An inextinguishably bright light on some very grim teams, Mr. Cub was—and remains—the heart and soul of the Wrigley faithful, of Chicago even. Losing with him wasn't always fun, but losing without him would have been intolerable
This is an article from the Feb. 2, 2015 issue
FOR MANY YEARS, long after every other major league ballpark had been illuminated, Wrigley Field did not have lights, but it did have Ernie Banks. On even the darkest afternoons, when the Cubs were so far down they had to reach up to touch bottom, their great shortstop lit up the joint.
He played with joy at the beginning, when he was a raw-boned kid out of the Negro leagues and the future was seemingly filled with pennants and World Series rings; and he played with joy at the end, when his career had become a symbol for greatness amidst futility. He was a power hitter, but in contrast to many sluggers, he was not a big man, nor did he swing from the heels. Like Hank Aaron, his contemporary and friend, his pop came from his wrists. He stood in the batter's box, looking out at the pitcher with equanimity, his energy betrayed only by his fingers, which drummed against the bat. His swing was waist high and steady, snapping across the plate with a final break of the wrist that made all the difference. He hit 512 home runs and once held the record for shortstops, but few of those shots were of the towering God-ball variety. Like Banks himself, they were remarkable for their persistence. They were line drives that just kept going.
When I'm feeling down, I go online and watch Banks hit home runs 498, 499 and 500. It's a pleasure to see Wrigley Field as it used to be, those ancient afternoons with weak springtime shadows, the air as chilled as a frosty malt, Jack Brickhouse—the broadcaster who once forgave the Cubs with "Everyone is entitled to a bad century"—shouting "Hey, hey" as Ernie rounds the bases. What you notice is the intensity of a player who loves the game for what it is, as opposed to where it might take him. He crossed the plate for number 500 in the same workmanlike way he did for numbers 16, 72, 143 and all the others—a habit that was possibly a holdover from his early years, when he was one of just a handful of black athletes in the game. Players who showboated, and especially black players, got plunked. Banks was the first black Cub. He was mentored by Jackie Robinson. He was not vocal, but the quality of his game meant that he did not have to say much. He had a kind of charisma that carried him above everything, and he was ideal for fans of a team that has not won a championship since 1908. He classed up even the most mediocre roster; he made Chicago seem like the center of the baseball world.
I was born in 1968 and was three years old when Banks took his last swing. I therefore got the stories secondhand, in the way of Norse sagas, sitting in the bleachers and listening to the bums tell tales of the great Ernie Banks. The five grand slams in 1955. The 47 home runs in 1958. The back-to-back MVPs in '58 and '59, won even while playing on teams a million miles from first place. Generations after he retired, he remained Mr. Cub, the spirit of the franchise. At some point during every game, usually around the seventh inning, the bums returned to the sad tale of '69, the year of the Cubs' epic late season collapse, how Ernie stood at his post like the captain of a whaler, going down with the ship. The most telling record is less about Banks than about the club: No player has played in more games without appearing in the postseason, which is the misery of the North Side reduced to statistics.
Banks grew up in Dallas. He played football and softball before finding his way into the Army and the Negro leagues. He played for the Kansas City Monarchs, where he was guided by players so storied they sound like figments: Buck O'Neil, Cool Papa Bell. Banks's career, in the way of any long career—his first big league game played in 1953, his last in 1971— works as a bridge, connecting era to era. He served 19 seasons in Chicago, set records, was a Gold Glove shortstop and, for a time, among the game's very best hitters in the days of Mays, Mantle and Musial. When you read about his early years, you almost wish he'd not signed with the Cubs, that he'd found another fate. But I suppose it could have happened no other way. Chicago is the great American city, and Ernie is our face. We got Daley, we got McCormick Place, we got Banks—a man with the sort of inner sunshine needed to get through the off-season, when the sun vanishes in November, not to be seen again till April.
Banks was still on the scene when I was a kid, a bit of human magic you wanted to rub like a genie lamp. He lost and lost but was undiminished by losing. Too much is made of the winners; it's the losers that show you how to live. Mantle can teach you how to celebrate, but Banks teaches you how to survive. It's about finding satisfaction in each play.
Cubs history before Banks seems archaic, cold. You can admire the statistics of Hack Wilson, or groove on that three-note poem Tinker to Evers to Chance, but that's black and white, whereas Ernie is Technicolor. Failing with him was not always fun; failing without him would've been intolerable. His philosophical position was existentialist. He seemed to say, Yes, you will lose, yes, you will die, but it's a beautiful day, a wonderful park. His great saying, "Let's play two," is as defiantly hopeful as anything by Sinatra.
I met Ernie when I was a kid. My father had become friendly with him through his work as a public speaker and general knock-around guy, and now and then, when I came home from school, Banks was in our living room, which was akin to finding the moon in a field behind your house. He was as full of joy as ever. He never talked down to you. He was like the Buddha: all there, every time. Once, before an Old-Timers' Game, he got down on the grass and showed me how to field a grounder. When I met him in the Wrigley Building last summer, he was old and different but still the same. Even when the legs go, and the face becomes a mask, the eyes remain.
Through all the jobs and wives that followed his life on the field, Ernie stayed Ernie. He really was that optimistic, that happy to be alive. As Cubs fans we've been unlucky in so many ways. It was unlucky that the black cat emerged from the depths of Shea Stadium in 1969. It was unlucky that Sandberg spilled Gatorade on Durham's glove between innings in 1984. It was unlucky that Bartman was seated on the rail in 2003. But in Ernie Banks we had good luck that redeemed the bad luck. For all the pain, for all the losing, I would take Ernie and the Cubs over the Yankees and their 27 championships any day.