Unlike termites, immortals have seldom been in residence at Wrigley Field. The last colossus was one Hack Wilson, an endomorphic (5'6", 190 pounds) outfielder who finished each game looking like a chimney sweep. He played hard at night, too. He was religious in his rounds, preferring Al Capone's clubs, where he looked like some stumpy Italian cardinal dispensing to the poor. By morning he could be found slumbering in a tub full of ice in the clubhouse. His most famous words were: "Have another beer." He died in a gutter and is buried in Martinsburg, W. Va. beneath a simple inscription: ONE OF BASEBALL'S IMMORTALS, LOUIS R. (HACK) WILSON, RESTS HERE.
More than two decades melted in Wrigley's afternoon sun before the stockbrokers from LaSalle Street, all the saloon caretakers of the North Side and all the kids who were just starting their exodus from city blocks to suburbia could embrace another player of Wilson's stature. His name was Ernie Banks. The only thing he and Wilson had in common was the fact that neither ever refused to sign an autograph. Other than that, Banks was built like a letter opener, comported himself in the manner of a man applying for a loan and relished his work; the only thing he disliked about playing two games was that he could not play three. His most famous words were, and still are, even in these dour last weeks that have not always treated the Cubs kindly: "Welcome to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. Oh, oh, it's great to be alive and a Cub on this beautiful sun-kissed afternoon."
That was the way he was when he came up in 1953, and he has never changed. After 16 distinguished years baseball's Edgar Guest is a certainty to be marbleized one day at Cooperstown, the place that has tenaciously ignored Hack Wilson. Hack still holds the NL record for home runs, with 56, and the major league RBI record, with 190, but what are you going to do with a guy who, after being admonished for visiting Capone's box at Wrigley, says: "Well, he comes to our place, why shouldn't I go to his?" Clearly, Hack had an image problem, something Ernie Banks will never have—unless Eldridge Cleaver becomes Commissioner of Baseball. Ernie, you see, is baseball, meaning he is what The Game thinks people should think baseball is.
Conjure up all the sonnets, all the treacle that propagandists and the sentimental have contributed to the glorification of The Grand Old Game, and that is Ernie. He is—well, mustard on a kid's face, Babe Ruth promising a home run to a boy in the hospital, the smell of spring and an old, cracking boyhood glove, and all those memories and moments and everything that is a symbol of America. Never mind the Hack Wilsons, just give them Kate Smith—or, better yet, Ernie Banks. But unlike many players before him, those with their institutional patter and cellophane politics, Ernie Banks is an original. By just being, he is the greatest promoter baseball has ever had. "He's a hundred billboards on a hundred highways," says Frank Lane. "He's priceless as advertising."
September 28, 1969
It does not matter to Banks that the game he is pushing is hardly the tranquil, sacred chunk of Americana it once was, a game of joy and grateful, uncomplaining serfs, a game of few issues and even fewer answers. The euphoria, of course, is long gone, but one would never know it around Banks. His spirit is indestructible, and you always know baseball is near when Banks, like the geese honking north, almost every year predicts unflinchingly that the Cubs will win the pennant; not even the old 10-team races envisioned by Joe Cronin and Warren Giles in their annual newspaper columns achieved more fame. No wonder, then, that Banks moonlights doing commercials for a cookie called Sunshine. For there are truly no clouds in Ernie's life. When gloom pervades the Cub clubhouse, as it has so often of late, Ernie flashes a sign that reads: "Want to wake up each morning with a smile? Sleep with a hanger in your mouth."
Banks is particularly animated during batting practice, that soft time in baseball when players, like washwomen hanging over a fence, exchange gossip, reveal small injustices to confidants and bolster their egos with prodigious drives into the stands. The area around the cage is Banks' stage, where he performs like some aging vaudevillian. He sings, jabs at some down-home philosophy and jabbers in a weird patois that dwarfs those ordinary apostles of boosterism. If he is in St. Louis he will say: "St. Louis! Home of the mighty Cardinals and the great Stan. St. Louis! Great city. Meet me in St. Looie, Looie...." If he is in New York he will say: "New York, the Big Apple, the Melting Pot of the World. Home of Oh! Calcutta! and those pesky Mets! East Side, West Side, all around the town...." In Chicago he overflows.
"Henry Aaron," he says, dramatically, looking over at Aaron. "Henry Aaron! The most dangerous hitter who ever lived. Hall of Fame, here he comes. Henry, let's play two today." Aaron, shaking his head, looks at him curiously.
"Oh," continues Banks, "it's great to be alive in beautiful Wrigley Field." Stepping off the paces, he then acts out a gun duel while humming The Streets of Laredo. After spinning around and firing, he stops and says, "If everybody loved baseball, if all the kids played it, there would be no shooting in the world."
"Hey, what about Mayor Daley?" he is asked.
"Mayor Daley!" he says. "Mayor Daley! Chicago! My kind of town! Chicago, that toddlin' town...."
Banks also uses the telephone to spread his word. Earlier in the year he called up Frank Robinson in Baltimore and warned that he would be seeing him in October. He called up Lou Brock to say that, as gallant and great as the Cardinals are, it would be sensible for Lou to forget about "a run for our pennant." Once he reached Willie Mays, and this exchange followed:
Banks: Hello. Willie? That you?
Mays (sleepily): Who is this?
Banks: Who is this? It's Ernie Banks. Listen, Willie. First of all, I want to congratulate you on an outstanding performance last night. You're a wonderful player and fine person. You know that, don't you? We won again this afternoon. Did you know that?
Mays: I know that. Don't you think I know what's going on?
Banks: Wonderful. Then you know the Cubs are going all the way. Nothing's going to stop this team.
Mays: Are you calling me to tell me that?
Banks: I'm calling you to tell you to go out there tonight and give it your all against the Cardinals. You're a superstar! I want to see you play like a superstar.
Mays: Who's pitching for them?
Banks (positively, as though this were an advantage): Bob Gibson! You hit him. You always hit him. When you come up to the plate against Gibson it's murder. I feel sorry for him tonight.
Mays (giggling): All right. I got to get dressed to go to the ball park.
Banks: Good. That's positive thinking. And when you get there, remember, you're Willie Mays. No. 24! An immortal!
It is doubtful that Banks has ever thought that he, too, might one day be among the sanctified. The figures, though, those drab, tormenting, frequently mendacious little monsters that terrorize players, guarantee him permanent recognition. True, being with a second-division club practically all of his career, Banks may have faced more than just a humane share of second-line pitching, but that hardly pales the fact that he has been one of baseball's few consistently preeminent hitters. Currently he ranks ninth in alltime home runs, and it is quite possible he could rise as high as sixth before he is through; between 1955 and 1960 he hit more homers—248—than anybody in the majors. He has been named the league's Most Valuable Player twice.
Although size does not have much to do with hitting, it is still difficult to imagine Banks having power. His build makes one think of modern sculpture, say a figure made of coat hangers. Where does the power come from? "Ernie," says Clyde McCullough, formerly with the Cubs, "swings a bat like Joe Louis used to throw a punch—short and sweet." Bob Scheffing, one of his many managers, says, "He's got a helluva pair of forearms and wrists. You grab hold of him and it's like grabbing a piece of steel." Once, some years ago, during batting practice Banks' power was the subject of a more or less informal seminar:
"It's his eyes," said Jim Bolger. "Definitely, he's all eyes."
"Maybe," said Walt Moryn. "But I'll take his timing and coordination."
"You're all wrong," concluded Dale Long. "Give me his wrists, and I'll spot each of you 10 home runs before the season starts."
Nearby, grumbling could be heard. Rogers Hornsby, then a Cub batting coach, was talking to himself. He walked over to the theorists and said: "Good eyes, timing, wrists and follow-through." He turned away, leaving behind a loud silence. Rogers had spoken, and his words were like those carved on tablets.
Yet there are a few other aspects that help explain Banks' ability. For one thing, early in his career he began using a 31-ounce bat that, along with his wrists, provided him with flashing bat speed; he could wait till the last microsecond and flick at a ball that was only six inches from the catcher's glove. (He is now back to 35 ounces in an effort to cut down on his swing.) Afternoon baseball—Wrigley Field has no lights—both prolonged his career and gave him an edge as a hitter. And the constant wind at Wrigley did not hurt him, either. Critics of Banks, mild and as few as they are, seem to dwell on the Wrigley wind. But if he has been helped by it, it is also true that he has more than once conquered the wind with long home runs that soared into what—his fans say—were hurricanes blowing in from Waveland Avenue. Ernie says simply: "Some you win, some you lose. That's the way the wind blows."
His performance aside, the impressive facet of Banks has been his implacability, his unruffled calm in the face of utter futility and embarrassment. Playing for the Cubs was like doing 10 to 20 at Folsom; a fine season for them was one in which they flirted with mediocrity. In an atmosphere such as this it is hard for a player—even if he is Ernie Banks—to retain his identity, to feel that he is of value when after the first two months of the season his club is so far off the pace that nothing seems of value. All that remains for the player, then, is four long, hot months in which the days stretch into other days to the point when on one muggy August afternoon in St. Louis he will stop and wonder—if he hasn't a thousand times before—what the hell he is doing there and sharply sense the silliness and vacuity of it all.
The milieu in Chicago was all of this and more, a Sahara of baseball where the emptiness was relieved only by Banks or by Phil Wrigley's nightmare boffo, the rotating coaching system. An abacus is necessary to tabulate the number of people Banks played under. All of them came, stayed for a cup of coffee and left as if they were walking in their sleep. Confronted by a parade of emotions, personalities, techniques and desperation, Banks remained Banks. His deportment never tottered amid the chaos, and he gave Chicago what he had, foot down on the gas, every day. He veered away from club politics, and he seemed to play a private game in his own little corner, never stopping to ponder how insignificant he might be or becoming sullen over the fact that all he could look toward each season was a lonely war with those dreadful figures.
The ballplayer's life is compressed in two or three hours each day, during which time he is under a microscope. Everything he does is picked apart. The manager might recognize his subtle contributions, his undramatic abilities that help a club win, but the front office—with few exceptions—leans on the figures for evaluation. Across a season, statistics hang above players like a canopy of gnats. He fears them more than injury, curses them more than the fatigue in his bones. They mean failure, and slowly over the years they leave their little scars on a ballplayer. He becomes suspicious, reticent, sometimes rude, sometimes paranoid. "They are the worst things about the game," says Banks. "They are on a player's mind all the time. He eats them and sleeps with them, and they never let him alone. They change a man. But the figures lie. Sure, I've thought about them, but baseball, being a Cub, has always been fun. Fun, fun!"
Says one baseball man: "For a long time I used to think he was just a fantastic put-on. I mean, no sane person could be the way Banks was around the Cubs all those years. But now, you know, I think it's all real with him. If it isn't, he's certainly an extremely clever man."
Banks was born in Dallas, one of 12 children. His father picked cotton for a time and then became a stock clerk. As a boy Ernie shined shoes on the street, mowed lawns and tried cotton picking, but his father says, "Ernie never learned how to pick it. In fact the only work he ever did was at a hotel. He was supposed to carry out the garbage, but the cans were too heavy. After five days he quit and didn't even go back to collect his money." Banks' interest in baseball, which was slow in developing, grew intense in high school, and when he graduated he was signed by the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro-league team that traveled in a bus that coughed its way to a different town each night. Tom Baird, the owner of the Monarchs, did not seem particularly high on Banks, but major league scouts soon were.
"I first heard of him from Bill Norman," says Bill Veeck, who then owned the St. Louis Browns. "He called me up and said, 'There's a kid here you gotta get. Best-lookin' thing I've ever seen.' So I got hold of Baird and asked him how much he wanted. He said $35,000. I told him I'd call him back. Then I called this banker. I already owed him my life. How about $35,000, I asked him? He said I already owed him my life. So what, I said, this kid is so great we'll all get even. The banker said he did not want to get even that much. I called Baird again and asked him if I could put $3,500 down, and I'd give him the balance when he found me. Baird said the trouble was that he could never find me. All right, I said, do me one favor, Tom. Don't sell him to anyone in the American League. I have enough troubles without another one. I then called up Jim Gallagher and put the Cubs on Banks."
Any other player would have had a gangster's contract out on Veeck in response to his gesture, but certainly not the grateful Banks, who joined the Cubs in September 1953. He arrived at Wrigley without a glove or a florin of his $35,000 selling price. He was lent a glove and given a book called How to Play Baseball by one of the Cub coaches. Banks threw the book away and went on to become a Chicago institution, right up there with Mayor Daley and George Halas. The scope of his appeal was illustrated two years ago when a massive sculpture by Picasso was unveiled. An alderman named John Hoellen described the work as a "rusting junk heap" and suggested that it be dismantled and a 50-foot statue of Ernie Banks—that symbol of a "vibrant city"—put in its place.
The only time Chicago has ever rejected Banks—aside from vocal anxiety that his career was at an end in the early '60s—was when he ran for alderman in the Eighth Ward, three miles from Comiskey Park. An independent Republican, Banks conducted an energetic campaign, and he did not miss a utopian base: lower taxes, safe streets, additional libraries, youth recreation, prompt garbage pickups and, as usual, a pennant in Wrigley Field. Mayor Daley, a White Sox fan, did not support him. The voters ignored him, too. Maybe, one guessed, it was his theme: "Put a slugger into city hall." The word "slugger" might have made too many people think of slugs; city hall was always notorious for slugs. At any rate, he lost, finishing third in a four-man race. He was not visibly disturbed. How could a Cub, he rationalized, get elected in Comiskey country?
Still, Banks' political ambitions are far from dampened. This August, Governor Richard Ogilvie appointed him to a $15,000-a-year position on the board of the Chicago Transit Authority. The appointment moved the governor's critics to suggest that he is a man of inestimable vision. Besides being a lure to Cub fans, Banks would be an inspiration in the black areas when Ogilvie seeks reelection. Perhaps, but Banks does not appear to have much clout among the blacks. His lack of militancy bugs them but, more important, they feel he is not a part of The Cause. Much of it has to do with his behavior or stance, which they think is that of a hat-in-hand old retainer. He is, too, a handy target for all their frustrations. They see in him all the mortgages that they have a difficult time acquiring, all the cabs that pass them by in their neighborhoods, all the little deaths in their lives.
"I don't agree with that thinking," says one black man. "How can Banks be an Uncle Tom? Why, he's never even been a Negro."
Maybe only a black man can sense what another black man is genuinely all about, but the attitude toward Banks appears to be somewhat harsh. Among his own, he occupies a lonely, pressurized position. He is, perhaps, too saccharine amid the maelstrom of social calamities, but he does not know any other way to be. "I care deeply about my people," says Banks, "but I'm just not one to go about screaming over what I contribute. I'm not black or white. I'm just a human being trying to survive the only way I know how. I don't make enemies. If I'm not crazy about somebody he'll never know it. I kill him with kindness." His latest manager, Leo Durocher, for one, might agree with that.
The union between Durocher and Banks, which began in 1966, was that in name only. Their disparate attitudes and personalities promised sudden conflict. Durocher was abrasive, insensitive and insistent on maximum competitiveness. Banks was placid, a baseball flower child and a power hitter who must hit to help a club; he has never been bold or much more than mediocre on the bases. Compounding the situation was the reputation that Ernie had. To the press and everyone else, he was Mr. Cub, a title that Leo seemed to resent. In his first spring training with the Cubs, Durocher made his move. He was certain that Banks was just another aging player, and he spent the entire training period using other players at first base. "I wish you'd knock off that Mr. Cub stuff," Leo finally told the press.
But it became evident that Leo's ploy was not going to work. The players he tried in Banks' position were either injured or failed to hit, but he still did not use Banks until shortly before Opening Day. The shock of not seeing Banks in the lineup may have even jolted Durocher, who decided to allow Banks to play himself out of the lineup. Banks never did, and he was a vital figure in the Cubs' climb to respectability. "The one reason why the Cubs are in the first division," Walter Alston said in 1967, "is Ernie Banks." The feeling now is that Durocher and Banks just tolerate each other. Banks is not enamored of Leo, and Leo is certainly not effusive in his praise of Banks. "I remember the time," says a reporter, "when Banks belted a pair of rooftop homers, and I went to the clubhouse. I said to Leo, 'He sure is some kind of ballplayer.' Leo said, 'He sure is. That Beckert [Glenn] is really something.' Beckert had done nothing exceptional that day." Banks, on the other hand, is always shrewdly generous to Durocher.
"I'm watching Ernie on this interview one day," says Bob Kennedy, one of Banks' former managers, "and suddenly from out of nowhere he says, 'Leo Durocher is the greatest manager I've ever seen.' " Laughing, Kennedy adds, "He's incredible. He's beautiful. Can you imagine him saying that about Leo?"
Well, yes, because that's Ernie Banks. "When Ernie dies," says one player, "and the undertaker is finished, he'll rise up and say, 'Nice job, buddy.' " He is one of a kind, a bit unctuous, maybe, and a bit too out of place in the year 1969, but he is, one guesses, more of a private person than many think. He is certainly the antithesis of the other Negro superstars, the silent Henry Aaron, the serious Willie Mays, the combative Jackie Robinson and the suspicious Bob Gibson. Soft colors, better than words, could perhaps define him. The wispy tempera of Andrew Wyeth might catch his gladness, his singularity, what he has that embodies a time in baseball that is no more, or maybe never was.