By Larry Teren
The first name of Ernest was written on his birth certificate but we all called him Ernie. Few were blessed with the distinction of everyone hearing a nickname and knowing right away whom was meant. Ernie had reached that special honor fifty years earlier. Now he was just used to being old and dealing with it. The past glories were warm memories but didn’t do much to make life any easier. It didn’t matter how famous or beloved he was when he reached eighty and its health issues. The adjustments to pain and lower expectations to the joy of living were a daily challenge once the alarm clock sounded.
Ernie did not let increasing limitations ever affect his attitude. He was as cheerful as he was in the 1960s caroling to reporters on any given afternoon that he was ready to play two games before the sun set. Recently he was more concerned about former teammates problems than he was his own failing health. For Ernie, a smile was his elixir.
Ernie had said he was most proud of the statue and the Presidential Medal of Honor. Being promoted as “Mr. Cub” was not his idea but that of Mr. Wrigley, who owned the Cubs at the time. Ernie had been their first black player. The Cubs lucked out on him turning quickly into an extraordinary home run hitter. Wrigley was concerned that North Side baseball fans would not hero worship a black man so he had this media aura built up about him.
The fans did adore Ernie. He hit forty or more home runs several times and was NL MVP for both 1958 and 1959. Remarkably, he was so honored despite competing with the likes of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron while being on teams mired in the second division. He even won a gold glove award for fielding shortstop and at the time set a record for the fewest errors with the most chances.
As a six year old during the summer of 1959 I somehow lucked into owning an Ernie Banks baseball card. I mentioned to my mother that a neighbor who was a year or so older at the time tried to con me into trading his two Willie Mays card for my Ernie. Ma told me that if I had, she would have traded me as well.
By 1962, he switched to first base to save the wear on his knees and extend his career. In 1963, he suddenly got sick in the middle of the season. There was some confusion as to whether he had the mumps, an eye infection or unknown disease. For the first time, he played fewer games and his stats plummeted. By 1964, both Ron Santo and Billy Williams had eclipsed Ernie as the best on the team. But Ernie was still a major fan favorite. After all, he was the anchor at first base. How many times had an inning ended with the WGN television camera showing Ernie quickly moving his foot away from the bag running towards the dugout after the third out? Ernie was still a decent home run hitter- if not over forty a season, between twenty-five to thirty. From the early 1960s until his departure from the game in 1971, it was always Williams batting third, followed by Santo at cleanup and Ernie in the five spot. There are probably hundreds of thousands of fans today who can still recite the Cubs daily lineup that never seem to change from 1966 thru 1971.
Yes, the fans adored him much but Ernie still recalled that in the racially turbulent 1960s, only Ron Santo ever visited Billy or him at their South Side homes. Then there was a 1950s incident when he and another black teammate got on a train in a different part of town to catch up with the team for a road trip. Seeing them board, a white teammate already on the train joked that he didn’t realize that the zoo was nearby.
The real Ernie Banks was like everyone else- a human being who was proud of what he accomplished even if it had happened so many years earlier. Old age didn’t change his personality. He was still more interested in what others had to say about themselves than having to brag to them about his foibles.
One can only hope that Ernie died with a smile on his face. So long, Mr. Cub.