Ernest Banks (1931-2015)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Ernest Banks (1931-2015)

The only two men I ever heard speak ill of the late Hall of Famer Ernie Banks was Leo Durocher1 and former Yankee Joe Pepitone2 who played for the Chicago Cubs for parts of four seasons after being fire-sold out of New York for Curt Blefary after the 1969 season.

Durocher thought Banks was a phony with his eternally sunny disposition and "Let's play two" attitude, and Pepi­tone, primarily a first baseman, rarely got to play there when he got to Chicago because after age had com­promised Banks' range following seven straight All-Star selections and two Most Valuable Player awards as a shortstop, he moved to first base, thereby earning Banks Pepitone's eternal enmity.

The second of 12 children, Banks was born in a poor Texas household in 1931, and grew up picking cotton while play­ing softball, football and baseball at Dallas' Booker T. Wash­ington High School. In his biography, "Ernie Banks: Mr. Cub and the Summer of '69" he asserted that picking cotton and stuffing it in a sack taught him how to use his hands.

He started his professional baseball career with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro American League, and after several years of that interspersed with a stint in the U.S. Army, signed with the Cubs in 1953.

For my part, I never had any real feelings about Banks... he wasn't a Dodgers killer the way that Sal Maglie, Joe Adcock, Bob Buhl, Larry Jaster or Stan Musial was, and it was never a big attraction when the Cubs visited Brooklyn.

But I actually got to see Banks not only play, but hit two of his 512 home runs one Saturday afternoon in 1957, when I found my way to Ebbets Field and take a pair of brothers from a Connecticut Summer camp at which I'd been counseling the fortnight prior.

It was a thrilling experience... I got to see my Dodgers play, the burgeoning Don Drysdale pitch into the seventh, Duke Snider hit his 300th career home run over the legendary right field wall, and former Cub Randy Jackson stroke a three-run shot into the left field breachers near where we were sitting, to win the game for "dem Bums."

(I also got to buy a beer... Schaefer, of course... when the vendor looked hard at me and asked me if I was 18, then the minimum drinking age in New York. Still 16 for another two months, I fudged and said "17," but sport that he was, he shot back "Close enough," and handed one over!)

Banks was actually the hitting star of the game, with a double to accompany his two homers, and driving in four of his team's five runs... little wonder they call him "Mr. Cub," he was the Cubs that long ago afternoon.

(The only other Cubs whose names with which I was familiar were former Dodgers Walt Moryn and Bobby Morgan.)

It was a terrific afternoon for me, and one never repeated... 11 weeks later the Dodgers struck their Flatbush flags and left for Los Angeles.

But I did see Ernie Banks play, just one, in his prime!

  1. For the full flavor of Leo "the Lip," who spoke ill of everyone, read the recently re-issued "Nice Guys Finish Last."
  2. One of the funniest passages I ever read in a sports book, "Ball Four," is Jim Bouton's description the time Mickey Mantle put talcum powder in Joe Pepitone's hair dryer.


1. Malcolm Robertson said...

Banks played his last game a little over two months before I was born, and I didn't become a Cubs fan until about a year after my family moved to Chicago, and I watched the legendary "Sandberg Game" on television. As I learned the lore of team, Ernie Banks quickly became a central figure of team's history. The man was a walking IV of Vitamin D. If you study Cubs' icons, you'll see those we adore show boundless optimism even after a century of futility. Harry Caray, and Ron Santo also exemplified this. It's that legacy of our fandom that, in part, led us to name our son Cub.

(If I had known we were going to move to Springfield, Missouri, which is the heart of Cardinals country and even has one of their AAA affiliates, I wouldn't have done that to him.)

Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam wrote a song called, "Someday We'll Go All the Way." The tune catches the spirit of what it's like to be Cubs fan, and might be the greatest song about baseball ever written. It's fitting that he wrote at the request of Mr. Cub.
Though baseball-wise, I'm musically more partial to "Willie, Mickey, and the Duke," I understand perfectly!
– Dean

2. Hampton West said...

OK, this weekend Willie Mays was in NYC with the Giants showing off the 2014 World Series tropy - no taunt meant here. I am a Giant fan and member of the New York Giants Preservation Society, so the Giant organization invited us to breakfast where Willie spoke. He is sharp as a tack at age 83. Someone asked him about Ernie Banks – Willie's comment was they missed each other by a few years due to military obligations but in 1954 or 1955 they met at Wrigley Field. Mays said "this guy came over to our dugout and walked up to me and said 'I'm Ernie Banks,'" to which Willie answered "Wasn't hard to figure out, you are the only black guy on the Cubs. Glad to meet you but Maglie will knock you down anyway!"

Good story! Thanks.

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