This story appears in the July 7-14, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. To read a digital version of the magazine, go here.
If you’re unfortunate enough to love a team like the Cubs, a team that hasn’t won a World Series in more than a century, a team that is often out of the playoff hunt by the All-Star break, a team that is cursed by billy goats and Bartmans, you’re going to need a hero like Ernie Banks.
Over 19 Hall of Fame seasons, many of them as the best player on a bad club, Banks never gave in to despair. With his 512 home runs, .274 batting average and consecutive MVPs earned on sub-.500 teams (1958 and ’59), he was the model of the righteous warrior who keeps battling when all is lost. The way he ran, the way he moved. The pleasure he took. He hunched in the batter’s box, head out over the plate, elbow up, hands back, fingers drumming in anticipation. (“I had a doctor do a study of my swing,” he told me. “I hit the ball with my belly. My belly would move, and the ball would go out.”) Banks’s home run trot was matter-of-fact; he was a veteran touring bases as other old men tour Caribbean islands. Banks seemed never to forget how lucky he was to be doing just what he wanted to be doing.
It was this attitude, this style, even more than his power and tenacity, that made him a legend. Mr. Sunshine. Mr. Cub. Because any fool can be ebullient in victory but only an aristocrat is undaunted by defeat. Banks never got to win it all, but he did teach us how to handle losing, and in the end that’s a lot more important than a pennant. (As Hemingway said, every story, followed long enough, ends in death.) On the North Side, Banks is still famous for a line, spoken on a blazing Chicago afternoon, when others wanted to pack it in for the AC of the locker room: “Let’s play two.” By which he meant yes, yes, yes; more, more, more; now, now, now. It’s like my father used to tell me about the old Sinatra tune, “There Used to Be a Ballpark.”
“It’s not about a ballpark, you schmuck. It’s about life.”
Of course¸ all that was ages ago. Banks took his last swing in 1971. He was already worn down, 40 years old, a Methuselah. He began as a shortstop in the buttoned-down, crew-cut, black-and-white, two-African-Americans-per-roster 1950s and ended as a first baseman in the full-blown Technicolor of the Vietnam era, sideburns, funk music and Afros that bloomed like hydrangeas. (I’m looking at you, José Cardenal.) Banks played his last game on Sept. 26, then left the field of play. He wandered from profession to profession, working as a Ford salesman, a coach in the minors and majors, an inspirational speaker, a front-office nabob, an investment guy. For a time he lived in Los Angeles and dabbled in finance. A few years ago he returned to Chicago, where he serves as the kind of local hero who collapses sports time. In his rookie season he played alongside Dutch Leonard, a 44‑year-old pitcher who made his debut in 1933, the days of Ruth and Gehrig.
These days most of Banks’s work is for charity. In 1997 he married for the fourth time. Hank Aaron stood as his best man. In 2008, Banks and his wife, Liz, adopted a baby daughter. He has plans to make a biopic about his life and also speaks of crossing the country once more, this time to linger and meditate beside the graves of his friends, mentors and heroes. Meanwhile, he’s only grown in the estimation of fans, many of whom are too young to have seen him play. We speak of his legend as the Danes spoke of Shield Sheafson. When each season came to a close we held each other firmly and said, “It was different in the days of Banks.”
Along with Aaron and Willie Mays, Banks forms a triumvirate of African-American pioneers who came up in the aftermath of Jackie Robinson, who were counseled by Jackie and rode his break through weird old racist America. Banks played with the Kansas City Monarchs in the early ’50s, a powerhouse of the Negro leagues, before reaching the majors. He was mentored by men whose names sound as folkloric as Paul Bunyan’s: Cool Papa Bell managed Banks, and Satchel Paige taught him the art of focus. Last year, when Banks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the first African-American president, it was as if his life had thrown the civil rights era into sharp relief. “I handed the President a bat that belonged to Jackie Robinson,” Banks told me. “Jackie was the first [modern] black to play major league baseball, and here we got Barack, first black president. The President held the bat in his hands -- that was a thrill.”
This spring I met Banks in the pass-through between the Wrigley Towers, white Gothic cathedrals named for the family that picked up his Monarchs contract for $10,000 in 1953. He’s 83, tall and slightly stooped. He moves slow, his walk more of a ramble than a stride, the result of bad knees and ancient double plays busted up by farm boys who came into second spikes high. He means something to fans, and he knows it. It presses on him -- the desire to live up. He is high-cheeked, sharp-eyed and handsome. His eyes twinkle. His demeanor is comical, wise. He’s been sainted by suffering Cubs fans, by his long career, by his unflagging love of the game, by those painful seasons when the team did not come close and by those, even more painful, when the Cubs blew it at the end, most famously in 1969, when they led the NL East by eight games on Aug. 19 with 40 to play.
He brought me to his office on the 10th floor of the south tower, where, in addition to doing charity work, Banks serves as a living icon of Chicago nostalgia. It’s decorated in a generic, lair-of-the-retired-superstar way. (I saw an Elvis poster.) He probably comes here two or three times a month, staying just long enough to take confession from a lapsed believer. Otherwise, he’s on the golf course, glad-handing, making calls, remembering. An athlete’s life is funny like that: 19 years of doing, 43 years of remembering. “I meet a lot of people that grew up with my career and have retired, and I just want to talk to them,” he said. “I like to get a feeling from them, a feeling of the old times.”
As Ernie talked and my recorder recorded, I grew as excited as a fisherman who knows he’s getting something good in the nets. The mood was happy and sad, melancholy. He reminded me of Don Corleone at the end of The Godfather, holding his glass to the sun, saying, “I like to drink wine more than I used to.”
Banks grew up in Dallas, and his origins in the game are befitting those of a folk hero. When I told him I’d read that he got a late start in baseball, he smiled.
“I didn’t care for sports.”
“So how did it happen?”
“Well, my mother was born in Louisiana. Do you know about Louisiana? They’ve got fortune-telling ladies. So my mother told my dad, ‘Take Ernie to Louisiana so he can know his fate.’ So he drove me to Louisiana, where I met this lady. She had a candle in the dining room, and we sat down. Dad said to her, ‘Now listen. I just want you to tell me whether Ernie’s gonna play baseball or go into the Army.’
“She said, ‘The boy will play baseball.’ And that’s what I did.”
Ernie did not start playing in a serious way until he was a teenager. His high school did not have a team, so he learned the game in church leagues and on pickup squads. Asked how he quickly became so proficient, he laughed and said, “When my mom was pregnant carrying me -- I was born at home -- my dad put his hand on her and said, ‘Essie, this is gonna be a special child you’re carrying.’ Maybe that did it.”
Banks’s father, Eddie, the old man’s old man, runs through Ernie’s stories like ribbon. Having stuck around long enough to see the fulfillment of the fortune-teller’s vision, Eddie died soon after Ernie went into the Hall of Fame. “Mr. Wrigley died right around then too,” Banks said, meaning Phil Wrigley, the son of William, the chewing-gum magnate. William Wrigley took control of the franchise after World War I. He’s an admired figure in Chicago, but his son, Phil, has a more complicated legacy. To many, Phil is the man who shifted the focus in Wrigley from fielding a championship team to marketing the ivy-covered park as an attraction so beloved it would draw fans even when the pennant was out of reach.
I asked Banks if Phil Wrigley was suitably pure -- did he love the game?
“He liked it but didn’t understand all the dynamics,” said Banks, who laughed to himself, then told me about some trouble the owner got into with the IRS. The government asked Wrigley to clarify: Are the Cubs a business or a charity? With each passing season, Wrigley had written down the value of his veterans, depreciated them like office equipment, then taken the deductions. Which is one reason, according to Banks, the lineup was filled with old-timers when he arrived. “But he was a wonderful man,” Banks added. “He sat in the grandstand. He gave tickets to kids who’d come clean up the ballpark after the game. In 1945 he showed up at the World Series with 40,000 tickets. They stopped him at the gate. They didn’t know who he was. They said, ‘Hey, get back here with all those tickets.’ And one of the ushers said, ‘That’s Mr. Wrigley!’ ”
Banks seemed to play without thought of race; he did not lead, nor did he lag. He just performed. Yet his conversation kept returning to the Negro leagues and his first days in baseball. He spoke of the Monarchs’ clubhouse as a kind of Eden, where he did not know what he did not know.
“It was different,” he said. “These were veteran players. They had a lot of wisdom. Some of them were illiterate. They didn’t talk about it; it was a quiet thing. And yet they were the smartest guys I’ve ever been around. They knew how to play, they knew people. I didn’t want to leave. A guy on the team said, ‘Ernie, you gotta go! That’s the major leagues!’ ”
Banks was 16 when Robinson broke in with the Dodgers. He followed the 1947 season closely. It was one player and one team, but also every player in the Negro leagues forever. Robinson was a perfect hero; how he competed was a model, and how he overcame. “And then I got to meet him in Wrigley Field in 1954,” Banks told me. “He came over and said, ‘Congratulations! Now keep your mouth shut when you play; just be quiet.’ And that’s what I did. That’s what Willie did. That’s what Hank did. We kept our mouth shut and just played. His greatest interest was to see us rise in the business of baseball. He didn’t tell us, but we knew he wanted that. And he checked up on us -- him and his wife, Rachel.”
After signing, Banks told me, “I called my dad and said, ‘Oh, Dad, we’re rich! I’m in the major leagues.’ ” His first game could stand for his entire career: He hustled, he ran, he scored. And the Cubs lost 16-4. He played with Ralph Kiner on that team, Hank Sauer, Joe Garagiola. In his career he played with so many legendary players -- Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, Bobby Thomson -- but when I asked him to name a favorite, he did not hesitate. “Lou Brock! Remember him? He was on the team when he was a kid. I roomed with Lou. We were in New York, and he asked, ‘Ernie, what does it take to play major league baseball?’ I said, ‘Lou, all you need is one thing: You gotta relax.’ He said, ‘I can’t relax! I don’t want to go back to Louisiana, picking no cotton.’ That night he hit the longest home run he ever hit, in the Polo Grounds. You can look it up.”
Brock seemed a symbolic choice. Not only was he great, but he’s also the sorrow of the Cubs in a drop of rain. Brought up in 1961, he oozed the kind of talent clear to everyone but management. After hitting .257 in parts of four seasons in Chicago, Brock, then 25, was traded to the Cardinals, where he immediately blossomed into a .300 hitter and record-setting base stealer who became an engine of the Cardinals’ teams -- Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver -- that tormented the Cubs for years. In return the Cubs got a pitcher named Ernie Broglio, who over three seasons with the team had a 7-19 record.
In Chicago this trade rates as a kind of original sin, an evil deed from which generations of suffering would follow as sure as winter follows summer.
This led me to the sore spot, that tremendous place of pain, and here I sing the ballad of ’69, that terrible summer of the Manson murders, as well as the Cubs and their stunning collapse before the surging Mets. At this point it had been 24 years since the Cubs had played in a World Series. A drought, but not epic. In other words, here was a chance for the Cubs to win and for their fans to live normal lives. It’s as if, in ’69, two roads diverged, and the Cubs took the one less traveled by: the losing road, where misery begets misery and wearing a Cubs hat is a way of letting people know you are holier, for your kingdom is not of this world.
Many theories have been proposed to explain the disaster of ’69. Some say it was all those Wrigley Field day games, which left players too much time for late-night carousing. Others say the Mets were simply better. When I asked Banks, he mentioned a single game, a single moment, that infected everything. I highlight this because, after years of reading about the Cubs, it came as genuine news. “They say one apple can spoil the whole barrel, and I saw that,” Banks said. “Before going to New York to play the big series against the Mets, I went to different players on our team and told them, ‘We’re going to New York, and when the game is over, there’s going to be more media than you’ve ever seen in the clubhouse, so watch what you say.’ So we got to New York, and lose the first game. Don Young dropped a fly ball, and that was it. We came into the locker room. I was next to [Ron] Santo, and he just went crazy [blaming Young]. Young was so upset, he ran out. Pete [Reiser] had to bring him back. I had never seen something so hurtful.” It ended up in the papers, and, according to Banks, the team fell apart. It was factions in the locker room, players at cross-purposes after that.
Every Cubs fan knows the rest: “We lose the games; they send out the black cat.”
It’s a famous picture: Santo on deck at Shea, bat on his shoulder, the cat slinking across his path. I’ve seen it but never knew the cat was sent out intentionally. I assumed it just emerged from the depths. “Some of our guys did feel it was done intentionally,” said Banks. “Especially [manager Leo] Durocher, who was a superstitious man.”
Durocher came over in 1966, ending a decade away from managing since his stint with the New York Giants. He was supposed to change the attitude, replace the la-di-da of the Friendly Confines with some old zipperoo. He was a throwback, a bench jockey riding the boys. (Durocher coined the phrase, “Nice guys finish last.”) He took a dislike to Ernie, who by the late 1960s seemed to him a once-great player who’d stayed too long. But Banks was protected by his popularity -- you don’t bench Mr. Cub -- and it drove Durocher nuts.
I asked Banks if Durocher gave him a hard time.
“He sure did. I went to my mother with that one. She said, ‘Ernie, kill ’em with kindness.’ And that’s what I did. I’d sit by him in the dugout, on the plane, in the dressing room. I was always around.”
“What was he like?”
“Tough. He knew all the writers and general managers. Kind of worked them -- such a smart guy. He used to tell players, ‘If you don’t do it right, we’re gonna pack up your lunch.’ ”
Yet even Durocher couldn’t win on the North Side. I was hoping Banks could explain it: Why haven’t the Cubs won a World Series since 1908? Is there a reason, or is it just bad luck?
“There’s been lots of reasons,” he told me. “First of all, Wrigley Field. It’s a different place to play. I mean, the wind blows all kinds of ways. Foul lines are very close to the walls. You have certain days that the pitcher is pitching and the wind is behind him. Other times the wind blows out and he’s throwing into the wind.”
“So you need sinkerball pitchers, ground ball pitchers?”
“That’s right,” said Banks. “And lefthanders. The structure of the team didn’t fit the park.”
I asked Banks if there’s anything good about losing -- he lost as much as any great player in history. Between the lines of his answer, I caught a glimpse of a condition I call the Cub Complex, a social disease that, carried on the lake wind, infects players and fans. We were talking about the 1984 team, which won the NL East by 61⁄2 games, then, needing a single victory to advance to the World Series, dropped three straight to an inferior Padres
team. “Yeah, well, most of the players for the San Diego Padres died,” Banks told me, “and most of the players for the Cubs are alive, so I look at that and say, Winning creates so much stress in the lives of players.”
By this, I understood Banks to actually be saying it’s better to lose—you’ll live longer.
“I ain’t never been on a [championship] team,” he continued, “but I’ve talked to Hank and Willie. In ’69, when we were way out front, we were playing the Braves. I was first baseman. Hank got a single, so we had a chance to talk. I said, ‘Well, Hank, looks like we’re gonna win this thing,’ and he started laughing. ‘Are you kidding? You got a second basemen that can’t even catch the ball.’ Wait till the heat is really on, then we’ll see.’ ”
“How did you deal with the pressure?”
“Well, I’ll tell you, once I was on deck while the other team was changing pitchers. They had a guy named Kennedy who was a catcher. He said, ‘Ernie, what do you think about when you get ready to walk in the batter’s box?’ I said, ‘I think about being on the beach with Lola Falana.’ ”
I stood¸ and Ernie stood. He looked at me; we both smiled. I told him about an afternoon in the 1980s when I met him on the field before an Old-Timers’ Game in Washington, D.C. I was a kid. He showed me how to block a grounder. I used to have a picture of this, but like so many things I once cared about, it’s gone. Ernie told me he remembered the game. Boog Powell was there, as were Aaron, Brock, Bob Feller, Paul Blair, Roger Maris and Sandy Koufax. I saw Joe DiMaggio nude in the clubhouse that day and heard him curse like a sailor on liberty. It was wonderful.
I remember an old man batted for the American League. He was like a million. He faced Warren Spahn, who seemed no younger. It was nuts, these two ancients going at it.
“And do you remember what happened?” Banks asked me.
“Yeah, the old man hit the longest home run I’ve ever seen!”
Banks laughed and said, “Tell me the name of that hitter.”
“I can’t remember.”
“Me neither, and it’s driving me crazy ’cause I can picture him out there hobbling around the bases.”
“Well, whatever his name, he’s surely dead by now,” I said.
Two days later my telephone rang.
“It was Luke Appling that hit that home run,” said Banks. “He was 75 years old. I’m sure he thought about that every day from then until he died. It just shows: Sometimes even an old guy can get some good wood on the ball.”