By Tony Fitzpatrick
An older man rolled a baseball to a troublesome little kid at a country club one day. The older man, his skin touched by a half a century of playing the boys’ game in sunlight, was Ernie Banks and the boy was my son—and he still has the ball.
It is widely known that I have not ever been a Cubs fan. But staring out of this window in a hospital room, baseball seems a million miles away right now and winter has decided to add to its cruel toll our greatest baseball player. Even if you were not a Cubs fan, you were an Ernie Banks fan, because Ernie embodied the very thing that Sox fans claim to hate the Cubs fans for: He loved the game. Let’s play two.
All Ernie Banks needed was the crack of a bat, the sound of a ball being caught and daylight forever, like to be drunk on.
One can be sure that Mr. Banks was subjected to no small amount of racial invective, stone-stupid bigotry and ignorance. The miraculous thing about this gracious man is that if it bothered him, he never wore it. He had a saying once in a while he would just share with friends, “Fools is fools is fools.” He learned to laugh at ignorance rather than carry it. One of his closest friends was Buck O’Neil. O’Neil found Banks playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues flush with talent in the early fifties. By this time, O’Neil had been doing some scouting, mostly for the Chicago Cubs. Banks was a natural who could hit, could field and had such cool composure that whenever anybody yelled an ugly remark, he smiled at them. It wasn’t a “Tom” smile; it was a smile carved from ice that carried the promise, “You’re next. Pitch me inside, I’ll take you downtown. Pitch me unhittable balls, I will step outside the box and hit back at you twice as hard… I am in this game, too.”
He is perhaps the greatest player to never wear a World Series ring. And, even that was not enough to evince anything like the idea of “tragedy” from Mr. Cub. He was lucky every morning he woke up and got to play ball.
In later years, Ernie tried his hands at a myriad of things. Car dealership, various other businesses, only to find out what he was best at was being Ernie Banks so he served on boards, built boys clubs and was a vocal advocate for the community. Mr. Banks raised a lot of money for a lot of organizations and always dapperly dressed with a smile on his face.
The 1960s brought the horrors of two Kennedy assassinations, the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, the Vietnam war and a palpable sense of rebellion among major league athletes, particularly athletes of color. Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Roberto Clemente and others all had political agendas to raise and bring forward and all of them honorable. Not so Ernie Banks; he played baseball. He also played on maybe the greatest team to never win the World Series.
A great many athletes tried to pressure Banks into adopting their politics and being more vociferous. Ernie wanted to play baseball. It did not however keep him from being active in the community, along with athletes like Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson. Where there was a cause, there was Ernie Banks. Ernie aligned himself with the old guard, men who believed in the promise of America and did not feel the need to be radicalized. The younger athletes viewed the old guard as the “square guard” and that their lack of appetite for “revolution” amounted to “Tomism.” Robinson, Banks and Owens bristled at this notion. Banks and Robinson were veterans (Banks served during the Korean War) and all three men endured the worst racial intolerance that the late 1940s, fifties and sixties had to offer. Through it all, whenever Ernie Banks heard an untoward remark or the “n word,” he would crouch at shortstop or first base and throw a punch into his glove, break out a smile and hold his face to the sun. And, baseball filled him with light.
Also, three weeks ago I had chest pains which led me to the emergency room and a quadruple bypass. Me and my family have been deeply touched and moved by the outpouring of mail, email, good wishes, prayers and support from all of you. I will write more about this in the coming weeks but I am grateful beyond words.