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Banks set to receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

Hall of Famer among 16 to be presented with civilian award in D.C. on Wednesday

CHICAGO -- Ernie Banks was twice named Most Valuable Player, won a Gold Glove Award, was named to more than a dozen All-Star teams, was inducted into the Hall of Fame and he has one of the most recognizable smiles in baseball.

On Wednesday, the 82-year-old Banks will receive the highest honor given to civilians in the United States when he is presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom in Washington, D.C.

"It means everything to me," Banks said in August about 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."

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 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).

The event at the White House also will allow Banks a chance to catch up with President Barack Obama. The last time they chatted was at a dinner in Chicago the night before Obama announced his candidacy for president. At that time, Banks joked he would have told Obama not to run.

"I was going to say, 'You really want to do this?'" Banks said. "He's a wonderful guy, a brilliant man."

Banks will be one of 16 to receive the Medal of Freedom on Wednesday, joining, among others, former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, former President Bill Clinton, country music legend Loretta Lynn, late astronaut Sally Ride, former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, activist Gloria Steinem, and Oprah Winfrey.

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.

Known for his positive catch phrase, "Let's play two," Banks was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1977. The Cubs retired his No. 14 in 1982 and a statue of the slugger was unveiled outside Wrigley Field in 2008.

Banks never had the chance to play in the postseason. When the 1984 Cubs won the National League East, Banks was named an honorary team member.

How did Mr. Cub stay so positive? He learned that from Buck O'Neil, who was the scout who signed him, and 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."

On Wednesday, Banks will be saluted once again.

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

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