It hits hard, because are heroes are supposed to die. They are placed on this giant pedestal in our minds, that makes them untouchable, and as we remember them on their baseball cards. Strong, young, vibrant and indestructible. That's how we view them, that's how we remember them. Unfortunately we all know more now than we did as kids, and realize that this is part of life. Not a part any of us enjoy or like to think about. But it is, sadly, reality.
Ernie Banks was more than perhaps the greatest Chicago Cub player of all time. He was a pioneer. Banks became the first African-American player to ever wear the blue pinstripes, when he debuted in 1953. Brought on from the Negro Leagues, Banks would make his Cubs debut, September 17, 1953, at shortstop. Two days later, he launched the first of his 512 career home runs. He was a fixture at shortstop until he made a full-time switch to first base in 1963. The lanky Banks, would win back to back NL MVP awards in 1958 and 1959. He had five seasons of 40 plus home runs. He was the ORIGINAL power hitting middle infielder.
When Banks stepped to the plate in the 2nd inning of the May 12, 1970 game against the Atlanta Braves, he was at 499 career homers, and was bidding to become just the 9th man in baseball history to hit #500. If you're a Cubs fan, old or young, you've undoubtedly heard Jack Brickhouse's call, but if you haven't, here it is...
Banks retired from the Cubs in 1971, and entered Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1977. Soon after he become the first Cubs player in history, to have his number retired by the team. His #14 was taken out of service in 1982.
Enough about the numbers, they only tell part of the Banks story. Mr. Cub, was Mr. Friendly, and always had a smile on his face. You could always tell when Banks was at the ballpark, there was an extra buzz when he was there. The fans, young, old and in between would be shouting in the concourses "Ernie", "hey Mr. Cub", and always he would wave, and say hello back. He was a people person and always, and I mean always had time for the fans.
I didn't know Ernie as well as I knew Ron Santo, or know Billy Williams, but the few interactions I had with him were memorable. Early in my career with WGN Radio, Ernie was at a game, and he was in the dugout as the Cubs were taking batting practice. I wanted to interview him for our pre-game show. I have to admit, I was very nervous to approach him. After all, he was one of, if not my dad's favorite player ever and he was ERNIE freaking BANKS! I finally approached, but my inability to put it together cost me the interview, I had waited too long. He was being escorted from the field up to the team's offices. I was able to tag along, and finally introduced myself, telling him I worked with his former teammate, Santo in the booth. He put his arm around me, as we walked, and started asking me how I was doing, how I was enjoying my time with radio station, etc. Banks then asked me how my wife was, as he was known to do. I looked at him and said, "you must know something that I don't", he smiled and said, "a good looking kid like you, come on let's find you one!" I said, it's ok, but I appreciated the offer, and with that he disappeared behind the big white door and on his way to the offices.
Boy did he love his teammates. It was never more evident when Ernie would make his way up to the press box to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame". He'd stop by the radio booth to visit with Santo and it was like they were both immediately transported back to the early 60's when they met. Giggling like little school boys telling secrets. Belly laughs, of the genuine kind, revealing a true love and respect for one another. I had a front row seat to two of the greats, just being themselves. Pinch me.
I feel so fortunate in my life, to have been able to rub elbows with some of the greats of the game. That's why it hurts so much, and why I found myself in tears once again last week when I heard of Banks' passing. I think it would still have hurt, even if I hadn't had some chance encounters with the man. I'm a fan, and these players, become part of us. They are part of the framework of our lives, spending more time with them, watching them on TV or listening on the radio, than we did with some members of our extended families. That's why we cry, why we feel so sad when they pass.
It's hard to believe still, that we'll never hear that charismatic melody of "Hey Hey Holy Mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way, HEY HEY" sung from his lips. The refrain of "Let's Play Two" or how the Cubs will shine in 2009. So sad.
Ernie Banks called Wrigley Field, "The Friendly Confines" a phrase that still adorns the top of the visiting dugout. The confines lost a friendly voice, face and spirit this week, one that will never be duplicated or replaced.
Good bye Mr. Cub, let's hope for you, "The Cubs will burst back on the scene, in 2015".