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Ernie Banks

January 25, 2015

“Whenever someone, on seeing something, realizes that that which he now sees wants to be like some other reality but falls short and cannot be like that other since it is inferior, do we agree that the one who thinks this must have prior knowledge of that to which he says it is like, but deficiently so?”

– Plato, Phaedo, 74d-e

Someone once told me that he wanted to go to Los Angeles to meet with his friend at Dodger Stadium. This was back in the mid-1980s. Her perfect day was watching an afternoon game from a seat behind the Dodger’s dugout and she invited him to see for himself. While not a Dodgers’ fan, I too would have been enthusiastic about watching Fernando Valenzuela confound hitters with his screwball and other mix of pitches. Fernandomania was all the rage at Chavez Ravine.

For me, the epitome is old Wrigley Field. Before the MLB super-commercialized the ballparks and the games became a production managed down to the last second, there really was no place like the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field. Rain or shine, it was just a very special spot for me. To a kid, every seat in the house was a throne.

I first entered the hallowed palace on a lovely June day at age nine. My mother, brother, sister and I met my father’s aunt and cousin there, who were regulars at the yard and knew the place well. We followed them to our seats three rows behind the Cubs dugout. For you baseball fans out there, yes, these seats were as amazing as they sound! A warm summer day in the Midwest three rows behind the Cubs dugout. It was a kid’s dream. Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo were just a few feet away. Sandy Koufax and Maury Wills were gone, but Don Drysdale was across the field in the other dugout.

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My first scorecard. The Cubs lost 4-3. The autograph is from Randy Hundley, the Cubs catcher. Joe Niekro signed with a pencil in the left margin next to Hundley’s. I see now that I was off one line. The entries on the autographed line were for Ted Savage. Hundley’s are on the line above. We stayed until the last out of the game. A good practice to teach a young baseball fan.

I’ve watched more baseball games than I can count since then. Mostly Giants and A’s games. I’ve seen players come and go and there are more to come. Those who played when I was a boy have long retired and many have now passed. None of these losses are more sobering than the death of Ernie Banks. For me, he is the original baseball player.

Ernie Banks started his career in 1950 with the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro League team. (Think about that for a moment – a league for players with dark skin.) After two years in the military, and six years after the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, the Cubs signed Banks, their first African-American ballplayer.

I discovered Ernie Banks when he was an All-Star first baseman. He was thirty-six then. A young man, certainly, but not for baseball players. Still, he hustled and fielded his position well. He caught the ground balls that came his way, knew the foul territory and caught the pop ups in front of the visitors’ dugout and made good decisions with cut-off throws from the outfield. He was as steady as they come. You could take for granted his stretches and glove work to complete those hold your breath Kessinger-to-Beckert-to-Banks and around the horn Santo-to-Beckert-to-Banks double plays that we prayed for. For me, he is the quintessential first baseman. I compare all of the greats to him, starting from his peers, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepada and Harmon Killebrew, all the way through today’s stars. Their magic has never been quite as potent.

The odd thing is, as firm as I hold Banks in the first rank of first basemen, that wasn’t his original position. He joined the Cubs in 1953 as a shortstop. They say he was really good over there too. Some will say that he was one of the best ever. In 1960, his last full season as a shortstop, he hit 41 home runs and was awarded the Gold Glove for fielding his position. So, I suppose there are those out there who have compared the many other great shortstops of the game to Ernie Banks, just like I do with first basemen.

And then there was his swing of the bat. It was beautiful. His body was in perfect balance. His feet, knees, hips, shoulders, arms, head and hands were so well aligned and used for optimum contact with the ball. He wasn’t a big man, but hit the ball hard. While waiting for the pitch, he kept his body and mind relaxed by wiggling the fingers on the bat. I’ve never seen that type of movement so pronounced from other hitters. It worked wonderfully for him and is permanent in my mind when I think about watching him at the plate. He wasn’t a big man, but hit the ball hard.

He hit a lot of home runs with that swing – 512 of them, when that was a big deal. None of them bigger than number 429, which he hit during my first game at a major league ballpark. A young child can only have so much appreciation for the nuances of the game – the breaking curve balls, the catcher’s framing and glove work behind the plate, the opposite field hits and such. But there’s no mistaking a two-out home run to left field by one of your favorite players and watching him circle the bases and return to the dugout right in front of you.

Ernie Banks was a great ball player and I am sure that there are many stories out there to tell you all of the statistics and awards that he racked up during his years as a Cub. But there was more to him than that. He was always a perfect gentleman in public. He was liked and trusted by his teammates, respected and liked by players on other teams and adored by the fans. Chicago has lost one of their best.

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This photo hung on my bedroom wall. You can see the remaining tape at the top.

As I was writing this blog, my son called. We spoke of Ernie Banks. While he never saw him play, he appreciates that he must have been special. He’s told me that there is a lot being said about him in social media today. We also spoke of how the new baseball commissioner has announced his ideas for speeding up the game, is writing new rules to make is easier to score runs and in other ways, manufacturing an entertainment for as many people as possible. If convenient, baseball fans are welcome to watch also. These guys in charge pay lip service to the “traditionalists” and others who have played and enjoyed the game without the many changes MLB keeps shoving down on us. But Selig, this new guy and the owners don’t really care about the game itself. It’s money that matters and since they hold the purse strings, they’ll do what they want. Evidence is all around you when you enter the ballparks. Here at home too. Just a few clicks on their website brought me to a $675 shirt with a Cubs logo and Ernie Banks’ number 14 on it.

MLB is in midst of an irreversible down spin. They are making a mess of things with every rule change, contract, and stamp of crass commercialism. None of it is unexpected, but that doesn’t really make it any easier to accept. But nothing they do will take away pleasant childhood memories of watching Mr. Cub, as he lit up the day for everyone all around Chicago. They are safe and cherished.

Here’s some of what I am talking about. Jack Brickhouse takes it from here.

41 Comments
  1. Did Plato even play baseball?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great story! Great history! Great player! Mr. Cub will be missed.

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  3. Great piece. I was feeling well and good as I was reading, and then you brought up the rule change…banning “the shift.” This would definitely be the most idiotic move made in the history of the game. This is much, MUCH worse than the DH! Screw it…let’s just have a home run hitting contest every game and call it a day. The games would be less than an hour and you wouldn’t be bored to death by all those pesky “in game moves.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • These guys have already damaged the game. We are counting the days (seasons) until it’s gone for good. They simply do not care. Selig is awful and if it is possible, this new guy may be worse.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The new guy appears to be some sort of bean counter and a brown nose (for the owners). This is not going to end well. They’re talking about banning the defensive shift, which is ridiculous.

    I never saw Ernie play that much. Back in his hey day, we saw mostly American League teams (Twins were the only team carried up here, usually on Sundays). So the only time we saw the greats of the National League was the Game of the Week on NBC, or the All Star Game. Back then the World Series was played in the daytime so we only saw the weekend games. By all accounts, Ernie was a class act and given the current empty heads that run the bases these days, we won’t see Ernie’s like again. RIP

    Liked by 2 people

    • We were fortunate to have both an AL and NL team in our town, so had a little more exposure to both leagues. We knew about Killebrew and Oliva because they were All Stars, but also from following the White Sox. I was first and foremost a Cubs fan, so knew the NL pretty well. You are absolutely right that things will not end well in the MLB. Perhaps unrecognizable in a few short years. If you haven’t already, take a look at the video in the blog post. Notice how graciously Ernie runs the bases and crosses the plate and enters the dugout. Note also that he doesn’t pay an allegiance, real or staged, to a cloud in the sky when his foot hits the plate. Times have changed out there at the yard.

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  5. I share your concerns about the future of major league baseball. Unfortunately, it seems to be the way with all major professional sports these days. There is far too much money involved and far too little recognition of the problems that has created. In all of these sports leagues. I’ll never stop watching and following baseball and other sports, but it isn’t the same as it once was. The ability to be a “regular” at any MLB stadium these days is almost impossible unless you’re one of the 1%. Interesting thing is that with all of the TV money and other revenue streams they have these days, a lot of teams could probably not charge admission and still make money.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s all a big mess. Fans in the stands are a prop for the TV contracts. I plan to keep following baseball, but it will require increasing amounts of patience, mind-relaxation and other efforts that shouldn’t be necessary to watch a game.

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  6. Wonderful tribute, Bruce! My son was just an infant when Ernie signed an autograph for him. I had a feeling you would do a write- up when I heard the news of Ernie’s death. I also thought your ideas concerning the direction of the sports world were poignant. Darn Billy Goat – things will never be the same 🙂

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    • So many Chicago households have their Ernie Banks stories. He was a popular guy for a reason. As for professional sports, it’s not a pretty story.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Level Whimsicality permalink

    In that clip from May 12, 1970, when Banks hit his 500th homer, it is incredible how stark bald the stands down the right field line were (watch his foul ball by forwarding to 1:58). Outside of downpours in April, you just never see Wrigley that empty these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As in San Francisco, the games are now another event. Something for folks to do and a place to be see and be seen. (And by the way, there’s a very interesting game going on in case nobody’s noticed in between trips to the food vendors.) The Giants built a palace. It’s a great ballpark, but sometimes it is so much better to go watch a game in the dilapidated Oakland stadium because there is so much less hype and generally speaking, more attention paid to the game itself.

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  8. Amazing story!

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  9. Two thumbs up!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t it a joy to see the old clips of Banks play baseball? I can see him catching a throw from the left side of the infield now. So graceful, even though he was already past his prime.

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  10. Goosebumps!
    I enjoyed hearing a replayed NPR interview with Ernie Banks this morning. What a guy!!

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  11. Yep, the Big Ern was smooth as butter, BT…smooth as butter.

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  12. This is a nice tribute, Bruce. I like seeing your old mementos: the signed photo (“to Bruce!”) and the autographs on the scorecard. You have been a fan your whole life.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. You know we love this piece. You sum it up right when you say “profit” is the new meaning of the game. Ernie was offered more money to be traded to a winning team, but he believed in the Cubs. Let’s hope the All-American game survives any attempts of the corporate spin. xo LMA

    Liked by 1 person

  14. What a lovely tribute to Ernie Banks. I must admit first off that I know nothing about baseball. 😦 I grew up in a family in which nothing centered around sports (except swimming, which is a different animal). That said, when I was invited by my son-in-law to a Red Sox game at Fenway about 6 years ago, I got chills all over (as Travolta sang). The game was slow and steady, the crowd was happy and SO into the game and the players and the Fenway, (which is like one of the players in a way), the Neil Diamond sing-along was fun(ny), and I kinda fell in love with baseball. While living in the SF bay area, I attended games at that amazing Giants stadium, but I agree with you – it’s more a spectacle than a sport there. But my CA friends watched every single game on TV as the Giants made it to the top this past fall. Me? I prefer an ‘old-fashioned’ baseball day at Fenway, even though it doesn’t have the perfect weather and view.

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    • Pamela, I’ve never been to Fenway. This seems very odd to me. I figured long ago that I would have made it there long before now. Oh well. With each winning season, the Giants are distancing themselves from some folks who used to go to the games. The ballgame is less and less important to the entire experience. The tickets seem to be more and more an entrance to an event. Nonetheless, here I am. Waiting for the season to start. Play ball!

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      • I bemoan the cost of baseball tickets also; thus, I rarely went to a Giants game. My son-in-law has season’s tickets with a group of friends that they bought over a decade ago. Not exactly nose-bleed section, but ‘real’ people surround us there at each game. The way it’s supposed to be!

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  15. Hi Bruce, I’m curious to know your thoughts on the aftermath of EB’s death. The controversial will and his remains? I think it is very sad. Very sad, indeed.

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    • I had not read about any of this until your note. I wasn’t aware of the difficulties in his personal life and the stuff that has now come out about the scuffling about his estate, impending divorce, and business manager. And now, I will take refuge in the childhood memories.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Ernie was a star when I was a kid. Despite the great numbers, the one thing that I didn’t realize then that came to me in time, is that how much of a class act he was an individual. Today’s news is dotted by the negative characters, but that casts poor light on all the players today that are like Ernie. As far as the status of the game today, MLB is just following the other sports (including colleges) in chasing the money.

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    • For me, since the Cubs were my team and I watched them everyday, I had no reason to believe that all baseball players were good guys. After all, we had plenty of them back then. Williams, Kessinger, Hickman and of course, Banks. Jack Brickhouse and the others in the booth handled themselves like real gentlemen and so everything was pretty pleasant. I was older when Harry Cary came around. I had no affection for him and still don’t think he was good for the team, the fans or the special place that Wrigley Field was.

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      • Although a Reds fan, I used to listen to Harry broadcast Cardinal games on KMOX … but a big difference between him and Brickhouse, whom I saw on WGN late in his career.

        Liked by 1 person

  17. Sports figures can be a great source of inspiration to many. For some reason I was hooked on the Miami Dolphins was I was a teenager, and Bob Griese could do no wrong. I’ve also been a Nadal fan for years. Both stand-up guys with a great work ethic. There are many out there like them, but many who are not. I liked your piece on Ernie Banks, very much.

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    • Even in the cold Midwest, with rugged teams like the Bears, Packers and Lions, the kids in our junior high were impressed by the glistening Miami Dolphins of the 1970s. We didn’t know enough about Griese’s character to have a view on that, but were certainly impressed by his ability to get the ball over the line. There were many calls of “Griese falls back and throws” as we threw the football to a buddy down on the other side of the lawn or field we imagined as he was Paul Warfield ready to catch another perfectly-thrown spiral.

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  18. Looks like my Miami Marlins will capture last place without challenge. Thanks visit my blog.

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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Ernie Banks and the Dodgers FEATURED LINK | Los Angeles Dodgers Dugout Online | Los Angeles Dodgers Blog
  2. October Baseball | Ram On
  3. Ram On 2015 – Part 1 | Ram On

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