Saturday, January 24, 2015

They Called Him 'Mister Cub'

"There's sunshine, fresh air and the team's behind us. Let's play two!"

Ernie Banks
Hall of Fame induction speech, 1977

In the hearts of baseball fans, Ernie Banks will always be a Chicago Cub. "Mister Cub," they called him.

You don't often see a professional athlete who spends his entire career with a single team, especially someone whose big–league career lasted as long as Banks' did, but he spent all 19 years of his major–league career with the Cubs. I have heard him called the greatest baseball player who never played in the postseason. (He is almost 1,000 games ahead of his nearest competition on the list of players with most games played without a postseason appearance.)

You see, the Cubs haven't been to a World Series since 1945, and they haven't won one since 1908.

The Cubs came close to getting into the playoffs in 1969 (Banks retired in 1971), but they were overtaken by the "Amazin' Mets." It would have been nice to see him play in the postseason, but it would have to have been as a Cub; after all the seasons of futility he endured with the Cubs, it is impossible to imagine Banks in any other major–league uniform.

It isn't necessary to do so, of course, just as it isn't necessary to imagine Brett Favre playing in any uniform other than his Green Bay uniform. He started his career in Atlanta and finished it in New York and Minnesota.

Banks died in Chicago yesterday. He was born right here in Dallas, Texas, on January 31, 1931, grew up here, graduated from high school here.

So we could lay equal claim to him, I suppose. But once baseball took him away, as nearly as I can tell, he never returned. Oh, he probably came back for visits, but I don't think he ever lived here again. Once he got to Chicago, he stayed there.

It's hard for a Southern boy like me to understand how someone could be attracted to a place like Chicago with its frigid winters and a wicked wind that comes howling in from Lake Michigan year 'round. But it was Banks' adopted home, and he became the city's biggest booster.

Banks "enjoyed a love affair with Wrigley Field and its fans unlike any other in baseball," wrote Chris De Luca of the Chicago Sun–Times. While such a thing would be hard to prove, I am nevertheless inclined to agree with that.

I used to be more of a baseball fan than I am today, and I was never a Cubs fan. But I was in my baseball–card–collecting phase in the last years of Banks' career, and there were certain players whose cards I always wanted to get — and became my most cherished possessions once I did get them.

Banks' card was one of them, along with guys like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Brooks Robinson, who was always something of an icon in central Arkansas, having been born in Little Rock. When I was a kid, central Arkansas was (and, I am sure, still is) St. Louis Cardinals territory so Lou Brock and Bob Gibson were always popular with the baseball card crowd — and Chicago Cubs were the Cardinals' rivals so few Cubs cards were regarded as valuable by the guys with whom I hung out.

Nevertheless, Banks' card transcended such team loyalty boundaries.

Ernie Banks was one of baseball's gentlemen, an eternally optimistic soul who probably started every major–league season believing it would end with him playing in the World Series.

As I say, that never happened. I suppose that kind of bad luck could leave a player feeling bitter, but as nearly as I can tell, he was always the unflagging optimist.

Rest in peace.

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