“Guard well within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness.” (George Sand)
Ernie Banks, “Mr. Cub,” receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2013. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
I had been planning something else for today’s post, but it can wait. Today I want to remember someone who modeled a life of kindness, and bequeathed so much joy in his 83 years that his name alone makes me smile, though today with some sadness. Ernie Banks died Friday.
I grew up watching and rooting for the San Francisco Giants. My hero was Willie Mays (still is). Before my father died, we went to at least a dozen games each summer at Candlestick Park. We always tried to go when the Giants were playing either the Dodgers—San Francisco’s long-time rival—or the Cubs, our second favorite team. My mom had grown up in Chicago and her fondness for the Cubs moved with her to the Bay Area.
As far as I’m concerned, Willie Mays and Ernie Banks rank high among the best ambassadors the game of baseball has ever had. Their baseball cards were among my most treasured as a child. I still have Willie’s. Somewhere along the line, I lost Ernie’s.
#24, Willie Mays, World Telegram & Sun photo by William C. Greene. Library of Congress via Wikipedia Commons
At the end of my 6th grade school year one of my classmates was hit by a car while riding his bicycle through a busy intersection. He was badly injured, with numerous broken bones and internal injuries. He was in a coma for weeks. When he finally woke up and started the months of intensive therapy that stood between him and 7th grade, one of his first visitors was Willie Mays. Willie was not accompanied by reporters or photographers. He just came to Rob’s hospital room because he had heard about his injury and wanted to cheer him up. That’s the Willie Mays I knew growing up. That, and the sheer joy he demonstrated every day he was on the field.
I went to the first game Willie played at Candlestick Park after the Giants had traded him to the Mets in 1972 (what were they thinking!). The stands were completely packed that evening. The fans weren’t cheering for the Giants, or for the Mets. They were cheering—wildly—for Willie. He tipped his hat to the roaring crowd at each at-bat. The Giants may have forsaken you, but we never will.
Ernie Banks, By Bowman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cubs fans can cite similar stories about Ernie Banks. His kindness to fans is legendary.
Listening to and reading the stories about Ernie these last few days, a couple of things stand out: The words “kind” or “kindness,” referring to Banks, are in every single story. In addition, one cannot fail to see a man who was thoroughly in love with life and with his job. The fact that he played his entire career on a perennially losing team didn’t bother him. He fell in love with Wrigley Field the first day he walked onto the field. He loved it so much he wanted to live in the apartment team owner Phil Wrigley maintained behind left field.
It’s also notable that in his 19-year career with the Cubs, Banks was never ejected from a game. Hall of Fame umpire Doug Harvey said of Banks to The Associated Press: “He wasn’t a griper. Never complained about a strike or an out or a call. Some guys would turn their heads after a pitch and look at you like you were nuts. Not Ernie. It was always, ‘Isn’t this a great day to be alive and playing baseball?’’’
I try to imagine what the world would be like if each of us went to our job every day with the attitude Isn’t this a great day to be alive and [managing associations…selling shoes…waiting tables….].
Ernie Banks got his start in the Negro Leagues, where he would occasionally play three games in one day, sometimes in different cities. Banks loved it. He didn’t focus on the indignity of not being allowed in some restaurants or hotels, or of having to ride in the back of the bus. He was playing baseball! He loved the game so much that when he got to the Majors, he gained fame for the oft-repeated line: “Let’s play two.”
Some stats about Ernie Banks:
- He played in 2,528 games during his 19 seasons
- He averaged 150 games per year during his 16 prime seasons
- He hit 512 career home runs, including five seasons with 40 or more HRs
- He drove in 1,636 runs, including more than 100 RBIs in eight seasons
- He won the National League MVP Award in back-to-back seasons (1958-59)
- He was elected to the All-Star roster 14-times
- He never charged for an autograph (as even my beloved Willie Mays does)
One of the few people with whom Banks had difficulties dealing was one-time Cubs manager, Leo Durocher, known for his cantankerous nature. Banks later said he followed his mother’s advice when interacting with Durocher: “She said, ‘Ernie, kill ’em with kindness.’ And that’s what I did.” [It was the same advice I got from my own mother, as I wrote in an earlier post].
Interestingly, it was Leo Durocher who coined the phrase, “Nice guys finish last.” How fitting that his words were disproved by one of his own players, Ernie Banks.
In his homage to Banks, Chicago Tribune reporter Paul Sullivan wrote last week, “Most great players are remembered for their stats or their style of play. Ernie Banks always will be remembered for showing us how to enjoy life every single day.”
Former Cub Mark Grace said of Banks: “What a wonderful, outgoing, terrific man. He was a Hall of Famer who didn’t act like one. He always had time for others, always asked about you. Never talked about himself. Just always was interested in you. What you were doing, what you had to say, it was important to him.”
In a 2009 interview with NPR, Ernie said he was uncomfortable when he was in the spotlight and he didn’t feel like he’d really done anything important. What he’d really dreamed of, he said, and what had been his goal since he was 15 years old, was to win the Nobel Prize for Peace.
What, you may wonder, is A-Rod doing here? If you follow baseball at all, you know that he is not well-respected, he’s viewed as a liar and a cheat, and is arguably the most hated man in baseball. It wasn’t always so.
In March of 1997, the Seattle Times ran a story about Alex Rodriguez, the 20-year-old player who was then in his second year with the Mariners. The story focused on how nice he was, how polite, how generous and self-effacing. I saved that story for years, thinking, “Here is a man who is following the likes of Willie Mays and Ernie Banks.” I tossed it a couple of years ago, but found it online again today. Somewhere along the way—between 1997 and 2015, something went terribly wrong and the Alex Rodriguez that young man grew to be is anything but the embodiment of Ernie Banks or Willie Mays. How that happened is a story that may someday be told, if it hasn’t already. Suffice it to say that when people list the finest ambassadors for baseball, or the kindest athletes, Rodriguez will not be among them. It saddens me.
Maybe Ernie Banks never got to collect that coveted prize in Stockholm, but the impact he made on baseball and on humankind will ripple beyond our imagining. And maybe if peace ever comes to this world, we can credit this modest Hall of Famer for part of that achievement.
Thanks, Ernie Banks. For showing us how to live life to the fullest … and to the kindest.