Remembering Ernie Banks

By: Lowell Young

Chicago Cubs legend Ernie Banks passed away at the age of 83 on Friday, January 23rd.  His passing occurred in the evening just as the local 10 o’clock newscasts were beginning.  Immediately after announcing the news of Mr. Banks’ passing, Chicago Channels 2, 5 and 7 put almost all other news aside and devoted nearly all of their 30 minute newscasts to memorializing Ernie Banks.

Other great sports figures have gone home to The Lord without newscasts devoting nearly all of their air time to the sports figure’s passing.  So what specifically did Ernie Banks do to warrant such extensive, almost unprecedented attention?

First and foremost, Ernie Banks was a truly great, tremendously gifted baseball player—one of the best of all-time.  He played his entire 19 year major league career with one team—the Chicago Cubs.  During those 19 years (1953-1971), the Cubs rarely contended for a National League championship.  However, Banks was a 14 time All-Star and he won the National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in both 1958 and 1959 even though the Cubs finished last in both seasons! To this day—despite having retired more than 40 years ago—Ernie Banks still leads all past and present Cub players in most lifetime games, and leads in career hits and runs batted in.  His 512 career home runs are second only to Sammy Sosa.  No wonder Ernie Banks is known as “Mr. Cub” and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility.

However, as tributes began pouring in following his passing, it became very clear that Ernie Banks was far more than just a great baseball player.  He was a truly unique and positive individual who touched the lives of many both on and off the baseball field.

During his playing career—though he was an unquestioned superstar—Banks remained very humble and self-assuming and accepted any and all speaking invitations to everything from Little League banquets to exclusive country club dinners.  Wherever he went, Mr. Banks invariably stayed well beyond the time he was expected to be there and individually greeted each and every person and often engaged many in extended conversations.  One story after another recounting such incidents filled the internet and the airways of Chicago sports talk radio stations in the days following Banks’ untimely passing.

In many ways, Ernie Banks was a trailblazer and a pioneer.  He was the Cubs’ first African American player, signing with the team in 1953 at the age of 22.  His signing paved the way for other African Americans—and later numerous Hispanic players—to join the Cubs, eventually making the Cubs one of Major League’s most racially and ethnically diverse teams.

Another of Mr. Banks’ trailblazing and pioneering activities occurred in the latter stages of his life.  For a number of years, Banks, along with many others, lobbied for the Chicago Cubs to have a float in the Gay Pride parade that takes place annually in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood, not far from the Cubs historic home stadium, Wrigley Field.  When the Cubs eventually agreed to participate in the Gay Pride parade, the individual who represented the Cubs on their parade float was none other than Ernie Banks!

As a Guest Services Ambassador for the Cubs for the past five years, I would occasionally see Ernie Banks around Wrigley Field from time to time and briefly exchange pleasantries with him.  He was always kind and considerate with me, as he was with everyone he encountered.  Though I remember these brief encounters fondly, by far my fondest memory of Mr. Cub occurred more than 30 years ago, far from the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.

In early 1983, my wife’s mother arrived in Chicago from Honduras to begin a new life here in the United States.  As part of the process of getting my mother-in-law established here, I accompanied her to a nearby bank in our Northwest side Chicago neighborhood to help her open a bank account.  The receptionist in the bank lobby directed us to the customer service area, where we were greeted by an impeccably dressed middle aged African American man, who introduced himself to us as Mr. Banks.  My mother-in-law had no clue who he was; but I recognized him instantly.  It was Ernie Banks!

After we sat down at his desk, I asked him with all the diplomacy I could muster how was it that he came to be doing customer service work at this neighborhood bank.  He patiently explained to me that he did part-time public relations work for the bank and he felt he could better represent the bank by occasionally working in various departments that dealt directly with the public. It just so happened that today was his day to help out in customer service.  “So”, he said, “what can I do for you and this lovely lady with you?”  When I introduced my mother-in-law to him, and explained that she had just arrived from Honduras and that she spoke virtually no English, Mr. Banks immediately said “Bienvenida a los Estados Unidos, senora.  Como yo puedo ayudarle?  (Welcome to the United States, madam.  How can I help you?)

Greatly surprised at his ability to speak Spanish, I asked Mr. Banks where and when he had learned the language.  He said he had never taken any formal Spanish lessons; but while he was playing for the Cubs he “picked up” Spanish as a result of listening to conversations involving  his many Hispanic Cub teammates and then conversing with them in their native language.  Even though many of his Hispanic teammates eventually learned to speak English quite well, he continued to speak to them in their native language as a way of making them feel more welcome.

Mr. Banks, my mother-in-law and I spent the next 30 minutes or so opening my mother-in-law’s bank account—doing so almost entirely in Spanish.  When we finished, Mr. Banks accompanied us to the front door and hugged both of us before we left. I told him it was a pleasure and an honor to meet him. He responded that the pleasure and honor was his. He then turned to my mother-in-law and said “buenas suerte con tu vida nueva in los EstadosUnidos” (good luck with your new life in the United States).

As we were walking back to my apartment, my mother-in-law and I reflected on the helpfulness and kindness of the man who served us at the bank.  More than once she said to me “que un hombre bueno” (“what a good man”).  Ernie Banks was certainly that!

Yes, Ernie Banks was a truly great baseball player—one of the best ever!  But as a trailblazer and a pioneer, as a proponent for acceptance and inclusion, as one who welcomed and assisted immigrants, and as one who made average, ordinary, everyday people feel like superstars when they were in his presence, Ernie Banks was without peer.  And that’s why TV, radio and social media devoted so much time to his passing.

Yes, Ernie Banks was a good man—a very good man! May he rest in peace in God’s loving arms.