On Friday night, we lost another of baseball’s historical and personal giants. Ernie Banks died not far short of his 84th birthday, and perhaps, only a little further short of seeing the Chicago Cubs team that would finally win the National League pennant he never was able to capture gather for Spring Training in Arizona. Banks embodied the unbeatable, inexplicable, inadvisable faith that is so much a part of Cubs fans’ self-image. He went out of his way to tell everyone with whom he spoke that the Cubs would finally break through this season, even if the season in question looked pretty hopeless. More importantly, he was a prophet of the good word that baseball, at its core, is not about winning, and he did as much to encourage and promulgate the intrinsic joy of taking in a ballgame as anyone ever has.
My fondest memories of Banks come from Cubs Conventions, which I started attending at age 12. My first year, we won one of the lottery drawings for the high-profile autographs–Banks’s. At 12, you don’t totally get Ernie Banks, so I was slightly disappointed not to have gotten Sammy Sosa, but still, my dad and I stood in line at the proper time, and when it was our turn, I walked up and handed Ernie one of those brand-new, league-official Rawlings baseballs. I wish I could say his words were indelibly printed on my memory, but like the ink with which he wrote his name (his real, full name, which I found strange, having grown accustomed to the modern player’s abstract art-inspired signature), they’ve faded. You can still tell the autograph says ‘Ernie Banks, H.o.F 77,’ but it’s bleached in places. Similarly, all I remember about Ernie in that moment is that he asked about me, and that (while I was suddenly starstruck and didn’t offer much) the look on his face said he would have listened happily for however long I spoke. That accords with pretty much everything you’ll ever hear about Banks. He was tireless in his devotion to hearing about others, and the interest there was always genuine.
I saw Banks in passing another hundred times or so, in the fistful of Conventions I attended before adulthood called me away for a while, and would occasionally reach out a hand. He would sometimes grab it, then clap me on the shoulder with his other hand, and other times, turn the would-be handshake into a high-five. The exchanges never went further, and I suspect he had a thousand of those a day there, but I wanted to somehow show him my gratitude for his presence and his enthusiasm at the event, and he wanted to somehow show me that he wasn’t looking past me before even reaching me. That refusal to hold anyone at an arm’s length, or to be so held, is what sets him apart from most every major celebrity I’ve ever encountered.
Together with Ron Santo and Billy Williams, Banks was the best thing about being a Cubs fan, for a long time. There are no championships for a Cubs fan to treasure, of course. There are too few moments where one even seems to come within range. Wrigley Field is a joy, an absolute good, but the shine has slowly been whittled away on that, by years of criticism about the culture there, by piece-by-piece renovations that rob it of its exceptionalism (though not its core beauty or charm), and by the construction of parks that aren’t as hideous a contrast to Wrigley as their predecessors were. The history of ownership and competition for the Cubs is nothing but ugliness. Since I became a Cubs fan, in 1997, I’ve understood that the Cubs fan’s chief source of pride, the thing they have over all other fan bases, is their relationship with this trio of heroes. Sure, the Giants have Mays and McCovey, the Cardinals had Musial, the Yankees had Berra and Mantle and a hundred others. But because those fans never needed those men the way Cubs fans needed these, it wasn’t the same. It couldn’t be.
To my surprise, Banks’s passing has stirred a heavier sadness in me than did the loss of Ron Santo in 2010, and I’m trying to pin down the reason. It doesn’t really make sense. Santo was the one to whom I felt a deeper connection while they lived (or so I thought). Because Santo was the Cubs’ radio color commentator for many years, he was much easier to connect to the current team. Because Santo was denied entry into the Hall of Fame until after his death, he felt more like a Cubs fan felt. Because Santo battled amputation and other serious complications from the diabetes he had all his life throughout his later years, his heroism was more evident, more recent and more obvious than Banks’s–though not truly greater.
It’s true that Santo was the old Cub I admired most in life, but Banks’s death is the one that hits my heart harder, and the simple reason is this: Even after 83 years of life, Ernie Banks so honestly loved it that I can’t imagine he was ready to lose it. The energy he always had seemed like it must have been a shtick; the years proved to me that it wasn’t. In this moment, on the precipice of seeing the team he loved finally return to contention, I feel sure this season will overflow with his energy. I just can’t help hating the fact that he won’t be providing it himself.Next post: They’re Not Just for Baseball! — Non-Baseball Events at Baseball Stadiums
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