I have a strong aversion to calling sports figures “heroic” because that demeans the meaning of the term established to honor true heroes, but some sports figures also deserve that accolade for their conduct off the field: Ted Williams and Jerry Coleman’s service in the military, Moe Berg for his espionage work in World War ll, Jackie Robinson for enduring racial slurs and threats in breaking the color barrier in major league baseball.
A compelling argument can be made that all of the early black players in major league baseball deserve recognition for what they endured along with Jackie: Larry Doby, Satchel Page, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron among many others. (Hank Aaron’s autobiography “If I Had A Hammer” is compelling reading on this subject.) The reality was that even though Jackie broke the color barrier, it was years before black players were treated with respect in major league baseball.
There are also sports figures who deserve special recognition for serving as role models on and off the field. Ernie Banks, who recently died at the age of 84, is one such person and my hero of the month: for consistently demonstrating a remarkable kindness and gentleness to all who came across his path – whether teammates, fans or just ordinary people. The positive spirit of the man is just hard to describe or overstate: nothing ever got him down and he always gave his best. I had the privilege of meeting Ernie during Spring Training in 1961 and he autographed a baseball for me. For the last eight years, a signed Banks jersey and bat have received a place of prominence in my “man cave.”
Here are a few of Ernie’s accomplishments and selective commentary on his passing.
First the accomplishments. He was the Cubs first black player in 1953 (six years after Jackie broke in with the Dodgers). ‘Played his entire career for a string of losing Chicago Cubs teams that endured 18 managers in his years there. 11 time All-Star. ‘MVP in back-to-back years (1958 & 1959) and according to most sports reporters, should have won several more but didn’t because of how bad the teams were that he played on. ‘Elected in the first year of eligibility to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. ‘Voted to the Sports Illustrated All-Century Team in 1999. ‘Recipient of the Lou Gehrig Award for character. Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Commentary and Ernie stories:
Ernie spent 19 years in the majors and was never ejected from a game. Hall of Fame umpire Doug Harvey: “He never complained about a strike, an out or a call. Some guys would turn their heads after a pitch and look at you like you were nuts. Not Ernie.”
“In 1957, Banks was knocked down by four different pitchers, Don Drysdale (a notorious “head hunter”), Bob Purkey, Bob Friend and Jack Sanford. Each time, he hit their next pitch for a home run,” according to umpire Tom Gorman.
Chris Erskine of the Los Angeles Times: “A symbol of faith and perseverance. Despite the lunacy of the Cubs teams and organization he played for, Banks smiled, even thrived, playing as if he’d show up regardless of whether they paid him to play. He was my first hero growing up and probably my last. He would have been a mythic figure in baseball if he hadn’t been so warm and accessible. When he passed, so did some of the game’s class and dignity.”
Ernie epitomized American optimism and decency. Gone but not forgotten by generations of Cub fans and baseball lovers. One for the ages.
R.I.P., Mr. Banks.