Banks' passing leaves void in heart of baseball
Mr. Cub was larger than life figure on and off the diamond
There I was, speaking on the phone Friday night around 10 p.m. (ET) to Lamond Pope, one of my closest pals in sports media, and the conversation was winding to a close. Pope lives near his native Chicago, which only makes sense. He is the most fervent Cubs fan this side of the guy who just took a graceful home run trot from earth to that ivy-covered place in the sky.
Lamond and I were discussing "DeflateGate." Then, between my thoughts on pounds per square inch in a football and whether it's time for us to move on with the rest of our lives, he cut me off.
"What a minute! Wait a minute!"
After a slight pause, Lamond said with nearly a whisper: "This just in. Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, has died."
We both went into an impromptu moment of silence. Not only did Ernest Banks pass away, but so did part of baseball, along with a lot of our youth. I'm talking about that of Lamond, myself and everybody else who remembers the man who never learned how to frown.
Everything about Banks was joyful. There was his smile. Then there was his walk, along with his handshake and his voice. They all told the world that this was a human being who embraced every moment of his life, and guess what I've yet to mention? Banks was a splendid baseball player, too.
Soon after starring in the Negro Leagues, Banks became Cal Ripken Jr. before Cal Ripken Jr., by slugging his way to two National League Most Valuable Awards in the 1950s at shortstop. Banks ripped 512 homers, and he was chosen for 14 All-Star Games. He never missed a game -- or so it seemed. I mean, when you went to a Cubs game from the early 1950s through the late '60s, you knew No. 14 would grace the lineup. He did all of that while playing more Major League games than anybody in history without reaching the postseason. That's because, when it came to the big stuff -- a World Series championship, an NL pennant or even a division title -- his Cubs never won anything.
Well, they did win the hearts of their followers.
I know, because I was one of them.
Our love affair with the Cubs began and ended with the magic right-handed hitter who also was known as Mr. Sunshine, especially since they only played day home games during his 19 Major Leagues seasons. I followed the stretch drive of those seasons from South Bend, Ind., where I was born and raised, and it is a couple of hours drive from Wrigley Field. Although many in this home of the University of Notre Dame adopted the White Sox as their baseball team during my adolescent days of the 1960s, we were Cubs fans in our household.
With apologies to Lamond, who is nearly two decades younger than me, those of us in South Bend during the Banks era were the most diehard group of Cubs fans ever. We had to be. Courtesy of the distance, we couldn't get to many games in person. We mostly hugged Banks and the rest of our Cubbies through radio and television, and we rarely missed a game.
I'm talking about primitive TV, by the way. There was no cable television, and satellite dishes were the stuff of the delusional. Plus, in a town the size of South Bend, most folks couldn't get more than three channels while clicking (no remote) the dial.
We were lucky. My dad did TV repair work when he wasn't collecting a full-time check from his regular job. As a result, he made sure we had one of those huge antennas that was just shy of the height of the John Hancock Center. He placed it on top of the house. Why? Among other things, it allowed us to pick up Cubs games -- you know, sort of -- from WGN in Chicago.
The broadcast faded in and out. When it was in, the picture on our black-and-white set was hazy, and the players looked as if they were playing in fog. You could hear the voice of Cubs broadcaster Jack Brickhouse more often than not, and you also could pick out Banks on most occasions.
Banks was the tall figure with the distinctive stance.
Radio worked better for us regarding Cubs baseball. The signal was crystal clear over the 50,000 watts of WGN radio, and we couldn't wait to hear Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau open every broadcast in Chicago talking about the "Friendly Confines" and "Wrigley's beautiful sunshine," and the exploits of the losing yet lovable Cubs in general, and Mr. Cub in particular.
I still have the recording from the late 1960s, when I placed my tape recorder next to the radio to catch the voice of Pat Pieper, the iconic public address announcer at Wrigley Field for 59 years. The scenario rarely changed when Mr. Cub left the batter's box, and this was more of the same. The crowd quieted, and then Pieper said with his megaphone-sounding tone over the rickety speakers of the old ballpark, "Next batter for the Cubs ... 14 ...
The screaming went on forever.
Then, Lloyd giggled on the recording before saying, "Once again, Lou, you would think they didn't know it was him coming to the plate."
We didn't see "him" live until 1968, and it wasn't at Wrigley. That year, my dad transferred to Cincinnati for his job, where we quickly became disciples of the Big Red Machine. We retained our allegiance to the Cubs, because we couldn't desert Ernie. Then, as only the baseball gods would have it, the first game we attended that season in Cincinnati at Crosley Field involved the Reds and the Cubs.
This is the most striking thing that my two brothers and I remember about that game: Ernie's shiny black shoes at first base.
"Since that night, I've never seen a pair of baseball spikes sparkle that brightly in my life," Dennis Moore told me on Saturday from Cincinnati, where he lives with his own family. "That night influenced me throughout my Little League career and high school days to keep my spikes as clean as possible. Even when I managed my [youth baseball teams] a few years ago, I told my kids that story about Ernie Banks, about always looking your best on the field."
One more thought on Mr. Cub: When my godson, Julian, was four years old, I began turning him into a baseball fan. By the time he was six, he could tell you everything from who yelled "The Giants win the pennant" several times into a microphone to what happened on April 8, 1974. When he was eight, I took him on a trip to Wrigley Field and Miller Park in Milwaukee.
Julian is 23 now, and he lives in Los Angeles, where he has attended more than a few Dodgers games between working for an entertainment firm. At 6:06 a.m. ET on Saturday, he sent me this text ...
So sad to hear about Ernie Banks. Let's play 2!