Rapoport: The last years of Ernie Banks

From Ron Rapoport at Chicago Magazine on September 23, 2015:

I was on the road when the story broke, so the news arrived in a text from a friend in Chicago.

“So sorry about Ernie,” she wrote.

I walked into the hotel bar and ordered a glass of red wine the way he would have—whatever they were serving; he never consulted a wine list or stated a preference—raised it off the counter, and said goodbye to Ernie and hello to the inevitable. It was not long in coming.

“Even as the Chicago Cubs lost one game after another,” said the Associated Press, “Ernie Banks never lost hope. That was the charm of ‘Mr. Cub.’ Banks, the Hall of Fame slugger and two-time MVP who always maintained his boundless enthusiasm for baseball despite decades of playing on miserable teams, died Friday night. He was 83.”

“ ‘It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two’ became the mantra of the man known as Mr. Cub, a fixture in what he called the friendly confines of Wrigley Field,” said The New York Times. “The most popular Cub ever in a franchise dating to the 1870s, Banks became as much an institution in Chicago as the first Mayor Daley, Studs Terkel, Michael Jordan and George Halas.”

“A man would grow old, wrecked by madness or more by shame, trying to find just one posed photograph of Ernie Banks when he was not smiling, or just one recorded complaint from the man, or just one negative word about him from anyone with a shred of human decency,” said Sports Illustrated. “Ernie Banks, the great symbol not only of Chicago Cubs baseball but also of a Major League Baseball ideal, really was that kind and that joyful.”

What was it about him? I wondered. Why was Ernie, virtually alone among the great players of his generation, such an idealized, one-dimensional fantasy? Why did he seem to have no existence beyond the baseball diamond? Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron were seen as important civil rights pioneers. Mickey Mantle’s character flaws were so well chronicled they became part of his appeal. Ted Williams’s defiantly cold-blooded grip on Red Sox fans became the stuff of legend and literature. Joe DiMaggio was a cultural phenomenon all to himself. Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Yogi Berra, Stan Musial—they were all made recognizable out of uniform.

But Ernie escapes all context. He is nothing but sunshine and smiles. Just as he was defined by his image, so was he imprisoned by it.

Read the full article here: http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/October-2015/Ernie-Banks/

Originally published: September 28, 2015. Last Updated: September 28, 2015.