemporaries, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, both of whom hit 150-plus more homers than Ernie in their careers, never did that. Following the 1960 season, Ernie was on target to perhaps hit 600 home runs, maybe have 3,000 hits and be recognized as possibly one of the two dozen or so greatest ever. But serious knee and wrist injuries derailed the second half of his career. It's a credit to Ernie that he worked hard enough to put together another decade's worth of play that, while not up to his previous standards, put enough numbers on the board to have a career that sent him to the Hall of Fame and earned him the first number retirement in Cubs history.
When Ernie's number 14 was retired by the Cubs August 22, 1982, he received a telegram (back in the days when people still sent those quaint things!) from Paul Schramka, who had worn No. 14 for two games as a defensive replacement early in 1953, the year Ernie debuted in September. To Ernie, Schramka wrote: "I left all the hits in the jersey for you." Schramka, now 86 and still living in his native Milwaukee, is no doubt mourning with the rest of us today.
There's much more detail on Ernie's career at the Top-100 link above and I hope you'll read it today to remember Mr. Cub's wonderful career and life. To conclude my own remembrances, I wanted to share with you first this short video that includes Ernie's 500th home run (along with an interview with him):
And, these three photos that I posted last October on the 30th anniversary of the Cubs' first postseason appearance in 39 years:
1984 Ernie Banks photos by Al Yellon
Ernie had been invited to throw out the first pitch for Game 1 of the 1984 NLCS. He appeared as you see above, in full uniform, still looking trim at age 53, 13 years after his retirement. We all thought he'd be back 10 days later to do the same thing at the Cubs' first World Series game since 1945.
Of course, we're still waiting for that World Series game, and now, sadly, Ernie won't be around to do first-pitch honors. That makes me ineffably sad. One of Ernie's teammates, probably Fergie Jenkins or Billy Williams or both, will likely throw out a pitch when the Cubs do make it, but it just won't be the same without Ernie's smile and positive attitude.
Ernie Banks will be missed beyond measure. There's really nothing more I can add to that. We all feel that sense of loss, a hole in our baseball lives that cannot be filled.
So when you're feeling that emptiness, go read my Top-100 profile of Ernie and relive his great career. Watch that 500th home run -- an event so memorable that the Cubs put a sound chip of Jack Brickhouse's call of it in the Brickhouse bobblehead handed out last summer. I still play that from time to time; it brings me back to my childhood, simpler times, simpler days, memories that will last forever.
I'd like to thank all of you who stopped by here Friday night to leave condolences and your own memories and thoughts, along with quite a number of fans of other teams who did the same either here or on Twitter. Your kindness at this sad time means the world to me, and to all Cubs fans.
Mr. Cub has left this Earth and for that, we are all diminished today. The memories he has left us, the stature he commands not only among Cubs fans but in all of baseball -- and all of American life after he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 -- will last for all eternity.
And when the Cubs win the World Series, Ernie will be there. Yes, not physically, but he'll be there. You'll feel him -- that arm around our collective shoulder, with that happy, eternal smile, and you'll hear him, too. Oh yes, you'll hear that sunny, happy voice, forever saying, "Let's play two!"