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The Legacy Of Ernie Banks

He's gone now. Another flake of your childhood who departed without so much as a blink of the eye.

As youthful Sox fans, it fell to us to degrade, criticize and denigrate Ernie Banks. Oh, the arguments with our pals who loved Ernie and the Cubs.

I have no memory of discussions of Shakespeare, Hawthorne or Twain. But the inane banter of "I'd much rather have Aparicio. Banks only catches what's hit to him. He has no range. So what if he hits 40 homers. The Cubs still stink!" will remain with me until my fate coincides with Ernie's.

Somewhere in my brain is the imprint of being in a car with my mother in April 1954 as the Cubs opened the season in St. Louis. Not that the Cubs had the remotest chance of challenging the Giants, Dodgers or Cardinals, but Opening Day meant that the North Siders featured two rookies at second and short, and both were black.

Banks and Gene Baker had made cameo appearances the previous September. Ernie became the Cubs' first African American when he started at shortstop on September 17 at Wrigley. Possibly as an omen, the Phillies pummeled the listless locals 16-4 in front of less than 3,000 fans.

Three days later Baker pinch hit in St. Louis, not exactly the most welcoming venue for the two rookies who had previously played at different times for the Kansas City Monarchs. Banks was a kid, just 22. However, thanks to the color barrier, Baker was a 28-year-old rookie who would spend half of his eight-year major league seasons with the Cubs.

Listening to the radio in that car with my mom, the excitable Bert Wilson - "I don't care who wins as long as it's the Cubs" - described the game, which Chicago won 13-4. Banks didn't homer, but Baker did. Ernie batted sixth with Baker following.

Two days later, before 17,271, the Cubbies dropped their home opener to the Reds 11-5 en route to what would become a 64-90 season, rather typical for Banks and his teammates. In 12 of Ernie's first 13 seasons, the team finished above .500 a total of one time. They were 82-80 in 1963.

Therefore, it wasn't much of a stretch throughout middle and high school to remind my pals who took the North Shore line to Addison and Clark that, regardless of two MVP awards and all the home runs that Banks launched onto Waveland Avenue, the Cubs were far inferior to our White Sox. My friends were adept at agitating me, but I slept well, knowing that the Sox were contenders, and Ernie and Company were losers.

With the passage of time - try 60 years - my appreciation of Ernie Banks has grown so much that the opinionated, naive teenager of the '50s wouldn't recognize what's written here.

Perhaps the most astounding aspect of Banks' career was that he rarely missed a game. From 1954 to 1960, Banks missed only 15 games, all of which came during the 1956 season. Don't ask me how, but in 1957 and again in 1960, he played in 156 games when the schedule only called for 154. He apparently took his "Let's play two" literally.

Throughout the '50s, Banks was a shortstop. Not a flashy defender, but he was consistent, and he improved. He made 34 errors as a rookie, but by 1959 he cut that number to 12. Think about it. He played every game, half of which were day games at Wrigley, and he booted a dozen chances. Sprinkle in eight seasons of at least 100 RBI and more than 40 home runs on five occasions. Did someone say "Best Shortstop Of All-Time?"

Our shortstop, Luis Aparicio, who, like Banks, played just about everyday in his Hall of Fame career, was the antithesis of his North Side counterpart. He was flashy, often going into the hole, jumping high into the air and throwing a perfect strike to first base to nab the runner. However, he made his share of errors, totaling 35 as a rookie in 1956 before cutting that number just about in half as he matured.

While Banks slugged his way to 512 homers, Little Looey never hit more than seven in a Sox uniform, but he led the American League in stolen bases the first nine seasons of his career. If Ernie was an apple, then Looey was an orange. Hence the schoolyard arguments that peppered my childhood.

A few years ago, the Chicago History Museum featured a discussion with Banks and White Sox great Minnie Minoso, the first black player in Chicago who broke in with the Sox in 1951. Steve Edwards, then of WBEZ, was the moderator.

Much of the exchange focused on the experiences of Minoso and Banks being the first black ballplayers in Chicago. True to form, Ernie was modest and humble. He deferred to Minoso time and again, claiming that Minnie led the way. Ernie emphasized that he and Baker followed Minoso's lead. They used him as an example of how to conduct themselves amid a sea of white faces on the field and in the stands. It was vintage Banks, and I can recall walking out of the hall full of admiration for a man who exuded dignity and humanity.

Banks was a member of an exclusive club that included Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Henry Aaron, Larry Doby, Frank Robinson, Don Newcombe and a few others. They burst upon the scene when speaking out against racism and the status quo would have created far more problems than striking out with the bases loaded or giving up a walk-off home run.

Yet, the "Gee, I'm just glad to be here" aura of Banks never came across as phony or disingenuous. Even though losses piled up on one another and the team never was in contention until late in his career, Banks was vocal about his appreciation to be able to play a kids' game day after day. He had amazing ability which few others possessed, and he recognized how fortunate he was.

Of course, none of us shared the most private of moments with the great Ernie Banks. Was he ever despondent, disillusioned, or downcast? We'll probably never know. As far as we can tell, he greeted each day with optimism and hope. That, more than the home runs and innate athletic ability, is his legacy.

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Comments welcome.

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1. From Steve Corman:

I had the wonderful pleasure of working with Ernie for a few weeks in the early 1980s.

We hired him at NBC5 Chicago to provide commentary and analysis of the baseball playoffs (carried on NBC then). Even though I was a news producer at the time, I watched each game with Ernie and we determined which plays he would talk about after that game during the 10p news.

I then roughed out a script for him to follow.

He was a true professional and terrific person. It was a great thrill for me.

2. From James Gray:

Little Louie was truly great but Ernie was the best shortstop ever.

3. From Rory Clark:

My heart is heavy today. For those of you who know me, I love the Chicago White Sox and HATE the Chicago Cubs. It's mandatory if you are from Chicago. You have to pick sides. All who say it's different just don't understand. You just can't like both. But I can tell you this . . . there are several members of the Cubs I have liked a lot because I had the good fortune of meeting them, spending a great deal of time with them, and knowing their families.

First and foremost among these Cubs is Ernie Banks, who went home to be with the Lord last night. All the good things you will hear about him in the coming days are true. He was one of the nicest, warmest, most genuine and most sincere people I have ever met.

As an Andy Frain usher at Wrigley Field, I was often trusted to look after his twin sons, Jerry and Joey. They were a riot . . . so cute . . . with their gloves and their uniform with number 14 on the back. They were pests, too. :)

All who know Ernie will miss him. I will never forget how kind he was to me when he had no reason to be, at an age when I was very impressionable. My prayers are with his family.

Please join me in praying for them. My friend Roger Wallenstein captures the sentiments better than I can.

4. From Bill Blackwell:

Growing up downstate I was a diehard Cardinal fan, and hated anything associated with the team on the North Side of Chicago. Ernie Banks was the exception and later Billy Williams because of their skills and the way they carried themselves.

Ernie compiled unbelievable numbers while playing for teams that struggled to reach the status of the early Mets teams. He was the NL MVP twice while playing shortstop and then crossed the diamond and was an All-Star at first, all the while with a smile and the mantra of "Let's play two!"

His personality made people forget their dislike of the Cubs and to pull for the person, and he did it for almost two decades as a player and even longer as a baseball ambassador.
He will be missed.

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