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Book review: ‘Let’s Play Two’

This biography of Ernie Banks reveals some facets of Mr. Cub’s life that we have not seen before.

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Ernie Banks. Mr. Cub.

We all know the story of his Hall of Fame career and the smile you always saw at the ballpark and his famous phrase, “Let’s play two!” which is the title of Ron Rapoport’s new biography of Ernie.

The biography reveals another side of Ernie Banks. If you ever met him, you surely recall that the very first thing he’d do was ask you about yourself, whether you were married, whether you had a family, what you did for a living, etc. This seemed flattering to most — after all, here was this famous man, someone cheered for and idolized by most, asking you about yourself... it always made for good conversation.

But the conversation was never about Ernie Banks. The reason, Rapoport writes, that Ernie did this was that he didn’t like talking about himself, his own life, the way he was raised in poverty in Dallas, how he turned himself into a great major league baseball player, his marriages and children — most people knew nothing of all of this.

That’s what’s examined in detail in this biography. The title itself gives a hint as to the inscrutability of Ernie’s life. The origin of the “Let’s play two” phrase was told by Banks in many different forms:

No one can be sure exactly when Banks first said, “Let’s play two,” or, in its more complete form, “It’s a beautiful day for a ball game. Let’s play two.” One version has him responding to the complaints of his teammates just before [a] July doubleheader in Houston by proclaiming his Texas roots and saying, “I’ve played in this weather all my life. It’s not hot. Let’s play two.”

But Rapoport also writes about other versions of the story Banks told, so it was never clear exactly how it did originate, but:

“Let’s play two” would go on to become not just an inextricable part of Banks’ public identity but it would also earn a place in the American vocabulary. And whenever it was used, there was sure to be a reference to Banks, who would often be described as a legend or legendary, while “Let’s play two” would sometimes become immortal.

The book also, of course, details Ernie’s playing career and his disappointment at never playing in a World Series, a topic that would come up when he’d attend Hall of Fame induction ceremonies and other Hall of Famers would discuss their postseason play, which always made Ernie feel left out. It might have been another reason he would always ask folks about their own lives, not talking about his own.

But there’s one passage in the book — the beginning, in fact — when you’ll learn about a remarkable car trip he took with William Marovitz, an Illinois state senator, a time when he finally did open up about his life. I won’t ruin this for you by telling you when and why this trip happened — read the book. I also won’t ruin the surprise you’ll feel when you learn Ernie was cousin to another famous professional athlete.

There’s also a very long stretch of this book about Leo Durocher and how he managed the 1969 Cubs. It seems almost out of place, but it’s important to see how Leo handled Ernie, or mishandled him, to be more accurate. Durocher wanted to be “the man” in Chicago, but quickly learned he wouldn’t be as long as Mr. Cub was around. The attempts to replace Banks at first base, almost laughable, are detailed, as well as how Durocher ran the 1969 team into the ground.

Ernie’s post-baseball life might have seemed happy, but it was littered with financial failures and ruined marriages. Only when Tom Ricketts bought the Cubs and made Ernie a full-time club ambassador with a six-figure salary did Banks have a bit of financial stability at the end of his life, and the receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 was one of his proudest moments.

Ernie Banks was beloved by all Cubs fans, but his life overall wasn’t happy. It’s worth reading this book, well-researched and written, to learn all the details.