The Art of Sports: My Hero, Ernie Banks

Ernie Banks and Mark Lewis, 533 x 400 pixels

The Art of Sports: My Hero, Ernie Banks

By Mark Lewis

Nobody lives forever.

But you just thought Ernie Banks might.

It wasn’t to be, as evidenced by the long line of speakers at his memorial services in Chicago on Saturday, January 31, 2015, his 84th birthday. They talked about Ernie’s abundant talent as a baseball player for a Chicago Cubs team that just happened to have a “bad century,” as longtime broadcaster Jack Brickhouse said.

They told of a man with an amazing personality who loved the game he played, the team he played for and virtually every person he ever met. This skinny player who used his sinewy wrists to flick 512 home runs boasted an unmatched exuberance.

I was lucky to meet the ever-smiling hero of my youth in 1998 while writing a feature story for the newspaper I worked for. “Mr. Cub” made several promotional stops around Bloomington-Normal, Ill., that day. I caught up with him at a fitness facility where good old No. 14 appeared in rare form.

“Smile. It increases your face value,” Ernie told anyone who would listen.

If the person met for the first time was a man, he used this gem: “If you want to be healthy, get married. That’s the crossroads of health. Our wives extend our lives one decade.”

When he wasn’t eliciting smiles from strangers with a song or posing for pictures, Ernie said he aspired to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He did earn a Presidential Medal of Freedom, but never did earn that trip to Sweden.

The two-time National League Most Valuable Player (1958 and 1959) also advised people to listen to their parents.

“Your mom is a visionary,” he told one onlooker. “My dad was a visionary. When I was 13, he paid me 25 cents to play catch with him.

“Now blacks didn’t play Major League baseball then. But he could see that one day it was going to happen. And a few years later, I was playing with Jackie Robinson,” he said.

For a young Cub fan growing up in White Sox country in the south suburbs of Chicago, Banks was the beacon that made me hurry home from school to watch the end of the game on WGN-TV. Sure, the Cubs would be losing, but I could watch Ernie line another home run to the left-field bleachers at Wrigley Field.

Even when the Cubs broke my heart in 1969 (and 1984 and … you get the picture), who could be upset with Ernie. Everybody hitched their wagon to the Cubs’ success that year, including WGN, which occasionally used Ernie (during the season!) as a sports anchorman. That move gave the viewers insights like this:

“In the third inning, I saw a pitch that I liked,” Ernie would say with his trademark smile as he introduced a clip of another home run leaving the yard.

I saw a player, and a man, I admired. And, sadly, I won’t see him anymore.

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