One of the great ambassadors for the game of baseball and one of the nicest gentlemen you ever want to meet passed away yesterday. Ernie Banks was 83 years old and even in his later years had the enthusiasm for the game of someone less than half his age.
I was fortunate enough to meet him once and it is a memory etched forever in my mind. It’s not every day that you get to meet a Hall of Famer and someone who is arguably the most-loved sports figure of an entire city. Yes, I know Chicago had Michael Jordan, and the Cubs also had Ron Santo who became more popular as a broadcaster than he was as a player. But Ernie Banks was Mr. Cub, and he was also likely the most approachable legend ever. He never got caught up in being “Ernie Banks.” He just loved the game, loved his city, and returned the love of the people who loved him.
Banks started his career in 1953 as a shortstop and won two MVP awards and played in seven All-Star games at that position. He moved to first base in 1962 and played in four more All-Star games there. He wasn’t what you would call flashy in the field, but he was steady. In fact, he won just one Gold Glove at short (1960).
You could also pencil him in the lineup nearly every day. With the exception of his rookie year and the two final years of his career, Banks never played fewer than 138 games in a season. He played 150 or more games 11 times in his 19-year career. He also hit 512 career home runs at a time when 500 homers was a really big deal. And think about this in the day when pitchers are getting 30 million bucks a year, he never made more than $60k in one season. In fact, his rookie year contract was for the whopping sum of $2,000.
I got to watch him play a few times on television in the final couple years of his career, but unfortunately my 11-year old mind didn’t register then that I was witnessing one of the all-time greats. I wish I had. He finished his career in 1971 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977.
I do know that when I met him when I was in my early 40s and well into my new hobby of being a baseball geek, I took the time to tell him that I felt honored to meet someone who had given so many people so much joy when he played. I remember him saying, “Aw heck, I was the one having the fun!”
I was in his presence for only about five minutes, and I don’t think he ever stopped smiling. I just hope he’s up there now telling God, “Let’s play two!”
RIP, Mr. Banks.