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Banks recognized for Presidential Medal of Freedom

Cubs Hall of Famer honored in ceremony prior to Tuesday's game vs. Reds

CHICAGO -- Ernie Banks can't wait to see President Barack Obama again. The last time they chatted was at a dinner in Chicago the night before Obama announced his candidacy for president.

"I talked to Barack, and he said, 'Give me a card,' and I gave him a card, and the next day he announced his candidacy," Banks said Tuesday. "I was going to tell him not to run. I was going to say, 'You really want to do this?' He's a wonderful guy, a brilliant man."

Banks, 82, will see Obama in November, when the Cubs Hall of Famer is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor presented to civilians in the United States.

"It means everything to me," Banks said of the award. "It means life is just wonderful. When you do things to try to help people and share things, it really comes back to you. I try to do that. I love the players, love Wrigley Field, love all the players. ... This award means a lot to me. It's almost like the Nobel Peace Prize to me."

On Tuesday, Banks was recognized at Wrigley Field prior to the Cubs' game. He waved to the fans and thanked them for supporting him.

"I didn't play in a World Series, I didn't play in the playoffs, but this takes the place for me," Banks said of the honor.

Banks hugged his former teammate, Hall of Famer Billy Williams, who introduced him, and even danced a little with Cubs owner Laura Ricketts on the field, spinning her gently to the music.

The Medal of Freedom was established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy, and 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 this prestigious award, including Hank Aaron (2002), Roberto Clemente ('03) Joe DiMaggio (1977), Stan Musial ('11), Buck O'Neil ('06), Frank Robinson ('05), Jackie Robinson (1984) and Ted Williams (1991).

Banks caught up with former Cubs manager Dusty Baker, now the Reds skipper, and also posed for photos with some of the Reds players, such as Shin-Soo Choo.

How did Mr. Cub stay so positive? He learned that from O'Neil, who was the scout who signed him, and who played with Banks in the Negro Leagues.

"Playing in the Negro Leagues, traveling with those guys and getting all the wisdom they had on life and playing in the game," Banks said. "The players today are much smarter, stronger, faster. It's just a whole different game. there's more technology involved. It's totally different in that sense for me. We only had eight teams in the league when I came in. You had to play Class D, C, B before you reached the Majors. Now it's faster, quicker, smarter."

Banks, who made his Cubs debut on Sept. 17, 1953 at the age of 22, played 19 seasons with the team and finished with a .274 batting average, 512 home runs, and 1,636 RBIs. A two-time National League Most Valuable Player Award winner, Banks was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.

Banks has tried to get Obama to Wrigley Field more than once.

"He won't come," Banks said. "What I learned from him is the loyalty that he has. He's a very loyal person. He follows the White Sox and that's it, that's his team. He won't wear no Cub jacket. I tried to get him to wear a Cub jacket, and he won't do it."

Asked when the Cubs will win it all, Banks referred to Pearl Jam.

"What did Eddie Vedder say? 'Some day we'll go all the way,'" Banks said.

So, when Banks does see Obama, will he remind him of the the conversation about running for president?

"He'll probably tell me, 'You were right,'" Banks said.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.
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