Ernie

I should not be the one to write an Ernie Banks tribute.

It should be my dad. Ernie Banks was my dad’s hero, and when I mourn Ernie Banks, I’m actually mourning a part of my dad. But since this is my life and my website, and not writing a tribute feels way worse and grossly inadequate, I’ll endeavor to do my best to pay tribute to the man.

Rest in peace, Ernie. You will be dearly missed.

***

I don’t remember the first time my dad told me Ernie Banks was his favorite player, and his hero. In my life it’s one of those things I don’t remember ever not knowing, like that the sun comes up in the morning or that you had to brush your teeth before you went to bed. It’s knowledge you get by osmosis, existing without question or real reflection, but important all the same.

Why was it important in our house? Because we loved baseball. Denver had no Major League team until I was 11, but our family had the Cubs. My parents grew up in Chicago, and while they retained historical affection for the rest of their hometown teams – the Bears and the Blackhawks, primarily – they embraced the teams of their adopted city. With no professional baseball here, our love of the Cubs was undivided and strong.

My very first favorite team was the 1989 Cubs that won the National League East, and then subsequently got assertively beaten by the San Francisco Giants in 5 games in the NLCS. For this (and a great many other reasons since), I hate the Giants. My dad hates the Giants, too, but he also hates the Padres (and Steve Garvey in particular) for their defeat of the Cubs in 1984, and most of all, he hates the Mets for their miracle comeback coupled with the Cubs’ epic choke job in 1969. I hated the Mets as well, but didn’t really know why. If asked at the time, I think I would have chalked it up to the perpetual chic of despising New York teams when you don’t live in New York. This is still a reasonable philosophy to maintain for anyone.

In 1990, I played coach pitch baseball. I wore #14 in honor of my dad and Ernie Banks. My dad was our team’s primary pitcher, and he even kept track of his own earned run average. He calculated it to be, if memory serves, about 28.20, which would make even the Rockies rotation, burdened with pitching at altitude, blush. The catch, of course, is that in coach pitch, since you pitched to your own players, the higher the ERA, the better. We went 7-2 that year, and crushed the ball regularly. He was a good pitcher.

***

My dad has a collection of Chicago Cubs memorabilia. One of the most notable pieces in this collection is an 8” statue of Ernie Banks. He told me when I was a kid that it was worth about $200, which, when you’re 7 years old, seems like an impossible amount of money.

He let me keep it in my room, and I stood it proudly on top of a dresser that had a bunch of Starting Lineup figures on it as well. I don’t know how it happened, but I remember one day I came home to find the Ernie Banks figure on the floor, which was unsettling. When I found the bat snapped out of his hands, it was horrifying.

How could I have done this? I broke Ernie Banks!

I panicked and fretted and beat myself up over it. And it wasn’t out of fear of retribution or that my dad would be angry with me or punishment or whatever – my house growing up didn’t really work that way – but that I didn’t want my dad to think I didn’t care. I didn’t want to seem careless with my dad’s hero, or, perhaps more accurately, careless with my dad’s feelings. I cared very much for my dad’s feelings and took it as a point of pride that he’d let me have this valuable piece in my room. I wanted to be sure to honor that.

So I took it to my mom, full of remorse and shame and guilt, and asked her what we could do. I think I asked her not to tell my dad because I wanted to solve this “problem” before he ever found out. My mom looked at it, and decided the best course of action was to visit the neighborhood jeweler and assess from there.

So there we went, and much to my delight and surprise, he said he could fix it, and took it from me. A few days later we returned, it looked good as new, and all was again right with the world. I think I feebly offered to pay for the work – with what money, who knows – but I’m almost certain my mom paid the bill, whatever it was, if anything. I’m sure the guy used whatever appropriate glue and stuck the thing in there, which sounds like maybe 4 minutes worth of work total including the initial consultation, but I didn’t care. The fact this was handled by a professional made me feel that much better.

Ernie Banks meant something to my dad, and the fact that he trusted me with a representation of Ernie Banks meant something to me. It still does.

***

In every eulogy you read about Ernie Banks, one thing that consistently emerges is his friendly demeanor and positive outlook. He was unflappably upbeat, which is remarkable for someone who had to endure being a pioneer of breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball in the charged environment of the 1960s.

But there were still times when Ernie might make you cringe a bit.

My dad told me a story of Ernie Banks in a Yoplait commercial (which apparently does not exist online) that required him to speak a bit of French. He couldn’t do it, so they ended up dubbing the French lines in later. My dad also talked about Ernie going on a celebrity edition of “Wheel of Fortune,” which made my dad always go, “Aw, c’mon Ernie…” Why? Because he’d have an empty board, give the wheel a spin, Pat would call out the value of whatever wedge Ernie landed on, and then Ernie, with a completely pristine board and all the letters of the alphabet at his disposal, would ask for a “J.” Not exactly sound “Wheel” strategy. Aw, c’mon Ernie…

In the summer of 1998, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire blasted homeruns at a clip not seen before or since. They both eclipsed Roger Maris’ record of 61 homeruns in a season and reignited Americans’ love of baseball. During that chase, Sosa hit 20 homeruns in June, which is a shitload. After a particularly robust set of games, I awoke to “Sportscenter” and found the show open with Ernie Banks singing a song about Sosa.

No joke, a song. It was a charming, if a bit hokey, little ditty that saw Ernie smiling into the camera and clapping his hands along with the beat of the song he had made up about the latest Cubs hero. This video also apparently does not exist online.

I called my dad, who was traveling for work at the time, and asked him, “Hey, did you see Ernie Banks on Sportscenter today?”

“No. Why was he on Sportscenter?”

“He sang a song about Sammy Sosa.”

“A song? [a long pause punctuated with a semi-incredulous laugh] Aw, c’mon Ernie…”

I don’t know why, but that story always makes me laugh. I think it’s my dad’s long pause as he tries to reconcile his hero with the cornball old man who invents and then sings songs about other men on national television.

You couldn’t make fun of Ernie Banks. He was simply too good natured and too enthusiastic, perhaps too much to the point of nearly embarrassing himself. I wish more people were like him.

***

In 2013, Kristin and I were in Kansas City for a day before heading to a wedding in Springfield. Not really having a solid plan of how to spend that day, we ended up improvising a trip to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. It’s an awesome place, if you’ve never been. I saw a replica locker of Ernie Banks while there, and filled in the story of my dad’s hero more brightly. It was an energizing visit, and I didn’t leave before picking up a Kansas City Monarchs – Ernie’s Negro League team – wall banner for my dad.

When I gave it to him, I watched him immediately light up. He didn’t have much from Ernie’s Negro League days, so this was a rare treat indeed. They say gift giving is almost always more about the giver than the receiver, and I think that’s largely true. I know that, because I felt amazing knowing that I somehow managed to enhance – in my own small way – my dad’s relationship to Ernie Banks.

I feel amazing thinking about it now.

***

For the first time ever, my dad went to the Cubs Convention this year. He told me he hoped finally to meet Ernie Banks. He added, “Who knows how many of these things he’s got left in him.”

Sadly, Ernie pulled out at the last minute in order to have a “procedure” done, which was not explained further. I found that out from my mom, the disappointment palpable in her voice, for she too has lived the majority of her life understanding what Ernie Banks meant to my dad. The trip wasn’t an altogether bust – my dad did relate to me a cool exchange he had with former all-time saves leader Lee Smith – but I know it was disappointing for him.

Five days after the conclusion of the Convention, Ernie Banks passed away. I spoke to my dad two nights ago for the first time about it, and while those words will remain between us, I now better and more fully understand what Ernie meant to him. Ernie now means more to me too.

That’s why I ache for his passing. I ache for my dad. And I ache for those everywhere who were touched by Ernie Banks. That’s why I have to write an Ernie Banks tribute.

Rest in peace, Ernie.

1 comment on “Ernie

  1. Chris says:

    I really appreciated this post, Jon. Uncle Peter used to call me “Ernie Banks” when I was little and I also wore #14 throughout little league. Even though he was retired before I can remember watching the Cubs, he was a part of my childhood. Also, Steve Garvey can suck it.

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