Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks was honored for his performance on the field and his optimistic approach to life Wednesday, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in a ceremony at the White House.
Banks, 82, was among 16 recipients, including former President Bill Clinton, former astronaut Sally Ride, feminist Gloria Steinem, former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith and media icon Oprah Winfrey.
Obama relayed the story of Banks' enthusiastic pep talk to his Cubs teammates: "Let's play two."
"That's Mr. Cub -- the man who came up through the Negro Leagues, making $7 a day, and became the first black player to suit up for the Cubs and one of the greatest hitters of all time," Obama said. "In the process, Ernie became known as much for his 512 home runs as for his cheer and his optimism, and his eternal faith that someday the Cubs would go all the way."
There was some laughter in the room after that. The Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908.
"And that's serious belief," Obama said. "That is something that even a White Sox fan like me can respect. He is just a wonderful man and a great icon of my hometown."
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest honor given to civilians in the United States, established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy. It is presented to those who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."
Banks joins a distinguished list of baseball players to receive the honor, including Hank Aaron (2002), Roberto Clemente (2003), Joe DiMaggio (1977), Stan Musial (2011), Buck O'Neil (2006), Frank Robinson (2005), Jackie Robinson (1984) and Ted Williams (1991).
Banks began his baseball career with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in 1950, and was the first African-American player on the Cubs, making his Major League debut on Sept. 17, 1953, at the age of 22. He played 19 seasons with the Cubs and finished with a .274 batting average, 512 home runs and 1,636 RBIs.
Although he never reached the postseason, Banks won back-to-back Most Valuable Player honors, was elected into the Hall of Fame, had his No. 14 retired in 1982 by the Cubs and is immortalized in a bronze statue outside Wrigley Field.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.